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The Perils of Presidentialism, in Action
October 2, 2013 10:48 AM   Subscribe

Political theorist Juan Linz died Tuesday at the age of 86. His work focused on comparative government, including studies on totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Linz was also a prominent critic of the presidential system of government used in the United States and in much of Latin America. In his essay, "The Perils of Presidentialism" (later expanded into book form as The Failure of Presidential Democracy), Linz argued that presidential systems are inherently unstable, as they invariably lead to standoffs between the president and the legislature, each with competing claims to legitimacy. Thus, as in many Latin American countries, presidential systems frequently collapse, and often are replaced with dictatorships. The one exception to that pattern has been the United States--at least until recently. In an interview in January of this year, Linz argued that the US was succumbing to the same dysfunction as other presidential regimes. In Slate, Matthew Yglesias commemorates Linz by warning that the American system of government may be doomed to an endless cycle of crisis and constitutional disintegration, as evidenced by the government shutdown. Dylan Matthews concurs, arguing that the shutdown is "James Madison's fault."
posted by Cash4Lead (72 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Our troubles go back to 1789; the greatest mistake George Washington made was not allowing himself to be made President For Life.
posted by Renoroc at 10:51 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Previously.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:12 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Personally, I would welcome a military junta, since it would mean there would be no point to complaining about politics anymore. Then America could find something else to do.
posted by shii at 11:17 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Plus, uniforms.
posted by The Whelk at 11:18 AM on October 2, 2013


The problem with all the talk of structural problems with the republic is: can you imagine the horroshow of a constitutional convention held right now? You try to imagine only the "good" people writing a new constitution but the reality is that it would be the same people who are in power now.

It would look like that session of congress in Idiocracy.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:18 AM on October 2, 2013 [8 favorites]


Our troubles go back to 1789; the greatest mistake George Washington made was not allowing himself to be made President For Life.

I think you meant Prezident 4 Lyfe.
posted by dudemanlives at 11:21 AM on October 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


The problem with all the talk of structural problems with the republic is: can you imagine the horroshow of a constitutional convention held right now? You try to imagine only the "good" people writing a new constitution but the reality is that it would be the same people who are in power now.

Well, I'm not sure how much sense it makes to draft a new system using the old system you're drafting the new system to replace.

Clearly the selection process for convention delegates should involve some sort of Thunderdome-style bloodsport.
posted by Z. Aurelius Fraught at 11:21 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Uh, the US has been one of the most remarkably stable political institutions ever, a shutdown that has lasted so far less than 48 hours does not negate that. Calm down everyone.

And Linz was not primarily a theorist, moreso, he was a comparativist who did a lot of empirical work.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:23 AM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


Cute, Renoroc, but that would only be a good idea for the life of GW (if that); afterwards it would have created a horrible precedent that doomed the US to become a democracy-in-name-only, as are so many countries today.

The Founders knew this; I just read a quote from one of them stating that government that depended on personal greatness in its leaders is doomed to dictatorship.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:23 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


But this isn't a stand off between the legislature and the presidency, it is a stand off between the House of Representatives, controlled by the Republican Party and the Senate, controlled by the Democratic Party. If the president was a Republican, the events going on at the moment would not be that much different. Things are antagonized by the fact that the stand off is over law promoted and defended by the president as necessary, but it is the Senate that is actually refusing to budge on the matter.

If anything, the system is working exactly as its creators intended, with the Senate acting as a cooling buffer to a more radical and active House. The only difference is that for the majority of time, when such problems arose, the members of each house of Congress have been more liable to discuss an actual and equal compromise on the matter. It's when people start opting out of the political framework established by the Constitution that problems arise.
posted by Atreides at 11:28 AM on October 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


Well, I'm not sure how much sense it makes to draft a new system using the old system you're drafting the new system to replace.


Well, that's the point. It's not the system which is threatening to pull it's own plug, it's people... who represent powerful interests in society. And, any change is going to have to be ratified by those powerful interests.

Another way of putting it: imagine a constitutional convention consisting of the Koch brothers, Mayor Bloomberg, Larry Ellison, Karl Icahn, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jack Welch etc...

If you imagine that then you will say to everyone you meet, nope, nothing wrong with the way things are set up, not a damn thing, because you won't be writing the new constitution: it will be those assholes.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:38 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


If anything, the system is working exactly as its creators intended, with the Senate acting as a cooling buffer to a more radical and active House.

Exactly. It's working just fine.

