Monday, February 21, 2011

Presidentialism vs. Madisonianism

Ah, the day-that-isn't-Presidents-day is a good excuse to get around to a response I've been meaning to get to, to a typically provocative aside at the bottom of a recent Matt Yglesias post about nothing less than the future of the current American Constitution. His view is that "US-style constitutional setups are usually very unstable," and that given the current party structure, that inherent instability may well result in significant change. Dylan Matthews agreed, more or less, and talked about what it kinds of change would mean that "divided government is capable of producing real legislation again."

As regular readers might expect, I think they're wrong. On several counts.

First of all, what's the evidence for Matthews' proposition that divided government is no longer capable of producing "real" legislation? It's true that not all that much passed in the 110th Congress, during the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. But Clinton-era divided government produced plenty of significant legislation, including welfare reform, S-CHIP, a significant minimum wage increase, and balanced budgets -- and during Clinton's second term, they handled budget issues in general with a minimum of drama and brinkmanship. Yes, the 112th Congress promises to be unproductive, but it's also little more than month old; it's a little soon to conclude that it will wind up seeming dysfunctional. 

Second, and more importantly, in my view the differences between the Constitutional system in the United States and the other "presidential" systems covered in the comparative studies Yglesias likes to cite are far more important than the similarities. Mainly, the United States isn't really a "presidential" system; it's a separated-powers system, or more accurately one of separated institutions sharing powers. Congress is generally thought of as by far the greatest example of a transformative legislature, which (along with federalism, and other decentralizing features of the American system) allows lots of interests to feel meaningfully represented in government. He's absolutely right that "high stakes" elections are problematic in a democracy. But the solution isn't necessarily parliamentary elections -- which can also produce single, all-powerful winners -- but to have multiple, overlapping elections. 

Stepping back a bit...I agree with Madison (see Federalists 10 and 51, of course) that majority-rules systems tend to be unstable. Parliamentary systems tend to deal with that in a few different ways. One is, as Yglesias says, by inserting another round of elite bargaining in order to form a government after the voters have had their say. Most parliamentary systems also have a strong bureaucracy that narrows the importance of the elected government. In my view, these devises (as well as corporatist arrangements, which are not necessarily related to parliamentary forms of government but do tend to go with them), are all ways of avoiding the instability of majority rule by weakening democracy. That's especially true of bureaucratic rule; corporatism and elite-driven party rule can be democratic, depending in large part, I believe, in how permeable and internally democratic the parties and other institutions are.

The American system deals with it by weakening the influence of majorities, or (ideally) by preventing majorities from forming in the first place. For example, there is no "majority" on health care reform whether there was a plurality against passing ACA last year, or a plurality against simple repeal this time, so many people have different opinions or are entirely indifferent that a victory or loss is unlikely to break the system. And then when majorities do form, the various mechanisms of the system keeps them enacting things easily. That leads to plenty of short-term frustration for electoral winners, but also means that losing an election isn't that big a deal.

However, when I talk about the ways in which Madisonian democracy promotes stability, I always try to include three dangers. The first is that if everyone in the nation believes that a single issue is of overwhelming importance, the odds of producing a true majority which will either oppress the minority or be oppressed increase. The obvious example of that situation in American history was slavery. A second possibility is if everyone is strongly ideological; if that's the case, then losing on one issue probably means losing on every issue. My reading of the evidence (and I don't really keep up on new research in this area, but I'm pretty confident that this is still true) is that most Americans are not ideological -- not just in a strong sense of having identifiable broad ideas that drive issue positions, but even in the sense that issue positions are strongly correlated. In other words, knowing someone's position on abortion will not necessarily predict their position on gun control, or labor policy, or the Iraq War, or other issues. 

The third danger is extreme partisanship: if regardless of issues we all believe that our side must be in office or else all is lost, it's a problem for stability. I think that's a fair description of some activists; it fits the Tea Party profile, in my view, a lot better than ideological coherence does. But still, only a relatively small percentage of Americans feel that way. Most of us, when our party loses an election, do not automatically feel tyrannized. 

