America caught the presidential democracy disease

Now the fate of American democracy depends on proving me wrong

Shaky columns.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

On election night in 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney conceded defeat around 1 a.m. After calling then-President Barack Obama to offer his congratulations on re-election, Romney gave a speech to his supporters. "I pray that the president will be successful," he said.

That's probably the last time a Republican will ever concede defeat in a presidential race — and the fate of the our democracy may depend on proving my expectation false.

Former President Donald Trump said there was rampant fraud in an election he won in 2016, and he tried for months to overturn his defeat in 2020, pushing the "big lie" that President Biden stole the election. That has cemented a new norm among the Republican base that their electoral defeats are never legitimate. A recent NBC News poll found that while 84 percent of Republicans thought their vote would be fairly counted in October 2020, a year later just 41 percent expect the same in future elections. As David Corn writes at Mother Jones, conservatives including former Trump adviser Steve Bannon are pre-emptively casting doubt on this week's elections in Virginia, and a Marist poll published Monday found just 33 percent of Republicans will trust the results of the 2024 elections if their candidate loses. Unless this trajectory changes, our political competition will erupt into open violence.

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It's hard to see what could change it, but let's begin by noting this state of affairs isn't solely Trump's fault. American-style presidential democracy incentivizes the very deranged behavior we're seeing from him and the rest of the GOP.

A presidential democracy, of course, is one in which the head of government is elected separately from the legislature (our current system) — as compared to a parliamentary democracy, where the legislature elects the head of government (as in New Zealand or Denmark). Political scientist Juan Linz argued in a famous essay, "The Perils of Presidentialism," that presidential systems have three major weakness as compared to parliamentary ones, weaknesses he said explain why every presidential democracy in global history has eventually collapsed or fallen to a coup d'etat. (The United States is the one exception — so far.)

The first weakness is the inherent possibility of conflict between the president and the legislature. Both are able to claim democratic legitimacy, because both might have won elections in which they received a majority of the vote. "There is no democratic principle on the basis of which [this conflict] can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate," writes Linz. The American practice of midterm elections, which always have very different electorates than presidential votes, greatly increase the chance of such conflict.

Parliamentary systems have single elections and the same government, usually a coalition, in both the legislative and administrative branch. Majorities are almost always composed of two or more parties, which tends to defuse extremism and megalomania. Even small parties can easily become part of a government and gain meaningful policy concessions commensurate with their public support.

Second is rigidity. American presidents serve for fixed four-year terms, and, aside from impeachment, there's no way to oust them early. "It breaks the political process into discontinuous, rigidly demarcated periods, leaving no room for the continuous readjustments that events may demand," Linz argues. In a parliamentary democracy, by contrast, the prime minister can call new elections or be removed through a vote of no confidence, which is also followed by a new election. This is a straightforward way to dissolve political deadlock or cast aside a corrupt or incompetent head of government (or party leader) without too much fuss and with guaranteed democratic legitimacy.

The third weakness is how presidents stoke polarization. The head of government in our system is a powerful, winner-take-all office that, as noted, serves for a fixed term. Presidential elections are hence high-stakes and zero-sum, "with all the potential for conflict such games portend," Linz writes.

Combining head of government with head of state in a single position also influences the character of the office. The president is seen as a sort of national mascot, the sole personal representative of the whole country — which only heightens conflict with the legislature. "In his frustration," Linz notes, "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."

Parliamentary systems split these roles. (In the United Kingdom, for example, the prime minister is the head of government and the monarch the head of state.) A prime minister doesn't claim to be the personal, embodied will of the whole population, only the leader of a necessarily temporary coalition that could end at any moment.

These weaknesses create a powerful temptation for presidents and parties to resort to cheating or violence to gain or retain such great power. In worst-case scenarios, the resulting conflict or power vacuum may end with the military picking a winner or simply seizing power itself. This outcome has been commonplace in Latin American history where countries (alas) have tended to follow the U.S. presidential model instead of Europe's parliamentary approach.

As writer John Ganz points out, much of Linz's work on this topic was dedicated to explaining why the United States seemed largely immune to these problems. Linz argued that a tradition of bipartisan compromise; diffuse and politically overlapping parties that served more as patronage machines than disciplined, ideological blocs; and a large majority of moderate voters tended to defuse the conflicts inherent in a presidential system.

All those immunities are lost today, and America has every one of the morbid symptoms of a presidential system in crisis. The Obama administration saw unprecedented conflict between the president and Congress, with House Republicans threatening default on the national debt and Senate Republicans denying Obama an appointment to the Supreme Court, another first. Trump was the first president ever to be impeached twice. Biden now enjoys a Democratic Congress, but if Republicans win the midterm elections, even more bitter conflict is absolutely guaranteed (witness Rep. Lauren Boebert [R-Colo.] and Matt Gaetz [R-Fl.] "joking" about blowing up the metal detectors in Congress recently).

The rigidity of the presidency has also proved to be a wretched hindrance of late. Last year, we had possibly the biggest numskull in the entire country overseeing the public health bureaucracy during the worst pandemic in a century — and no way to get rid of him. Trump proved impeachment of a deeply corrupt or even openly seditious president is rendered meaningless by modern partisan discipline. Our one means of removing bad presidents is a dead letter.

Finally, the extreme power and prestige of the presidency — ironically produced by the very separation of powers scheme that was supposed to restrain concentrations of power — has motivated ever more extreme politics. The president is not just "the head of state and government," to quote a pseudonymous writer, but also increasingly seen as "the embodiment of the polity itself."

This holds especially true on the right. Trump as president catalyzed a cult of personality in which his cruelty was celebrated by tens of millions of hooting MAGA voters who gloried in indulging their most irresponsible impulses without consequence, just like he did. And for Trump personally, the tremendous wealth and influence afforded to presidents undoubtedly helped motivate his attempt at a classic autogolpe after losing the election.

At The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie reminds us that the first attempt at an American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, failed spectacularly. Then, the framers of the current Constitution pulled a fast one on the states — without any legal authorization — to launch an entirely new system of governance. They got away with it because the failures of the status quo were so manifest and the ideological stakes so low that state governments grudgingly went along with the plan.

I see no reason to expect that history to repeat, even if the accelerating incapacity of the U.S. government reaches an Articles level of dysfunction. In 1789, the United States was a tiny, poor, provincial backwater, of little interest to great powers of the day. Now it is the world's most powerful country, with by far the largest military, the most control over global financial pipelines, and an economy rivaled only by China's in scale. At bottom, political contests are about control over status and resources, and stakes don't come higher than domination over the rotting American colossus.

The GOP could still steer us off this grim course. But it beggars belief to imagine Trump (or any of the mini-Trump creeps rising through the Republican ranks) turning down the rhetorical temperature or abandoning convenient delusions about Democrats stealing elections. And absent that or some similarly implausible fix, we come back to my expectation: that once elections are sufficiently discredited that open theft attempts are expected, the old-fashioned method of resolving political disputes — violence — will return.

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