The deeper problem is actually that this "checks and balances" thing was supposed to happen that way all along, with only halting action taken by the federal government; but it did not. It was the periods of one-sided power (one party running Congress and the Executive) or compromise (one of the three political bodies rolling over) that erected large governmental undertakings and projects that must be daily administered by the fourth branch. People become dependent upon those systems and assume a certain degree of government interference in their lives. When those programs are not administered daily, as in a shutdown or whatever it's called, that's when it appears to be problematic.

A "shutdown" shouldn't be that big of a deal; but when the circus closes or the bread doesn't arrive in the mailbox, that's when there's a problem.
posted by resurrexit at 11:57 AM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


Our problems are largely procedural, and procedural problems can be dealt with by people of good faith. Unfortunately, we have been inundated with people in government who don't fucking believe in government. Weasels in the henhouse, as it were. It really is seditious.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:09 PM on October 2, 2013 [8 favorites]


Can we not just copy the parliamentary model we see in Canada and the UK? The powers of the president transfer to the leader of the House, the office of the President is dissolved, business moves forward.

Oh wait, I forgot that we've been cheating with the district maps for a generation or five. Well, I guess we'd have to redraw those with some kind of impossible-to-imagine and rather unbiased computer program first.
posted by Slackermagee at 12:16 PM on October 2, 2013


The problem with all the talk of structural problems with the republic is: can you imagine the horroshow of a constitutional convention held right now? You try to imagine only the "good" people writing a new constitution but the reality is that it would be the same people who are in power now.

Yeah. Those in power, or who wished to remain in power, would write rules that assured their primacy. The lower classes either would be ignored, or relegated by statute to various realms of disenfranchisement. What a mess that would be. Then we'd have make some Amendments that try to address that situation, which would definitely piss some people off, maybe even cause a Civil War, with residual affects that lasted for scores of decades, which, in the end, would assure the survival of "the system." We sure wouldn't want to go through that mess (again), would we?

Didn't Kurt Gödel try to point this out when he was studying for his citizenship exams?

Anyhow, the interesting part is not the system's inherent weakness, but why it's lasted as long as it has. I say it's because our personal freedoms are of no real consequence. They are a pleasant fiction--a façade--which are allowed to exist only to the extent that they don't interfere with the trickling up of wealth to the empowered.

Our system depends on the good will of the actors. It contains no provision for hubris. It isolates the actors from their constituency, and creates rules to elevate them from the laws that govern the rest of us. We base our well-being on an economic theory that places avarice and continual growth above all else. What could go wrong with that?
posted by mule98J at 12:16 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Most Americans seem able to hold two simultaneous and incompatible sets of beliefs about the federal government: that they are the beneficiaries of an exquisite implementation of late-18th-century political philosophy on the nature of the republic, and that they live in an elected monarchy with prerogative powers similar to those of an 18th-century British monarch. In practice, that seems to work like F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous line, rather than Orwellian doublethink. At least for now.

I think James Fallows' reflection (based on a longer piece) carries weight: the US remains rich enough and has enough slack to cope with government punctuated by the political equivalent of frequent grand mal seizures. That does not hold true in perpetuity.
posted by holgate at 12:17 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


People become dependent upon those systems and assume a certain degree of government interference in their lives.

If you call sensibly administered socialized health care "interference" I suppose your argument is plausible (In the words of Ralph Wiggum, "Oh Canada...")

But this isn't a stand off between the legislature and the presidency, it is a stand off between the House of Representatives, controlled by the Republican Party and the Senate

Having a divided legislature is an additional bug. What we're seeing now in the United States is a good argument that Hobbes was right about the dangers of non-unicameral government. Sooner or later you get constitutional crises like the one you have now.

can you imagine the horrorshow of a constitutional convention held right now?

At this point your best hope of getting a proper unicameral Parliament and up and running is to let the British run your country for a decade or two.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:17 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, I guess we'd have to redraw [district maps] with some kind of impossible-to-imagine and rather unbiased computer program first.

Iowa seems to have managed it.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:28 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


California's redistricting also seems to have worked fairly well after decades of stultifying incumbency.

And there's no reason why the same GIS tools that currently gerrymander districts down to the block level can't be used to draft coherent, compact boundaries within the same kind of open process that California put in place.
posted by holgate at 12:34 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


California too.
posted by mullingitover at 12:34 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Uh, the US has been one of the most remarkably stable political institutions ever, a shutdown that has lasted so far less than 48 hours does not negate that. Calm down everyone.

