The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


The Parliamentary vs. the American System

A Parliamentary government, such as the British system, is often described as a purer form of democracy than that in the United States. But if democracy means government of the people, which it does, I would suggest that the government of the United States is the purest, i.e., the truest, form of democracy existing today, and is the purest, or truest, form that has ever existed in any great nation in the history of the world. Jefferson described the determining principle thus:

Purity in republican (i.e., democratic) government is not measured merely by whether its officials were elected or not, but by how well it embodies the will of its people. And if that is its primary focus, it will not be directed by some other principle. It will be flexible with respect to ideology, molding itself to the people's will, rather than adhering to an ideological theory. Parties in parliamentary governments tend to be otherwise, mainly representing an ideological position and not particularly adaptive to the general will of the people. The voter is expected to make his interest known by voting a party in when he agrees with their platform, and voting them out when he disagrees. The party remains relatively fixed in what it stands for. Because of this ideological rigidity, those parties do not contribute as strongly to the expression of the people's will as do parties that are less rigid and more adaptive to that will. But it is the will of the people, not some ideology, that is fundamental to republican government.

It might be said that political parties under Parliamentary governments do the will of the people by presenting them with an ideological choice. But as we shall see below, this is not the choice that corresponds with the dynamics of man's natural constitution. Moreover, differences based on ideology translate into a multitude of choices based on abstract intellectual theories, hence a multitude of parties in countries under the Parliamentary system. But the idea in a government of the people is not a government that will adhere to a political theory, but one that will do the will of the people, however that will may be characterized ideologically. Formulating theories is an abstract exercise; an ideological choice assumes that the people's will can be reduced to ideological terms. But public will and it's realization are matters of power and control. Thus, we have abstract ideas on one hand and the exercise of power on the other. Republicanism means the exercise of power and control by the people.

It is only when the government is controlled by the will of the people themselves--a will which reflects their lives, their rights, their liberties and aspirations--and not merely by some theory about those things, that we truly have a democratic republic, a "government of the people."

Parliamentary governments are dominated by the policies of the majority party or a majority coalition. And those parties receive their direction less from the changing sentiments of the people and more from the fixed ideology of the political party and its leaders. Moreover, every individual legislator in a parliamentary government is expected to vote in lock-step with the party leadership and the stated party platform, not to follow what he perceives as the will of the people in his district. When elected, he or she is elected more as the representative of a party than as an individual who would represent the wishes of a constituency. Sometimes he doesn't even live in the district that he represents. The constituency is presented with a political menu from which they can select a party that represents an ideological philosophy that matches their own. Thus, their wishes are represented by a theoretical choice, not by a person. Every aspect of policy formation, legislative enactment and party discipline in this system suggests autocracy, not democracy; and the individual, "back-bench" member of parliament has hardly more input into the legislative process than his constituents whom he is supposed to represent.

The Parliamentary system is also not as conducive to the influx of innovative ideas as is the American system. In order to advance as a politician, the party member must devote himself in loyal service to the party. His being notable for devotion to the people of his district is not a factor. And only by advancing in this way through the ranks of the party can he move into a position of leadership. Ideas move top down, not bottom up.

When the fundamental constitutions of people are taken into consideration, there are only two basic parties, and these were accurately described by Jefferson.

A truly republican system, therefore, will generally reflect this basic party division because the main object is a government of the people, and in the final analysis this is the only issue that matters. If the will of the people dominates the process, then party divisions will form on every issue, on every ideological principle, based on this more fundamental division. As a result, party differences in a democratic nation based on this principle will never be very great. Indeed, the two major parties in the United States are often referred to as the "Republicrats" because there is so little difference in what they stand for. But it is only natural that this should be the case. Both are trying to become the voice of the mass of the people and to win their approval, one being somewhat patrician, the other being more popular in their leanings. In a country with a large middle class such as the United States, it could hardly be otherwise that parties appealing to the same middle class will have only the slightest difference between them. And it is to be expected that this slight difference will consistently reveal itself along the lines that Jefferson described as the fundamental difference in human constitutions.

If the will of the people does not dominate, however, if their interests are not the starting point, then the principal source of difference becomes one of ideology. In other words, when the power of the people is no longer the focus, political theory becomes the focus. It could hardly be otherwise. Because there are so many different political theories, and since every political theory equates to yet another political party under the Parliamentary system, there are usually a multitude of parties and a splintering of opposing parties with the inevitable instability that produces. This polarization by ideologies tends to underscore an already stratified populace and encourages, rather than ameliorates, internal strife in the nation. The American system, on the other hand, tends toward a greater unity of people and a moderation of differences because it requires consensus and compromise and works less well when ideological differences are emphasized. In many parts of the country, both party candidates will be on the same side of certain issues. This would never happen under the Parliamentary system except on a whole party, whole nation basis. Such party positions are not modified on a local basis, depending on the sentiments of the local constituency.

