Why you should care
Because what you call your head of state matters.
If 2016 didn’t give you your fill of global political upsets, fear not: 2017 may feature a number of big ones. The German chancellor, the Dutch prime minister, the Hong Kong chief executive, the French prime minister. Oh no, wait, French president. Hang on, which do they have again? Does it really matter, anyway? (For the record, France has both a president and a prime minister, and elections for both will happen separately in 2017. It’s the presidential one that people are watching with bated breath, though.)
But as it turns out, the difference between presidents and prime ministers is more than just semantics:
Presidential democracies are more likely to descend into autocracy than parliamentary systems.
In fact, “the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States,” wrote Juan José Linz in his seminal essay, “The Perils of Presidentialism,” back in 1990. Perhaps “American exceptionalism,” then, is less glamorous than it sounds, describing the country’s longstanding resistance to the trap other presidential systems have: ineffectiveness, conflict and a slide into authoritarianism.
Now I have to come clean. As a British citizen who has previously suggested that American presidents should become Queen Elizabeth–like monarchs, I’m not an entirely unbiased judge of this, but I’m not making it up: Democracies, argued Linz and many others, are inherently less stable if headed by presidents rather than prime ministers. Recent research also suggests that parliamentary systems foster better policymaking to promote economic and social development.
The main difference between the two constitutional systems is the relationship between the executive branch and the legislature. In presidential systems, the head of state is directly elected, her cabinet is separate from the legislature, and different parties may or may not control each branch. In parliamentary systems, the government is formed out of the legislature, so the head of state is simply the majority party leader. The president is “essentially an elected monarch,” explains John Gerring, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. Prime ministers are merely “first among equals” in parliament. The difference between the palatial White House and the townhouse at 10 Downing Street is indicative.
Presidential systems, so the argument goes, lead to conflict between the executive and legislative branches, are inflexible because the legislature can’t easily boot the president out, create opposition rather than cooperation between political parties and encourage the election of outsider presidents. As a result, democracy is more fragile. “The most common scholarly position,” says Professor Robert Elgie from Dublin City University, “is that young democracies would probably do best to avoid presidentialism.”
The Trump presidency might make for a certain test of U.S. exceptionalism.
Professor Robert Elgie, Dublin City University
Much of this theory was developed toward the end of the 20th century, when nations in both Latin America and the former USSR were transitioning to democracy, but it can shine a light on contemporary politics too. The case of Turkey, a semi-presidential state where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is consolidating power and arguably leading the country into authoritarianism, is a classic example of the dangers of presidents, experts say. “When leaders like Erdoğan decide they’ve had enough of liberal democracy, they often turn to presidentialism,” says Gerring. And of course, the parallels in the United States between the incumbent president and what many on the left regard as authoritarianism are clear. “The Trump presidency might make for a certain test of U.S. exceptionalism,” says Elgie. “Will the populist, Latin American–style logic of presidentialism apply to the U.S. in ways that it hasn’t before, or will [its] unique political culture temper the presidency, as it has in the past?”
Yet it’s not all bad news for those living under power-hungry presidents: Two recent studies have shown that, in the case that an authoritarian leader monopolizes government, they’re more likely to cling onto power for longer if they’re a prime minister. This is because strong party systems of supporting elites can become more institutionalized in parliaments; plus, a president can’t gerrymander her way to a never-ending term when she has just one national constituency. So a presidential democracy is less stable in the first place, but a presidential dictatorship is pretty shaky too.
Of course, all of these studies face the same methodological restraints: There is, ultimately, a very finite number of countries to sample from, and unique social, cultural and historical factors mean that the setup of a constitution is far from a country’s destiny. Nevertheless, says Gerring, “there are strong theoretical reasons for believing in the connection between parliamentarism and better outcomes,” and the empirical work, however limited, seems to corroborate that.
So for the Americans fearing the slide of their presidency into authoritarianism, just know that it’s been a long time coming. And looking at nearly 250 years of American history, the country seems, for whatever reason, to buck the global trend. So, says Elgie, “I don’t think we need to be thinking about whether democracy in the U.S. is going to collapse just yet.”