Poli-Sci: The Perils of Presidentialism

This is a good read. It was written in 1990.

General thesis: Presidential democracies are inherently unstable because they involve two branches of government (legislature and president) that can legitimately claim to represent the will of the people. When opposing political parties occupy these two branches, the competing incentives tend to render government totally dysfunctional. There is only one presidential democracy in the world with a long history of Constitutional continuity: the United States. Linz identifies the diffuse nature of US political parties (as opposed to the ideologically well-sorted parties) as a possible reason for the success of presidential democracy in the United States.

Troubling development: political parties in the United States are no longer diffuse, they have become ideologically well sorted.

I’ll read this in detail later, but I’m curious what people think “failure” of the US’s Presidential Democracy would look like. I can’t imagine how a new constitutional convention could possibly come out of today’s political climate. I don’t know how you’d get people to agree that reforms are even needed (given the veneration of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers), let alone agreeing on the nature of those reforms.

Defaulting on debt based on ideology would be a pretty good harbinger.

I think the filibuster is a bigger problem.

It exacerbates it without a doubt. But given today’s situation it’s irrelevant. We effectively have 3 veto points on almost all govt activity: president, house, Senate. Capturing one is enough to induce dysfunction.

But if it’s feasible to capture 50%+1 of all three by pitching a compelling “the other party has fucked up the country” to the nation, then it seems that it would be a smaller and differently-shaped problem.

Related 1.

This might seem counterintuitive. Didn’t the Republicans win a sweeping victory last year? They did, but it had mostly to do with changes in turnout. Whereas in 2008, conservatives made up 34 percent of those who cast ballots, that number shot up to 42 percent last year. Moderates, on the other hand, made up just 38 percent of those who voted in 2010, down from 44 percent in 2008 (the percentage of liberals was barely changed). The 2010 election was the first since exit polls began in 1976 in which a plurality of the voters said they were conservatives rather than moderates.

This was fortunate for Republicans, because they lost moderate voters to Democrats by 13 percentage points (and liberals by 82 percentage points). Had the ideological composition of the electorate been the same in 2010 as in 2008 or 2006, the Republicans and Democrats would have split the popular vote for the House about evenly — but as it was, Republicans won the popular vote for the House by about 7 percentage points and gained 63 seats.

On one hand, hey, I guess the public is less crazy than I thought. They lost moderates by 13 points! On the other hand, man Republicans are run by crazies.

Related 2.

Let’s start with the claim that independents make up the largest segment of the American electorate. That’s true only if you lump all independents together including those who don’t vote and those who lean toward a party. In 2008, according to the American National Election Study, independents made up 40% of eligible voters but only 33% of those who actually voted. Moreover, of that 33%, only 7% were true independents with no party preference. The other 26% were leaners.

And what about those independent leaners? Fully 87% of them voted for the candidate of the party they leaned toward: 91% of independent Democrats voted for Barack Obama while 82% of independent Republicans voted for John McCain. That 87% rate of loyalty was identical to the 87% loyalty rate of weak party identifiers and exceeded only by the 96% loyalty rate of strong party identifiers.

It’s hardly surprising that the vast majority of independent leaners voted for their party’s presidential candidate in 2008. The evidence from the 2008 ANES in the following chart shows that independent Democrats and Republicans held very different views on major issues — views that were very similar to those of their fellow partisans. Independent Democrats were more liberal than weak Democrats and about as liberal as strong Democrats while independent Republicans were less conservative than strong Republicans but just as conservative as weak Republicans.

It’s interesting to me that “Liberal Identification” gets higher as Democratic party identification gets stronger, but actual support for liberal ideals is highest at “leaning Democratic.”

I’d guess that and the inverse gay marriage numbers are because the most die-hard democrats are poorer / black.

Actually, it looks like a pattern for all of the issues but “Liberal ID” there. If it weren’t for the GOP side not reflecting the same pattern I’d wonder if it was the semantics of how they’re schematized - “weak” almost sounds worse than “lean.”

Or there could be the factors Jason mentions, and/or the continued existence of a rump of conservative (but partisan democrat) DLC/blue dog constituency without a counterpart in the Republican Party.

I don’t “support abortion” but I support the right to choose, aka pro-choice. Ugh, great word choice.

I’d like to mildly fork this conversation though concerning a word that has come up a few times: dysfunction. Why do we call the government “dysfunctional” when opposing parties control different power bases? Sure, OK, not as much legislation gets passed; things take longer to build compromise and consensus; not everyone agrees on shit and caucuses/parties tend to move in lock-step. Got it.

But why is this “dysfunction”? I suppose this is related to the cries that government should “do something” when they are “doing something” by taking time to consider legislation instead of passing it idiotically quickly (problem, PATRIOT Act?)

To me, a dysfunctional government is one that does stuff quickly, without consideration, ignorantly. Rather like the CA legislature/people. Any little whim of preference changes and it’s referendums and recalls and such. Or the fucking Tea Party. That’s dysfunction. Opposing parties that have to meet in the middle on stuff, even when I vigorously disagree with one or both of them, is not.

