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Richard Johnson

June 7th, 2024

The 2024 Elections: As UK politics appears more presidential, US politics has become more parliamentary

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Richard Johnson

June 7th, 2024

The 2024 Elections: As UK politics appears more presidential, US politics has become more parliamentary

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

As both the UK and US head toward national elections, Richard Johnson looks at how politics in the UK have – at least by appearance – become more presidential, and in the US, more parliamentary. He writes that while UK party leaders now have a closer personal connection to voters in the way that US presidents have traditionally shown, in the US, the electoral fates of the parties in the legislative and executive branches have become intertwined. In the past, US parties were much more fragmented, and ideologically diverse, but the recent nationalisation of politics means that party ideology and messaging is now much more consistent between states and between state and the national party.

  • This article is part of ‘The 2024 Elections’ series curated by Peter Finn (Kingston University). Ahead of the 2024 election, this series is exploring US elections at the state and national level. If you are interested in contributing to the series, contact Peter Finn ( 

For years, scholars have debated the extent to which British politics has become ‘presidentialised’. Recently, the leader of the UK Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer was charged by the BBC’s Chris Mason with running a ‘presidential’ campaign for the UK’s 2024 general election, having placed himself so centrally in Labour’s election communications.

The presidentialisation thesis has some merits. Notably, British party leaders now have a much more direct connection with ordinary party supporters than historically was the case, thanks to the expansion of the main parties’ leadership franchises. But, overall, the idea of presidentialisation tends to conflate, improperly, a stylistic analysis – the personalisation of British politics – with a constitutional one.

Presidentialisation vs Parliamentarisation

Presidentialism refers to a political system in which the executive and legislative branches have separate mandates, as is the case in the US, with the political survival of one branch not dependent on the survival of the other. It is plausible to construct an argument that British politics has become more presidential if we take, for example, the growing sense of independence that individual MPs feel relative to their party, measured by the rebelliousness of MPs in recent years. But the number of times Keir Starmer or Conservative party leader (and UK Prime Minister) Rishi Sunak appear in their parties’ manifestos is not an indication of the presidentialisation of British politics.

Looking across the Atlantic, a reverse process is taking place. The US party system is becoming ‘parliamentarised’, but the US constitution remains presidential. The electoral fates of the parties in the legislative and executive branches are increasingly intertwined. Parties have adopted a ‘government’ and ‘opposition’ mindset. The loose internal bonds of the parties which facilitated collaboration with other parties have tightened internally and hardened externally.

The US political system is famously fragmented by design. The Constitution provides the president and the two chambers of Congress with their own distinctive constituency types. They also operate on their own electoral timetables, with House members, presidents, and senators, looking ahead to re-election at two, four, or six-year intervals respectively.

Partisan sorting 

In many political systems, this amount of fragmentation would make governance extremely difficult, but historically, the US party system was (almost uniquely) well suited to this arrangement. Parties could manage the fragmentation and out-of-sync electoral cycles because they were themselves ideologically flexible, loose coalitions.

Until the twenty-first century, the two main parties were ideologically diverse. Conservatives and liberals could be found within the ranks of both the Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, in the mid-twentieth century, many American political scientists saw parties as largely irrelevant, historical artefacts or ideologically incoherent, mindless electioneering machines.

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Split-ticket voting – where voters opt for candidates from different parties at the presidential and state level – was commonplace. In 1972, on the same day that Republican Richard Nixon won 49 out of 50 states and 60 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election, the Democrats won 52 percent of the vote and 50 more seats that the Republicans in the House of Representatives. In 1984, Minnesota was the only state to vote for Democrat Walter Mondale for president, but on the same day Minnesota voters also elected a Republican to the US Senate by a 17-point margin.

