This Is a Test of the U.S. Political System

Two parties may not be enough to contain the diversity of 2016 contenders.

It could have gone another way.

Photographer: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The 2016 U.S. presidential election is the most polarizing in half a century, and some commentators see a danger that "power-hungry demagogues" could take over. Europeans, with their parliament-dominated political systems, would avert disaster by building a coalition to keep power out of the hands of extreme demagogues. Americans can't do that -- or can they?

In the European Union, only the U.K. and Malta are now run by single-party governments (Spain was the third until a December election upset the balance of power, though it may get a coalition government, too). The reason these power-sharing arrangements prevail is that the most important elections in many European countries are those that determine control of parliament. These are contests of agendas rather than personalities.

There was a time when the U.S. could have adopted such a system. At least that's the view of F.H. Buckley, a professor at George Mason University School of Law, who argues that the delegates of the 1787 Philadelphia Convention never intended to set up the current presidential system.

They came from states that, for the most part, had governors appointed by legislatures, admired the British system of government (though not the monarchy) and were wary of "rabble rule." At one point, they even voted unanimously to set up a Congress-appointed presidency. The subsequent change of mind, which was not unanimous, was the result of political maneuvering and, yes, coalition-building. The arrangement the U.S. wound up with was advocated by Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris, and, James Madison later recalled, “was not exempt from a degree of the hurrying influence produced by fatigue and impatience.” Buckley found evidence that most delegates thought the election of a president would in most cases devolve to the Congress because the Electoral College wouldn't be able to produce a final decision.

In practice, however, things worked out differently. In effect, according to Buckley, the current system was a kind of political accident. 

This election, however, may test the limits of the system. Both parties are choosing among fields of candidates who have little in common. While in a European system, each of these factions would be represented by a smaller formal party, in the U.S., politicians with seemingly irreconcilable views are competing for the same electorate in a winner-take-all contest. The Republican field runs the gamut from anti-establishment insurgents such as Donald Trump to religious and social conservatives such as Rick Santorum, isolationists such as Rand Paul and establishment figures such as Jeb Bush. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, from the moderate centrist wing is up against Bernie Sanders, a self-avowed socialist.

This diversity is raising questions about whether the parties will be able to coalesce around a nominee.

Yet Republicans may be starting to pull together. Sarah Palin, the kind of ideological conservative who shouldn't have much in common with Trump, has jumped on his bandwagon. For Rush Limbaugh, it is enough that "conservatives" -- members of all the informal factions that make up the Republican Party -- are united solely around opposition to policies of President Barack Obama, not any particular ideology. Other prominent Republicans, such as 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole, are clearly trying to imagine being members of a Trump-led coalition. Dole said that, unlike divisive Cruz, Trump could "probably work with Congress, because he’s, you know, he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker." A potential coalition-builder, in other words. 

Nate Silver, the statistician known for accurately predicting the last two presidential elections, has noticed that various forces in the Republican Party are choosing Trump rather than Cruz as the center of gravity. He may not be their top choice, but they are going for the candidate more likely to treat politics as deal-making than as an exercise in ideological purity.

It's a shame that U.S. voters cannot back the party most to their liking in a decisive parliamentary election and then watch that party make a deal with other factions to find consensus. But the more chaotic version of this process that is playing out in the U.S. is more fun to watch so maybe there's reason to be thankful the Philadelphia Convention turned out as it did.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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