Can the U.S. Political System Survive the Trump Shakeup?

The U.S. political system used to be a light unto Western democracies, putting the chaos of the Israeli parliamentary system to shame. That's not the case anymore.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts after being introduced at a campaign rally at the Sunset Cove Amphitheater, Boca Raton, Florida, March 13, 2016.
Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has gone on record calling Donald Trump and the Republican presidential campaign a global “embarrassment” for the United States. “Everywhere I go, every leader I meet, they ask about what is happening in America," Kerry said, recounting the widespread shock at the party's frontrunner. "It upsets people’s sense of equilibrium about our steadiness, about our reliability.”

Pretty undiplomatic language for America’s number one diplomat. But he’s absolutely right. 

I’ve got some more bad news for Kerry: It’s not only foreign leaders that are freaking out – U.S. citizens all over world are watching in horror. And as his statement made clear, it goes far beyond the outrageous utterances of Trump: It’s about the sudden, unthinkable fragility of American democracy and what that means for those who look to its system of government as something to aspire to and, when possible, emulate. 

As an American who has lived overseas for nearly a quarter-century, who has had to repeatedly expound on the fine points of American politics over dinner, I have never before found an election in the United States so difficult to explain or so unsettling to discuss and defend. 

In the past, my explanations of U.S. politics have, I confess, often tended to have a superior, even condescending, tone. The U.S. system of government, characterized by two stable parties over the vast majority of its history really was the ideal model for liberal democracies around the world, embodying the perfect blend of representation, accountability and authority. 

They served as a contrast to the chaos of parliaments, which, to an American eye, seem notoriously cuckoo, with debates turning into shouting matches, childish behavior and even physical brawls. (Though suddenly that’s beginning to feel very familiar)

Among the various parliamentary systems, the Israeli Knesset has always had its own special brand of crazy, with a tribal feel and dynamics resembling that of a Middle Eastern market. In each election, voters choose from a smorgasbord of parties, some of them recently born, many of them representing relatively narrow sectorial interests. Currently there are ten. And in the post-election coalition negotiations, the smallest ones can wield the greatest power.

The two-party system seemed like such an obvious counterpoint to the local dysfunction here that has led to a string of coalition collapses and too-frequent elections. Instead of every four years, the past couple of elections were barely separated by two years (and without term limits, there is little hope for change at the top). Another consequence of the Israeli system is how the need for politicians to be constant deal-makers and blackmailers in order to hang onto power has had a devastating effect on the public's faith in its leaders. 

Look, I would marvel proudly, pointing to the United States' careful system of checks and balances, the geographic representation in the House and Senate and the clear authority of the president, see how the potentially fractious points of view remain mostly moderate and neatly tucked under the umbrella of the two mainstream parties, while allowing politicians to maintain their dignity. Why, oh, why can’t Israel be more like America? 

As this off-balance campaign plays out, I no longer feel I can justify this lament. As cable news channels show the crowds of discontented citizens turning up for Trump and Sanders rallies, full of pent-up frustration, feeling neglected by the established parties and a gridlocked Congress, crying out for something different and demanding a voice, it is clear that something in the U.S. system, too, has failed its people. 

Increasingly, the American two-party system is looking like a trap, and the advantages of the parliamentary systems are more obvious – with multiple dynamic parties that can respond to current circumstances and concerns unhampered by an intransigent “establishment” party apparatus.  

The situation seems most dire in the case of Trump and the Republican Party. If he takes the nomination, he will stand as the candidate of a party whose leadership doesn’t support him, and some of whom openly loathe him. If a last-ditch effort to deny him the nomination at the Republican convention succeeds, millions of his supporters will feel invalidated and disenfranchised. Either scenario will be a crisis. 

The situation is less extreme on the other side of the aisle, but still, it is clear that Sanders' “Democratic socialism” has caught the Democratic party establishment off guard. Sanders  himself denounces the party as it is and pledges to transform it should he become its leader. From his core supporters come grumblings that they will refuse to back Hillary should she win the nomination – although they are more likely to slink back into line to vote against Trump. 

In this messy situation, one can’t help but ponder whether a multi-party parliament system might be better suited to the current American political mood this year. Maybe America has more to learn from the rest of the world than we thought?

Whatever the outcome, the two-party system is likely to survive. But one wonders if perhaps the American system isn’t due for some kind of adjustment, if not total transformation. 

Perhaps, while I was extolling the virtues of a country governed by two mainstream, relatively centrist parties, I should have paid closer attention to the fact that for much of the past decade, a majority of Americans polled by Gallup have said that “a third U.S. political party is needed because the Republican and Democratic parties ‘do such a poor job’ representing the American people.” 

And if the American people would consider a third party, why not a fourth, fifth or tenth?

Something, it seems, has got to give. For the rest of the world that looks to this United States for leadership and inspiration, the idea that we are close to Donald Trump sitting in the White House is indeed scary. But the concept of a United States maintaining a system of government that its citizens don’t have full faith in, in which they feel forced to cast a vote for a candidate who doesn’t truly stand for what they believe in, is more frightening still.