After considerable delay by American standards, the BBC and other major news outlets have finally called the parliamentary election in the United Kingdom. The result: nobody won, which has resulted in what our cousins across the pond call a "hung parliament." The most likely scenario is that David Cameron and Nick Clegg will agree to form a schizophrenic Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, but as the major parties in Britain try to assemble a governing majority, we can learn something about our own political system--and its advantages.
Third parties are not an anomaly in the United States. Rather, we have seen a credible third party presidential challenger every 20-30 years, with astonishingly futile regularity. Third parties do occasionally win Congressional elections, and recently, the trend seems to be increasing, but no third party candidate has ever won the presidency. Thus, even if a situation arose where no party had a majority in Congress, there would at least still be a clear leader. As Hamilton writes in The Federalist number 70 on the composition of the executive branch:
But no favorable circumstances palliate or atone for the disadvantages of dissension in the executive department. Here, they are pure and unmixed. There is no point at which they cease to operate. They serve to embarrass and weaken the execution of the plan or measure to which they relate, from the first step to the final conclusion of it. They constantly counteract those qualities in the Executive which are the most necessary ingredients in its composition, vigor and expedition, and this without any counterbalancing good.In short, the current situation in Britain is an example of the paralysis that arises when the legislative and executive functions are combined. Moreover, with the escalating debt crisis in Europe, the instability and uncertainty of a hung parliament has already caused the pound the fall in relation to the dollar and could cause a total collapse of the British economy if no party is able to form a government for a prolonged time.
Fortunately for America, we almost always have a clear winner for the highest office even when there is no majority in the popular vote. Ironically, while reporting on the instability the election has caused, CNN seems to side with the Liberal Democrats on the issue of proportional representation. Never mind that a proportional system would only exacerbate the problems of forming a ruling majority with three or more parties.
Under the [British election] system, the candidate who receives the most votes in a constituency wins. The system, known as "first past the post," is praised for its simplicity and the strong ties it forms between voters and representatives, but critics dislike its failure to provide proportional representation.Some factions--perhaps including the journalists at CNN--would see us abolish the Electoral College system and instead rely on a nationwide popular vote. However, in a year with a strong third party challenger, this would be disastrous for the nation. In all but a few cases, the Electoral College gives a decisive victory to the candidate with the broadest support across the whole nation, sparing us from a prolonged and painful leadership vacuum.