It’s easy for Americans to look to the United Kingdom and compare fortunes, considering how closely tied together our countries are in history and heritage. Leaders of our two nations even refer to the two countries’ “Special Relationship” in tones where you can hear the capitalizations spoken out loud. Those comparisons are in vogue again this week since Liz Truss’ resignation after six weeks as prime minister of the United Kingdom, leaving her Conservative political party and Britain’s economy in disarray. While Americans decry the two-party system, Britain’s struggle to find its fifth leader in six years validates the Founders’ choice of a governing structure that values stability over popular reform.
But while it’s hard to fathom an American president being removed in such a short time frame, in the nearly 250 years since the founding of the United States, American government has not followed Britain’s path of providing a universal health care system or welfare programs for the majority of the population. The elevation of status quo over popular will has all but frozen the ability to respond to that will, weakening the American system far more than Truss’ tenure will destabilize Britain.
The coalition government of Britain’s parliamentary democracy lets one-issue groups align with larger political parties.
The coalition government of Britain’s parliamentary democracy lets one-issue groups align with larger political parties. Economic and social policy discussions are more nuanced and nimble when compromise is baked into the system. Think of it as having multiple Joe Manchins and Susan Collinses; in Britain, no one person can consistently hold a political party or entire legislative agenda hostage. Cabinet ministers are selected from the people elected to the House to make sure that legislation and execution of policy work together. While the White House and Congress operate at arms length from each other — or farther — the prime minister has to engage with legislators, literally participating in floor debates every Wednesday like clockwork. The policy branches of government are designed to work in concert, not in opposition to each other.
The American system of checks and balances was designed by a group of white men who had deep distrust for those in power, so they designed a system in which the three branches of government were constantly in opposition to each other. The Senate routinely weaponizes its “advise and consent” authority to limit an administration’s ability to appoint judges, Cabinet members, ambassadors and other functionaries. Debates on either floor of Congress are conducted only for the record because partisan voting tallies are essentially a foregone conclusion.
The British public will have a new Prime Minister by October 28. The American challenge goes much deeper.
Speak to anyone living in a parliamentary democracy in Europe or Asia around U.S. election time, and tell them it’s highly likely that a sitting president can have the opposition party running Congress and they will look at you as if you’re bonkers. “How do you guys get anything done?”
The answer is: We really don’t. Nor is our system meant to. The Founders also deeply distrusted the passions of the people and made sure before a new policy gets implemented, it is checked multiple times, over the course of many years.
Change in the United States is deliberately … deliberate. Our system of republican democracy protects us from rapid progress that could backfire. It also protects us from leaders like Liz Truss who in her own words said she went “too far, too fast.” But the irony being that our orientation to protect norms and maintain stability (aka the status quo) in the American system left us all ill-prepared to deal with such a high level of distrust in that same system doing any good for the people.
The displeasure with Truss was recognized, reckoned with, and will be resolved in about a week. The British public will have a new prime minister by Oct. 28. The American challenge goes much deeper: With 70% of Americans saying they believe American democracy is at risk, the very idea of democratic governance is now on the ballot next month.