America is a Normal Country: Presidentialism Can Break It, and Exceptionalism Won’t Save It

As America approaches the 2020 presidential elections, we are continually reminded of what a remarkable experiment American democracy is. With good reason. No large country save the UK boasts anything like the history of constitutional and representative government that the U.S. does. That record of success—even with a bloody Civil War and deep racial divisions that span the nation’s history—is entirely improbable. That that country could grow both geographically and demographically is no less remarkable. These are some of the reasons why America is often called “exceptional,” or indeed, “great.”

In addition to measuring America’s exceptionalism by the durability of its political regime, however, you could also think about its social and economic foundations. The United States is exceptional in that it is one of only a handful of colonies that combined a plantation economy at scale and the institution of chattel slavery with white settler colonialism. Brazil is the only other country that comes close to that history—in various ways, other colonies either lack the scale of the plantation economy (New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, South Africa) or the numerical dominance of white settlers, even if, as in most Caribbean cases, indigenous peoples were nearly or entirely annihilated.

This aspect of America’s history deserves as much attention as does the durability of its constitutional form of government. It explains the great conflicts of the 19th century in American politics, over the shape of the country, the states, the enslavement of some of its peoples, and the Native American genocide. It gives us the fabric of American politics that we take as given in 2020, that odd things like Rhode Island and Wyoming exist, and why everyone learns about Rosa Parks in school (if not the whole story). It is hard to take those features of American politics and look for meaningful analogues in the rest of the world.*

But if you move beyond that socioeconomic structure to our political system, you will find that the American form of government is quite familiar to people living in the rest of the world. American democracy differs in the specifics, but it is also entirely legible: a federal, presidential republic with plurality voting for legislative elections. We have a president; Indonesia has a presiden. We have states; Australia has states.** We have plurality voting; so does every other Westminster system. We have a bicameral legislature; so does Austria.

America is, in this sense, an entirely normal country. It has a political system whose properties we understand and whose operation we can compare with the political systems of other countries. Yes, the details don’t always translate very well but the logic and function of our political institutions is readily apparent.

Juan Linz‘s landmark essay “The Perils of Presidentialism” (PDF) explains how presidentialism works. Linz was a towering figure in comparative politics, deeply immersed in the politics of Spain but also a generalist who understood instinctively not just the mechanical details of how, say, plurality voting produces two-party competition but also how institutions like federalism and presidentialism creates specific types of politics.

The title of that article betrays Linz’s main conclusion, but not the full details of the argument. The root problem of presidentialism is dual legitimacy: the president and the legislature are elected separately, and both claim the mantle of democratic legitimacy because they are both, indeed, democratic institutions. This dual legitimacy creates a fundamental tension between the incentives of the president and those of the legislature. Now add in the fact that each of them are elected to fixed in terms in office, making it especially hard to remove the president from office except for extraordinary measures. Writes Linz,

The danger that zero-sum presidential elections pose is compounded by the rigidity of the president’s fixed term in office. Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate. There is no hope for shifts in alliances, expansion of the government’s base of support through national-unity or emergency grand coalitions, new elections in response to major new events, and so on. Instead, the losers must wait at least four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarization.

Linz—writing around 1990—took the American case to be exceptional:

In countries where the preponderance of voters is centrist, agrees on the exclusion of extremists, and expects both rightist and leftist candidates to differ only within a larger, moderate consensus, the divisiveness latent in presidential competition is not a serious problem. With an overwhelmingly moderate electorate, anyone who makes alliances or takes positions that seem to incline him to the extremes is unlikely to win, as both Barry Goldwater and George McGovern discovered to their chagrin. But societies beset by grave social and economic problems, divided about recent authoritarian regimes that once enjoyed significant popular support, and in which well-disciplined extremist parties have considerable electoral appeal, do not fit the model presented by the United States.

Fast forward thirty years, and consider the state of American democracy today. Do we have grave social and economic problems, are we divided on the question of authoritarianism, and does an extremist party have considerable electoral appeal? The question is not whether or not these things are true in some objective sense, but rather whether people act as if they were true.

