August 20th, 2011
01:34 PM ET

Fareed's Take: Prime Minister...of America?

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

I wrote a blog post for the Global Public Square website that has gotten a great deal of reaction. So let me talk about it for a moment.

It all started because I read a website that pointed out that after the S&P downgrade of the United States, no country with a presidential system has a AAA 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).

This brought to mind my years in political science grad school and an essay by, a famous Yale scholar, who says that parliamentary systems are superior to presidential systems because they allow for greater stability and purposive action.

In a parliamentary system, he contended, the legislature and the executive are fused so there is no contest for national legitimacy.

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 Prime Minister.

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 country hostage.

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 people?

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 - the checks and balances have been very useful on occasion. In 1945 Britain enacted a quasi-socialist economic plan that set the country on a bad path.

But look at the situation today. Western countries all have created welfare states and governmental systems that are cumbersome, sluggish and expensive –especially as the population ages.

These need to be reformed and many of the reforms are fairly obvious - in social security, energy policy, tax reform. But the American government has lost the ability to actually implement any policy solutions because of political gridlock

Listen to what the S&P actually said in its downgrade. "America's governance and policymaking [is] becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable than what we previously believed.. . Despite this year's wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge."

This is not just about the presidential system alone. Recent developments have added to polarization and paralysis. The fillibuster for example, is not in the constitution but it is now routinely used to allow a minority of one house to block all legislation.

In a fast-moving world, where other countries are acting quickly and with foresight, we are paralyzed.

It's all very well to keep saying that we have the greatest system in the histroy of the world but against this background of dysfunction, it sounds a lot like thoughtless cheerleading.

For more of my thoughts through the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebookand Twitter and to bookmark the Global Public Square.

soundoff (421 Responses)
  1. Ben Johnson

    Yes, just what we need, a 'fared zakaria" telling us that we need to change our governmental system.

    August 28, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
    • Jeff K

      Yeah attack the fact that he is a not a white guy and ignore the fact that what he says is right.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Reply
    • ed galbraith

      Ben...your prejudice is showing...but, then, you have no control over your seething racism.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:28 am | Reply
  2. Jeff K

    The proof is in the pudding, the US created a parliamentary system in every country it was involved in "Nation Building" since WW2. We sit around so pig headed about how wonderful the US is that we don't look at the obvious problems.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  3. ed galbraith

    Very little insight here. Zakaria was presenting a paper...think of it as a THEORETICAL passage to another way of thinking...of governing. That's how IDEAS begin and how problems are sometimes solved. I suggest you all relax and let some fresh air in.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:55 am | Reply
  4. Joe O'Neill

    In most parliamentary systems, the Prime Minister is the head of government and the Head of State is a benign Monarch or some other figurehead. The President of the United States is both. Thus, there is a controversy when a sitting congressman shouts "you lie" as the President is giving a speech. No member of the British Parliament would call Queen Elizabeth a liar, but Prime Minister Cameron is called a liar in the House of Commons almost daily. The same for Prime Minister Harper in Canada.

    Watching the debt crisis unfold daily has made me appreciate the effective checks and balances of a parliamentary system. In the end all the Founding Fathers did was create a system that "Elects a King". But the King has so many road blocks systematically in place, he or she cannot effectively govern.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:14 am | Reply
  5. Joe Dugan

    Mr. Zakira, our latest expert on all things, knows how to pump up ratings, as one can easily see by the number of posts written herein. While this not a bad thing in itself, it does make such an "expert" liable to pretentiousness. Of course, if one really wants to see the workings of the parliamentary system look back at the great BBC series, "Yes, Prime Minister". Skullduggery, inefficiency and a whole load of characters acting out the greed and baseness of politicians written by the British themselves. As for politics getting nastier; well that has been said for generations by muckrackers like Ambrose Bierce way before CNN lest expert's pronouncements.

    August 29, 2011 at 9:02 am | Reply
    • TampaMan

      Well said, Mr. Dugan.

      August 31, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  6. Rex

    No: We just need a real POTUS!

    August 29, 2011 at 10:31 am | Reply
  7. heidi

    I always thought we lived in a dictatorship here...

    August 29, 2011 at 11:13 am | Reply
  8. marcia

    America needs a presidential replacement! Someone with a brain and a soul!

