Sam Seitz

Evan has written a powerful defense of presidentialism in his response to Why America Needs a Parliament. Nevertheless, I think his arguments are unconvincing. Of course, we will both agree that neither presidential nor parliamentary systems are perfect. Both have fundamental strengths and weaknesses. However, parliamentary systems can use a number of techniques to mitigate their shortcomings while presidential systems are fundamentally unable to avoid their pitfalls on account of their reliance on separation of powers. While parliamentary systems are far from a panacea, they are the best system humans have invented so far. In his piece, Evan draws out a number of important arguments. However, I think many of them are overstated, and I will do my best to respond to each of them below.

Evan first argues that the separation of powers is a necessary, if annoying, element of any effective democratic system because “people who have power will be inherently tempted to abuse it, putting the political liberties of society at risk.” What’s ironic about this claim, though, is that the empirical record unambiguously refutes this argument. Most coups and authoritarian backsliding occur in presidential systems, not in parliamentary ones. While Evan’s argument is certainly theoretically persuasive, it lacks any real-world data to support it. Moreover, there are several reasons to believe that parliamentary systems are actually better able to check leader’s autocratic designs than their presidential cousins. The first is that presidential systems are inherently antagonistic due to the winner-take-all nature. Unlike in parliamentary systems where coalitions or pluralities of opposition parties often exist, presidential systems cement one leader in power for a guaranteed amount of time after an often long and contentious election. This means that presidential systems are almost always more antagonistic than their parliamentary cousins. The separation of powers is also anathema to efficient bipartisan cooperation and governing. Indeed, to quote Juan Linz:

Presidential systems are based on a contradiction. On the one hand, such systems set out to create a strong, stable executive with enough plebiscitarian legitimacy to stand fast against the array of particular interests represented in the legislature… On the other hand, presidential constitutions often reflect profound suspicion of the personalization of power: memories and fears of kings and caudillos do not dissipate easily.

This contradictory dynamic makes presidential systems far too rigid. In fact, one of the reasons that presidential systems are empirically so prone to coups is that the military often intervenes to end gridlock between the executive and legislature.

Parliaments do not face this problem because they are far more flexible. While Evan would argue that this flexibility is dangerous and that stability necessitates a highly structured system, it is a little more complex. After all, what happens if the president is incapacitated suddenly? In the U.S., the Vice President becomes the chief executive regardless of whether or not he or she is qualified or would have won the popular mandate if he or she had run for president. Parliaments don’t suffer from this problem because the flexibility inherent in PM selection allows qualified and effective candidates to rapidly replace an incapacitated or ineffective leader. Things like votes of no confidence or the dissolution of parliament also ensure that PMs can both shore up confidence in themselves and also be held accountable for their policies.

Evan’s next argument is that term limits are crucial to preventing a de facto dictatorship, but this is also exaggerated. In fact, while it is true that PMs can call elections whenever they want, the opposition can also call for votes of no confidence when they want. If the PM is weak or pushing unpopular legislation, he or she can be held accountable far more easily than if they were president. Evan cites the dangers of a McConnell Prime Ministership, but I would push back and argue that many Republicans feel that Obama’s executive orders are undemocratic, yet they are stuck with him until 2016. In a parliamentary system, if the opposition thought that they could galvanize enough support against a PM’s heavy-handedness, they could immediately end the executive’s power by calling for a vote of no confidence. Moreover, parliamentary systems are far better at holding executives accountable because the executive is made up of members of parliament. There are structured times for questions with the prime minister, and because the cabinet is also made up of members of parliament, they can’t be shielded, thus forcing them to be accountable for their decisions in a way that just doesn’t exist in a presidential system. Moreover, parliamentary systems have a distribution of power (i.e., leader of the opposition) and a non-partisan moderator (i.e., the speaker) which hold the PM and cabinet liable for any misguided policies. In presidential systems, because the executive and legislature are decoupled, it is far easier for each side to ignore the other. A president meets with the legislature on his or her own terms and isn’t subject to the same amount of scrutiny and intense debate that a PM is.

Term limits also have a lot of problems which Evan glosses over. Namely, they prevent parties from working on long-term policies. Because every few years the parties have to gear up for massive, winner-take-all elections, they possess a limited timeframe to enact policy. This means that ambitious, long-term legislation almost never occurs because it gets subsumed by electoral politics. This dynamic creates myopic policy choices that often create difficult and unnecessary problems down the road. It is also dangerous in times of crisis. For example, in the middle of a major war, when one arguably needs strong, continuous leadership, distracting elections and radically different strategies can disrupt the necessary continuity of government policy.

Evan also argues that presidential systems are more democratic in that they allow for the direct selection of a leader. This is true in theory, but not always in practice. For example, in a very close, contested election (i.e., Bush v. Gore) this highly adversarial election process hardly provides a mandate to lead but instead creates a sharp divide in the country. In a parliamentary system, close elections would force a coalition government, ensuring both sides felt represented. Thus, presidential systems are only more democratic if the president receives overwhelming support. Otherwise, the winner-take-all nature of presidential elections is actually less representative of a large minority of the population. It is also not clear that this matters all that much. The party in power is always democratically selected in a parliamentary system, so unless there is a specific reason why the leader, in particular, must be directly selected, it seems like a distinction without a difference. It also prevents the likes of Trump from becoming president. Need I say more?

Finally, Evan argues that “voting on a whim” is bad and parliaments are far less stable. While it is true that parliamentary systems are less stable, Evan overstates the problem. First of all, most “instability” is merely the moving around of a few cabinet officials, not the wholesale changing of a government. Thus, even though individual ministers might change, the ruling coalition is usually in power for at least as long as presidents are in presidential systems. Second of all, measures can be taken to prevent instability (an excellent example of how policies exist to limit the problems of parliamentary systems, but few exist to limit the issues of presidentialism). For example, there can be a minimum amount of time that must pass before elections are held, there can be a maximum number of confidence votes that can be called per parliamentary session, and there can be policies like electoral thresholds and constructive votes of no confidence. Finally, I’d like to point out that Evan’s concern about instability directly contradicts his fear of PMs garnering too much power. Parliamentary systems can’t simultaneously be unstable and constantly changing in their makeup and at the same time be at risk of having one person dominate them absolutely. Sorry, Evan. You just can’t have it both ways.

In conclusion, Evan has done an impressive job at highlighting the likely problems in a parliamentary system. Moreover, he has made a strong case for presidentialism. In the end, though, many of his concerns are overstated and easily rectified, while his defense of presidentialism, as powerful as it is, simply can’t explain how to ensure productive politics under a system of checks and balances. As I’ve said before, and will say again, there are real, concrete measures that can be implemented to mitigate and rectify most of the flaws in parliamentary systems. Those same measures do not exist in presidential systems. While presidential systems have not always been a disaster, we can’t count on every president being as magnanimous or wise as Washington. In the end, parliamentary systems are the clear choice.