I’m a dual citizen of the United States, where I was born, and Canada, where I live. I vote and pay taxes in both jurisdictions, and admire both countries. For years, I have journalistically covered their disparate political systems and have come to prefer Canada’s parliamentary democracy for its efficiency, transparency, accountability, and resistance to corruption.
Of course, neither system is perfect. Untold volumes of comparative studies have been done by political scientists comparing and contrasting parliamentary and presidential democracies. And indeed, there are pronounced differences among parliamentary democracies themselves, at least in part the result of how the electoral systems—first past the post versus proportional representation—are set up. But it’s hard for me to be indifferent to the surface differences that face a citizen of two North American democracies: Canada’s transparency, efficiency and the ability to rid itself of dysfunctional leaders through snap elections is preferable to Washington’s endless, chronic gridlock.
Generally speaking, parliamentary democracies can be more efficient because the executive and legislative branches are fused and the Prime Minister is not only the country’s CEO but its chief legislator. America’s separation of powers, by contrast, has created an adversarial system that pits everyone against one another. If America were a corporation, its bylaws would partition the CEO from his executive and legislative teams and place them permanently at odds, often leaving shareholders in the lurch.
By contrast, a Prime Minister is not elected separately, like a President, but is simply another Member of Parliament who holds a seat representing a specific constituency. However, he or she has risen to become the leader of the political party that ends up winning the most seats in the House of Commons, or has formed a coalition with another party to create a majority. Prime Ministers recruit their cabinets from among their legislative team. As such, a Prime Minister is like a CEO, with support from his or her management team, who devises and passes policies and laws on behalf of his or her voters.
Furthermore, the parliamentary structure is self-purging. Prime Ministers and their parties serve at the pleasure of the public as long as they maintain control. If they lose their majority in a vote on an important issue, like a proposed annual budget, this is considered a non-confidence motion and an election ensues immediately. By contrast, Presidents and Congress rarely approve budgets, and battles or paralysis have led to multiple government shutdowns, two during Trump’s term including the longest in U.S. history (35 days).
Elections cull Canada’s political system of undesirable or ineffective leadership. But getting rid of a President, even if guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, is nearly impossible. The process involves an arduous impeachment inquiry and vote by the House of Representatives and then a trial in the Senate where two-thirds must approve removal. This near-unanimity threshold is difficult to achieve and the process takes months or years, during which time society is roiled, government is immobilized, misdeeds can continue, and rancor rises. This has occurred three times in two generations.
The American model is rooted in conflict and division whereas the Canadian one, due to the need to hold a majority together in order to govern, leads to consensus and compromise. This necessity results in disciplined, cohesive political parties whose members are forced to toe the party line or face expulsion from the caucus.
In the United States, the Democrats and Republicans are not parties in the parliamentary sense. They are coalitions of convenience for entrepreneurial politicians who seek party branding in order to get on ballots or to get financing. Once elected, they often end up representing competing or extremist agendas, regional interests, ideologies, and goals that vary from party platforms or from their party leader’s recommendations. This, in turn, opens up more fronts of political warfare: the Senate versus the House, the President versus one or both, and dozens of partisans against one another. And voters are often ignored in between elections.
Canada’s system is less prone to corruption because fundraising has been dramatically reduced in importance, since elections last only a few weeks. There is government funding for parties during elections in the form of a per-vote subsidy (based on the previous election results) and reimbursement of more than half of their election expenses. There are also strict advertising restrictions and campaign contribution limits imposed on individuals, unions, corporations, and special interest groups. This liberates candidates and their parties from burdensome fundraising, which, in turn, limits influences by outside interests.
Parties with majorities in Parliament must also remain aligned with public opinion. “In parliamentary systems, leaders cannot be dictators,” said former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada John Manley. “They need the support of their caucus and they can lose their confidence if a majority or key members of their own caucus threaten to defect unless they change course. Every Member of Parliament thinks first of his or her own re-election chances. They go home regularly and don’t need opinion polls to smell trouble. If the Prime Minister is unpopular, they know it and they thrash this out in caucus.”
Canada’s parliamentary system is also more transparent. A ritual known as Question Period takes place every day that Parliament sits, and is televised for 45 minutes from the chamber of the House of Commons. During this time, the Prime Minister and cabinet must answer questions from opposition Members of Parliament. These exchanges are also reproduced in transcripts, called Hansards, available the following day for public consumption along with the proceedings of parliamentary committees.
In the United States, public pronouncements are at the pleasure of the incumbent President. The first white House press conference was held by Woodrow Wilson in 1913, but since then have been intermittent. In the 1950s, the first press briefings were broadcasted, but in recent years the public and media have been kept at arm’s length for the most part. Access is often restricted to supportive outlets or commentators. More significantly, United States Presidents are never compelled to face and debate Presidential opponents while Congress is in session.
There has only been one President—the late Woodrow Wilson, a historian by training—who favored the parliamentary system to the presidential one. In 1885, before becoming President, he wrote Congressional Government, a Study in American Politics about the presidential system’s shortcomings. Of particular concern were the 47 Congressional committees run by chairs selected on the basis of seniority, who conduct meetings in private, and are thoroughly unaccountable. He said there were too many and described them as “seignories” run by “petty barons”. Today, there are 200 committees and sub-committees in Washington where the same secrecy rules, enabling backroom deals and influence-peddling. Transcripts of their proceedings are not even available to the press and public and should be.
Wilson suggested the creation of a “cabinet government” to fuse executive and legislative branches as is the case in parliamentary architecture. He believed that Presidents should be required to appoint key legislators, from both parties, to sit in their cabinets. This would alleviate the acrimony and enhance bipartisanship initiatives as well as cabinet ministers who could command votes to get legislation and budgets passed in a timely fashion.
Not surprisingly, Wilson was blocked from implementing his reforms during his Presidency 25 years later by the very impediments that he hoped to eliminate. But his observations remain valid. These flaws and inefficiencies in American democracy are part of the reason why most of the dozens of countries that have democratized in the past century have opted for a version of the parliamentary template.
To be fair, Canada’s system has flaws, too. Its Senate is largely stocked with political appointees, for example, and could probably be safely abolished. But overall, its system is designed to reach accommodation and compromise in an increasingly diverse and sprawling society.
The United States, by contrast, increasingly feels ungovernable. For a country that is otherwise first in class in most endeavors, it can be easy to fall into denial about this reality. Unfortunately, making substantial changes is probably not on the table. As TAI Chairman Francis Fukuyama noted several years ago in these pages as he wrestled with many of these same issues, “Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document. Persuading them to rethink its most basic tenets short of an outright system collapse is highly unlikely. So, we have a problem.”