Linz, though, pushes further. It is not just about what presidentialism does to us as voters and citizens, but also what it does to presidents:

Some of presidentialism’s most notable effects on the style of politics result from the characteristics of the presidential office itself. Among these characteristics are not only the great powers associated with the presidency but also the limits imposed on it-particularly those requiring cooperation with the legislative branch, a requirement that becomes especially salient when that branch is dominated by opponents of the president’s party. Above all, however, there are the time constraints that a fixed term or number of possible terms imposes on the incumbent. The office of president is by nature two-dimensional and, in a sense, ambiguous: on the one hand, the president is the head of state and the representative of the entire nation; on the other hand, he stands for a clearly partisan political option.

Linz saw presidentialism as containing within it the seeds of populism:

Perhaps the most important consequences of the direct relationship that exists between a president and the electorate are the sense the president may have of being the only elected representative of the whole people and the accompanying risk that he will tend to conflate his supporters with “the people” as a whole. The plebiscitarian component implicit in the president’s authority is likely to make the obstacles and opposition he encounters seem particularly annoying. In his frustration he may be tempted to define his policies as reflections of the popular will and those of his opponents as the selfish designs of narrow interests. This identification of leader with people fosters a certain populism that may be a source of strength. It may also, however, bring on a refusal to acknowledge the limits of the mandate that even a majority—to say nothing of a mere plurality—can claim as democratic justification for the enactment of its agenda. The doleful potential for displays of cold indifference, disrespect, or even downright hostility toward the opposition is not to be scanted.

These words are prescient. They describe more than just the politics of the current president, it describes the political style of many of our “great statesman presidents,” on both sides of the political aisle.

Linz raises all of these points not just to point out the characteristic pathologies of presidentialism as a political regime, but also to observe that these pathologies, together, produce instability.

What in a parliamentary system would be a government crisis can become a full-blown regime crisis in a presidential system.

We can see this instability in America today. I wrote about a year ago about the emerging regime cleavage in American politics, in which the core political battle is no longer about ideas or policies or even identities but about the very legitimacy of democratic procedures themselves. Since the impeachment, and with COVID, and more recently since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this cleavage has become even more visible. Many Americans on both sides of the political aisle anticipate that the results of the 2020 presidential election will be illegitimate. The prospect of a conservative supermajority on the Court has made the election feel even more existential—again, on both sides. Not since the 1960s have the franchise rights of black and brown Americans been so openly challenged. And never before have so many white Americans worried about whether their vote would be counted at all.

Presidential democracies sometimes come to an abrupt end through a coup, as in Chile in 1973. But more often they die at the hands of lawyers, judges, and election officials. Maybe the military steps in later, but by then the regime crisis is well underway. Everyday authoritarianism is mostly boring and tolerable, and the slide towards it is mostly gradual, constitutional, and public.

How to square the perils of presidentialism with American exceptionalism? Linz thought that America’s party system was too weak and disorganized to create the kind of strong programmatic cleavage that would reveal presidentialism’s weaknesses. David Samuels and Matthew Shugart offer a counterpoint that presidential systems create presidentialized parties: weak, supplicant, and tied to the person of the president, none of these boding well for inoculating American politics from Linz’s perils.

It could be that federalism or some other features of the American system of government offer institutional backstops that make up for presidentialism. Or it could be that the notion of durability in American politics is all wrong, and that American politics has always gone through substantial changes, with various sorts of regimes punctuated by acute crises. This theme shows up in Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman’s new book entitled Four Threats, on the crisis of American democracy and its historical antecedents.

