Presidential problems in the Americas, revisited

There’s a common theme in the two biggest stories from the Americas in the last week, namely the attack on federal government buildings in Brazil by supporters of former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, and the farcical deadlock in the United States House of Representatives, which eventually elected Republican Kevin McCarthy as speaker after the 15th ballot.

Both incidents throw a spotlight on the dynamics of presidential government, the system that predominates on the mainland of North and South America. In the rest of the world, the majority of democracies operate under parliamentary government.

So I thought I’d revisit what I wrote about this back in 2016, almost seven years ago. Then too the topical cases were Brazil and the US: the former with the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff and the latter with an election campaign that brought the prospect (which at the time I described as “still remote”) of Donald Trump as president.

This was my verdict:

Simply looking at the record, I think you have to say that parliamentary systems have done a better job of preserving and institutionalising democracy and the rule of law. 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.

That still seems true. It’s not that things like the violence in Brasilia or the speakership fracas can’t happen in parliamentary systems; they can and do. But there are features of those systems that make conflict less pervasive and less intense.

That’s most obvious with the position of president itself. Concentrating so much power and symbolic weight in a single individual, who is then unremovable except by a cumbersome quasi-judicial process, is asking for trouble. Elections become much more of an all-or-nothing gamble; that doesn’t justify violence by the losers, but it makes the reaction of Bolsonaro’s and Trump’s supporters more comprehensible.

The converse of presidential power is the lack of real power in the legislature – more specifically, its disconnection from executive power and responsibility. And that was the problem last week in Washington. The House Republicans, with no possibility of direct influence on executive policy, are encouraged to constitute themselves as a purely destructive opposition, and so power flows to their least responsible and most intransigent elements.

Seen in this light, it’s especially odd for Timothy Noah, in the New Republic last week, to claim that events in the US amount to an argument against parliamentarism, to the extent that he says “the lesson for Democrats … is not to put your faith in parliamentary governance.” The tortured election of McCarthy, he seems to think, is more typical of parliamentary systems than of the system in which it actually happened.

Now it’s certainly true that you can point to similar shenanigans in countries with parliamentary government; he mentions Britain and Israel, and could also have referred to Belgium. But those cases are not typical, and for a good structural reason: parliamentary majorities eventually have to deal with the problem of governing. The House Republicans do not. They can be obstructionist forever, knowing that even if government breaks down completely the voters are just as likely to blame the president.

Noah’s idea that single-party control of both houses plus the presidency would be like “a real parliamentary system” is just weird. There’s nothing unusual about such a state of affairs in the US; not just in the first half of Trump’s tenure, which he notes, but for at least part of the terms of most recent presidents. But that hasn’t made those periods work much like parliamentary government, because the structural incentives are different.

The same goes for Latin America, where Brazil’s experience is by no means untypical. Presidents who can control (or ignore) the legislature tend to become autocrats; they don’t have to listen to their own party members the way a prime minister does. And those who can’t, often find themselves locked in a life-or-death struggle with legislators, where coups, impeachments, violent protest and abuse of process are common currency (see recent events in Peru and Bolivia).

My point is not that these countries could solve their problems in short order by moving to a parliamentary system. Once established, patterns of behavior become self-sustaining: at best, it would take long experience of institutional reform for politics there to be done differently. And the causation probably runs both ways; whatever their origins, there are now cultural differences in the Americas that may predispose their populations to a more authoritarian-friendly system.

But for countries where parliamentary vs presidential government is a live choice, the arguments in support of the parliamentary road seem to be as strong as ever.

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