Executive Power in Democracies

Democracy and Executive Power
Democracy and Executive Power

Executive Power in Democracies

Democratic theory rarely reflects on executive power or the administrative state. Deliberative theory, for example, emphasizes the legislative process where representatives have an opportunity to discuss and deliberate among each other. Of course, few people expect the civil service to deliberate before every email, phone call, or decision. It’s just not possible. So, does a bureaucracy in a democracy behave any differently than an autocracy? 

Susan Rose-Ackerman’s answer is simple. Democracies demand accountability. Most noticeably, authoritarian governments experience higher levels of corruption. But democracies demonstrate accountability in a variety of ways including making information accessible and offering opportunities for citizen input. But Rose-Ackerman goes beyond surface level forms of accountability to examine differences between established democracies. Her comparative analysis explains why democracies pursue different approaches. 

Interestingly, her examination allows us to explore how different institutions express democratic values in different ways. The choice between a presidential and parliamentary system has distinct repercussions for governance. The literature tends to focus on the relationship between the executive and the legislature. But Rose-Ackerman shows how it also has implications for the civil service. This is a truly rare examination into role of the administrative state in democracy. 

Policymaking in the Executive

Most of us draw a line between legislative and executive functions. The legislature makes the law, while the executive merely executes it. It fits neatly into common ideas about democracy where the legislature is elected, while most bureaucrats earn their positions through examinations and merit based promotions. It’s quite naive, because it assumes bureaucrats have little to no agency. This worldview assumes civil servants merely follow legislative statutes almost as automatons without any will or inclination of their own. It doesn’t properly fit our own experience with bureaucracy whether we work in the public or private sector. 

Susan Rose-Ackerman shows the line between legislation and execution are frequently blurred. Most statutes leave substantial room for the executive to fill in the details. This means the executive is prepared to make rules and policies. They have significant flexibility, however they must remain within the bounds of legislative statutes. Moreover, Rose-Ackerman shows both presidential and parliamentary systems leave the specifics for the civil service. She emphasizes, “Legislation typically involves compromises that generate vague language and inconsistent provisions.”

However, legislatures also leave details to experts in the civil service, because they respect their expertise. This reality creates a problem for democratic theory. Elected officeholders regularly rely on unelected officials to make formal rules within vague and imprecise statutes. This is where Rose-Ackerman offers a solution for the theorist. She views the action as delegation rather than indifference or negligence. “There is nothing inherently undemocratic about delegating policymaking to such agencies,” she writes, “so long as there are checks against capture by the regulated industry so long as they are subject to oversight by the legislature and the courts.”

Presidents and Prime Ministers

Throughout the book, Susan Rose-Ackerman reflects on the differences between France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. A significant difference is the United Kingdom and Germany have parliamentary systems, while France and the United States have presidential systems. I know this is an oversimplification. Differences exist in the types of parliamentary and types of presidential systems that exist in each country. Nevertheless, the key difference between a presidential and parliamentary system is the relationship between the executive and the legislature. A presidential system separates the executive and legislature into independent political institutions. In contrast, parliamentary systems have a unitary executive where the executive derives their power from parliament. 

Interestingly, the division between the legislative and executive branches in a presidential system has led to questions of legitimacy for the bureaucracy. Jacksonian democracy used the spoils system to confer democratic legitimacy on the civil service, but progressive reforms decoupled positions in the civil service from democratic elections. Over time the United States developed new forms of accountability such as the APA and FOIA. The APA is unique among the democracies Rose-Ackerman examined, because it required bureaucrats to engage with the public before implementing new rules. 

In contrast, the unitary executive in a parliamentary system confers democratic legitimacy to the civil service through parliament. Moreover, the unified structure empowers prime ministers to leave legislation vague and imprecise to allow them greater flexibility. So, in many ways the parliamentary model has a more autocratic executive than a presidential model. I do not want to elevate this to a preference to one over the other. However, I find it is an insight the debate between presidential and parliamentary systems have largely ignored. 

Final Thoughts

The recent incorporation of citizen assemblies has introduced a new tool to bring new forms of accountability and participation into the executive. So, far they have played a larger role in systems where the link between the executive and legislature is strong. The United Kingdom has introduced mini-publics, while France has held citizen assemblies to discuss environmental policy. Citizen assemblies offer suggestions for new legislation, but also new ways to execute existing statutes. The United States has not held any citizen assemblies partly because the President has limited authority to pass new legislation. But the notice-and-comment procedures of the APA make this additional channel somewhat redundant. However, the limitations of the APA may demand a reimagination of how the executive engages the public in the near future. 

Perhaps the most refreshing part of Susan Rose-Ackerman’s work is she does not draw a line between efficacy and accountability. She believes they can exist side by side within operating procedures. So, when Francis Fukuyama proclaims “before a polity can constrain power, it must be able to employ it,” he overlooks how executive power in a democracy can only exist within the presence of constraints. It finds itself constrained by statutes or the courts. But it also finds itself constrained in its commitment to public accountability. And I believe this is what makes executive power different in a democracy.

Look for Susan Rose-Ackerman on the Democracy Paradox podcast on October 26, 2021.

Further Reading

Susan Rose-Ackerman (2021) Executive Power and Democracy: Policymaking Accountability in the US, the UK, Germany, and France

Paul Chaisty, Nic Cheeseman, and Timothy J. Power (2018) Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1787) The Federalist Papers

Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi (2018), “Orbán’s Laboratory of Illiberalism,” Journal of Democracy

Juan Linz (1990) “The Perils of Presidentialism,” Journal of Democracy

Karl Lowenstein (1937) “Militant Democracy and Fundamental Rights, I” and “Militant Democracy and Fundamental Rights, II” The American Political Science Review

Dominique Reynié (2016) “The Specter Haunting Europe: “Heritage Populism” and France’s National Front,” Journal of Democracy

Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez (2021) “Latin America Erupts: Millennial Authoritarianism in El Salvador,” Journal of Democracy

Carl Schmitt (1923) The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy

Stephen Skowronek (2020) “The Problem of Presidentialism,” in Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Susan Rose-Ackerman on the Role of the Executive in Four Different Democracies

William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe on the Presidency

More Episodes from the Podcast

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