Whitman Cobb, W. N. (2020). Political science today (1st ed.). Washington, DC: Sage, CQ Press.
In the United States, one of the most persistent criticisms of political parties in the past several decades is the increasing level of acrimony and partisanship that colors American politics. Democrats have moved to the left of the ideological spectrum while Republicans have moved to the right, leaving a large space between them in which neither is prepared to compromise. Increased polarization has led to, among other things, longer confirmation times for judges, fewer bills passed in Congress, higher levels of deadlock between Congress and the president, budgetary difficulties, and an increasingly divisive rhetoric that threatens to shut down government on a regular basis. According to polling done by the Gallup Organization, Americans have increasingly viewed both the Republican and Democratic Parties with skepticism: in 1997, 60 percent of Americans held a favorable view of the Democratic Party, which, by 2017, had fallen to 44 percent. For Republicans, the high-water mark came in 2002 when 61 percent of Americans held a favorable view, compared to 36 percent in 2017.1 A final notable figure from Gallup is this: in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Gallup found that 57 percent of Americans believed that a third party was needed.2
These figures present us with a sort of quandary. If Americans dislike political parties so much, why do we continue to use them and find them helpful? And two, if Americans are not satisfied with the political parties that exist, why not move to a third party? The answers to both of these questions can be found in the connections between state systems and elections. Although not directly mentioned in the US Constitution, political parties have become essential linkages between the voting public and elected representatives; they organize government, campaigns, and even voters. For all of the critiques that we have of them, government as it exists today would be practicably unimaginable. Further, the types of states that countries organize themselves into directly feeds into the role that political parties can play in government. Therefore, there is almost a symbiotic relationship between states and political parties—one always needing the other to exist if not succeed.
This chapter examines two types of state organizations: parliamentary and presidential systems along with the purposes and roles of political parties. Certainly, parliamentary and presidential governments are not the only types of government systems that exist, but they are the main types of democratic governments. In that sense, political parties play key roles in facilitating both types of governments, just in different ways. While both systems are undoubtedly democratic, they both operate in quite different ways, especially in terms of where political power lies and how unified or centralized it is.
While we in the United States are familiar with our system of separated branches sharing power, in states with a parliamentary system, the executive and legislative branches are fused with the executive functions also being carried out by the majority party or majority coalition in the legislature or parliament. Shiveley identifies four basic principles of a parliamentary system:
One additional feature of parliamentary systems is that they almost always have a separate head of state, or ceremonial figure representing the country, where the prime minister, the head of the parliament’s cabinet, is considered the head of government. In many European countries where parliamentary systems are used, the head of state is a member of the country’s royal family and is considered king and/or queen. These heads of state have no formal responsibility beyond being a figurehead for the country and in some countries are legally prohibited from being involved in politics.
The obvious question, then, is if all the monarch does is represent a country, why have one at all? What is the need or purpose? In this, we can consider the United Kingdom. Although the United Kingdom today comprises several different regions, including Great Britain, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, when Great Britain (then known as England) formed, it was a total monarchical system. Kings wielded absolute rule and authority through other nobles and aristocrats; however, over time and very gradually, more and more limits were placed on the king’s authority. This began in 1215 with the signing of the Magna Carta, which placed some restrictions on the king (although neither side kept to the bargain for very long). As Great Britain continued to develop, different restrictions were placed on the monarchy to take away their power and plant it more firmly in the Parliament. Monarchs today still play a minor role in the British Parliament: the prime minister reports to the Queen about the actions of the government, the Queen (or her designee) goes to the Parliament annually to read out the majority party’s plan for the coming year, and she even asks potential prime ministers to form governments, but this is only after it is clear that a majority has won out. The royal family must support whatever party is in power, whether they agree with them or not, and cannot make any political statements. Although the popularity of the monarchy has waxed and waned through the years, support for the British royal family remains high. They are looked to as figures of stability and a representation of a long British history that remains valuable to Britons.