    August 29, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  9. infomebaby

    Fareed, question for you, don't you need to have a royal family take over an establishment "ordained by a God" prior to a parliamentary system in effect? Isn't a parliament the royal's "democratic attempt" at a government ?? Cause if I do recall, Republicans, at least after Bush aren't exactly pro-royals? So what are you talking about?

    August 29, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Reply
  10. RefactorTheGovernment

    This is inline with my thoughts that it's time to refactor our government here in the states. It needs a good ole fashioned corporate restructuring.

    August 30, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Reply
    • TampaMan

      What we need is good old fashioned American SECESSION.

      August 31, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  11. allahdad

    Why am I not surprised that Fareed would pimp for a Parliament? A little, toothy man coming from a huge ant pile of indistinguishable humans with no individuality or sense of personal power would have to abhor our system. Go home, Fareed.

    August 30, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  12. TampaMan

    Unbelievable naiiete and preprogrammed response! The reader should be aware at this point that the democrats and republicans are nothing more than two heads of the same snake. No major election has changed anything in America for decades. None will, for the foreseeable future.

    The political conversation about dems vs. republicans is like comparing Ford to Chevrolet. On the one hand we've got people who manufacture useful motor vehicles, while on the other hand we've got people who manufacture useless balogna.

    Why call for a prime minister? It's just a quicker way to establish a dictatorship in name as well as in power. Why not call this person a Chancellor instead? It worked for Hitler and I'm sure it would work for Mr. Zakaria.

    August 31, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  13. Andre

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    August 31, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  14. Jim Rousch

    This written by someone who was not born here and does not understand this country.

    August 31, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  15. kevin

    The problem/culprit are the LOBBYISTS hired by for profit companies. Get rid of them and problem will be solved.

    August 31, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  16. robert jackson

    I guess if we have a prime minister, no one would object to the president becoming king.

    August 31, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  17. dan

    I wonder how many people have ever talked to the normal working people who live in these countries with parlamintary systems. Reading about it and making judgements are not the same as living there.
    I have talked with people from countries around the world they are no happier with there governments then we are with the US government.
    Anyone that can figure out how there country can keep there econmy booming without counting on the US then I mite listen.

    August 31, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Reply
  18. vet2640

    No "prime minister" please, what the nation needs is for President Obama put on his "child day-care center director hat" and place the "republicans" in the "time out corner" until they can behave like "mature children", some democrats too and off course all those "under the influence" of the tea party.

    September 1, 2011 at 12:06 am | Reply
  19. Mike Houston

    NO, Fareed, the U.S. doesn't need a "prime minister". We need fewer immigrants from countries that
    HAVE prime ministers, and who want to bring the kinds of government structures that they are familiar
    with into this country...We just need a more resolute President (one who quits his efforts at "bipartisanship")...
    and we need to end the Plutocracic oligarchy that American CEO's, lobbyists, and Republicans are so
    hellbent on establishing.

    September 1, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  20. Louise O'Brien - Aussie

    The Westminister system of government is the best in the world. New Zealand has a great version of it. Also the countries using the Westminister based system in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Canada have great election processes as well, far less corrupt that the one in the USA.

    September 1, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  21. Louise O'Brien - Aussie

    Implementing structural change is far easier under the Westminister system than the US system.

    September 1, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Reply
  22. mickey1313

    To travis, I agree that what hitler did was bad, but to call the jews innocent is a HUGE LEAP. No thiest is innocent, they are evil spiteful hateful killers.

    September 2, 2011 at 12:08 am | Reply
    • Mike Houston

      What have the "spiteful hateful killers done to you lately? Sounds like you would have fit right in
      with Hitler's bunch. You're scarry...

      September 2, 2011 at 3:16 am | Reply
  23. JC

    Wow this could actually be good for the US. The US government is to busy fighting for control within by parties that only fight to control both the presidency and congress. It almost seems they don't even care about the people anymore. Maybe a parliament (if the stated facts are true) would actually be better since they would get things done for once.

    September 2, 2011 at 7:17 am | Reply
  24. Tommie T

    Only in the past 20 years has India achieved any type of independent wealth. Prior to that Indian prime ministers promoted blatent socialism. And India still has millions of people living on the streets. Fareed grew up in a fairly wealthy family and so undoubtedly has a fondness for the supposed greatness of India. And now wants the US to imitate his home country.

    September 3, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Reply
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