I would say that holding up hundreds of benign nominations for standard positions in the government is a sign of dysfunction, as well as the debt ceiling.
From a poli-sci perspective, the supermajority requirement in a system of at least three veto points is rather absurd and I’d call it dysfunctional in the best case scenario.
Dysfunction is also a system where the party incentives work against any kind of constructive policy - ie a majoritarian system (thus two-party) where one party (let’s say the non-president party) will gain if the government fails, and then giving that party control of the fail switch (veto). As is outlined in the OP, this works if there’s no party discipline, but otherwise you’re in a difficult situation. Of course, it’s not certain that intransigence is always the best move for the non-presidential party (Gingrich, etc), but at the very least that struggle needs to be really high-profile to matter to the public.

I think later I’ll try to fit the American dilemma into a framework made by G. Bingham Powell, since the American system is problematic in theory (and indeed practice, as has been seen by the many failed knockoffs).

I would say that holding up hundreds of benign nominations for standard positions in the government is a sign of dysfunction, as well as the debt ceiling.
From a poli-sci perspective, the supermajority requirement in a system of at least three veto points is rather absurd and I’d call it dysfunctional in the best case scenario.
Dysfunction is also a system where the party incentives work against any kind of constructive policy - ie a majoritarian system (thus two-party) where one party (let’s say the non-president party) will gain if the government fails, and then giving that party control of the fail switch (veto). As is outlined in the OP, this works if there’s no party discipline, but otherwise you’re in a difficult situation. Of course, it’s not certain that intransigence is always the best move for the non-presidential party (Gingrich, etc), but at the very least that struggle needs to be really high-profile to matter to the public.

I think later I’ll try to fit the American dilemma into a framework made by G. Bingham Powell, since the American system is problematic in theory (and indeed practice, as has been seen by the many failed knockoffs).

The dysfunction comes from the fact that the parties are incentivized to not meet in the middle. In fact their incentives are the exact opposite. See: current debt ceiling negotiations. The presidential system actually incentivizes parties to retreat into their ideological corners rather than compromise.

The US got away with this for a while because we had poorly sorted political parties. Our parties are now well sorted and are steadily falling back into the behavior we’d expect out of them.

There’s also the issue of democratic accountability. With two (or three) parties having a legitimate claim to democratic legitimacy it is much harder to figure out who to hold accountable when things go wrong. Was it the President’s fault? the Senate’s? Who fucking knows!?!?

Contrast this with parliamentary systems. When things go poorly, the people know exactly who to blame.

Finally: people take it for granted that “slowing down government” is a virtue in and of itself. I am not convinced. Also: california’s woes have nothing to do with the “speed” of government, but rather anti-democratic supermajority requirements for revenue combined with totally democratic methods for determining spending. It’s a uniquely dysfunctional situation and people should be very careful about extending it as a model to other forms of government (except ironically the US federal government!)

Dysfunction, non-controversial:

  1. Twice in the last 20 years the government has actually shut down because no one can agree on a budget.
  2. The looming medicare/private health care disaster is getting virtually no proposals to fix it by actual party people on either side.
  3. It’s impossible for a President to staff the government now due to Senate rules giving any Senator a veto power on anything but the very top level nominees.

Dysfunction, can’t change anything no matter how strong and long-term the support is:
4. Public support was fairly strong for 3 to 7 decades, depending on how you measure, for health care reform. We got a complete failure to pass an attempt in the 1990s and just barely got a very mild reform last year. Passing the civil rights act was actually easier.

Dysfunction, partisan:
5. One party is batshit insane.

To return to the topmost post, I do think in terms of idly debating constitutional theory that a strong separate executive outside of the legislative organ is more trouble than it’s worth. But even if you completely removed the executive branch you’ve got a bicameral system in which the worse legislative organ has more prestige, and itself has an absurdly exercised filibuster rule.

And that’s also where I’d look to if I were to make one correction to the US constitution; get rid of The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, a source of deadlock more unambiguously useless and harmful than any other component of the “separated powers” constitution.

From the debt limit thread:

Unfortunately “more power to the oval office” is one of the side effects of systematic dysfunction. The fact that our government can’t or won’t do things that need to be done often doesn’t mean they go undone, it means the government figures out other ways to do them. Quite often that ends up translating into more power being claimed by the executive. See e.g., EPA regulating carbon emissions.

Yes, CA’s dysfunction is different and since that’s what I’ve been spending time thinking about that’s what I had on the brain. Thanks for the explanation jeff, the notion that competing incentives disincentivize multi-party compromise is exactly what I failed to see.

Parliamentary systems aren’t perfect, but one thing they do much better than Presidential systems is enable voter accountability. When a party wins a majority they get to do anything and everything they want. If people like it, they keep their majority. If not, they lose it. This actually has a moderating influence on the parties. Even though the Conservatives in Great Britain might secretly want to dismantle the NHS, but they don’t dare actually do so or even talk about it because of the inevitable voter backlash.

The one problem parliamentary systems have is when no one can get a clear majority and you end up with fragile coalition governments. Then you end up with one election after another. From what I gather, Italy has this problem.