To understand how a parliamentary government functions, we can begin with elections to the parliament. While this is by no means true of every parliamentary system, in most, a type of election known as proportional representation is used. In this system, when voters go to the ballot box, they do not vote for individual members of parliament but for a political party to represent them. Representation in the parliament is then divided proportionally based on the amount of votes each party received. For example, consider a parliament with 100 seats in it. In one election party A receives 55 percent of the vote, party B receives 30 percent, and party C receives 15 percent of the vote. As a result, party A is granted fifty-five seats, party B gets thirty seats, and party C gets fifteen seats. To determine who exactly gets to sit in those seats, each party, prior to the election, publishes a party list—a list of people who would serve in parliament if the party receives seats. In the previously given example, party A would take the first fifty-five people on their list to serve in parliament and so on.
If a party wins an outright majority of seats, as in the example previously given, they are given the right to form a government. The party can choose its prime minister and cabinet, who are charged with the executive functions of government. If, however, no party receives a majority, parties must negotiate to form a coalition to get to a majority. The coalition is then in charge of the government and of selecting key officials. If at any time the coalitions fail to agree on policy or different actions to take, the government can “fail” and is then dissolved, and new elections are held. In most parliamentary governments, there is no set timetable for when elections must be held although usually there is a maximum number of years after which elections must be held. For example, if the government does not fail and the prime minister does not call for elections in the meantime, in the United Kingdom, elections must be held at a minimum after five years. Sometimes, prime ministers will call for elections short of five years even if the government doesn’t fail; this allows them to take advantage of favorable conditions for their own party and hold elections when their party is popular or on the upswing.
The preceding discussion has referred only to what are called lower houses of a parliament, but in many cases a parliament is bicameral, meaning it has two chambers. The upper chambers of parliament are often designed in different ways to represent different populations. In the British Parliament, the lower house is called the House of Commons while the upper house is the House of Lords. Again, this stems from a long historical tradition where the House of Commons represented the mass population and the House of Lords, the aristocracy. In Germany, however, the Bundesrat, the upper house, represents the different federal states (lander) in the country, and representatives sent to the Bundesrat represent the state governments themselves. These institutions can also have different amounts of power; today’s House of Lords has very little power and serves more as a rubber stamp, whereas the German Bundesrat has more power in negotiating legislation and approving it, especially if it has to deal with Germany’s Basic Law. However, the overriding principle behind a parliamentary system is a union of executive and legislative functions so as to make the exercise of power easier. Requiring consent of an upper house complicates that task, especially since the cabinet or majority party would not be able to exercise the same amount of control over members of the upper chamber. Therefore, typically, the powers of upper chambers are quite limited and circumscribed.
The Legislative Process
Theoretically, because a party or a coalition of parties holds all power in a parliament, they should be able to consider and pass legislation fairly easily. This does not mean, however, that the parliament is a rubber stamp. Depending on the balance of power between the parties or the coalitions, sometimes legislation has to be considered very carefully. Pieces of legislation begin in the cabinet where members write bills for further consideration. Once introduced, they may be sent to an ad hoc committee for further review (very rarely are there standing committees of the type used by the US Congress) or debated in the parliament. When the bill is ready to be voted on, the majority, which sent the bill to the parliament in the first place, can vote to approve it.
Majorities and coalitions can usually be assured of passage of legislation because of strict party discipline. Members of parliament are expected to vote with their party, especially on the most important policy issues of the day. Parties ensure that their members will do this because the parties get to choose who will serve in those seats to begin with and who can advance their careers in government. It would not be beneficial to the party to choose someone who may not vote with the party all the time. Party members would soon find themselves out of the parliament if they did so anyway. On some minor bills, parties may release their members to vote however they wish, but on major bills, if members do not vote with their party, the government fails and new elections must be held.