Not as stable for as long as Westminster-style parliamentary democracies.

Looking from the outside, your system of federal government looks dysfunctional. I guess we will see how things turn out a year from now in the mid-term elections. Will Tea Partiers be re-elected?

I suppose the fact that elections may rectify things indicates the US system works, but playing chicken with the debt ceiling is just wrong and points to a lack of fundamental ethics or sense of responsibility.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:43 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Shortest split-line method. Pretty simple stuff, actually.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:49 PM on October 2, 2013


The deeper problem is actually that this "checks and balances" thing was supposed to happen that way all along, with only halting action taken by the federal government; but it did not.

That POV might make sense if this were a standoff over one of those long established checks and balances, but this is not that kind of a stand off. And it's not really true that every single function of our system was supposed to be wastefully inefficient and have the potential to destroy the good faith and credit of the US as a sovereign nation.

People have this notion nowadays that the legislative system itself was designed to be confrontational and adversarial, but no, that's not actually true. Our judiciary is the only branch of government designed to work as an explicitly adversarial system. The legislative process is supposed to be collegial and compromise-driven, but most importantly reflect the will of the people.

This standoff is about honoring existing financial commitments of the Federal government that were already made through the regular, lawful operation of the legislative process. The history of this debt limit thing makes it pretty clear it only came about as a procedural fluke and certainly was never intended to be one of the system's checks and balances.

The system is not supposed to be and cannot functionally be a belligerent fight to the death over every trivial process and procedure. This is supposed to be the routine legislative stuff that makes up congress noncontroversial busywork. I think this comment is completely off the mark.

The only factors that ever made our system work in the past are the good faith and commitment to serve the public interest of our elected reps and the fellow-feeling and civic responsibility of the American people. We don't have enough of those things anymore for our system to work. No matter how good a formal system is, it can always be gamed by bad faith actors. We now live in the age of system gaming, so it should come as no surprise our system's being corrupted by bad faith actors intent on gaming it as well.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:50 PM on October 2, 2013 [19 favorites]


People become dependent upon those systems and assume a certain degree of government interference in their lives. When those programs are not administered daily, as in a shutdown or whatever it's called, that's when it appears to be problematic.

This sounds like it's just a nicer way of blaming all problems on the 47%/moochers/looters/etc. And yet, most of the countries with much higher levels of government involvement don't have these problems.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:51 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


KokuRy: Looking from the outside, your system of federal government looks dysfunctional. I guess we will see how things turn out a year from now in the mid-term elections. Will Tea Partiers be re-elected?

This has nothing to do with the Presidential system, and everything to do with districts so gerrymandered, Congressmen can primarily service interests rather than communities. Another factor is that many people here are actually that conservative.

Not as stable for as long as Westminster-style parliamentary democracies.

Which ones? I don't think you can say Canada had an independent government before 1789, and I don't think you can Canada or Great Britain were democracies before 1789.

Of course, you could pretty easily argue that the United States was not a democracy before the Jacksonian reforms of the 1830s, and, of course, there had to be massive reforms of enfranchisement in the 1860s, 1920s and 1960s. So "stable" and "democracy" could be up for debate in both cases.

There really aren't a lot of case studies here, and I think when you can really start comparing them is pretty murky. I think Latin America has its own history and context that doesn't match up with the American experience. All in all, I think the jury is still out.
posted by spaltavian at 12:53 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


and I don't think you can Canada or Great Britain were democracies before 1789.

In the same vein, you can't say the US was a democracy until the end of slavery (or perhaps the end of Jim Crow).
posted by KokuRyu at 1:02 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


At this point your best hope of getting a proper unicameral Parliament and up and running is to let the British run your country for a decade or two.

At this point, the people who run Britain probably think that the House of Commons was a bad idea.

Of course, you could pretty easily argue that the United States was not a democracy before the Jacksonian reforms of the 1830s, and, of course, there had to be massive reforms of enfranchisement in the 1860s, 1920s and 1960s. So "stable" and "democracy" could be up for debate in both cases.

and then there is the argument that the US is constitutionally not a democracy, but only started looking a little like one after universal sufferage and the great labor struggles of the early 20th century along with beginning to take the bill of rights seriously, which only really happened in the second half of the 20th century.

