One Nation … Under Parliament?

The Zócalo and Los Angeles Times Event ‘Would Parliamentary America Have More Fun?’ Considers a U.S. Governed by Multi-Party Coalitions

Erika D. Smith (left) in conversation with Maxwell L. Stearns on February 23, 2024.

“Convince me,” Los Angeles Times columnist Erika D. Smith told Maxwell L. Stearns, the author of the forthcoming book Parliamentary America: The Least Radical Means of Radically Repairing Our Broken Democracy, at last week’s public program “Would Parliamentary America Have More Fun?” at the ASU California Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Calling herself the “resident cynic” about the future of America’s democracy, Smith asked Stearns to make the case for why a multi-party parliamentary system would make America’s government more functional and civic-minded. By the time the conversation had wrapped, Smith seemed to have come around to Stearns’ proposal.

Stearns said he decided to write Parliamentary America because he saw that the country’s democracy was in danger, and was convinced that current proposals—such as ranked choice voting and eliminating the Electoral College—wouldn’t solve the fundamental democratic crisis facing the nation. “I never envisioned myself writing a book on how to fix American democracy, but I had to write the book on how to fix American democracy,” he said.

He modeled his proposal laid out in the book on the successes and failures of political systems around the world in places like England, France, Germany, Israel, Taiwan, Brazil, and Venezuela. In England, he found that there weren’t enough parties; in Brazil, however, there were too many. Stearns’ big takeaway: America needs to seek out the “Goldilocks principle,” which he cites as somewhere between four to eight political parties, all of which have vital roles in governance.

It’s possible, he said. All it would take are three amendments to the current Constitution: doubling the size of the House of Representatives by having citizens vote by district and by party, having a House majority coalition to elect the president, and allowing a super-majority of the House to remove a president from office with a no-confidence vote.

“What I propose is radical,” he said. But nodding to the subtitle of his book, he argued that it was the “least radical” way forward. This creates a path that leaves “many foundational American institutions intact—even things that a lot of people aren’t going to like.”

My goal here isn’t to make people happy, Stearns continued. It’s to make democracy functional.

Stearns posits that America is currently facing its third constitutional crisis. (He dates the previous two to the period under the Articles of Confederation and the lead-up to the Civil War to the period of Reconstruction.) America’s two-party system, “which we endured for a couple of hundred years,” is the culprit this time around. The system has made politics so divisive that people believe that people who disagree with them “lack basic intelligence or are evil,” which has rendered government and society dysfunctional, he said. “We need to recognize we’re in crisis, and have to come together to find a solution.”

“A lot of what you’re talking about depends on Americans actually wanting functioning government,” Smith pointed out.

“I don’t believe that the vast majority of Americans believe we thrive in a dysfunctional system,” Stearns said. During multiple times in the night, he called on the audience to be optimistic. It’s too important to give up, he said. By passing these three amendments, it would make it possible for people to vote for someone they’re really happy to vote for and not be punished for that vote.

That would end the “third-party dilemma” Americans currently face, he said. Right now, if you vote outside of the two major candidates, you’re either benefiting the major party candidate you favor the least or pulling votes from both sides, making whoever wins into a “roll of the dice.”

During the Q&A, in-person and online chatroom audience members asked Stearns to speak about various aspects of his proposed system. One in-person member from Berlin asked Stearns if he could speak about the downside of Germany’s mixed‐member electoral system, which combines majority voting with proportional representation. “We’re completely stuck because of the number of parties we have in our coalition at this point,” she said referring to the current Bundestag, the German federal parliament, which some say is “bursting at the seams.”

“I’m proposing a very American adaptation of the German system,” Stearns answered. “We don’t need pure party proportionality. We need ‘good enough’ proportionality, so no party can win on its own.”

Before the conversation wrapped, Smith asked Stearns what American democracy could look like in his wildest dreams, if these three amendments were passed.

“I’m not suggesting we sing ‘Kumbaya,’” said Stearns, “but we can have functional politics.”

The alternative, he said, is the danger of collapse or autocracy. “We want to make sure we’re not in one of those democracies that die. That’s why I wrote this book, which is dedicated to my children and yours.”

“We can leave future generations a better democracy,” he said.


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