Now, in my view we're pretty far from either of the latter two conditions (and the first one isn't a factor at all; there's no single issue that even a strong plurality of Americans believe is the most important). Only our most politically active citizens are either so ideological, or so partisan, that they find our elections very high-stakes contests. Of course, those politically active citizens are also, more or less by definition, the ones most likely to bring us to a Constitutional crisis, so that's worth paying attention to, but I don't see it as a grave danger.

All that said...I think that strong parties are good for democracy, but that American parties are unique (as far as I know) in that they can be strong without being rigorously ideologically coherent and without being hierarchically organized. So I'm in favor of things that decentralize (but don't necessarily weaken) political parties, and I do think that Congress works better when Members reflect not only their partisan loyalties but also strong local influences. To the extent that American parties have become nationalized (which is certainly true) and more top-down (which might be true), it's a bad development for American democracy, at least as I view it. But we're nowhere near the point at which I'd join Yglesias and Matthews and worry about the stability of the system.   


  1. Somewhere along the line I absorbed up the idea that the US Constitution was the great beta version of democratic government in the modern era, and that it was pretty much a given that anyone devising free institutions today would choose a parliamentary system (and with some level of proportional representation).

    Really it was only stumbling onto Plain Blog that made me aware that there was any serious argument to the contrary.

    So I wonder if Yglesias is reflecting the same outlook - and how a presumption in favor of parliamentary systems became a sort of default.

  2. Would we really expect a different perspective and conclusion from someone who studies, benefits from and valorizes the Madisonian system as much as Prof. Bernstein does? For those of us not as enthralled with the current political arrangement in the US (if anything, Bernstein underplays the division slavery represented given the trauma of the Civil War and the later Civil Rights Revolution of the 60s) and are deeply concerned with issues like climate change and the current context of profoundly entrenched economic inequality surpassing the Gilded Age, the inability for a Madisonian derived system to deal with such issues in a timely enough fashion (many or perhaps most climate scientists believe it is already in some sense too late) leaves many of us considerably less sanguine than Prof. Berstein. I have little doubt that these issues could eventually be navigated. (Carbon pricing, for example would surely be on the docket if Democrats regained power.) But by then it might really be too late.

  3. Anon,

    OK, I'm curious: how do I benefit from the Madisonian system?

    Generally, I'd say that more political scientists agree with Yglesias than with me.

    I would distinguish between what I believe is essentially fact -- that the US does not have a "presidential" system in the sense that he's talking about -- and opinion/analysis, which is that the Madisonian system is a good one for the US. I'd also add that some political scientists would argue that neither system is better, but that democracies evolve systems that work for them, more or less, and that if elements of the system aren't well designed then the solution is reform in keeping with the political culture of the polity. I think there's a lot to be said for that -- that I wouldn't want to see a corporatist system in the US doesn't mean I think it's necessarily bad for those that have it.

    I don't agree that I underplay slavery/US apartheid at all. I'm just not convinced of how it relates to a non-majoritarian political system. I'm *not* saying that things worked out for the best, because that's not true -- but it's also possible to imagine significantly worse outcomes.

    Last thing is that I'd argue that something like climate change may be more a problem with democracy in the US than with the particular form of democracy. It's important, IMO, to avoid the trap of believing that in a "real" democracy that one's preferences would be the policy outcomes. Even when those preferences appear to be objectively correct.

  4. A few things here. First, it would be good to have a clear definition of "stability." The U.S. has been called the U.S. since 1776, and it's nominally had the same government since 1789. Has it therefore been "stable"? Leaving aside decades of turmoil, followed by the Civil War, followed by further decades of turmoil, even within living memory we've had troops deployed to enforce court orders against angry mobs backed by recalcitrant county sheriffs and state governors. It would perhaps be clearer how unstable things had been then if those officials had, say, been prosecuted for treason, but they weren't because everyone knew they weren't acting as rogue individuals but in fact had political support -- i.e. the aforesaid mob -- behind (or in front of) them. Which is to say, the very size of the revolt (= instability) gave the destabilizers some cover and tended to obscure how unstable things had become. Which is further to say, there's been more instability even within the nominal continuance of existing institutions than we normally recognize. But maybe this all nonetheless counts as stability if we're defining "stability" as "nominal continuance of existing institutions." Seems to me that needs clarifying and defending.