The assumption 'democracy' embedded in the assumption of the 'success of the western democracies' is not a universal opinion.
posted by ennui.bz at 1:05 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


The only factors that ever made our system work in the past are the good faith and commitment to serve the public interest of our elected reps

The US constitution is supposed to provide "a government of laws and not of men." (Adams)

One of the features of a Westminster style government is that when the legislature gets deadlocked to the point where a budget can't be passed it automatically triggers an election. Hostage taking is impossible even if some members of parliament are acting in bad faith.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:07 PM on October 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


In the same vein, you can't say the US was a democracy until the end of slavery (or perhaps the end of Jim Crow).


The beginning of women's Sufferage is where I'd put the finish line for "true democracy" - the end of Jim Crow was another big step, as will be the re-enfranchisement of the convicted. The US is very imperfect, but it started from the muck and mire of monarchy and aristocratic/theocratic oligarchy - less than nothing - and has been refining itself into that More Perfect Union ever since. We'll get through this rough patch fairly easily, all things considered - it ain't no Dorr's Rebellion.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:11 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


KokuRyu: and I don't think you can Canada or Great Britain were democracies before 1789.

In the same vein, you can't say the US was a democracy until the end of slavery (or perhaps the end of Jim Crow).


I'm sorry if it wasn't clear, but that's what I was referring to when I said:

Of course, you could pretty easily argue that the United States was not a democracy before the Jacksonian reforms of the 1830s, and, of course, there had to be massive reforms of enfranchisement in the 1860s, 1920s and 1960s. So "stable" and "democracy" could be up for debate in both cases.

That Jacksonian reforms are when requirements to own property to vote were largely overturned, the 1860s saw the end of slavery, 1920 saw women's suffrage (ahead of the UK), and the 1960s saw the end of Jim Crow.
posted by spaltavian at 1:15 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


The US constitution is supposed to provide "a government of laws and not of men." (Adams)

It's also supposed to be a government by and for the people.

The original idea behind the "laws not men" idea was that the economically and socially powerful shouldn't be able to bend the law to their will (so for example, that powerful plantation owner now gets charged with murder when he commits it, as opposed to pinning the blame on and sacrificing one of his slaves or some random powerless person; favoritism and deference to high birth used to be really common in the older legal systems we were escaping). We're not exactly living up to that ideal anymore either.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:16 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Nonconstitutional democracies are, of course, more subject to tyranny of the majority, however.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:18 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of the features of a Westminster style government is that when the legislature gets deadlocked to the point where a budget can't be passed it automatically triggers an election. Hostage taking is impossible even if some members of parliament are acting in bad faith.

This is the problem. The US constitution doesn't have an escape clause for when there's a high level of conflict between the President and Congress, or within Congress. Yes, yes, "ambition must be made to check against ambition," but Madison was referring more to petty corruption than the kind of ideological fervor we're getting from the House GOP these days. This is one of those areas where the normally hard-headed Framers resorted to magical thinking: No, ideologically coherent political parties won't arise, because freedom!

Note that you don't necessarily need a parliamentary system to get around this problem. Even semipresidential systems like France allow for elections to be called in the event of a budget impasse.
posted by Cash4Lead at 1:21 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm sorry if it wasn't clear, but that's what I was referring to when I said:

I thought it was funny to hear someone call the American system the oldest and most stable democratic system in the world (1789 was referenced upthread) when it is not the case.

The contemporary Westminster system and the American system are about the same age, are about as stable (no civil wars in Britain, Canada or Aus, though), with about the same outcome, although when a supply bill gets defeated (like on Monday) it just results in an election, instead of a game of chicken.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:21 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


This text from one of the linked essays is amazing:

"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 parliamenta~ 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."

The problem with a presidential system is that the victor--even with only a plurality of the vote--assumes an absolutely mandate to govern...unilaterally. The opposition then rallies and takes over the legislature in the following election, where they attempt to govern unilaterally. That's why we have the permanent election cycle we're in now: each election is just a setup for the arguments that lead the defeated party on to the next election.

He is arguing that a presidential system seems to give the mandate to govern, whereas the parliamentary system simply gives the mandate to spearhead the construction of a coalition, complete with inherently necessary cooperation.

The premise of the argument, at least, is terribly interesting...
posted by jefficator at 1:23 PM on October 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


30 countries have borrowed our constitutional design. All 30 of them have had constitutional crises. This is not an accident.