Once bills have been passed through the lower house, they often go to the upper house for their assent. In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords can delay legislation for only a year; after a year has passed, the House of Commons can pass a piece of legislation and bypass the Lords. In the German Bundesrat, the Bundestag (the lower house) must actually submit bills to them first, although they do not have to directly approve it. The Bundesrat’s approval, however, is required on all bills having to do with constitutional or affecting the lander. There is a role as well for supreme or constitutional courts. These courts can step in at various points in the legislative process (depending on the country) to approve of significant laws or strike them down based on a country’s constitution.
Parliaments also carry out important legislative functions such as oversight of government policy. Members of parliament from minority parties or coalitions can utilize their power to ensure that the majority is carrying out what it says it is. Since the prime minister or chancellor is drawn from the parliament, they can be questioned just like any other member of parliament. In the United Kingdom, this comes in the form of the prime minister’s question time where he or she is questioned by all members of the House of Commons. In fact, question time is quite a unique characteristic of the British Parliament as other members hoot and holler and express their approval or disapproval of the questions and the prime minister’s answers. C-SPAN often broadcasts the question time with the prime minister, and the broadcasts are easily accessible on YouTube. Finally, parliaments also provide the people who oversee the executive departments or portfolio.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Lawmaking is often easier in a parliamentary system than in a presidential system, which we will discuss shortly. Not only do parties exercise strict party loyalty, making it all but assured that their bills will pass, but the legislature and executive is fused and the executive has no ability to veto or stop legislation. This also makes it easier for the voting public to know who is or is not to blame for legislative or policy failures. In a fragmented system like the United States, blame can be placed on many actors: individual members of Congress, the president, or the parties themselves. But if there are significant policy failures, the public knows that the majority party or coalition was in charge and can vote them out in the next election.
However, this potential advantage also has its flip side. An argument could be made that too much power is centralized in the parliament and that there is no opportunity for dissent or minority views that may make the bills better. In the same vein, the majority could push through major legislative action without taking the time to seriously consider the ramifications of the bill, and there would be no executive authority to stop them. In the United States, we call these checks and balances, and in a strict parliamentary system, there are not very many checks on parliamentary authority. One of the reasons the founding fathers of the United States wanted checks and balances in our system of government was to avoid exactly this pitfall even though at the time of America’s split from England the monarchy still held a fair amount of power.
Unlike the parliamentary system, a presidential system has the legislature and executive separated into two different branches or institutions that serve to check and balance the other. While the writers of the US Constitution were certainly influenced by British parliamentary politics and historical political theory, the creation of a separate executive was an altogether new innovation of the Founders. Never before in history had such a position been designed and attempted. The very idea that a president would willingly step down and hand over power following a term in office was a novel concept of which no one was sure would work. The only reason the Founders believed it would work at first was the involvement of George Washington, who they all assumed would be the first president. The success of the American presidential system has been copied by governments throughout the world who now use some version of it in their political system.
In presidential systems, the position of head of state and head of government is fused; the president is not only the ceremonial head of state but is also the head of government. The hallmark of a presidential system is that the executive, the president, is elected separately from the legislature. In general, all voters participate in the election of a president; in the United States, we utilize a form of indirect election called the Electoral College, but in many other states, citizens directly elect their president. Once in office, the president selects their own cabinet, which is wholly separate from the legislature. If the president would like a member of the legislature to serve in their cabinet, the member often has to resign first in order to do so. (In fact, there is a provision in the US Constitution that prohibits individuals from working for more than one branch of government at a time.) Often, the members of the president’s cabinet must be approved by the legislature in some way as a means to check the executive’s power.
