The 2016 U.S. presidential election is the most polarizing in half a century, and some commentators see a danger that “power-hungry demagogues” could take over. Europeans, with their parliament-dominated political systems, would avert disaster by building a coalition to keep power out of the hands of extreme demagogues. Americans can’t do that – or can they?
In the European Union, only Britain and Malta are now run by single-party governments. (Spain was the third until a December election.)The reason these power-sharing arrangements prevail is that the most important elections in many European countries are those that determine control of parliament. These are contests of agendas rather than personalities.
There was a time when the U.S. could have adopted such a system. At least that’s the view of F.H. Buckley, a professor at George Mason University School of Law, who argues that the delegates of the 1787 Philadelphia Convention never intended to set up the current presidential system.
They came from states that, for the most part, had governors appointed by legislatures, admired the British system of government (though not the monarchy) and were wary of “rabble rule.” At one point, they even voted unanimously to set up a Congress-appointed presidency. The subsequent change of mind, which was not unanimous, was the result of political maneuvering and, yes, coalition-building.
The arrangement the U.S. wound up with was advocated by Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris, and, James Madison later recalled, “was not exempt from a degree of the hurrying influence produced by fatigue and impatience.” Buckley found evidence that most delegates thought the election of a president would in most cases devolve to the Congress because the Electoral College wouldn’t be able to produce a final decision.
In practice, however, things worked out differently. In effect, according to Buckley, the current system was a kind of political accident.
This election, however, may test the limits of the system. Both parties are choosing among fields of candidates who have little in common. While in a European system, each of these factions would be represented by a smaller formal party. In the U.S., politicians with seemingly irreconcilable views are competing in a winner-take-all contest.
This diversity is raising questions about whether the parties will be able to coalesce around a nominee.
It’s a shame that U.S. voters cannot back the party most to their liking in a decisive parliamentary election and then watch that party make a deal with other factions to find consensus. But the more chaotic version of this process that is playing out in the U.S. is more fun to watch, so maybe there’s reason to be thankful the Philadelphia Convention turned out as it did.