Strong presidencies may threaten democracy


Can other countries teach us anything about whether the U.S. president is too strong? asks John Carey, Wentworth professor in the social sciences at Dartmouth College. Many parliamentary democracies, like Germany and Israel, have figurehead presidents whose roles are mainly symbolic. But among the presidential democracies throughout Latin America and much of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, most presidents wield more powers than our own, he writes for The Washington Post’s In Theory:

Yet at the same time, few legislatures are as fettered as ours. Whether powers are balanced depends on both sides.

Starting with the presidency, the formal, constitutional powers of the U.S. president are on the low-to-moderate end of the spectrum. These include things like the veto, the ability to appoint (with Senate advice and consent) Cabinet members, to dismiss them at will, to nominate federal judges, and to make executive directives stick in the face of legislative opposition. When compared with other countries, our constrained presidential powers are reassuring. Regimes with more powerful presidencies and weaker legislatures, such as Russia or Ecuador, tend to be less democratic and less stable than ones with limited presidencies and stronger legislatures.

But there are caveats to these observations, adds Carey, a contributor to The Journal of Democracy:

  • First, we need to be cautious about drawing conclusions from patterns across countries, as presidencies are not randomly assigned to societies. (This is as unfortunate for a lot of countries as it is for social science.) Moscow in 1993 was a different place from Philadelphia in 1787, and the souped-up set of presidential powers built into Russia’s constitution, handed down from Boris Yeltsin then to Vladimir Putin today, far surpasses those George Washington bequeathed to John Adams. Even if countries with dominant presidents tend to be dubious democracies, it’s not always clear whether the presidency is the cause or a symptom of broader problems.
  • Second, when we think about presidential strength and whether the balance of powers is as it should be, we’re implicitly comparing the presidency with the other elected branch in every democratic system: the legislature. In most constitutions, a lot of fine print is devoted to whether the president or the legislature will be the main policy initiator.


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