In a presidential system, the legislature is often bicameral, meaning it has two houses. Depending on the country, the electoral requirements and setup of the two chambers can vary. In the United States, the House of Representatives is apportioned by population, meaning that larger states get more seats, and the members are directly elected by voters. The Senate, on the other hand, was originally designed to represent the interests of the states; each state gets two senators who were originally chosen by the state legislatures themselves. Today, senators are directly elected. Germany’s parliament today utilizes a similar balance where the Bundestag (the lower house) is directly elected by the people through a proportional representation system, and the Bundesrat (the upper house) represents the Lander, the states. The two houses, unlike in a parliamentary system, often have coequal powers. In other words, both chambers must approve of legislation before it can be sent to the president.
In terms of legislative relations, the president or his or her cabinet have no formal means to introduce legislation. The president can propose legislation or ask that the legislature act to pass a bill, but presidents cannot propose or force the legislature to do anything. This is where the power of political party (discussed later in this chapter) often comes into play. Using their political allies, presidents can have bills introduced by members of the legislature and have their allies work to pass legislation. Of course, the opposite is also true; if the legislature passes a bill, they cannot force the president to sign it either. A president can sign a bill into law or veto it, although in some cases legislatures can override a presidential veto by a supermajority vote of both chambers.
The balance of power between a president and the legislature is constantly evolving. When the US Constitution was first written, the Founders envisioned a much stronger Congress than president; this was exemplified by the fact that the Congress was given many more enumerated powers than the president and many of the president’s powers are circumscribed and checked by Congress. For example, while the president is commander in chief of the military, only the Congress has the ability to declare war and Congress ultimately holds the power of the purse if the president wants to pursue any major military action. Over time, however, the balance of power has changed. Scholars in the United States have identified crises, both military and economic, as causes of growth in presidential power. During crises, presidents are often empowered to act swiftly on behalf of the country as Congress can find it difficult to act quickly.
There is obviously a concern about how much power a president can amass. This led to charges of an imperial presidency in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. The situation came to a head with the Nixon administration, with Nixon himself arguing that if presidents do something, it can’t be illegal. Nixon took this to the extreme, attempting to cover up crimes using the CIA, and was eventually forced from office. Although legislatures cannot remove presidents easily, most legislatures in a presidential system have a means of removing a president, in the case of the United States, for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Nixon resigned before he could be impeached and removed from office, but Congress acted to take back power from the president that the executive had slowly amassed over time. This demonstrates that the balance of power between an executive and the legislature is constantly changing and evolving based on the needs of the country and even who is president and whether the legislature believes they are acting in good faith.
The relationship between an executive and legislature is obviously premised on the idea of checks and balances that each branch can check the powers of the other in some way. While this does institute a certain amount of conflict between the two branches, the writers of the US Constitution found it preferable to the fused executive-legislature in a parliamentary system that does allow for one party and its prime minister to amass a good deal of power. The more difficult question, then, is how much conflict and disagreement is good and productive and how much is too much.
The Special Role of the President
Even though most monarchs today have little to no constitutional power, a fair amount of attention is still paid to them and their royal families as symbols of a country and its traditions. In presidential systems, presidents are paid much more attention and are more well known outside of a country than leaders of the legislature. They combine the ceremonial head of state functions with the actual duties of a head of government. And given that they are often the only political figure elected by all citizens, presidents are often the focus of politics in a country.
First, presidents serve the symbolic function of a monarchy and therefore become a moral and ethical figure that citizens look to for guidance, especially in difficult times. One of the functions often assigned to the president of the United States is that of “comforter in chief.” In times of crisis, Americans look to the president for decisive action and comforting words. This has been clearly on display with the recent spate of mass shootings, many of them taking place at schools. During President Obama’s term in office, he took on the duty of consoling not only the nation but the victims and survivors of such incidents. In President Trump’s first year in office, the country experienced several disastrous hurricanes after which the president and first lady often traveled to the affected locations to see firsthand the damage for themselves.
