Juan Linz is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Social and Political Science at Yale University, where he holds appointments in the departments of sociology and political science. He is famous for his work comparing styles of authoritarian and totalitarian governance, and, since the Cold War, his argument in pieces like “The Perils of Presidentialism” that presidential democracies are inherently less stable than their parliamentary peers, and particularly prone to devolve into dictatorships. The United States has long been the exception to that pattern, but with a new debt or budget crisis every few months, that could be changing. I spoke to Linz on Friday; a lightly edited transcript follows.
Dylan Matthews: When you wrote “The Perils of Presidentialism,” the United States was the exception to the rule. But do you think your critique of presidential systems is starting to apply here as well?
Juan Linz: What I say in my essay is applicable to the United States. I initially thought the United States was escaping the problem, because of the lack of discipline in the parties, and the relatively good relationships among the legislators. Obviously things have been changing, but I think there are some structural factors that make it particularly dangerous in the United States. Most notable are the midterm elections, which divide the presidential mandate into two periods.
Furthermore, I think there have been some changes in the parties. The degree to which the coattails of the presidents carry the party are more limited, and the influence of the president on the congressional party is more limited. It is more dependent on outside grassroots than on the internal working of the legislature. All the Washington bashing says “the problem is Washington.” That is not very helpful in solving problems with legislators.
The structural problems are not the ones I propose in my book. Initially it was much less severe. When I published my book ["The Failure of Presidential Democracy"] in Spain, the cover there was the White House and I said I’d prefer some other presidential palace. But now it’s failed the same way.
I don’t think any of the constitutional aspects can be changed. You see the electoral college and the overrepresentation in the Senate of less populated states, all of that makes it a constitutional matter, and makes political reforms much more difficult.
DM: Do you think sub-constitutional features of the American system, like the filibuster, are contributing to the problem?
JL: Obviously. The president, and the funny thing is that in America, and in presidential systems in general, people expect the president to govern, but the president in fact has a limited power to govern. He has to get his team together in many aspects of policy. He comes immediately, very soon to campaign in the Congressional midterms. If he doesn’t win, he risks losing support in the House. And then comes the second term, where he begins to be something of a lame duck. And at the end there’s a year-long process of primaries and competition for becoming the next president. The timing you have to really effectively govern is very limited.
He cannot delegate more responsibilities on the cabinet members. There was an article I saw about making the cabinet more important, but that is also difficult. It is not a coalition, a party coalition as in Europe or parliamentary system, where the cabinet is from the ruling coalition in the legislature.
In the U.S., everything used to be easy, so that it could afford to deal with some misgovernment, to some extent. I don’t see it being that easy to reform. If you cut down on some of the enormous electioneering maybe, along with this stupid idea of demanding a commitment of legislators when they don’t know what they’ll do in the future. It’s like we’re in Poland of the 18th century, when the legislators were dependent on the commitments they made and not the needs of the party.
I wish there were more responsible government, people deciding what they’ll do after they’re elected. I think that the idea that a leader commits himself to the voters and he does what they say is, in principle it sounds good, but it becomes very dysfunctional at times.
DM: Most other presidential systems have collapsed into dictatorships at one point or another. If you had to hazard a guess, do you think that’s in our future?
JL: I don’t know. I think there’s still enough political wisdom in this country to avoid it, but obviously in many countries in Latin America and other parts of the world a crisis like the debt ceiling would easily lead to a military coup. Look at the enormous amount of effort to renominate President Chavez in Venezuela. So in some ways authoritarian solutions, or giving exceptional powers to the president, are one way of solving these problems, but they’re not a very healthy one either.
DM: Is that more of a risk in less economically developed countries, with a smaller and less influential middle class?
JL: Argentina was not underdeveloped. The middle class wasn’t underdeveloped and it’s had both presidential authoritarianism and military authoritarianism. I don’t know that we should attribute everything to underdevelopment.
DM: You say you’re pessimistic about structural changes that can fix the American system’s defects. Do you think a cultural shift to make the current system more workable is possible?
JL: I don’t know. I think that people behave in part in response to the opportunities that the institutions give them to behave. You wouldn’t have to delay key appointments in the administration if there were not the principle that even a single vote against it eliminates the speedier ways of approval. Those are institutional structures, they’re norms and they’re practices. Individuals do what they do because they have the opportunity to do so. It’s not just personalities.
Look at the way that primaries encourage certain people to run who otherwise wouldn’t be in the running, to get into a position of prestige. The politicians know each other and sometimes make a better selection than the electorate can do itself. But you have an electorate that is dependent on campaigning, which costs a large amount of money and helps monied actors.
DM: So you think campaign finance reform could make a difference?
JL: Obviously the Supreme Court is going to be not that eager to change its decisions on balancing social needs and speech concerns, its decisions that have made possible the way it is now. Maybe if the legislatures would agree, all of them, something could happen, but it would have to be a bipartisan effort to regulate it. I don’t think the party that has plenty of support from business would do it. I don’t easily see a reform of that.
You could probably do reforms in the sense of limiting the time of campaigning, that of course starts much later, and a limited amount of campaign activity maybe just before the election, things like that which would contain some of the excesses of the system.
DM: But banning campaigning before, say, September seems to raise speech concerns too.
JL: I think that some of the principles can be perfectly maintained as they are, but with some cutting out of the borders which would not affect the substance. To have a day or two of silence before the election would not limit the freedom of expression. There are things that ought to limit the time the campaign can get going, the collecting of money for the campaign. I don’t think it will affect freedom that much. It’s only a matter of interpretation, unfortunately, and the interpretation is in various states.
It is a system with so many veto points. The filibuster, the presidential veto, and so on. The system is weighted, presumably, to limit power, but in a modern society sometimes you need power to do things and if you don’t have power you don’t get things done, and that means you get set back compared to countries that can get things done. And those countries don’t necessarily get things done undemocratically.
DM: This is why a lot of people think China and India are gaining an advantage, compared to the U.S., no?
JL: But China doesn’t have any channels for the discontent which the changes are causing and it’s causing anger that’s unbelievable, and the disconnect between the rhetoric and the realities might explode in time. It’s less of a stable system than some people think. I don’t think it’ll evolve that easily into a liberal system, in the political sphere.
India will have more trouble here or there, but is an infinitely more flexible system that can channel or respond to crises in a way that is less dangerous for the system than in China. I don’t know if I would bet on India so much on the economy, but I would bet more on the political system of India than the political system of China.
DM: When one touts parliamentarism in the United States, the response is often, “Well Europe has parliaments, see how well they’re doing!” Is there any truth to that?
JL: The level of general welfare for everybody there, the health statistics and stuff like that, is much better than the U.S. In, for example, the UK, there’s considerably more equality of opportunity and better living standards and public services for the population as a whole. I think that the European welfare state has been reduced or stopped somewhat in its course but is there still for everybody, and will be there. I think that’s the fundamental difference between the U.S. and Europe. In that sense I don’t think they’re doing that badly.
DM: You’re pessimistic about serious reforms to the U.S. system, but are there some smaller bore reforms you could see happening?
JL: Certainly for blockage of decision-making, I think one of a few things may happen. Some form of proportional representation in the electoral college, for some states at least, could happen. But, for instance, the equality in the Senate will obviously not be changed. That’s from the Founding Fathers. That’s a compromise to make the states possible. There are certain things that are very difficult to change since you need almost unanimity. And sometimes you need to do things without unanimity.