Does America need a prime minister?
By Fareed Zakaria, CNN
August 17, 2011
After the S&P downgrade of the United States, no country with a presidential system
has a triple-A rating from all three major ratings agencies. Only countries with
parliamentary systems have that honor (with the possible exception of France, which
has a parliament and prime minister as well as an empowered president).
Juan Linz, professor of social science at Yale, argued that parliamentary systems are
superior to presidential systems for reasons of stability. In a parliamentary system, he
contended, the legislature and the executive are fused so there is no contest for
Think of David Cameron in England. He is head of the coalition that won the election,
head of the bloc that has a majority in parliament and head of the executive branch as
In the American presidential system, in contrast, you have the presidency and the
legislature, both of which claim to speak for the people. As a result, you always have
a contest over basic legitimacy. Who is actually speaking for and representing the
In America today, we take this struggle to an extreme. We have one party in one
house of the legislature claiming to speak for the people because theirs was the most
recent electoral victory. And you have the president who claims a broader mandate as
the only person elected by all the people. These irresolvable claims invite struggle.
There are, of course, advantages to the American system â€“ the checks and balances
have been very useful on occasion. But weâ€™re living in a world where you need
governments that are able to respond decisively and quickly. In a fast-moving world,
paralysis is dangerous. Other countries are catching up – if not overtaking â€“ America.
Debt crises across the West make this a particularly bad time for paralysis. Western
countries have all built up very large pension and healthcare obligations that lead to
huge amounts of debt. They need to figure out some systematic way to work that debt
load down to a much more manageable level. This means a lot of pain.
Given this situation, it becomes very easy in a presidential system for the executive
and the legislature to get into a classic standoff over benefits as we saw in the debt
Remember, the political battle surrounding the debt ceiling is actually impossible in a
parliamentary system because the executive controls the legislature. There could not
be a public spectacle of the two branches of government squabbling and holding the
If weâ€™re in for another five years of this squabbling in the U.S., we are going to make
presidential systems look pretty bad indeed.
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