Arguably, we have already had one crisis, in the Civil War. But it's not a stable design, and the things that stabilize it are the non- democratic parts: party bosses making deals for earmarks in smoke-filled rooms.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:30 PM on October 2, 2013 [15 favorites]


KokuRyu, I agree with your last post. They how about the same age, and it's difficult to compare them because of the factors I cited: it's hard to say when they became democracies, because both slowly evolved over the same hundred year span. Not to belabor the point, but your initial response was "not as stable for as long as Westminster-style parliamentary democracies". I thought you were saying affirmatively that the Westminster system has been stable and democratic for longer.

(no civil wars in Britain)

They just had theirs in the 17th century. I think you could also probably say Ireland was at least as bad a policy failure as the American Civil war.

anotherpanacea: 30 countries have borrowed out constitutional design. All 30 of them have had constitutional crises. This is not an accident.

None of those nations had the structual advantages of any state in the Anglosphere, and most (all?) were dealing with a legacy of colonization that was starkly different from the American, Canadian or Australian experiences.

You can't make an apples to apples comparison.
posted by spaltavian at 1:34 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


jefficator: The problem with a presidential system is that the victor--even with only a plurality of the vote--assumes an absolutely mandate to govern...unilaterally.

But then why hasn't Obama been able to set up the FEMA death camps? In other words, this seems to ignore how easily Congress can ignore this claimed mandate.
posted by spaltavian at 1:36 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


The problem is the system has no checks to prevent deliberate sabotage. If Nixon's paranoid fantasies ever came to pass and some secret movement of communist conspirators ever managed to get elected to office, they could wreck our entire political and governmental system with impunity and there'd be no legal recourse. Even if you personally don't accept the idea that the Tea Party types represent a subversive, anti-government anarchist organization, their example has at least made it plain we'd be up ship's creek if some such organization ever did manage to successfully orchestrate an anti-democratic electoral coup (in other words, if some radical movement did manage to gain control of a branch of our government through election shenanigans, it's pretty clear we'd have no defined, legal or constitutional recourse).

Personally I think adopting some ideas from modern parliamentary systems could be very beneficial. The US isn't as unified culturally and politically as it has historically been. Half the country irrationally hates the other half and refuses to even consider them fellow Americans (as evidenced by cultural phenomena like political bumper stickers that say "Beware of Liberals Pretending to be Real Americans," etc.). Our system, not by design but by historical accident, depends on their being a certain minimal level of cooperation and trust among elected reps and the American people. The idea was that the legislature would use dialectic methods to arrive at the correct solutions to problems (because in the Enlightenment's logically positivist view, the application of careful reasoning should eventually lead to independent truth), not that the legislative process should be an endless battleground for ideological extremists.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:38 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's why we have the permanent election cycle we're in now: each election is just a setup for the arguments that lead the defeated party on to the next election.

I question the permanency of this cycle, as much of the political drama is driven by demographics that are at this moment, disappearing (if too slowly) over the horizon. What victories the Republican Party has harvested with its successful campaign strategies over the last ten years are also the same strategies which will undermine its future success.
posted by Atreides at 1:40 PM on October 2, 2013


Very interesting! I'm not familiar with Juan Linz but I absolutely need to be! Thank you!
posted by jeffburdges at 2:00 PM on October 2, 2013


None of those nations had the structual advantages of any state in the Anglosphere

That sounds a bit like Bush v. Gore special pleading.

On the other hand, the federation is a model with traction and sticking power, so much so that most federal nations tend to do it a lot better than the US. State government in the US largely offers the worst possible combination of substantial powers and diminished accountability. It is a cesspit.
posted by holgate at 2:02 PM on October 2, 2013


Hrm. Out of all the governments that the US has had a hand in setting up, how many have been republics?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 2:07 PM on October 2, 2013


Even the most generous calculation of the US's "stability" can't possibly give it any credit for anything before 1860. Come on.
posted by gerryblog at 2:15 PM on October 2, 2013


The fact that a nation spread out over a thousand miles, made up of peoples of multiple ethnic/racial and religious backgrounds, managed to hold together from 1789 to 1861, is pretty impressive and/or pretty lucky. Discounting size attributable to imperial/colonial holdings, I'm not sure if there's any comparable nation that succeeded to the degree that the United States did with a similar form of government.
posted by Atreides at 2:54 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, there's Canada and Australia...
posted by KokuRyu at 3:00 PM on October 2, 2013


Under the control of Britain? What was the autonomy status of those territories in that time period?
posted by Atreides at 3:06 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Uh, the US has been one of the most remarkably stable political institutions ever, a shutdown that has lasted so far less than 48 hours does not negate that. Calm down everyone.