    Second, Yglesias is talking about a roughly 60-year time horizon. As they say, a week is a long time in politics, and 60 years is like geological eons. Instability can develop with astonishing speed. On Jan. 20, 1989, the day George Bush Sr. took office, who was predicting the collapse of the Soviet Empire? Apparently not even the CIA, even though that was their freakin' job. Further, a destabilizing event doesn't even have to arise internally; it can come from a spark or example generated abroad, as we're seeing right now in the Arab / North African countries.

    A related point is that the conditions that make for instability are very difficult to detect in advance, and (relatedly) it's impossible to say when or if a particular set of questionable arrangements will yield in the face of destabilizing pressures. Until the day Mubarak resigned, plenty of informed observers thought he might be able to hold on, and even now it's not clear that the basic elements of his regime won't survive the recent upheaval. Sure, it was possible to point to the weaknesses underlying that regime, as it was possible to point to the Soviet Empire's weaknesses -- but both seemed pretty "stable" nonetheless, until suddenly they weren't.

    If I read him correctly, Yglesias is simply pointing to what he considers (rightly, I think) possible conditions of instability in our current system. Appealing in response to the past -- America has survived so far, etc. -- is not very persuasive, both because America's record of stability to this point is very mixed, and because history is always changing and we don't know what new concantenation of events might create destabilizing pressures in the future. Therefore, we just can't know how well-suited American institutions will prove to be in those future circumstances. Maybe it will turn out that a "Madisonian" system is in fact a brilliant mechanism for responding to the challenges of life in the developed world in the mid-21st century. But that would just be luck, I think -- there's no reason to expect this, and some obvious reasons (as Yglesias and others point out) for having some serious doubts.

  5. Action on climate change (and other issues like it) is difficult because not enough people care about it, not because the democratic system is broken. If anything, the issue is an endorsement of U.S. democracy: The people have not spoken, therefore the government's response is inertial.

  6. I don't want to get into too much back and forth in comments but let me address the three points you make.

    (1) I was speaking more about your specialization in party politics and the celebration of the Madisonian system I have gleaned from your past posts. I am certainly aware that most political scientists share Yglesias's point of view. (I largely agree with this consensus but I am not a political scientist. I am an academic who might be described, most days, as a historian.) My point is that academics (and I include myself) become attached to previously expressed positions and academic work.

    (2) Re slavery: I was responding to what I viewed as the truncated treatment in this post. (unfair I know given the nature of blogging.) From reading your past posts I think it is probably true that we don't agree on this point. But in any event, there is is considerable debate on this, which I think you overlook. Still at some point, I would love to hear you address the importance of slavery on US political culture at length since slavery and its legacies have been such a key feature in US cultural and political life.

    (3) I take your point about injecting one's own preferences in making assessments. But at a certain point it is hard not to ask very basic questions like this when our species' survival might be at stake. And it is interesting to note that other democracies, while failing to fully navigate the issues on climate, have done considerably "better" than the US. But as you suggest this might be a US problem and not a Madisonian one: I am not aware of another leading democracy with a ruling party that denies climate change, for example.

  7. Not sure how the continued stable(ish) existence of a bunch of states that weren't much in the way of democracies before the twentieth century helps Yglesias's case for the greater long-term stability of parliamentary democracies. Also he's basically talking about England/UK (if we don't count instability about Ireland) and a bunch of very small countries on the Continent, right? -- surely no one would argue that Germany, France, Italy, Spain had had politically stable twentieth centuries? And surely there are lots of things that help explain e.g. Denmark's stability much more directly than the way its legislature works, like that it's a tiny bunch of people sitting on plenty of wealth who all feel meaningfully connected to each other (so no economic protests, no ethnic or religious or immigrant-related tensions until recently, no groups of millions and millions of people who feel unrepresented by their government at nearly any given time). -- Am I misunderstanding something important here?

  8. Classicist,

    Yes. There are in fact studies showing that presidential gov't is less stable than parliamentary gov't. That's the Linz study that Yglesias cites -- I'm only somewhat familiar with that literature, but I have no problem with it as far as it goes. What I reject is classifying the US as a presidential system.


