Can you get rid of presidential government?

Much of the news this week is dominated by the troubles of two presidential systems, both in the Americas: Venezuela, where the cycle of chaos and dictatorship that has plagued so much of the region’s history seems to be repeating itself; and the United States, where the extreme dysfunction of the Trump administration gives alarming hints that that country may be at an early stage of the same process.

Two very different countries, but the same basic problem: a head of government with authoritarian tendencies who cannot be brought to account by any of the mechanisms that apply in a parliamentary system.

Last year, when the shadow of Donald Trump first fell across the geopolitical landscape, I (like others) pondered the relative merits of presidential and parliamentary systems:

Outside of the United States itself, it’s hard to point to a presidential system that has not repeatedly fallen prey to coups, dictatorship or serious political violence.

Of course, such things happen in parliamentary systems as well, but the latter seem to be able to boast a much larger proportion of success stories.

Countries where the government depends on a parliamentary majority are better equipped for gradual adjustment to political crisis. Backbench pressure can force a shift in policies, ministers can be questioned and exposed, ineffective leaders can be replaced, public opinion can make itself felt through a number of different channels. These mechanisms don’t always work well, but they do work.

A system where the executive’s popular mandate is concentrated in a single person seems to be less flexible. A hostile legislature can gum up the workings of government but is rarely able to play a constructive role. Removal of a president who goes rogue is at best a difficult and divisive process. And the nature of the position probably attracts more autocratic personalities in the first place.

This still seems to me to be true. To switch a country from one system to the other, however, is a big undertaking. But this week, Jeet Heer in the New Republic argues that the US could, without actually revising its constitution, take steps towards a parliamentary system that “would make the president more of a figurehead, with the real power residing in the House speaker and the Senate majority leader.”

I’m not sure that the specific moves that Heer suggests would have as much of an effect as he thinks. But I’m particularly interested in the general question of whether it’s possible to move gradually from a presidential system to a parliamentary system, or at least to something a lot like one.

Devotees of American history will know that this has been suggested before. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, much of the Republican Party hierarchy was unimpressed with his qualifications for the job. His secretary of state, William Seward, proposed that Lincoln should act as a figurehead while he, Seward, directed the government as, effectively, prime minister.

Lincoln didn’t buy the idea. And he turned out to be a pretty effective president.

But what’s even more interesting is that the archetype of parliamentary government, the Westminster system in Britain, really did develop in this sort of gradual way.

Up to the end of the seventeenth century, England had a system very like the current separation of powers model in America. There was a head of state (monarch, not president – I’ll come back to whether that matters) who was also head of government, who appointed ministers as they chose; and there was a legislature that was needed to pass laws and had considerable power to constrain or frustrate the administration, but couldn’t determine its composition.

In the early 1700s, that changed. The monarch, Queen Anne, allowed the politicians to take more control of government business, and political polarisation enabled the parties to exercise decisive influence in the House of Commons.

In 1706, the leaders of the Whig Party forced the queen, much against her will, to appoint one of their number as secretary of state. She and a number of her successors resisted the trend, but ultimately the situation was reached where parliamentary majorities completely determined the government, reducing the monarch to a figurehead.

So why did the US, starting in a similar position, not go the same way? How did its presidents not just preserve their powers but add to them?

A couple of reasons suggest themselves. In England, there was a radical difference in status between the head of state and the politicians; not so in America, where the president was always just first among equals, a politician among other politicians.

Since American political leaders could (and did) aspire to be president themselves, they had less interest in weakening the office’s power or prestige. English politicians (with only very rare exceptions) could not hope to take the throne, so they were happy to curtail its powers.

Another reason was that it had always been the norm in England for ministers to be members of parliament – usually the House of Lords, but sometimes the Commons. That created the potential for a co-operative relationship between parliament and administration.

In America, that situation was forbidden by the constitution. Its framers wanted to prevent the president from being able to control Congress by corrupting its members with government jobs, but instead they locked the two into an adversarial relationship.

And with a written constitution enforced by a Supreme Court, those institutional differences will be very hard to overcome.


6 thoughts on “Can you get rid of presidential government?

  1. Seward is a particularly ironic example of a putative prime minster, given that Lincoln was probably the most active of all 18th or 19th century presidents. Alexander Hamilton – by far the most energetic member in the cabinet of the more detached Washington – might be described as the USA’s only ever prime minster. (Given the number of subsequent presidents who were far greater non-entities than Washington was, it’s surprising there aren’t more examples.)

    But a “prime minister” that comes from the president’s cabinet hardly solves the problem anyway. Once confirmed, cabinet secretaries are no more responsible to Congress than the president is.


    1. Thanks David – yes, that’s exactly right, putting the secretary of state in charge wouldn’t solve the problem at all. But by separating the positions of head of state and head of government it might open the way towards creating a solution.


  2. One wonders if Macron is not headed in the same trajectory? Apparently he and a bunch of insiders (true, including the PM) are working over summer on their Labour reforms but intend to bring it in by Presidential Decree–ie. before the parliament (along with the rest of French life) resumes in September. While he can certainly claim a mandate, why would he bypass his massive majority in the people’s house, ie. the Assemblée Nationale, which would surely give the changes a much broader stamp of democratic gloss? It is explained as a clever tactic to undermine or pre-empt the unions but this looks very Trumpian (or worse in French eyes, Hollandeian or maybe even Le Pen-ian if she ever got hold of some power!). And unnecessary.
    It is early days but I must admit this isn’t a good look. For most of their actions de Gaulle and Mitterrand mostly had solid political support. And as much as French people (and maybe other Europeans) hanker for another “great leader” I think the days of stuff just being imposed on them have long passed. What were these recent elections all about?

    Incidentally I have said from the beginning that REM’s large wins in the parliamentary elections couldn’t hold long-term because today’s world is simply too complex and too multi-factorial for all views to be expressed by one big group (or two as in the Anglosphere’s two-party politics). I thought, and think, it might hold for a few years, maybe even one 5-year term but not much longer. Perhaps Macron believes this already and is worried about dissent and dysfunction in his parliamentarians? Before they have even voted on one piece of legislation!


    1. We’ll see, I guess, how solid Macron’s support is. I think at the forefront of his mind is the fact that the economy defeated his two predecessors, and he needs to get things moving on that front. And that given the attachment of the French to their summer vacation, there was no way he’d get parliament to deal with the labor laws in August. I do think that the French compromise between presidential and parliamentary systems is somewhat problematic, but people can live with anomalous constitutional provisions for surprisingly long periods of time.


      1. Yes, the Americans have lived with it for two centuries. It is the most peculiar arrangement to have a directly-elected president who appoints the entire executive arm of government but then congress sets the budget!

        Macron is trying to rule like de Gaulle. I suppose he can get away with it for some time but rule by decree is pretty dodgy, and surely creates resistance faster than anything else (and economies and employment don’t react fast and are so dependent on global factors; he needs his famous luck to hold on many fronts.). If I was a newly-elected Deputy I’d be biting my lips …. (being even less empowered than imagined; what was I elected to do?).


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