But we've only had ideologically sorted parties for a couple decades.

Here's what Linz wrote in 1990:
the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States . . . [a]side from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continuity under presidential government—but Chilean democracy broke down in the 1970s. … in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. … One might argue that the United States has successfully rendered such conflicts “normal” and thus defused them. … the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties … has something to do with it.
As I pointed out in that last thread, "with the end of the consensus on white supremacy, the two parties are now polarized, and the Republicans in particular behave like a parliamentary party. I think it's important to note that the GOP's behavior is entirely in bad faith."

If anything, the system is working exactly as its creators intended, with the Senate acting as a cooling buffer to a more radical and active House.

This is not the case.

That logic applies to the normal passage of bills. But in the current shutdown, we have one (faction of a) party controlling one house of Congress, holding up the functioning of government unless everyone else agrees to "defund" a law they don't like. But we have preexisting rules on how a bill becomes a law (or, equivalently, how to repeal a law). This is a new kind of brinkmanship.

The debt ceiling is even worse-- and Paul Ryan is claiming he's going to take hostages.

We are in a dangerous spot. We lack the economic crisis and outside meddling of early 1970s Chile, so I am not expecting tanks rolling down the streets. But this is not how the system is designed to work, and the experience of everyone else with a system like ours is that it doesn't work. Interesting times.
posted by ibmcginty at 3:11 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm curious what Juan Linz says about local governments, ala Mayors, Governors, etc.

Mayor Bloomberg Uses Private Email To Avoid FOI Requests; Has No Plans To Retain Archive Of Office, NYPD Emails
posted by jeffburdges at 3:29 PM on October 2, 2013


the US has been one of the most remarkably stable political institutions ever

The US has only been around for about 225 years. This is nothing compared to, say That's just off the top of my head. In important ways the US is running unpatched Democracy 1.0, in a heavily firewalled mode that keeps it from being updated. Parliamentary systems were deliberately designed to prevent the kind of crises that have disruped US style democracies. But there is no clearly reliable path for us to get from the current trainwreck to something more sensible.
posted by localroger at 3:44 PM on October 2, 2013 [8 favorites]


In important ways the US is running unpatched Democracy 1.0, in a heavily firewalled mode that keeps it from being updated.

Yeah, I was thinking about Joel Spolsky's old piece on rewrites.

One of the more interesting things about Canada and Australia is that you can't pin down "independence" to a particular date or action, but you can say that at one time they definitely weren't independent and at a later time they definitely were. In programmatic terms, residual powers get deprecated, are no longer used, and eventually get written out of the constitutional codebase.

The US, on the other hand, has all sorts of kruft. The amendment process is basically at wontfix these days; the impeachment process has been given a couple of tests but never actually used.
posted by holgate at 4:05 PM on October 2, 2013


One of the more interesting things about Canada and Australia is that you can't pin down "independence" to a particular date or action,

Actually in Canada we identify the Byng-King Crisis and Balfour Declaration in 1926 as the watershed of our independence from Britain (we also insisted on signing the Treaty of Versailles separate from Britain). The events of 1926 led to the Statute of Westminster, which formalized our independence.

Kind of boring, like most of our history, although we throw up (almost in a literal sense) a referendum on Quebec independence and related constitutional crises every once in a while.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:18 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


The events of 1926 led to the Statute of Westminster, which formalized our independence.

Patriation wasn't just performance art.
posted by holgate at 5:30 PM on October 2, 2013


Even the most generous calculation of the US's "stability" can't possibly give it any credit for anything before 1860. Come on.

Rebellions happen. The Civil War was a bad one... that failed completely to interrupt or alter the political system, and instead strengthened it considerably. We've had armed rebellions since then, too, albeit nowhere near the same scale, save for perhaps the Moro rebellion after the Spanish -American war.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:56 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Civil War was a bad one... that failed completely to interrupt or alter the political system, and instead strengthened it considerably.

Arguable. One could say that, prior to the civil war, there was at least a fiction that the United States consisted of sovereign states united voluntarily for the common good. Afterward, the ascendancy of the presidency and federal government was obvious.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:07 PM on October 2, 2013


No. This fiction was trotted out only after the slave states had used Federalism as a club to keep the Free States in line, and suddenly found themselves on the wrong end of it after Lincoln's election.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:20 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Rebellions happen. The Civil War was a bad one... that failed completely to interrupt or alter the political system, and instead strengthened it considerably.

