We’ve been warned by a number of Western liberals and statists about the many evils, dangers and pitfalls of America’s ‘presidential system’.
The world’s superpower’s ‘presidentialism’ is inefficient and problematic, because it is rigid and prone to gridlock, America’s critics say.[i] The system’s rigidity, according to some Western academics, prevents politicians from passing important legislation, and creates a “structural problem” that can develop to “conflict situations and stalemates”.[ii]
Among the most popular and influential critics of America’s so-called presidentialism is Juan J. Linz, a Spanish sociologist and political scientist, known for his works and theories on totalitarianism, democracy, and authoritarianism.
In 1990, Linz published his paper entitled “The Perils of Presidentialism” in the Journal of Democracy, wherein he argued about the superiority of parliamentary systems.
Linz based his arguments on his partial observation that few presidential regimes experienced crises or failed to preserve democracy. Thus, he concluded that “in many other societies the odds that presidentialism will help preserve democracy are far less favourable.”[iii]
However, Linz’s arguments against presidential system have been attacked on numerous grounds, including historical, constitutional, methodological, statistical as well as factual contentions.
He argued that presidential system “entails rigidity… that makes adjustment to changing situations extremely difficult; a cult leader who has lost the confidence of his own party or the parties that acquiesced [in] his election cannot be replaced.”[iv]
A number of liberal academics, such as Riggs[v], Stepan and Skach[vi], Mainwaring[vii], among others share Linz’s view on the system’s rigidity and susceptibility to gridlock, which make it hard for parties to form coalitions or to pass important legislation.
Based on my own objective analysis, Linz’s methodology is not just statistically
and factually flawed; it is also historically erroneous.
One major flaw in his methodology is his failure to define his terms. His methodology merely consists of grouping countries according to the designation of their heads of state (e.g., president or prime minister) without studying and comparing their political policies and constitutions. For instance, a comparison between the Philippine’s protectionist constitution and the American charter would have informed Linz and his liberal readers about the many institutional, political, and economic differences of the two nations.
America’s so-called ‘presidential system’ is known for its principle of separationism, which is the basis of the triumvirate system of three governmental branches and of the principle of checks and balances. Thus, under what they call “presidentialism”, there must be a wall of separation between the executive branch– the implementing body of the government– and the legislative branch, the state’s law-making body. By contrast, parliamentarism is a system of mutual dependence.[viii]
Linz’s case against ‘presidentialism’ is also riddled with definitional problems. For instance, Linz failed to define and explain properly the concept of separation of powers, whereas other critics (e.g., Riggs, Stepan and Skach, etc.) were simply confused over the meaning of the term.
This principle of separationism is, in fact, the distinguishing feature of America’s Republican Federalism (not presidentialism). As Jeremy Waldron correctly argued, separatiosnism does not merely mean institutional split-up of the three major branches of government, but more “of a close-knit set of principles that work both separately and together as touchstones of political legitimacy.”[ix]
America’s founding fathers institutionalized separationism not only by dividing—and delimiting the powers of—the Executive office, the Legislature and the Judiciary, but also by adopting federalism that separates the states and the federal government.
In addition to separationism narrowly understood (by Linz et. al), other mechanisms to ensure the division of powers include[x]:
- “[t]he principle that counsels against the concentration of too much political power in the hands of any one person, group, or agency”;
- ”[t]he principle of checks and balances, which requires the ordinary concurrence of one governmental entity in the actions of another”; and
Now, I believe it would be absurd to claim that socialist Venezuela’s form of government (a mixture of “presidentialism” and parliamentarism) features gridlock-prone separation-of-powers mechanism when in fact it characterizes what Stepan and Skach call “a system of mutual dependence” between the executive and the legislative branch. Venezuela’s current executive-controlled parliament is what we Filipinos call “rubber stamp Congress”.
If parliamentarism is defined by “mutual dependence” between two powerful branches of government, then it would be fair to say that B.S. Aquino’s regime, which is totally gridlock-proof, is ‘parliamentary’ in nature. In other words, the goal of parliamentarism is to establish rubber stamp politics by merging the executive and the legislature.
As Stienmo, Thelen and Longstreth observed, “although the Parliament is formally required to ratify the executive decision, the effects of partisanship will lead the Parliament to rubber-stamp the legislation: the executive arena will remain the effective point of decision.”[xi]
Stapenhurst made almost the same observation about Kenyan parliament:
“Parliament was a feeble rubber stamp of the executive branch’s decisions. The independent Parliament was living in the unchanged tradition of the colonial Parliament which was in place mainly to ratify the decisions of the crown administration of Her Majesty the Queen.”[xii]
Linz also argued that “parliamentarism’s unpromising implications for democracy is not meant to imply that no presidential democracy can be stable; on the contrary, the world’s most stable democracy the United States of America—has a presidential constitution (emphasis mine).”[xiii]
The above statement exposes Linz’s (and others’) confusion over the meaning and concept of the term “presidential system” or “presidential constitution”.
