NORMAN — In shutting down the government, Congress reached a new level of dysfunction. While many pundits castigated individuals and parties, others more insightfully focused on institutional rules, such as the role of gerrymandering, closed primaries and campaign spending.
Others went further. Comparative politics scholar Juan Linz famously demonstrated that presidential democracies are prone to dysfunction, which the United States has largely avoided by having big tent parties that are “diffuse” and allow for internal dissent. Most healthy democracies instead combine parliamentary government with legislatures elected via party list forms of proportional representation. Under such rules, Germany, possessor of Europe’s strongest economy, just elected a broadly representative legislature and is forming a functional coalition government.
With the shutdown underscoring the incompatibility of rigid parties with our system of strong checks and balances, the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews, Salon’s Alex Pareene, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, and Slate’s Matthew Yglesias all blamed presidentialism or suggested switching to parliamentary government. But not only does this drastic step require unrealistic constitutional change, it also clashes with what makes our politics truly exceptional – diffuse parties where individual legislators don’t just toe a party line. Most Americans dislike Congress so much today because they yearn for more examples of the idealism of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Even though we vote for individuals for Congress, we now have de facto party-based elections. Ticket-splitting has all but disappeared, reflecting a widening cultural and ideological gap between the parties. The result is a sharp decline in the number of competitive congressional districts and fewer internal differences within parties. The parties’ traditional big tents have collapsed, leaving few remaining “bridgebuilders” able to forge compromises.
If we accept such politics as inevitable, parliamentary government with party lists makes sense. But rather than abandon James Madison, we call for the restoration of the quintessentially American ideal of a candidate-centric federal republic. With a simple statute, Congress can eliminate the root cause of our party-dominated politics: winner-take-all voting rules that silence the minority.