I'm not sure that undermines Linz's point. The Civil War was no mere rebellion, but a civil war whose outcome would determine whether the United States would stay a democracy or become a plantation-based slaveocracy. The whole point Linz is trying to make is that presidential democracies have systemically recurring conflicts over legitimacy of rule that eventually ensure that they will not be democracies for much longer. The only reason the United States hasn't already fulfilled what Linz observed in South America is that the Confederacy lost the Civil War.

Chile held the record in Latin America for the longest reign of constitutional democracy in a presidential system (approximately 150 years), but that ended when Pinochet overthrew Allende and established a dictatorship in the 1970s. If you start the clock for presidential democracy in the United States at 1865 when the Civil War was over and add 150 years for Chile's previous record, you get the year 2015, which unfortunately doesn't give me much for the resolution of this shutdown.
posted by jonp72 at 7:30 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


States are still sovereign in a lot of ways, just not in the "I can leave at any time, set up foreign relations, and violate a charter I signed" ways.

I really like federalism, and though we might need to get the balance right, I think it's a great system to use.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 7:31 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: "One of the features of a Westminster style government is that when the legislature gets deadlocked to the point where a budget can't be passed it automatically triggers an election. Hostage taking is impossible even if some members of parliament are acting in bad faith."

I'm not sure that is actually a solution in this case considering at least some of the people getting elected consider a government repeatedly unable to pass a budget coupled with continuous electioneering a big ol' win. Doubly so considering it would advantage the people with deep pockets.
posted by Mitheral at 7:49 PM on October 2, 2013


I used to be a big fan of Federalism, which I first learned about reading from the source materials in the Federalist Papers in AP American Government in high school. In theory, it seemed perfectly workable. But in practice, it seems Federalism opens up too many opportunities for corruption and regulatory arbitrage to yield reliable and stable governance. Federalism in practice creates limits that aren't always practical. I think it's an approach to a difficult problem that hasn't worked as well as hoped in times of shifting cultural expectations.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:53 PM on October 2, 2013


The Civil War was no mere rebellion, but a civil war whose outcome would determine whether the United States would stay a democracy or become a plantation-based slaveocracy.

The Zhou Dynasty had the Spring and Autumn Period, and Rome was wracked by constant civil wars, mutinies and rebellions leading up to and receding from the end of the Republic. (No! I am Spartacus! Let me step over this here Rubicon.) Even the longest lived Egyptian dynasty had a little problem with an existential crisis arising from a religious civil war...

Unlike Chile, the United States came through its existential crisis, one that was deeply meddled with by foreign powers who hoped to overthrow it, not only whole, but stronger in its conception of democratic government. One that slowly, with fits and lurches and horrible backtracking, moves closer every decade to its own mythology and ideals. That is not an inconsiderable achievement.

Modern Parliamentary Democracy as the defining power in a nation is a much, much newer idea, and only gained legitimacy when Victoria deliberately stepped back and let Parliament govern without much Royal interference (to save the monarchy for her idiot kid, and the realm from her idiot kid, who turned out OK once he grew up a bit), and only became the go-to governing system worldwide after the End of Empire post WWII.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:27 PM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


The question you have to ask yourself is whether these periodic constitutional crises are worse than the condition where one party has essentially unchecked power until the next election or motion of no confidence. Ronald Reagan was able to do a fair amount of damage in the U.S., but not nearly as much as his contemporary over in the U.K. was able to do without a Tip O'Neill in her way. I'm not dead set on either being the lesser of the two evils, but the thought of Prime Minister Gingrich or Boehner certainly makes me think that occasionally divided government and a constitutional crisis now and then are things I can live with.

Being a software developer, I quite like localroger's "unpatched Democracy 1.0" formulation, but it's important to note that with legacy code, the answer isn't always to start over from scratch. Sure, you get rid some cruft, but maybe you break some undocumented feature of the existing system you didn't think people were using, and maybe it takes you ten times as much effort to start over than it would to just try to clean the existing code base up.

There are certainly other problems in the U.S. political system that I'd want to tinker with before thinking about abandoning presidentialism. Electoral reforms like preferential voting could at least let third parties into the existing system in a way that's impossible with our first-past-the-post system. Removal of veto points like the filibuster would also reduce the number of deadlocks. I'll admit that the track record for presidential systems is pretty lousy, but I'm not ready to give up on ours just yet.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:06 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


The question you have to ask yourself is whether these periodic constitutional crises are worse than the condition where one party has essentially unchecked power until the next election or motion of no confidence.