The truth is, nowhere in the U.S. Constitution or in the Federalist Papers is there a mention of the term “presidential system” or “presidential constitution”. Rather, the founding fathers labeled their system as Republican government or Republican Federal system.
James Madison, in Federalist No. 51, wrote: “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.”[xiv] This inspired the creation of bicameral system in which the two legislative chambers are “as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit”. Such an institutional design was intended to “guard against dangerous encroachments” by the ruling party or by any branch of government.
Now recall that ‘parliamentarist’ academics, like Stepan and Skach, describe parliamentarism as a system of “mutual dependence”, wherein the Prime Minister must obtain the support of his party-mates in the legislature.
Here’s what Stepan and Skach actually said:
“A pure parliamentary regime in a democracy is a system of mutual dependence: 1) The chief executive power must be supported by a majority in the legislature and can fall if it receives a vote of no confidence. 2. The executive power (normally in conjuction with the head of state) has the capacity to dissolve the legislature and call for elections.”[xv]
Stepan and Skach were, however, right in describing what they call “presidentialism” as a “system of mutual independence”.[xvi]
This distinguishing characteristic of parliamentarism merely exposes its historical royalist nature. What we know today as parliamentary system, which went through a gradual process of evolution in Great Britain, was established by the British monarch to appease the House of Commons by appointing a political regime out of the dominant Whigs party, which advocated constitutional monarchism and opposed absolutism.’[xvii]
According to Muller, Bergman and Trom, the term parliamentary government “was not used until 1832 in Britain and the late 1830s on the continent.”[xviii] Also, the term “presidential system”, according to Billias, “did not come into its own until the twentieth century when the president (with some exceptions) became the strongest feature of the system.”[xix]
Parliamentarism was adopted in Britain to keep or preserve the Crown. However, as already stated, the system went through a gradual process of development. It transformed from an empire-serving system into a welfare state-compliant system of the past century.
One of America’s early progressive academics named James Bryce published a book in 1921 entitled “Modern Democracies”, in which the author argued that parliamentarism is superior with respect to “giving prompt and full effect to the ‘Will of the People’: ‘Efficiency is most likely to be secured by the Parliamentary system, because whatever the Executive needs it is sure to obtain from its majority in the Assembly….”[xx]
In effect, Bryce was saying that the passage of progressive legislation (from 1880s up to 1920s) that caused the Great Depression was inspired by “the will of the people”.
Eight years before the publication of Bryce’s book glorifying ‘democracy’, the gridlock-proof government of Woodrow Wilson passed the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 that created the Federal Reserve System, the Revenue Act of 1913 that made personal income tax a permanent fixture in the U.S. tax system, Antitrust legislation, among others. These laws and other legislation passed from 1880s up to 1930s are collectively known today as “progressive legislation”.
It was during the progressive era that the American system gradually transferred political power from the Legislature to the Presidency.
“In the twentieth century, with its two world wars, Great Depression, and rise of the GIANT BUREAUCRATIC STATE, the presidency has almost steadily acquired increasing power. In the nineteenth century, however, with the exception of the presidencies of Jackson, Pork, and especially Lincoln, the balance leaned heavily toward the LEGISLATIVE BRANCH.”
If parliamentary system was designed to secure “mutual dependence” between the executive office and the legislature, America’s Republican Federal system was designed to compel the legislature, particularly the House of Representatives, to “have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.”[xxi] America’s founding fathers argued that “frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured.”
Federalist Paper No. 52 shows when the founding fathers tackled important issues, such as “term for which the representatives are to be elected”, the nature of their power, and the mechanisms they needed to adopt to protect people’s rights and liberty, part of their main agenda was to avoid “all the other vicious ingredients in the parliamentary constitution”.[xxii] They based this observation on the parliament in Ireland that commenced with King George II’s rule and stayed in power for 35 years, or until the king’s death.
Unlike parliamentarism, America’s Republican Federal system was a product of deliberate institutional design.[xxiii]
In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison did not just provide the conceptual and political differences between a republic and a democracy; he also warned America against the tyranny of ‘democratic government’.
“The valuable improvements made by the American constitutions on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired; but it would be an unwarrantable partiality, to contend that they have as effectually obviated the danger on this side, as was wished and expected. Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”[xxiv]
Was he talking about Europe’s parliamentary system? Again, always bear in mind that parliamentarism is a system of “mutual dependence”, and it was designed, its proponents and supporters argue, to remove or avoid political gridlock inherent in what they call “presidential system”.
Madison defined a “republic” as “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking.”[xxv]
The very essence of democracy, academics and even democrats contend, is majority rule, a system that gives power to a dominant body, party or group of individuals to make important decisions and lay down the rules.
