Perplexed by today’s turbulent American political scene? Not to worry: A distinguished political scientist wrote an essay 26 years ago that anticipated our predicament with eerie explanatory power. The only downside is that its author specialized in the causes of democratic collapse, The Washington Post’s Charles Lane writes.
“The Perils of Presidentialism,” by Yale University’s Juan J. Linz, compared the Westminster-style parliamentary system with “presidentialist” systems that divide executive and legislative power between separately elected presidents and assemblies. The former were inherently more stable than the latter, he concluded [writing in the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy]:
This was an unlikely argument for an academic in the United States — a presidentialist nation deeply attached to separation of powers as a constitutional principle and equally confident of its political stability.
Yet Linz, a Spaniard, had closely studied his native country’s 20th-century journey from democracy to dictatorship and back again, as well as the chronically unstable presidential systems of Spain’s former colonies in Latin America.
Drawing on that history, Linz identified comparative disadvantages of “presidentialist” democracy. The fundamental one: Whereas a prime minister owes his power to the same majority that produces parliament, the president and legislature in a presidentialist democracy can both claim to represent the national majority, a source of competition that can spawn conflict, even chaos, when rival parties control the two branches.