When a legislator is elected on the basis of where he himself stands, and not just as a representative of a party, he brings with him his own assessment of the people's will. When he campaigns, he generally does so in response to his perception of what his own constituents want. And then when scores of legislators are committed, not to a party platform nor to submission to the will of the party's leadership, but to what they perceive as the will of their own people, this means that this group of legislators even within the same party must reach a consensus on what that will is with respect to every piece of legislation, and this consensus may vary from one issue to another. Each individual representative, and not the party leadership, are the best qualified to judge the sentiments of their own constituents.

This consensus will not be directed, dictated nor dominated by a party leadership, but will be a meeting of the minds of all of the elected representatives on what is the will of the people whom these legislators represent, independently of central direction and domination. This is the beauty of a system in which each legislator truly stands on his own two feet. Consensus then tends to be the common denominator, the common expression of the public will of the whole nation. In a government of all the people, reasonableness, not ideology, becomes the primary aim for measures, and compromise and consensus become the glue that holds everything together.

Thinking for oneself was a principle that Jefferson cherished not just as a legislator, but in life. Following a party ideology is an unnatural frame of mind, and a governmental system based on it cannot be instrumental in forming the best government for a free people.

This does not mean that ideological parties under parliamentary government are unconcerned for the will of the people. Obviously, they must be to some extent, if public opinion is given free expression.

But such systems are very inefficient expressions of that will, and are not sensitive to geographical variations. Individual legislators are not able to bridge the gap between their own constituents and legislative results; they are compelled to adopt "the party line." When political parties and their platforms dominate the process as they do under the Parliamentary system, there is necessarily a greater rigidity in government. The minority party or parties are mostly irrelevant. Members of the majority party are expected to vote with the party on every major platform issue, and the party membership often becomes little more than a rubber stamp for the leadership. The first loyalty of party members is to the party, less so to the people who elected them. There is virtually no incentive to pursue programs that the minority parties can agree to and there is little incentive for the majority party to compromise with the minority. Cross-coalitions reflecting the will of varying constituencies throughout the nation are not pursued, and the minority party can do little more than criticize the majority positions. On most issues, legislation is determined by the majority party and those citizens who voted for minority members are left with little effective participation in the legislative process.

Government by an executive committee with the Prime Minister "first among equals" further withdraws responsibility from its identification with a single individual and makes it more of a party function. But as Jefferson wrote,

The fact that the members of the executive council are all committed to one party might tend to reduce the chances of discordant factions which Jefferson identified as arising from a plural executive; but he concluded:

Another aspect of parliamentary elections that virtually eliminates the possibility of the people selecting a candidate that will be responsible to them and reflect their will is the absence of primaries. Candidates are selected by the party, and the voter is presented with a single candidate who represents the party platform and ideology. Minor variations within the party are not submitted to the voters for their choice. It becomes a rigid, "take it or leave it" decision, and the sentiments of local constituents generally go unheeded. To the extent this is so, it is less of a republican government, less democratic, because the will of the people has less influence.

The manner in which Parliamentary elections are called illustrates another way that the political party in control of the government suppresses the will of the people. Elections are generally called, not on the basis of a fixed schedule, but whenever the party in control thinks it is an optimum time to call the election. Elections are required only after lengthy intervals. But the party leadership will call for an election when it senses circumstances are such as to favor their return to power. Regular and frequent elections tend to place more power in the hands of the people. Representatives are called to account, not when they think the time is favorable, but on a regular basis, thus compelling them to maintain a favored relationship with their constituency. Frequent elections keep those representatives in touch with the wishes of their constituents. As Jefferson noted:

The Malaysian parliament called suddenly for elections before the end of the year, because with the new year, many younger people who were less favorably inclined toward the government would become qualified to vote. Thus the real purpose of the elections was made manifest: not that government would reflect the will of the people, but that the people's will might be frustrated and its full expression prevented. It would be easy to say, "Well of course! The party leadership was looking out for their own interests!" But that is the point. In a true democracy, government should be organized in such a fashion as to look out for the interests of the people, not of the political parties.

We see the results of the two party divisions based on people's constitution as described by Jefferson when a Democratic President "steals" the program of a Republican legislature. While many absurdly cry foul, they fail to realize that this is the strength and beauty of a government of the people. It is the people who benefit from this outcome, not the party. It is a response to what the people want, not a blind adherence to party ideology that prompts a president to do this. Such a president demonstrates that he is willing to adapt and compromise on issues in order to give the people what they want, not what some party leadership wants. There is no rigid adherence to or even respect for the ownership of "party" ideas because that is not the focus. Enemies of genuine government of the people are alarmed by this, thus revealing their true sentiments: they wish to have government dominated by a party ideology instead of having all parties and all ideologies in service to the people of this nation. These are the true enemies of democracy, and many of these same people would, in fact, like to scrap the American system in favor of a Parliamentary system. We can only pray for the failure of their dreams. The checks and balances of the American system are often criticized for the "inefficiency" and, consequently, the lack of strength and energy they produce in government. But this lack of efficient energy is a small price to pay for a system that gives effective voice to the citizens and makes it all but impossible for a despot to rise and destroy government of the people.

    "I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Madison, 1787.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1999 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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