    No time to respond to all right now, but just to be clear: I think that the slavery and the civil war should definitely be thought of as a failure of the Madisonian system, and the US was an incomplete democracy *at best* until 1964/1965. OTOH, that doesn't mean the outcome would have been better with a parliamentary gov't...

  9. I think that liberals and progressives look favorable towards a parliamentarian government because they believe that at least in the times when they are in power, they will be able to legislate and formulate policy in the matter they want rather than have to compromise. Many, but not all, liberals believe that they are always dealt the loosing hand when it comes formulating policy. Many do not feel that they are even given time and space to voice their opinions and make them known. Many of us also feel that conservative areas get more tax money than liberal areas, I mean look how hard it is to secure money for the Second Avenue subway in NYC.

  10. Oh! Linz is mainly talking about stability during "regime change and consolidation," not in general, so yeah, I misunderstood the debate, and I shouldn't have commented before having read the paper.

    That said -- insofar as he focuses on rigidity (fixed terms of office, broader parties that negotiate before rather than "only after the people have spoken," "the inevitable succession" of party and governmental leaders) as a marker of Presidential systems, while you argue that the US (though it shares those features) should not be considered Presidential -- it does seem that you have some quarrel with Linz as to what features most and best explain regime stability.

  11. I should probably let this drop at this point and I certainly appreciate the clarification that you offer that you do, in fact, believe that the Civil War represented a failure of the Madisonian system (and much else) in US political life. Still, while I suspect your are right that a parliamentary system would not have bridged the division, I think it is important to make certain qualifications before we celebrate the virtues of Madisonian democracy as you often do.

    If I were to make any other observation it would be to suggest that if one reads slavery and the long legacy of white supremacy after 1865 as in part ideological, US political actors cannot be viewed as the nonideological actors you describe.

  12. Anon,

    Feel free to continue! Good comments.

    I think you're attributing something to me that I don't say. I do think that electoral incentives are important, but I don't think they're the only thing that matters to all pols at all times. I'm sure that lots of American pols have very much been motivated, explicitly or not, by real racist sentiment. OTOH, it's not at all clear you need that to explain a lot of their actions: they were representing racists! In fact, IIRC we have more than one confirmed case of 1950s-60s era pols who pretty clearly chose segregation as an issue in the same way that Joe McCarthy chose his issue -- as an electoral ploy, not because of any deep-seated belief. But, yeah, obviously lots of them were totally sincere in their bigotry.

  13. I think you misunderstand my comments to be simply about racial sentiment. You are of course right that politicians representing racists would act in predictable ways regardless of their own racial beliefs. I am not a political scientist but I know there has been plenty of literature about ethnocentrism and government benefits for example. This would be one example among many of how the era of white supremacy actually helped shape political structures far beyond simple racial sentiment, bigotry, or electoral incentives in ways that impinge on political action. (Although the more psychologists have unpacked the prevalence and impact of unacknowledged racial and gender bias, I wouldn't want to dismiss the importance of bigotry too quickly.)

    Most importantly: given the US history on race and the legacy of slavery during the First (1865-77) and Second (1954-1965) Reconstruction periods how do you understand the nature and failures of this particular Madisonian "democracy." It is a big question that I don't expect you to answer here. But as I have suggested before, the Civil War was not just an aberration or exceptional event within US political culture. It represents instead a radical failure which would lead to the birth of a fundamentally new republic in 1865. Its failure (which certainly goes beyond but also includes its Madisonian political underpinnings) calls for a fundamental rethinking about how we understand the strengths and failures of that culture. And it is striking that the partial (very partial) rectification of this failure in 1964/5 involved strong federal action that in many ways undid the initial Madisonian arrangements you describe and to some degree at least celebrate.

  14. Oh -- OK, I totally misunderstood. My fault.

    No, what I'd say about that is that while one of the chief virtues of Madisonian democracy is that it's supposed to avoid absolute losers (an oversimplification, but close enough), in this case it completely failed -- but the explanation for that is that African Americans (and others) were excluded from basic citizenship.

    IMO, there's nothing about Madisonian democracy as opposed to more majoritarian versions, or for that matter Athenian or any other versions, that makes it especially likely to exclude groups from citizenship.

