Is American democracy doomed?

Maybe.  Matt Yglesias (relying heavily on political science research) makes a good case for it.  The basic problem, a presidential system such as ours is simply not well-designed to handle two highly-ideological polarized parties.  And while we have had party polarization before, it’s never before had such a strong ideological component.  And here’s the basic theory at work:

Still, Linz offered several reasons why presidential systems are so prone to crisis. One particularly important one is the nature of the checks and balances system. Since both the president and the Congress are directly elected by the people, they can both claim to speakfor the people. When they have a serious disagreement, according to Linz, “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved.” The constitution offers no help in these cases, he wrote: “the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.”

In a parliamentary system, deadlocks get resolved. A prime minister who lacks the backing of a parliamentary majority is replaced by a new one who has it. If no such majority can be found, a new election is held and the new parliament picks a leader. It can get a little messy for a period of weeks, but there’s simply no possibility of a years-long spell in which the legislative and executive branches glare at each other unproductively.

But within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional trainwreck with no resolution. The United States’s recent government shutdowns and executive action on immigration are small examples of the kind of dynamic that’s led to coups and putsches abroad.

Is it going to come to a true failure of our government.  I think probably not, but I do actually find it quite plausible.  Give us some sort of crisis and it is not too far for a president to essentially become a dictator.  I will agree that “doom” is probably far more likely due to our presidential system than if we had a parliamentary system.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Is American democracy doomed?

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Does the danger rise when the same party controls all branches of the government – Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court? Could it happen in 2016?
    I said before the 2014 elections that if the electorate didn’t get rid of the radicals in the coming elections, it could be they’d get so entrenched we’d never get rid of them. I hope that won’t happen but the stage is set.

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