Presidentialism: The Superior Democracy

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Jack Scalia, Denison University

In Juan Linz’s “The Perils of Presidentialism,” he wrestles with the same question debated by the Federalists and Anti-Federalist’s at the founding of our country– what is the best form of Democracy? Advocating for the Parliamentary system, as opposed to the Presidential system, the author argues that the former is superior to the latter for three primary reasons. Linz argues in favor of Parliamentarism because of its flexibility in comparison to the rigidity of Presidentialism, the concern of dual legitimacy in Presidentialism, and the political stability which the Parliamentary system provides. I disagree with Juan Linz. His argument although compelling, is insufficient. Presidentialism is the better form of democracy due to its stability, the unique power which the president possesses and ability of the head of state to work to better the country, uninhibited by external pressures.

First, Linz makes the argument that parliamentary systems are far more flexible than their presidential counterparts. Linz says, “While parliamentarism imparts flexibility to the political process, presidentialism makes it rather rigid”. Linz continues along these lines saying, “The danger that zero-sum presidential elections pose is compounded by the rigidity of the president’s fixed term in office. Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate”. While it is true that once elected it is difficult to unseat the incumbent of the executive branch, it is a fallacy to say that winners or losers are “sharply” defined for any period of time during the mandate. As seen throughout the history of the United States, the epoch of Presidentialism, the power of the legislative and judicial branches of government check the power of the executive branch. Linz laments that losers “must wait four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage”. By stating this, the author grossly underestimates the power of the legislative and judicial branches of the government. For example, in the United States, the legislative branch has the ability to pass laws and, if needed, do so without the president’s consent. Moreover, the legislative is the only branch which can officially declare a state of war. Furthermore, the judicial branch has the right of judicial review (established by Marbury v. Madison in 1803) -the ability to check the executive branch’s power to pass law. Because of this, the “losers” of the election are never without a voice and the “winners” are never without checks. The “rigidity” to which Linz alludes is an essential part of the executive branch, giving the country a concrete advocate on both the domestic and international fronts. Another problem Linz attempts to tackle is that of dual legitimacy.

The author proclaims that in Presidentialism, a popular president is dangerous because his opponents may feel intimidated. In fact, Linz says, “[The people] are prone to think that [the president] has more power than he really has or should have and may sometimes be politically mobilized against any adversaries who bar his way”. The idea of having a strong, well-liked leader seems to terrify Linz, who would much rather the parliamentary counterpart, the Prime Minister, whom, to his relief, is “much closer to being on equal footing with their fellow ministers than presidents will ever be with their cabinet appointees”. Linz seems to believe that instead of having one, undisputed head of state, a democracy should have twenty or so “strong and independent- minded members” to hold one another accountable. In reality, a strong figure in the executive branch surrounded by intelligent cabinet members is far more capable and effective than a collection of parliamentary colleagues.

Linz goes on to berate Presidentialism for imposing upon the president the difficult task of balancing his roles as both the leader of an entire country and the voice of a political faction. Linz states, “The office of president is by nature two-dimensional and, in a sense, ambiguous: on the one hand, the president is the head of state and the representative of the entire nation; on the other hand, he stands for a clearly partisan political option”. Linz believes that it is impossible for the president to effectively represent his political group while simultaneously doing what is best for the nation as a whole. While it is certainly possible for this to happen, it is also why the executive branch is built with such rigidity. The incumbent should not feel the pressures of his political party, rather he should feel empowered with the security of his position to make the right decisions for the nation without external pressure.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister in the Parliamentary system is very much tied to his political alliances and can be removed from office with relative ease, if need be. While Linz argues that the bridged gap between the Prime Minister and the rest of Parliament holds the Prime Minister accountable, the reality is that the incumbent is less inclined to do what is best for the nation opposed to what is best for his job security –the best for the political party. The word “easy” is not in the job description of holding the highest office in the Presidential system and one would be a fool to believe that tension is unavoidable or even unnecessary. A strong head of state is instrumental to a strong nation. The absence of such a leader can prove catastrophic, both with domestic and particularly international affairs. Juan Linz strikes the nail on the head when he says, “All regimes, however wisely designed, must depend on their preservation upon the support of society at large- its major forces, groups and institutions.”

While neither Parliamentarism nor Presidentialism is inherently wrong, the success of each form of democracy is at the mercy of the people. If done correctly, both systems can flourish, as seen in the U.K. and United States respectively. In either regime, however, a negligent or evil leader can derail the system in place and render the country’s democracy obsolete. Regardless, Presidentialism offers a form of government in which a clear, stable leader can work in unison with the separate branches of government in order to better the country. On the other hand, in Parliamentarism the system can be bogged down by the absence of a strong central leader in the wake of a constantly evolving system of Democracy. Yet, “while no presidential constitution can guarantee a Washington, a Juarez, or a Lincoln, no parliamentary regime can guarantee an Adenauer or a Churchill either” the presidential system is undoubtedly superior.

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