Friday, November 21, 2014

Immigration and Presidentialism

There is plenty of uproar over President Obama's announced executive actions on immigration, piled on top of his past statements about how he wasn't authorized to do them. Republicans are talking of "anarchy" if he pushes them through. He is an emperor, a king, etc., etc.

This reminds me a lot of the long debate about presidentialism in Latin America, which sought to explain the breakdown of democracy. Perhaps most prominently, Linz and Valenzuela's book The Failure of Presidential Democracy argues that presidential systems are very rigid in part because they do not easily allow for the executive to leave if he/she no longer has the confidence of the legislature. Particularly in a second term, there is no way to hold a president accountable. Meanwhile, the president will inevitably blame Congress for gridlock.

Their pessimism has been criticized since then, such as by Shugart and Mainwaring. In particular, they note the importance of many other variables--inequality for example--that explain breakdowns of democracy. The overall point of rigidity, however, is an interesting one. Democracy will not break down in the United States, but the rigidity exacerbates partisan rancor. In the 2014 midterm elections, voters divided the government even more sharply, so the president was in a position to choose between capitulating or to fighting harder. Obama is choosing the latter, but short of impeachment/conviction--which is really difficult--Republicans cannot remove him from office.

I wish that the popular discussion about gridlock would come back to these institutional realities. Our presidential system is simply set up this way. At times we resemble Latin American cases, though plenty of variables--an apolitical military, for example--do not lead us down the same destructive paths. But as polarization increases, the system we tend to venerate (because it was set up by the "Founding Fathers") can actually make things worse.


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