I tend to come down with Mettler and Lieberman, but perhaps with a starker interpretation. Our presidential system has a birth defect of dual legitimacy, because that is how it was set up.*** Presidents have incentives to demonize their opponents while claiming the mantle of mass legitimacy, and a presidentialized party system produces weak parties that cannot hold the executive accountable for how he governs. It is very hard to replace presidents because the Constitution makes it hard to do so, and any such fight can tear a presidential regime like ours apart if the president does not want to go. And countermajoritarian institutions like the Supreme Court and the Electoral College will counter majorities, because that is what they are designed to do.

Jamelle Bouie has argued that the goal of protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority did not, for the Founders, mean “minority rule.” But when these institutions produce minority rule, over time, it threatens the very stability of American democracy. It is the kind of threat that our presidential system is uniquely unable to confront. America is a normal country because presidentialism works just like Linz said it would.

In the current moment, we see all the perils of presidentialism, with the legacies of American’s social and economic foundations in plain view, as Mettler, Lieberman, Ken Roberts, Rick Valelly, and I have argued (PDF). The legislative GOP is comprised mostly of politicians who privately detest the president yet cannot remove him, and will indeed give him his biggest possible win in confirming a third Supreme Court justice. The president demonizes his opponents, talks abstractly about American greatness, and leads a party that represents a minority of American voters. The very procedures that guarantee free and fair elections—always a tenuous proposition, and never perfectly realized—are now openly criticized by the ruling party, which is laying the groundwork to overturn the election result if the president is defeated. The president said so on TV last night. The fact that democratic procedures might frustrate the president’s ambitions is presented as evidence that the procedures are illegitimate.

All of this has happened in the open. There is nothing to stop it from getting worse: if institutions do not constrain politicians from acting in their interests, then politicians will not be constrained.

What constrains the powerful is not the Constitution, nor the system of laws, regulations, and bureaucracies that govern political competition. What constrains them is the practice that American politicians seek power through elections and that everyone agrees to accept that method.

It is exactly as I warned three years and eight months ago: the boring, mostly tolerable slide towards uncompetitive elections. And because presidentialism is the American system of government, replacing the current president with his opponent, while plainly necessary, will do nothing to fix the root of the problem. It will be but a temporary reprieve.

This conclusion is unsettling. There is no American quintessence that makes our presidential institutions work differently than how they work everywhere else. Nothing that produces stability in the face of radicalism, nothing that crushes extremism to ensure moderation. Observers since at least Tocqueville have looked to find that quintessence, that unique spirit or spark or essence of America’s republican tradition that allows democratic government to persist amidst conflict and division. Perhaps it was once the New England town hall, or the Jeffersonian tradition, for the “frontier spirit,” or some racist elite pact. But there is no serious argument that these still constrain our politics, or construct our politicians’ sense of purpose and approach to politics, to create bipartisan comity or forbearance. And I am not sure that they ever did.


* I invite you to tell me what the Rhode Island of France is, or who the Rosa Parks of Chile is. You can develop a case, but it will be forced.
** Australia has only six states (plus two meaningful territories), yet remarkably, it has both a Florida (QLD) and a Texas (WA).
*** You might observe that the legislative branch is even less popular than the president right now, but that’s a fallacy of composition: individual members of Congress usually have higher approval ratings among their constituents than does the president.

Comments 2

  1. Ferdinand van Dieten September 24, 2020

    Not only presidentialism, but any two-party system in general, is in risk of breaking down as soon as one of the parties is on a electoral dead ally, like the GOP is. Breaking democratic conventions and the control of the judiciary over the procedures, becomes than the only way of survival – several South American democracies ended that way. A few days ago a marvellous article on this theme was online, but sorry I lost the link to it.

  2. brianlevy387 September 24, 2020

    Thank you for this superb piece! Now that I’ve found my way to your work, I look forward to reading more. As something of a recovering structuralist myself (from an economics/NIE tradition), I have become increasingly interested in the independent power of norms/ideas. To what extent, have distinctive norms sustained America’s ‘civil religion’, reconstituting a center after each seemingly existential crisis? Has something now decisively shifted? You’ll find my evolving thinking on this tracked here: . I look forward to engage further with you via twitter etc.

Comments are closed.