There are two major advantages of Republicans system, according to Madison. They are as follows[xxvi]:
- “First. In a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”
- “Second. It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.”
Indeed, the founding fathers designed the American system to be more consistent with limited government and free market system. By establishing this form of government, Madison and the founding fathers sought to prevent or avoid the “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority”. According to Madison: “… democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they are violent in their deaths.”
As this excellent quotation often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence states: “Democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%.”
John Adams, one of the signers of the Declaration, noted: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that ‘did not commit suicide.'”
Alexander Hamilton also said: “It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.” He also declared that America is a “Republican Government. Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of Democracy.”
The essence of Republican system is objective rule of law, which means that the majority is powerless or has no right at all to pass illegal or unconstitutional laws to serve their collective interests. During his inaugural address on April 30, 1789, George Washington declared that he would dedicate himself to “the preservation… of the republican model of government.”
To discredit America’s Republican system [or Republican Federalism], dogmatic supporters of parliamentarism and Western liberals have invented absurd and undefined semantic and terminological bugaboos, such as “presidential system”, “political gridlock”, “rigid”, “bureaucratic bottlenecks”, etc.
Yet the system was originally designed to limit state force and to protect individual rights. For instance, the purpose of bicamerialism is to serve as an institutional check on the legislators’ fallibility, ignorance, errors, or passion. Here, Bryce was right in saying that the American system “is best calculated to guard against errors into which the people may fall by ignorance, haste, or passion.”[xxvii]
Although the most vital purpose of government is to protect individual rights, its law-making and law-implementing authority must not be used to limit or destroy the same rights guaranteed and protected by the Constitution. Like Roman senator and political genius Tacitus said: “The more corrupt the state, the numerous the laws.”
History has it that most laws (e.g., Federal Reserve Act, Community Reinvestment Act, ObamaCare, etc.) passed in haste have been proven to be destructive and inimical to people’s rights, liberty and interests. In the Philippines, for example, it took only a year for the B.S. Aquino regime to pass the controversial Cybercrime law that seeks to punish online libel and toregulate Filipino netizens’ online activities.
Now for the Americans, the only way to save America from creeping progressive or liberal dictatorship is to go back to their founding principles. As for the Filipinos, the only path to economic progress is to scrap the current protectionist Charter and to adopt a genuine Republican Federal system that is more consistent with the principles of economic freedom and limited government.
[i] Drutman, L. (2010, May 6). Dismissing Gridlock: A Case for Parliamentary Systems. [Online] Retrieved from http://www.psmag.com/politics/dismissing-gridlock-a-case-for-parliamentary-systems-3790/
[ii] Linz, J. (1994). Presidential or Parliamentary Democract: Does it Makes a Difference? In: Juan J. Linz & Arturo Valenzuela (eds), The Failure of Presidential Democracy, volume 1. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, pp.3-87.
[iii] Linz, J. (1990). The Perils of Presidentialism. Journal of Democracy, pp. 51-69. Retrieved from http://www1.american.edu/ia/cdem/pdfs/linz_perils_presidencialism.pdf
[iv] Linz, J. (1994). Presidential or Parliamentary Democract: Does it Makes a Difference?
[v] Riggs, F. (1997). Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism: Implications for Representativeness and Legitimacy. International Political Science Review, 18(3), pp. 253-278.
[vi] Stepan, A. & Skach, C. (1993). Constitutional Frameworks and Democratic Consolidation: Parliamentarism vs. Presidentialism. World Politics, 46, pp. 1-22.
[vii] Mainwaring, S. (1990). Presidentialism in Latin America. Latin America Research Review, 25, pp. 157-79.
[viii] Stepan & Skach, 3.
[ix] Waldron, J. (2012). Separation of Powers or Division of Powers. New York: New York University School of Law. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2045638
[x] Ibid, Waldron.
[xi] Steinmo, S., Thelen, K. & Longstreth, F. (1992). Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[xii] Stapenhurst, R. (2011). African Parliamentary Reform. London: Routledge
[xiii] Linz (1990), pp. 69.
[xiv] Madison, J. The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments. Federalist Paper No. 51. Retrieved from http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa51.htm
[xv] Stepan & Skach, 3-4
[xvi] Ibid, 3-4
[xvii] Muller, W., Bergman, M.T. & Trom, K. (n.d.). Parliamentary Democracy: Promise and Problems. Retrieved from http://fds.oup.com/www.oup.com/pdf/13/9780198297840.pdf
[xviii] Ibid, pp. 9
[xix] Billias, G.A. (1999). American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World, 17776-1989: A Global Perspective. New York: NYU Press.
[xx] Bryce, J. (1921). Modern Democracies. New York: Macmillan.
[xxiii] Norton, P. (1981). The Commons in Perspective. Oxford: Basil Blackwell
[xxvi] Madison, Federalist Paper 51
[xxvii] Muller, W., Bergman, M.T. & Trom, K., pp. 13