Presidential Democracy in the United States

Matthew Yglesias has a stirring piece at Vox about how our presidential system, combined with the nature of contemporary polarization, will eventually lead to Constitutional collapse in the United States. It’s a good and well-informed piece, drawing on the late Juan Linz’s insights about the instability inherent in presidential systems, and a broad range of scholarly perspectives on party polarization. Other than a link to Richard Skinner’s partisan presidency article, Yglesias doesn’t mention any of the scholarship on presidents and parties (My go-to reading list would include Sidney Milkis, Stephen Skowronek, Jesse Rhodes, Lara Brown, Anne Pluta, Dan Galvin, Daniel Klinghard – just to name a few).

Yglesias is correct that changes to the party system have shaped political conflict and contributed to instability. But there are three changes to the presidency that have contributed to the situation, and have been contingent on the way that American politics has developed – not intrinsic to the separation of powers.

The growth of the administrative state

This is the main source of unilateral policy-making for presidents. The growth of the administrative state during the New Deal also, as Milkis’ 1993 book The President and the Parties explains, replaced party politics as the main mechanism for governing. While the parties and the patronage system created linkages between the president and Congress, an expanded executive branch (including the creation of the Executive Office of the President) allows the president to go around these constraints. During the FDR presidency, these changes also created the conditions for two party developments that are important to Yglesias’ argument: ideological sorting (FDR tried, unsuccessfully, to “purge” the Democratic Party of New Deal opponents, and settled for using the administrative state to promote New Deal supporters instead); and presidential leadership of parties. As Galvin has noted, the parties have become “organizations in service” to presidential candidates – in part due to the party-building efforts of presidents themselves. This has arguably made them more message-driven and more vertical in their operations. Parties used to be more corrupt and less professional, but they were also much less centralized, and the diffusion of power among local and state party leaders created an additional check on presidential power. The rise of presidentially-led parties has also contributed to the role that presidents play as emblems of party ideology, one of the factors that drives the scenarios outlined in the Vox article.

The double-bind of presidential authority

I wrote about the “leadership myth” at some length a month or so ago, so I’ll try to keep this recap brief. The mythology about leadership that has emerged around the modern presidency rests on a notion that the right presidential personality can overcome the obstacles built into our system. These expectations devalue the checks and balances system. They also ask that presidents, in the words of Richard Neustadt, “do something about everything.” If they can’t do that through Congress, then acting unilaterally as Obama has with immigration (and other things) is the natural choice.

However, contemporary presidents face a double bind. They’re expected to be able to transcend political divisions and the obstacles posed by the separation of powers. But when they do accomplish things – especially unilaterally – they come up against the limits of executive authority. Media, citizens, and political opponents are understandably skeptical of power concentrated in a single individual. Doubts about presidential authority have been especially pronounced since the Watergate/Vietnam War era. Yet, the outsized expectations that emerged during the New Deal era didn’t recede. We call presidents weak when they don’t address policy problems, and dictators when they do. This feeds directly into what the Vox article aptly calls “constitutional trainwrecks with no resolution” – but not precisely the way that he describes. Presidents have regularly used the inherent powers of the executive (sometimes also called implied or prerogative) to deal with situations that defy other solutions. These instances are pretty much always controversial to varying degrees. And they should be. The passages of the Constitution that vest unspecified executive power, hold that the president “take care that the laws are faithfully executed” and “preserve, protect, and defend” the nation and its laws should invite vigorous debate about their interpretation. Right now, however, the president’ can’t even veto legislation, make necessary decisions about how to enforce the law, or implement law passed by Congress, without some people questioning his right to do so.

Majorities, pluralities, and plebiscitary politics

An aspect of the comparative politics argument against the presidency that doesn’t come up in the Vox piece is the danger of combining the presidency with a multi-party system. Such systems produce strong executives who have only a plurality of the public behind them (for example, this was the case in Chile when Salvador Allende was elected in 1970).

One of the features of our (mostly) winner-take-all Electoral College system is that it creates a disincentive for a third party to compete at the presidential level, although this occasionally does happen (but rarely do these third parties come back for more). Another feature is that the Electoral College can create the illusion of larger victories, turning pluralities into majorities and majorities into landslides. We’ve had several contests in which three or more candidates won at least ten percent of the popular vote – 1860, 1912, 1968, 1992. Those elections brought plurality victors to the presidency, but created some claim to a majority of votes, however artificial. As for turning a small majority into a landslide, we have 1980, where Reagan won less than 51% of the vote, but over 90% of the Electoral College votes.

These two features of the Electoral College are probably two of the most derided by reformers. And reformers may have some decent arguments. Yet, the institution does serve a purpose as a mechanism to create a system that, in the words of James Madison in Federalist 39, is both national and federal. Nevertheless, over time, presidential legitimacy has become less about winning under the rules of the game, and more about establishing and maintaining a direct connection with the people. Who constitutes “the people” has become contested, with the invocation of silent majorities, real Americans, and – one of my favorites – the “unmistakable chorus” that Bill Clinton referenced in his first Inaugural Address after winning 43% of the vote in 1992. This also means that dips in approval ratings and midterm losses now serve to delegitimize an office that still holds a great deal of unilateral power.

None of this provides a very optimistic rejoinder to Yglesias’ claim that American democracy is doomed. We might be. And if so, the presidency may very well be a big part of the problem. But many of the concerns that make a presidential system such a liability under polarized party conditions – the ways in which a separate executive fuels rather than mutes the underlying political conflict – are not inherent features of that institutional arrangement. Rather, they are the result of institutional evolution over time, including the unintended consequences of deliberate reforms.

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.