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No, America's Presidential System Is Not Doomed

31/03/2016 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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A voter fills our a provisional ballot by hand for the midterm elections at a polling place in Annapolis, Md., Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Extreme partisanship in the country has intensified doomsday predictions about America's system of government. It has become fashionable to blame this system for every acrimonious election, for every partisan fight in Washington, for every delay in governmental action. Each new generation of Americans feels the times have changed and their system is failing. But over and over again the American system has delivered. Bitter elections and brawls between branches of government almost always result in better and more consensual decisions. This is due entirely to America's system of government. For it stops unworthy candidates and un-debated thoughts, and compels compromise. Far from being doomed, America's presidential form of government is the secret to her success.

Bitter elections and brawls between branches of government almost always result in better and more consensual decisions. This is due entirely to America's system of government.

Lately, the detractors of the American system have been out in full force. Last month, as soon as the Republicans took a stand on the Supreme Court appointment, a leading liberal magazine published an article titled 'Is America's Presidential System Doomed?' In 2012 we saw a whole book It's Even Worse Than It Looks, deriding this system. The following year Slate magazine published 'Juan Linz's Bad News for America', an article mourning the death of the Spanish political scientist who was the presidential system's biggest critic. "His life's work tells us," the piece noted, "that American democracy is doomed."

But the Americans have never seriously considered changing their system of government. The last earnest review of the US Constitution was during the bicentennial in the 1980s by the Committee on the Constitutional System. None of its recommendations changed the basic structure. In fact, most of its proposals sought to strengthen party cohesion, an objective that appears today as entirely unnecessary. At the time, in 1982, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote an essay in The Wall Street Journal called 'Leave the Constitution Alone', and cautioned against "the fallacy of self-pity that leads every generation to suppose that it is peculiarly persecuted by history."

[T]he beauty of the American system is that it gives those in the minority a real say. And this causes gridlocks.

The critics' biggest gripe with America's system is its tendency to gridlock. And they are at their loudest when their party is not getting its way. Their derision of the system is littered with partisan jabs, blaming one party for all ills. Surely no single party can be blamed or should be demonized. Both Democrats and Republicans are patriots. Each is doing what they consider is right by their nation. Each can draw up a long list of accusations to show the other is harmful to the country. But the beauty of the American system is that it gives those in the minority a real say. And this causes gridlocks.

But why are gridlocks bad? What makes us think that majority-only governments or swift actions would produce better results? As Peter Schultz, a professor of politics, once asked, why "today a premium should be placed on governmental action ...whereas in 1787 a premium was put on governmental inaction." Of all people the Americans know best that unfettered governments become autocratic or burdensome. After all, this was their entire basis for inventing a new diffused form of government.

Even under divided government, it is erroneous to say that America's system becomes dysfunctional. David Mayhew, a professor of government at Yale, debunked this commonly held myth in his 1991 work Divided We Govern. He showed that over a period of 44 years (1946-90) the US government functioned effectively even when different political parties controlled the elective branches.

What makes us think that majority-only governments or swift actions would produce better results?

The truth is, "gridlock" is useful, and was deliberately built into the system. Schlesinger said it best: "When the country is not sure what ought to be done, it may be that delay, debate, and further consideration are not a bad idea." What makes partisan fights unnecessarily rancorous, however, is when one side decides the other is evil or stupid. Still, the American system delivers, albeit more slowly.

So, what did Linz have against this US system? Really nothing that he spoke of directly. Linz was an academic who studied Latin American governments. He reported his findings in his 1990 work The Perils of Presidentialism, where he noted that those governments were less stable than the parliamentary type governments in Europe. He argued that this was due to the presidential system's dual democratic legitimacy. Since both legislative and executive branches were directly elected, if they were in conflict "there was no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved," he said. In his area of study this often led to the use of force. Linz however noted that "one might argue that the United States has successfully rendered such conflicts 'normal' and thus defused them." He didn't offer an explanation as to why America was an exception.

The presidential system's alternative, the parliamentary form, is a disguised system. It only appears to be more democratic.

Could someday Linz's analysis apply, as the doomsayers worry, to the United States? Not if the basic structure of America's system is left intact. The Latin American democracies failed because they made their presidents too powerful. Linz's contemporaries were pointing that out. In 1989, Carlos Santiago Nino wrote that "the first constitutional movement in the region consisted of adopting the US system with certain modifications addressed at giving the presidency even more strength." Similarly in 1990 Scott Mainwaring showed that Latin American presidents' "constitutional authority... generally exceeds that of US presidents."

The presidential system's alternative, the parliamentary form, is a disguised system. It only appears to be more democratic. The rejection of parliamentary principles was the main impetus for America's founders to create a new form of government. The system's chief feature--the executive controlled by the legislature--was voted in seven different times in the Constitutional Convention; once even unanimously. But each time, mindful of that system's fundamental flaws, the framers kept pushing for an alternative. Until, on the eighth vote, they had the now famous presidential form of government.

America's future is safe only as long as it doesn't tinker with the basics of this system of government.

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