The Failure of Presidential Democracy

Reading Juan Linz's Classic Work

Last week, we learned about the crackpot legal justification for overturning the election cooked up by Trump’s legal team. Jamelle Bouie writes of this revelation in the New York Times:

On Jan. 20, Joe Biden became president and Donald Trump slunk off to Mar-a-Lago to lick his wounds. But the country did not actually return to normalcy. Jan. 6 closed the door on one era of American politics and opened the door to another, where constitutional democracy itself is at stake.

And here I think is the key point of Jamelle’s piece: although these desperate expedients “failed to keep Trump in office…they successfully turned the pro forma electoral counting process into an occasion for real political struggle.”

To think about our new era of politics, I decided to take a look at Juan Linz’s classic of comparative political science The Failure of Presidential Democracy and his essay on similar themes “The Perils of Presidentialism.” Linz’s work focused on transitions to democracy and democratic breakdown and his argument is that presidential democracies, like our own, are particularly unstable and prone to breakdown, especially under conditions of extreme polarization. Back in the early 1990s, Linz could write that “with the outstanding exception of the United States, most of the stable democracies of Europe and the Commonwealth have been parliamentary and a few semi-presidential and parliamentary, while most of the countries with presidential constitutions have been unstable democracies or authoritarian regimes…”

What once gave the United States this “exceptional” status? A lack of extreme polarization and a broad national consensus:

In countries where the preponderance of voters is centrist, agrees on the exclusion of extremists, and expects both rightist and leftist candidates to differ only within a larger, moderate consensus, the divisiveness latent in presidential competition is not a serious problem. With an overwhelmingly moderate electorate, anyone who makes alliances or takes positions that seem to incline him to the extremes is unlikely to win, as both Barry Goldwater and George McGovern discovered to their chagrin. But societies beset by grave social and economic problems, divided about recent authoritarian regimes that once enjoyed significant popular support, and in which well-disciplined extremist parties have considerable electoral appeal, do not fit the model presented by the United States.

As Linz hints above, there is also something intrinsically polarizing about presidential elections, with their winner-take-all, plebiscitary nature:

Presidentialism is ineluctably problematic because it operates according to the rule of "winner-take-all-an arrangement that tends to make democratic politics a zero-sum game, with all the potential for conflict such games portend. Although parliamentary elections can produce an absolute majority for a single party, they more often give representation to a number of parties. Power-sharing and coalition-forming are fairly common, and incumbents are accordingly attentive to the demands and interests of even the smaller parties. These parties in turn retain expectations of sharing in power and, therefore, of having a stake in the system as a whole. By contrast, the conviction that he possesses independent authority and a popular mandate is likely to imbue a president with a sense of power and mission, even if the plurality that elected him is a slender one. Given such assumptions about his standing and role, he will find the inevitable opposition to his policies far more irksome and demoralizing than would a prime minister, who knows himself to be but the spokesman for a temporary governing coalition rather than the voice of the nation or the tribune of the people.

Starting to sound a little familiar, huh?

For Linz, the central contradiction of presidential democracy is its sundering of democratic legitimacy into two—the executive and legislative:

The basic characteristic of presidentialism is the full claim to the president, to democratic legitimacy. Very often the claim has strong plebiscitary components although sometimes it is based on fewer popular votes than are received by many prime ministers in parliamentary systems heading minority cabinets that are perceived by contrast as weakly legitimated by electorate…

The most striking fact is that in a presidential system, the legislators, particularly when they represent well-organized, disciplined parties that constitute real ideological and political choices for the voters, also enjoy a democratic legitiamcy, and it is possible that the majority of such a legislature might represent a different political choice from that of the voters supporting a president. Under such circumstances, who, on the basis of democratic principles, is better legitimated to speak in the name of the people: the president, or the congressional majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the vote of people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always latent and sometimes likely to erupt dramatically; there is no democratic principle to resolve it, and the mechanisms that might exist in the constitution are generally complex, highly technical, legalistic, and therefore, of doubtful democratic legitimacy for the electorate. It is therefore no accident that in some of those situations the military intervenes as “poder moderador.”

Linz imagines a scenario in a “developing nation” where the composition of the legislative and the presidential constituencies is quite different. One, say, is based on the traditional elite and “the rural and small towns of the provinces rather than to the metropolises” where “the territorial principle of representation” is “sometimes reinforced by inequalities in districting or the existence of a senate in federal republic,” while the other is lead by “progressive elites” in the cities.

“It is also conceivable that in some societies the president might represent the more traditional or provincial electorates and might use that support to question the right of the more urban and modern segments in a minority to oppose his policies,” Linz continues. “In the absence of any logical principle to define who really has democratic legitimacy, it is tempting to use ideological formulations to legitimize the presidential component of the system and delegitimize those opposing him, transforming what is an institutional conflict into serious political conflicts.” (Emphasis mine.) You’ll notice how strikingly similar that last phrase is to Jamelle’s analysis of the situation in last week’s Times.

We are currently in the midst of an ideological conflict over the legitimacy of various sections of the electorate and their representatives. That is what’s really at stake in all the business about “stolen elections” and less patently aggressive formulations about “liberal elites” and their “underclass” clients, etc. Strangely enough, the ancient, sputtering electoral college system, the cause of so many of our problems, has put the present crisis at a simmer rather than a rolling boil. If Trump were to get an actual electoral majority and face a Democratic congress we could get the kind of explosive situation Linz describes; then, we may fully become one of those “less happy lands” where social and political conflicts “seek their resolution in the streets.” On the other hand, if the ideological delegitimization of the Democrats is successful enough, an actual majority might not even be necessary to create the same explosive situation. Remember, Linz points out that the plebiscitary and tribunal ideological effects of the presidency kick in even with just meager pluralities. After all, the Trumpist coalition has been convincing themselves from the very beginning that they are the “real nation” and their opponents alien interlopers. Anyway, have a nice weekend!