Such varied voting habits are much rarer today. In 2016, every state voted the same way for Senate and the president. In 2020, the same was true in 32 out of 33 Senate elections. Through a combination of conversion and, more significantly, cohort replacement, the Democratic Party has become the choice of virtually all left-of-centre voters, whereas ideological conservatives overwhelmingly vote Republican. The ideological differences among members of the same congressional caucuses are much smaller than the ideological differences between the parties. Partisans in Congress tend to vote together and against the opposing party. This process of alignment of ideology and partisanship is known as partisan ‘sorting’. While obvious and intuitive to voters in parliamentary systems, such an arrangement is relatively novel in US history.

The nationalisation of US politics 

In 1990, sociologist and political scientist Juan Linz posited that one of the reasons why the United States had escaped the kind of democratic breakdown experienced by most other presidential systems was thanks to its peculiar party system. Linz observed that the US political parties were weak, decentralised, and fragmented. Voters had limited attachment to the national party, and state parties were so different that a president could always find some representatives of the opposite party in Congress with whom to forge compromises. Recognising the divergent character of the parties in each state, political scientist Nelson Polsby wrote in The New Federalist Papers in 1997:

‘Variations – sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant – in the fifty political cultures of the states, yield considerable differences overall in what it means to be, or to vote, Democratic or Republican. These differences suggest one may be justified in referring to the American two-party system as masking something like a hundred party system’.

Such differences within the parties are now much harder to find. Partisan sorting is one major reason for this. As political scientists Paul Pierson and Eric Schickler wrote in 2020, fifty years ago a ‘Massachusetts Democrat and an Alabama Democrat might belong to the same formal party organization at the national level, but they need not agree on much of anything when it comes to policy’. Today, Democratic voters in these two states will hold broadly similar ideological positions.

Additionally, local blinkers cannot be maintained easily in the current media environment. Polsby wrote a generation ago, ‘the Georgia Republican Party endeavours to appeal to Georgia Republican voters without making any attempt to coordinate with Republican party leaders in Vermont or Wisconsin (and the same, mutatis mutandis, for the Democrats)’. As local media has died out and media attention has nationalised, it is much harder for parties to maintain one message in one state and a different, possibly incompatible, message in another state.

The federal government has also assumed greater responsibility for a whole raft of policy areas that were once principally left to the states, including civil rights, healthcare, education, the environment, abortion, policing, LGBT rights, and other issues. Collectively, this has become known as the ‘great broadening’. Local policy variation is, therefore, much more difficult. The national line has become the party line in every state, with few exceptions.

Parliamentary parties in a presidential system 

Today, US parties look increasingly parliamentary — ideologically coherent, national parties with identifiable party leaders who hold (or seek) executive power.

With parties now sorted and nationalised, their national leadership has become more relevant. The president operates as the de facto leader of his party and the organising force of opposition for the other party. Supporters of the president’s party, both voters and elected officials, take strong policy signals from the president, which is known as ‘executive-centred partisanship’.

Although there is no institutionalised position of ‘leader of the opposition’, the party that is not in charge of the White House has become much less cooperative with the party of the incumbent presidential administration. The incentives for co-operation have declined. With a finely balanced partisan electorate, the minority party sees its mission within a two-year cycle to undermine the reputation the governing party. The best way to do this is to destabilise Congress and to block its policy agenda. There is not much partisan gain for the minority party in compromising to assist the opposite party. Thus, the minority party is truly an opposition party rather than a co-governing party.

The US party system once seemed unusual, even exceptional, especially to the eyes of those living in parliamentary systems. Today, the dynamics are much more familiar. Yet, the Constitution itself has not changed. The presidential system is ill-equipped to manage this much more ideological and confrontational form of party politics.

About the author

Richard Johnson

Dr Richard Johnson is Senior Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of The End of the Second Reconstruction: Obama, Trump, and the Crisis of Civil Rights. He elaborates this article’s argument in a chapter (‘Midterm Elections and the Modern Presidency: Parliamentary Party Leadership in a Separation of Powers System’) for a new book The Crossroads Elections (edited by Ranata Duda and Maciej Turek).

Posted In: Elections and party politics across the US | The 2024 Elections | Uncategorized

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