One big advantage that makes it pull ahead as a winner, for me at least, is that a party can formulate a cohesive policy, present it to the electorate, and then implement it. It side-steps the ossification present in the US system, it diffuses the lobbyists and special interests to some extent. Things can get done - and sometimes that's just important. Damage can be done too, sure, as we're discovering right now in Australia. But you know who's doing the damage, and the opposition party can promise to correct it, and actually stand a chance of doing so. The government can govern and respond to crises.
posted by Jimbob at 2:06 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu,

You wrote: I thought it was funny to hear someone call the American system the oldest and most stable democratic system in the world (1789 was referenced upthread) when it is not the case.

That never happened. What I had said was: the US has been one of the most remarkably stable political institutions ever,
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:26 AM on October 3, 2013


holgate: None of those nations had the structual advantages of any state in the Anglosphere

That sounds a bit like Bush v. Gore special pleading.


I have no idea what this means.
posted by spaltavian at 6:59 AM on October 3, 2013


“I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”
― James Madison

the impeachment process has been given a couple of tests but never actually used.

Replace the subject matter with say... the A-bomb and you have a splendid argument rather like the Mack and it's comportability.
posted by clavdivs at 8:28 AM on October 3, 2013


Chile held the record in Latin America for the longest reign of constitutional democracy in a presidential system (approximately 150 years), but that ended when Pinochet overthrew Allende and established a dictatorship in the 1970s.

I'm not so sure about that.
posted by snottydick at 8:46 AM on October 3, 2013


I have no idea what this means.

"Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances."

It's a bit sketchy to argue that the long history of strong-presidential systems going tits-up can be qualified by 'Anglosphere structural advantages'. What you're actually saying, since you don't have any other Anglosphere presidential systems to add to the sample, is that the US is the specific anomaly here.

Replace the subject matter with say... the A-bomb

Ah, clav, clav: the idea of impeachment as a 'nuclear option' is mainly a consequence of time and lack of use. The intention was to set a high threshold, not an unreachable one. The whole point of the impeachment clause was to create a constitutional method to deal with political malfeasance. Instead, if a president finally does end up getting impeached, it will be treated as a coup.
posted by holgate at 9:02 AM on October 3, 2013


.

Juan Linz was a giant in the field of political science and subfield of comparative politics. His research on political institutions (in both democracies and non-democracies) as well as on the democratization process is included in many, many undergraduate survey courses.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 9:30 AM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Important questions :

What does this say about local executives like city governors and city mayors? I suppose they're less dangerous without a military backing them, although NYC mayors have become bad news :

Mayor Bloomberg Uses Private Email To Avoid FOI Requests; Has No Plans To Retain Archive Of Office, NYPD Emails

Is there evidence here that we should extrapolate further by developing completely non-monolithic governments? We could for example have a senate with the power to control taxation and adjust the charters of agencies and limited parlements, but forbid the senate from legislating anything beyond simply assigning powers in charters. All actual legislation would be done by the limited parlements, who only control a few agencies. So you'd have a Parlement of Justice, Parlement of Energy, etc. that oversaw different agencies. Just gives voters more control over who governs what agencies.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:49 AM on October 4, 2013


holgate: It's a bit sketchy to argue that the long history of strong-presidential systems going tits-up can be qualified by 'Anglosphere structural advantages'.

Not really what I said. What's sketchy is to compare, say, a Latin American country with Britain and argue the difference is the presidential system versus the parlimentary system. You need to compare nations that are otherwise fairly similar if you want to achieve any fair comparison.

Is it really "sketchy" to point out that, other than the presidential system, these nations also share economic disadvantage, historical legacy of imperial domination, and underdeveloped infrastructure, eductaional system, and native democratic institutions? Would you compare Nikes and Reebok by giving one to Usian Bolt and the other to a guy with a limp?

Latin America tended to model its institutions on the United States. There was proximity, historical reasons and intentional American influence and pressure. Other nations reaching independence in the 20th century tended to be influenced by the United States because it was the dominant power. Do you have any reason to think these nations would have been better off with a parlimentary system? Any more resistant to military coups? Any more resistant to imperial meddling?
posted by spaltavian at 5:16 AM on October 4, 2013


The Shutdown Prophet, Jonathan Chait, New York, 4 October 2013
posted by ob1quixote at 6:23 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


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