Positive Politics and Government, Uncategorized

Would America be Happier Without a President?

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Should We Do Away with The Presidency?

Before Trump fans pick up things to throw at me, the question I’m posing is not whether America would be happier without this president. The question is whether America would be happier without a president at all. There is, in fact, empirical analysis that suggests we would. And the level of frustration and even sheer hatred so many have felt regarding both the Obama and Trump administrations should make us pause and at least ask whether it’s time to reassess the office itself.

Professors David Altman, Patrick Flavin and Benjamin Radcliff published a study in 2017 using data drawn from 21 OECD countries over three decades. They dug into the determinants of life satisfaction in those countries, accounting for the other factors known to drive differences in happiness. They found that parliamentary, proportional representation systems result in higher levels of life satisfaction than do systems like America’s presidential, single-member district system. The effect, they argue, is substantial. Presidencies, it seems, are bad for happiness.

But Wouldn’t That Be Un-American?

It may be hard for Americans to even conceive of a country without a president. Some may find  abandoning an office that was an American invention unpatriotic. The office is, after all, enshrined in the Constitution which many hold in nearly as high regard as their religion’s holy book. But as I remind my students, the Constitution was not delivered by angels to the sound of heavenly trumpets and universal delight. The drafting of the constitution was a fight. At times it was a nasty fight. There was little agreement on anything – just a lot of negotiation. None of the people who worked on it saw it as perfect. They saw it for what it was – a jumble of compromises and an experiment. Virtually all emphasized that it would need to change over time and thus they made it amendable.

Not only that, but the founding generation of the United States was extremely wary of putting too much power in one set of hands. The presidency was basically a new experiment in executive power. They didn’t know how it would turn out, but most would be shocked at how powerful presidents have now become. And since they held the Pursuit of Happiness as an unalienable right, it’s doubtful they would be happy knowing that presidential systems are proving to be less conducive to the happiness of the people than other systems.

Why Might a Parliamentary System Work Better for Happiness?

One major reason that presidential systems may be bad for happiness is that they decrease the sense of control people have over their destinies. As conservative scholar Arthur Brooks rightly points out in his book Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America and How We Can Get More Of It, one of the key determinants of happiness in life is a sense of control and autonomy. Americans have little control over the president because the position is set up to be largely unaccountable.

Impeachment and removal involve a difficult process reserved for only “Treason, bribery and high crimes and misdemeanors.” Impeachment occurred only twice in well over two centuries. It has never resulted in a successful removal from office. So the president remains largely unaccountable during his or her first four year term. They are only accountable at the end of it if there is a serious contender running in opposition. In a second term, a lame-duck president is completely unaccountable.

In contrast, in parliamentary systems, a Prime Minister serves at the pleasure of the elected legislators. This means parliament can quite easily remove them. Removal can happen not just for high crimes. Basic incompetence or losing the confidence of those he or she leads can result in a Prime Minister getting the boot.

For this reason, it is far rarer to have an incompetent, corrupt, bitterly divisive or unresponsive Prime Minister than it is to have such a president. Prime Ministers are chosen and held accountable by the body they must lead. So they must be effective leaders. American presidents are chosen in what has become a mix between a national popularity contest and a fight between rival teams. Those partisan “teams” are populated largely by people who refuse to even consider the merits of someone who does not carry their party label. To get and keep their jobs, American presidents need not be good at running a government. They need only be good at being popular and at rallying the support of those in their parties.

This basic lack of accountability for presidents, and the fact that most of them only receive votes from less than half of eligible voters (only around a quarter of eligible voters in the US voted for President Trump) means that the presidency largely fails to be a position that genuinely represents the people. This leaves the people with a sense that there is no way to control the incredibly powerful person running their government.

Our single-member district, simple plurality election system compounds that lack of control. It inevitably leads to a two party system and makes it nearly impossible for third parties to win. The many Americans whose ideologies match more closely with the Libertarian, Green, Constitution or other parties must choose between what they see as the lesser of two evils. It’s little wonder that our system seems to be bad for national happiness.

The Future Belongs to the Adaptable

Reforming the nature of executive power in America would be a massive change. The Constitution itself makes major systemic change difficult. And change can be scary. But as John Adams said just a few short months before signing the Declaration of Independence:

“We ought to consider what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.” [1]

The founders of the United States attempted to set up a system to maximize the happiness of the American people. And they believed that Americans could and would change their system of government as the need arose. We can fear change, or we can use it to our advantage. The choice belongs to us

February 1, 2018 | Ryan Rynbrandt

[1] John Adams, “Thoughts on Government”, 1776

For more discussion about the potential of a Parliamentary system in the United States click here.

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