    (As you may guess, I'm sympathetic to versions of the 1940s-1960s that center on the great migration -> African American voting -> non-southern pols adopting pro-civil rights policies. Not that civil disobedience in the South didn't count, since it certainly did, but IMO it was quite important that African Americans became swing voters in several large, closely contested states. That, plus descriptive representation in Congress helped).

  15. I guess I don't *automatically* feel tyrannized when Republicans take power. Tyranny is a strong term here. Even the outrageous grabs of tyrannical like power (surveillance, indefinite detention, assassination) are hugely unlikely to significantly affect me directly. Health care is far more likely to be an issue. This isn't at all to downplay the problems that those powers bring to those affected, just to point out that classic authoritarian measures are still fairly fringe in US society, esp. for white men. Even when such measures are employed, there's usually some indirection: Abortion repression/forced pregnancy come to mind as an example.

    That all being said, the stated goal of the Republicans is to disenfranchise (at the very least) people with my affiliations and views. I see no rhetorical and only slender actual constraints on what they are willing to do to achieve this (e.g., I'm pretty shocked at the apparent willingness to crash the economy).

    I guess all this isn't automatic but a response to substantive behavior.

  16. I'm a Canadian reader. Not surprisingly, I'm a little irked by the statement, "American parties are unique (as far as I know) in that they can be strong without being rigorously ideologically coherent and without being hierarchically organized."

    It may be merely a matter of semantics; I don't know precisely what you mean by "strong" parties, or "without being hierarchically organized".

    But it is a little tiresome when Americans make sweeping statements about the superiority of democracy, American style, compared to all the other democracies of the Western world. You're quite critical of American democracy, including in this post, so I know you're not blind to its faults.

    But really -- the party system in the USA is superior to the party system in all other Western democracies? I respectfully suggest that would be a hard statement to defend.

  17. Yes. There are in fact studies showing that presidential gov't is less stable than parliamentary gov't.

    A study is only as good as the available data, and I'm not sure how there is enough data to make any kind of case on this point.

    I'm also not sure I understand your point that the US is not a presidential, but rather a "Madisonian" system. The "Madisonian" (really, Montesquieuian) features of the American system are found in pretty much every presidential republic - separation of powers, a bicameral legislature, an independent judiciary - at least on paper.

    The basic issue is that, until quite recently, virtually every presidential republic in the world existed on the American continent. And Latin America has been deeply politically unstable ever since it won independence. I don't see how there's any grounds for arguing that the instability of the Latin American republics can be plausibly explained by weaknesses in the structure of government, rather than by much deeper issues.

    There are, of course, numerous instances of parliamentary systems breaking down - Japan and most of the states of Central Europe in the interwar period, for instance. Linz says that only Chile and the US have had presidential systems that lasted for 150 years without problems. But how many parliamentary systems have lasted that long? The United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, are the only ones. Maybe you should add Canada to the list (the Dominion is only at 144 years, but the Province of Canada had parliamentary government starting a few decades earlier). Even so, that's a small list of mostly small, advanced European countries. And most of these have only barely reached 150 years - the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands only adopted parliamentary government in 1848.

    Linz's analysis of Spain in the 70s is insightful, but trying to draw broader lessons from that seems problematic. Certainly the parliamentary system in the Spanish Republic from 1931-1936 didn't promote stable democracy in any way; it ended up leading to a civil war!

    The whole notion, at any rate, seems to be based on far too little evidence. We can also seem from the 20 years since Linz wrote his article, many of the countries that Linz was warning against presidential systems adopted them, and most of them seem to be doing fine as far as democracy goes.

  18. Prof. Bernstein,

    I think your post is, as usual, a good defense of our system and why it's not in as perilous a position as it's usually claimed.

    You do gloss over one danger of stronger national parties, however: the overriding of partisan interests over regional interests.

    I think our Madisonian system relies heavily on the idea that states would work with each other to protect their interests, but more and more, legislators are siding with their national party's interests instead of their local ones. The most obvious example of this is with Cap and Trade, but you can find this in other areas too.

    I've written a bit more on this on my blog, but I would love to hear your reaction:


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