Few of these wobbly governments are capable of the kind of damage a US presidency can wreak. Given the kinds of people getting elected, that may be a good thing.
Americans — or at least those among them who care about the world beyond their borders — tend to scoff at the parliamentary systems that predominate elsewhere. Such democracies encourage a plurality of parties so that unlike in America’s presidential system, generally no one wins outright. Post-election negotiations yield unwieldy coalitions whose existence can be nasty, brutish and short.
Italy, where I have just spent some time, is the poster child for this: Since World War II its people have suffered almost as many governments as the number of years in that timespan; the average one lasted scarcely over a year.
I think there may be some important benefits to this.
Few of these wobbly governments have been capable of doing the kind of damage that the US presidency can wreak (regardless of how close the presidential election had been or, because of the Electoral College, even whether the president won more votes than any rival).
Aware of his great power, President Obama famously urged himself to “not do dumb shit.” Let’s just agree that not all US presidents have made that a priority. Hasty and ill-considered decisions (like the pullout from the Iran deal under Trump), as well as policies driven by personal agendas, are far from rare. Meanwhile, the parliamentary system sometimes does not able you to do anything.
One might argue that ours is a time of such enormous challenges to civilization that we need strong government to address what needs addressing. But strong and stable government could yield disaster, given the kinds of disturbing people who seem to be getting elected in the 21st century (is it the dumbing down brought to you by social media?).
One of them is certainly Giorgia Meloni, who came out on top in last September’s election in Italy.
Few people I spoke to, from all walks of life, expressed support for the prime minister. That’s not such a big surprise: her fascist-descended far-right Brothers of Italy party won just about a quarter of the vote. What was far more striking was how few people expressed much alarm, or anything other than a life-reaffirming indifference.
Meloni helms a rickety coalition that includes more mainstream right-wing parties and even centrists who somehow preferred her to the other guys. This setup keeps in check her actual agenda, which includes furthering a homogenous national identity; conservative positions on social issues such as opposition to same-sex marriage and surrogacy; opposition to abortion; and populist rhetoric on issues like climate change.
If pursued as policy, all that populist-right bric-a-brac would roust from their slumber many from among the three-quarters who did not vote for her. None of it has majority support, never mind the kind of strong backing required to effect radical change without much fuss.
It is therefore lucky for everyone, including Meloni herself, that she can be brought down by either of the two houses of parliament in less time than it takes to deliver an eggplant parmesan. At any given moment a few lawmakers can switch sides and topple the government, as in most parliamentary democracies. Something about Italy’s culture indeed seems to make this rather likely, as we have seen. This accountability to parliament, with the attendant constant possibility of course correction, focuses a leader’s mind.
So instead of pursuing her nutty and divisive agenda, instead of trying to ban abortion, Meloni has focused on some energy deals and contents herself with dealing with the wildfires that are breaking out all over the place caused at least in part by the global warming that her populist partner plays down on his radio show.
It seems to me that such cautiousness is especially welcome at a time when in many countries the voters seem to be split right down the middle when any choice is binary (as I wrote some months ago).
For as long as this almost supernatural-seeming phenomenon continues, clear-cut electoral outcomes, in situations in which the government is able to govern, leave half the people in despair. If the losing half feels its way of life is on the line, almost any level of revolt is possible in such cases.
And that is exactly the scenario the United States would face if Donald Trump were returned to the White House in 2024 (which would almost certainly be again by a minority of the votes in something close to a tie).
Yes, the US president is in theory “checked” and “balanced” in a variety of ways, and some things cannot be accomplished without Congress or agreement by the states. But the US presidency is in fact extremely powerful, and much madness can be carried out by Executive Order alone. Moreover, Congress is these days any rather acquiescent to the president, especially when the Republicans are in power: The MAGA-leaning majority among primary voters is clear enough that few senators and members of the House dare rebel.
Critically, the bar for removing the US president — unlike a European prime minister — is almost impossibly high. Even “impeachments” in the House of Representatives for Trump’s shaking down the Ukrainian president for dirt on Joe Biden, and for instigating the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, failed to move Senate Republicans to deliver the needed “conviction” by a two-thirds majority.
Meanwhile, consider the damage Trump was able to accomplish. Even beyond the dog’s breakfast of his COVID policy, the tax reform that helped the rich, and his embrace of tyrants and cold shoulder to NATO allies, Trump signed executive orders as follows:
- Putting in place a travel ban restricting entry to the United States for citizens of many predominantly Muslim countries
- Implementing a “zero tolerance” immigration policy that led to the ripping apart of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border
- Dismantling environmental regulations with the aim of rolling back clean air, water, and emissions standards, as well as efforts at climate change mitigation.
- Repealing DACA, a program that protected undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children
- Undermining Obamacare, tossing millions off the health care rolls
- Weakening civil rights protections
Such indecorous things generally cannot happen under a jittery prime minister in some lucky European land with excellent wine, pretty buildings, and museums stuffed to the gills with the fruit of the Enlightenment and the loot of colonial plunder.
There is, however, a danger in the otherwise wonderful weakness of governments in parliamentary systems. Frustration with the paralysis can lead, under a charismatic and evil leadership, to a populist counterreaction that gives rise to benighted autocrats. The most famous case, of course, swept away the Weimar Republic in 1930s Germany (and it is widely considered gauche to dwell on its particulars). But there are more recent (and yes, so far lesser) iterations on current display in Poland, Hungary and Turkey — and ironically enough, these days in Israel as well.
The danger is not unique to parliamentary systems, however. If returned to office Trump will certainly attempt the same. The Constitution will block some of it, that’s true; but the respect for norms, which used to take care of the rest, is obviously long gone. Of particular interest to Trump will be the fate of Israel’s would-be autocrat Benjamin Netanyahu, who also shares his status as a criminal defendant.
I discussed my perspective with Italian interlocutors, who all readily agreed that averaging a new government per year was a small price to pay for the joys of impotence in Rome. On occasion, when fortune truly smiles, they get incompetence as well. That’s what happened under the late Silvio Berlusconi, and such periods provide a sane person with the greatest comfort of all.
I am not recommending the US move to a parliamentary system (though I would certainly ditch the Electoral College). America is so gridlocked we cannot even pass the Equal Rights Amendment or ban assault weapons or provide healthcare to all or do any of the myriad other things a reasonable nation would do.
I am merely advocated a modicum of humility, and an understanding that government inaction is not necessarily so bad. We have other levers to address civilizational challenges that do not depend on voters to be informed and well-intended — from actions by corporations whose market cap is bigger than some countries’ to civil society to international treaties and bureaucracies to impactful action by individuals.
Relying on all that, and keeping government in a cage, may be the least-bad version of the least-bad system at the moment.
(A version of this article appeared in Newsweek)