Earlier this week, Matthew Yglesias, continuing his longstanding intellectual crush on political scientist Juan Linz and longstanding skepticism about the merits of the American Revolution, wrote a Vox essay modestly titled “American democracy is doomed.” Why? Yglesias argues that presidential systems are more crisis-prone than parliamentary systems:
Linz offered several reasons why presidential systems are so prone to crisis. One particularly important one is the nature of the checks and balances system. Since both the president and the Congress are directly elected by the people, they can both claim to speak for the people. When they have a serious disagreement, according to Linz, “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved.” The constitution offers no help in these cases, he wrote: “the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.”
In a parliamentary system, deadlocks get resolved. A prime minister who lacks the backing of a parliamentary majority is replaced by a new one who has it. If no such majority can be found, a new election is held and the new parliament picks a leader. It can get a little messy for a period of weeks, but there’s simply no possibility of a years-long spell in which the legislative and executive branches glare at each other unproductively.
But within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional trainwreck with no resolution. The United States’s recent government shutdowns and executive action on immigration are small examples of the kind of dynamic that’s led to coups and putsches abroad….
If we seem to be unsustainably lurching from crisis to crisis, it’s because we are unsustainably lurching from crisis to crisis. The breakdown may not be next year or even in the next five years, but over the next 20 or 30 years, will we really be able to resolve every one of these high-stakes showdowns without making any major mistakes? Do you really trust Congress that much?
The best we can hope for is that when the crisis does come, Americans will have the wisdom to do for ourselves what we did in the past for Germany and Japan and put a better system in place.
While the United States has somehow staggered through this political handicap for two centuries, Yglesias posits that rising levels of political polarization are likely to increase constitutional crises and deadlocks akin to the debt-ceiling showdowns and executive actions of recent years.
Certainly, Yglesias is onto something. His argument resonates with public opinion polling that shows an erosion of trust in every public institution except the military. It also resonates with a theme I’ve been harping on here at Spoiler Alerts: Obama’s use of executive action on foreign policy to bypass a truculent Congress, and the congressional response to those executive actions. The erosion of informal American political norms — which helped to ensure that basic government functions happened — is certainly another data point for Yglesias.
That said, the more I think about his argument, however, the sillier it sounds to me. Yglesias embeds three assumptions into his argument that need to be seriously unpacked.
First, Yglesias assumes that continued political polarization is a permanent fact of political life. Now he might be right about that, but I see no reason to take that as a given. The United States has experienced waves of creedal passion, but those waves have also receded. And while polarization has undeniably increased, I still buy Louis Hartz’s observation that there’s a lot more political consensus within the American political spectrum than there is in other advanced industrialized democracies.
Second, Yglesias assumes that there will be continued divided government ad infinitum. For these constitutional crises to happen, different political parties have to control different branches of government. And this has certainly been happening more often than not, recently. But even as political polarization has increased over the past generation of American politics, there have been periods of single-party control of both the legislative and executive branches.
This matters from a constitutional perspective because it permits parties to implement their agendas through legislative as well as executive actions. Indeed, in this way, the rising ideological cohesion of political parties increases the likelihood that such periods of unified government will lead to bursts of active governance. This doesn’t even take into account the ways in which crises like 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis tend to generate greater political action.
Finally, Yglesias assumes that parliamentary systems inherently produce better governance outcomes. Fun exercise: Consider the post-2008 political and economic performance of the advanced industrialized economies. It turns out that, comparatively, if one looks at unemployment, economic growth and deleveraging, the United States has done pretty darned well. Part of that is obviously due to the large American market and structural strengths of the U.S. economy. But part of that is due to the political stability that comes with a presidential system.
Great Britain and most of the eurozone economies have had weak, short-lived governments that have implemented some truly horrendous economic policies. They’ve also seen the rise of extremist parties that are either running actual governments or are poised to do so. This is not a strong advertisement for the parliamentary mode of governance. One can attribute part of this to the peculiarities of the eurozone, but not all of it.
Yglesias wanted to provoke a conversation about the future of American democracy in a polarized country, and I applaud him for it. The problem is that one has to consider the alternatives, and in a world of low growth and multiple parties, the parliamentary system of government can actually be more unstable than the presidential system. So, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, while Yglesias is correct to point out the many flaws of the U.S. system of constitutional government, I’m unconvinced that the alternatives are any better.