Perils of Presidentialism

Perils of Presidentialism
President Donald J. Trump addresses his remarks Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020 in the East Room of the White House, in response to being acquitted of two Impeachment charges. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

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Perils of Presidentialism

In 1990 Juan Linz published an influential article titled “The Perils of Presidentialism.” It’s a highly influential essay among those who debate the merits of different forms of democracy. Linz argued the separation between the legislature and executive made governance problematic. Gridlock between the executive and the legislature leads presidents to seek extraconstitutional solutions for governance. Over time the constitutional system breaks down threatening democratic governance.

After watching yesterday’s testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson, it’s hard to deny the perils of presidentialism thesis. However, it was not so much the gridlock between the executive and the legislature that imperiled the country. Rather it was an attempt to use the vast powers of the presidency to override the outcome of an election. Political theorists refer to this phenomenon as an autogolpe or self-coup. Perhaps the most well-known case happened in 1992 when Alberto Fujimori suspended the constitution, shutdown Congress, and purged the judiciary. Fujimori fits Linz’s archetype almost perfectly. However, India offers another example. Indira Gandhi invoked emergency powers in 1975 for a 21 month period where she suspended elections and many civil liberties. India, of course, is a parliamentary government. 

Many argue executives have even greater powers in parliamentary systems, because their coalition also controls the legislative process. Indeed, Allen Hicken, Samuel Baltz, and Fabricio Vasselai found presidentialism actually contributed to democracy. It’s an important finding because it turns Linz’s ideas upside down. Still, Michael Coppedge was hesitant to fully embrace it. Of course, it’s also possible the debate about presidentialism asks the wrong question. Hicken, Baltz, and Vasselai also found extreme centralization of power in a single party threatens democracy. Here we find a strong argument for PR systems. Nonetheless, yesterday’s testimony serves as a warning about the perils that exist whenever political elites refuse to hold leaders accountable.

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