In his seminal 1990 article “The Perils of Presidentialism,” political scientist Juan Linz pointed out that “the vast majority of the stable democracies in the world today are parliamentary regimes” and that, in contrast, “the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States.” Based in part on this observation, Linz concluded that parliamentary democracies are more conducive to stable democracies that presidential democracies.
Linz thought the United States was the exception. What, according to Linz, made the United States exceptional? His answer was that it lacked political polarization and instead had a large moderate consensus that avoided catering to extremists. But this is no longer true.
Rather, the United States looks like precisely the kind of society that Linz thought was vulnerable to the destabilizing effects of the “zero-sum game” of presidential systems. Linz argued that presidentialism “is ineluctably problematic because it operates according to the rule of ‘winner-take-all’—an arrangement that tends to make democratic politics a zero-sum game, with all the potential for conflict such games portend.”
Linz argued that such a system discouraged compromise and coalition building while exacerbating competition and polarization. These circumstances, in turn, had a destabilizing effect on a democracy. Given all this, it seems that the United States now faces the perils of presidentialism. How should the United States respond?
One prudent response would be for the United States to identify and abide by what I called in an earlier post on this blog unpluckable feathers of democracy. Unpluckable feathers are specific and nonpartisan core aspects of a democracy that are treated as inviolable because of their importance in preserving democracy.
The label “unpluckable feather of democracy” comes from an analogy offered by Mussolini, and recounted by Madeleine Albright and Bill Woodward in Fascism: A Warning. There they write:
“Mussolini observed that in seeking to accumulate power it is wise to do so in the manner of one plucking a chicken—feather by feather—so each squawk is heard apart from every other and the whole process is kept as muted as possible.”
We often think of dictatorships as arising from wars or coups, but Mussolini’s analogy highlights how nations can slip from liberal democracies to illiberal autocracies through a series of small, incremental changes. This gives rise to the problem of sorities authoritarianism.
Unpluckable feathers are meant to help stop democracies from sliding into autocracies by picking out what Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have called safeguards. Unpluckable feathers are a particular kind of safeguard that is specific, nonpartisan, apt to help preserve democracy, and apt to be violated by an executive seeking to gain undue power.
But unpluckable feathers only work if the members of a state are committed to them. I suggest that perhaps the greatest challenge facing Americans now is that bitter social partisanship, including high levels of negative partisanship, has made it hard for Americans to agree on many things that would satisfy the criteria of unpluckable feathers.
There is no simple solution to this challenge. But there are social and structural changes that Americans can strive for that may help. These include a greater commitment to civic education and working to combat disinformation. This may involve legal innovation including, as law professor and Biden Administration official Tim Wu has suggested, updating our First Amendment jurisprudence to better meet the new challenges posed by the internet and our limited capacity for attention.
From his vantagepoint in 1990, Linz considered the United States far removed from presidentialism’s perils. But Linz probably should never have felt quite so comfortable. As Angela Davis has reminded us, freedom is a constant struggle. Part of the United States’ current struggle is getting to a point where enough people accept the basic political facts and history that are necessary for establishing secure democratic safeguards.
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