Presidents are often looked to as major agenda setters and sources of policy proposals. Even though presidents cannot force their proposals through the legislature, they still often set the agenda and help determine what the legislature does or doesn’t do. Particularly since presidents are often the only nationally elected figure and responsible for many facets of national policy, they are confronted with a number of policy problems daily. That a president chooses to focus on two or three of them at a time can signal the rest of the political community that a president considers them worthy of concern and attention. This, in turn, will focus their attention on the issue. Presidents can use speeches and statements along with visits to certain places to draw attention to the issues they wish to deal with. In the United States, one of the most visible acts of presidential agenda setting takes place every year in the State of the Union address. Required by the Constitution, the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall deem just and necessary.” This gives the president an opportunity to lay out their agenda before Congress and, today, before the public itself.
Advantages and Disadvantages
One of the obvious advantages to a presidential system is the added layer of checks and balances that exist. No one branch can move to act too swiftly or on their own without additional action from the other. However, just as in a parliamentary system, this can present additional policy hurdles, slowing down and possibly preventing altogether bills from getting passed. Added to this is the difficulty in determining which party or which branch is most responsible for policy failure. While presidents are certainly looked to for leadership and policy proposals, the legislature is equally empowered not to act. This also makes it more difficult, but not impossible, to pursue large-scale policy change.
If voters cannot determine who is to blame for policy failure, it makes it much harder to hold politicians accountable. In 1950, the American Political Science Association (APSA) convened a committee to consider the current state of the party system in the United States. The APSA committee argued that given the growing number of responsibilities of the US government, parties were an indispensable link to provide “for more effective formulation of general policies and programs and for better integration of all of the far-flung activities of modern government.”4 Without political parties that were strong enough to provide plans of government and then enact them once in power, the danger, warned the committee, was that the country would simply drift from one policy option to another, never considering an entire policy program or making choices without considering the whole set of government policies. In the eyes of the APSA committee, political parties were the means of providing guidance and that the political parties of the early twentieth century could not provide such guidance was a danger. The committee then called for a system of “responsible party government” so that voters could make a clear distinction between the policy directions offered by each party and then hold the party in power responsible if the platform was not carried out. While political parties have certainly become stronger in the United States since the 1950s (discussed further in the next section), it is still difficult in a presidential system to determine which party is to blame for policy failure in a situation of divided government.
Another advantage of a presidential system is that the head of state is effectively elected by the entire country, not passed on hereditarily or selected by the parliament. This is, arguably, a more democratic means of selecting a state’s leader, the one person that all voters can look to and an election that voters can claim to have participated in (whether directly or indirectly). This can, in certain ways, endow a president with a greater amount of authority and leadership. However, it also creates a distinct separation between the legislature and the executive, especially compared to a parliamentary system. In a parliament, the executive reports to and is responsible to the legislature; this is notably absent in a presidential system. This can often create a scenario in a presidential system where the presidency operates quite apart from the legislature. One possible consequence is that presidents are often accused of being inward looking or existing within a bubble.5 In situations of divided government, a somewhat antagonistic relationship between the president and the legislature can arise with each blaming the other for shortcomings or failures.
Given this discussion of what are supposedly both the advantages and disadvantages of a presidential system, one thing stands out: there seem to be more disadvantages than advantages. Shiveley summarizes the disadvantages of presidential systems as such:
· difficulty of locating responsibility for policies
· difficulty of making comprehensive policy
· a different pattern of recruitment for executive leaders
· special problems for review and control [of the executive]
· the inflexibility of fixed terms in presidential systems and the need for a vice president
· a merger of the symbolic and political aspects of the executive in a single person
Shiveley is right to ask the question, then, why any democracies might have presidential systems at all. To his list of pitfalls, we can similarly add a list of advantages:
· division of power between the executive and legislature so that the parliament and the majority party do not hold too much power
· checks and balances between the different branches of government
· one national elected leader who can claim to represent the whole country
· ability of the minority to check majority power
· predictability in terms of how long elected officials serve
· more room for input and debate on major policy questions; harder to enact policy quickly but that can perhaps make policy better