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Beware Presidentialism


If you grew up in the United States and haven’t spent much time examining other countries, it might surprise you to learn that the US is fairly unique in having a presidential, rather than parliamentary, government. Such a system comes with some unique quirks and shortcomings, too.

First, let’s distinguish just what presidential and parliamentary systems are. In a presidential system, the President leads an executive branch and serves as both head of state and head of government. Perhaps most importantly, the President is not accountable to the legislature. Indeed, in the American system, neither branch is accountable to the other except in extreme cases, such as impeachment. Parliamentary systems differ in that most power is concentrated in the lawmaking body of the Parliament, in which there is typically a head of government in the form of a Prime Minister. Presidents may be appointed as heads of state, but usually serve at the discretion of the Parliament. In other words, power flows in one direction, instead of being mutually checked by independent bodies.

From this level, it makes sense why the Framers of the US Constitution wanted such a system. They feared having too much power vested in any one branch of the government, which is why such power was split into executive, legislative, and judicial branches. What they did not foresee was the way the President’s role would expand, and the extent to which Congressional and even judicial dysfunction would leave the executive as the most powerful branch.

On this topic, Juan Linz’s Perils of Presidentialism remains the gold standard. It is worth reading in its entirety. Linz points out what makes the President, as a one-person institution, so powerful:

Two things about presidential government stand out. The first is the president's strong claim to democratic, even plebiscitarian, legitimacy; the second is his fixed term in office. Both of these statements stand in need of qualification. Some presidents gain office with a smaller proportion of the popular vote than many premiers who head minority cabinets, although voters may see the latter as more weakly legitimated. To mention just one example, Salvador Allende's election as president of Chile in 197&he had a 36.2-percent plurality obtained by a heterogeneous coalition--certainly put him in a position very different from that in which Adolfo Suirez of Spain found himself in 1979 when he became prime minister after receiving 35.1 percent of the vote. As we will see, Allende received a six-year mandate for controlling the government even with much less than a majority of the popular vote, while Suirez, with a plurality of roughly the same size, found it necessary to work with other parties to sustain a minority government. Following British political thinker Walter Bagehot, we might say that a presidential system endows the incumbent with both the "ceremonial" functions of a head of state and the "effective" functions of a chief executive, thus creating an aura, a self-image, and a set of popular expectations which are all quite different from those associated with a prime minister, no matter how popular he may be.

It’s one thing for a political party or group of parties constituting a legislature to make a claim for a mandate. It’s quite another for a President–a single person–to have such a mandate. Parties may bicker over just who, within the party, actually possesses the mandate. The Prime Minister may say it’s theirs, and that’s a fair statement, but it’s only effective if the rest of the party or coalition goes along. A President needs no such cooperation from an administration–the President’s word goes. Of course, if a President adheres to one ideology and the controlling majority in the legislature adheres to another, who has the mandate then? Who truly represents the will of the people?

In 2010, when Republicans swept Congress, it had the effect of saying that Americans want divided government, as we quite often do. And it’s not clear whether “divided government” is supposed to mean two parties that must find a way to work together, or a permanent state of gridlock. In practice, it is mostly the latter, and there are certainly those who are voting for such a state of affairs. Republicans have campaigned for decades on a concept of small government, but until the rise of the conservative faction, there was no serious push for the virtual elimination of federal power, and until relatively recently, not getting one’s way in Congress did not mean a complete shutdown in legislative functions. But with the shutdowns of the 1990s and, more recently, Republican intransigence toward the Obama administration, an ineffective legislature has been a more frequent occurrence. This has left the executive to exert more control, and Congress is unable to do much about it because they can’t agree on anything.

This problem doesn’t only emerge when the government is divided, though. Congress can also hand the President too much power, and then has little recourse for clawing it back. George W Bush was given tremendous new powers in the aftermath of the 911 attacks. Over time, some of those powers were rescinded, but the security and surveillance apparatus set up under his administration persist and are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Congress can hardly agree on what to do about it, either, and there is much less precedent for taking power from a President than for giving power to one. Congress is ineffective in the face of a powerful President, either way: they can only constrain a President’s power if they agree, and agree on exactly how to do so. Barring such consensus, the executive will continue to operate as they choose.

One instance where such divided government in a presidential system falls in favor of the legislature, however, is when it comes to appointments made by a President but which must be confirmed by the legislature. While it is rarely called one, the US is currently facing a Constitutional crisis over just such an issue. Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia has left a vacancy on the Supreme Court, it fell upon President Obama to appoint replacement, and he did so: Merrick Garland. But it has now been months since that appointment, and the Republican-controlled Congress has refused to even consider his nomination, instead wanting to wait until after the November elections. This is a dangerous precedent, but one that arises easily from a government system in which multiple branches have claims of democratic legitimacy.

This is not to say that parliamentary systems are magically better. They are different, and power is distributed such that no one individual can easily impair the functioning of the government. However, they can be more responsive to the desires of the people, since they do not have to be in contention with a single powerful individual who has an equally strong claim to democratic legitimacy. And there are yet other systems which are semi-presidential in nature, such as France. There’s a lot of variety out there, and how well a specific form of government functions may have more to do with cultural factors and other issues than anything particular to the government style. Even so, there is always room for improvement, and the US is hardly serving as a model of well-functioning democracy these days.

On the other hand, Belgium went almost two years without an elected government not that long ago. Americans are, by contrast, nothing if not timely about our election results. We’ll almost certainly know who our new President will be before midnight on November 8.

Photo by JBrazito