In graduate school I wrote a paper titled, “The Deadlock of Democracy and Anglophilia in American Politics.” It was a review essay on James MacGregor Burns’s book, “The Deadlock of Democracy: Four Party Politics in America” (1963). His thesis was simple: Our system of government wasn’t working properly because there were four, not two, political parties vying for power — the presidential Republicans and Democrats, and the congressional Republicans and Democrats. The congressional parties, with their attendant special-interest groups, were tying the system in knots.
We need to look across the pond to our English forebears, Burns argued, and adopt their party government model in which a single party, headed by a party leader, sets and administers government policy, and the minority party opposes. If the majority does not carry through on its campaign promises or its policies fail, it will be held accountable by the electorate. That brings true accountability to government by holding office holders responsible for their party’s pledges.
While Burns was not recommending a radical overhaul of our Constitution to replicate the Westminster system (other than giving House members four-year terms coterminous with the president’s), he was suggesting that the presidential wings of the two parties — naturally the more progressive and national in outlook — should take the lead not only in setting an agenda for the party and nation, but in being responsible for guiding that program through Congress and effectively implementing it.
I traced Burns’ affinity for the parliamentary system back to Woodrow Wilson and his 1885 classic, “Congressional Government: A Study in American Government,” and his 1907 lecture series at Columbia (updating his earlier work), published as “Constitutional Government in the United States” (1908). Wilson authored both works while still in academia and before he entered politics.
Wilson viewed the British system as the best ever devised by man. No fan of the Declaration of Independence, he made the following diary entry on its one-hundredth anniversary (July 4, 1876): “How much happier she would be if she had England’s form of government instead of this miserable delusion of a republic.” Wilson saw the Constitution’s system of checks and balances as detrimental to societal growth and change: “No living thing can have its organs offset each other as checks and live.”
Wilson envisioned revitalized national parties as the route to national unity and greatness. As he wrote in “Constitutional Government," “There is a sense in which our parties may be said to be our real body politic. ... he discipline and zest of parties has held us together, has made it possible for us to form and carry out national programs.”
For decades, Wilson's views have resonated with political scientists and progressive politicians who longed for a more effective, efficient and activist national government. That anglophilia is reflected in a 1950 American Political Science Association committee’s report, “Toward a More Responsible Two Party System.” Anglophiles such as Wilson and Burns, and their poli-sci compatriots, recognized the necessity of strong party leadership from the top, exercised by the president.
Interestingly, most of the congressional reforms urged by progressives over the decades of the twentieth century to make Congress a more responsible, party-driven institution, were realized by the mid-1970s: getting rid of the seniority system for choosing committee chairmen, bringing the House Rules Committee back under the majority party leadership and making it easier to end filibusters.
Notwithstanding the amazing achievements of the congressional reform revolution, Congress today is just as gridlocked as ever, and certainly more polarized and partisan — making cross-party compromise all but impossible. Moreover, Congress’ standing with the public is lower than at any time in the history of modern polling.
Some wise old owls have observed that we that we now have party government, but without the accountability. I prefer the term, “partisan governance,” with the governance confined to the internal workings of the two parties in each chamber. That has brought increasingly higher levels of unified party voting on the floor, but a lower capacity for bicameral, inter-branch and national governing.
The Westminster parliamentary system could not be transplanted to American soil and thrive (though we probably have bred a fruitless hybrid). Congress is first and foremost a representative system in which constituency concerns (both geographic and economic) take precedence with members over party platforms and policy prescriptions. Moreover, blind obeisance to a president is a non-starter. Those were the conclusions of my essay some five decades ago, and they hold up pretty well today.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a congressional fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.