Juan Linz’s Bad News for America

The Yale political scientist died this week. His life’s work tells us that American democracy is doomed.

U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) (3rd L) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) (4th L) hold a photo opportunity with fellow members of an unrequited conference committee they proposed to the Democratic-controlled senate over the current budget impasse.
Republicans sit across from empty Democratic seats the night of the Oct. 1 shutdown. Given how the U.S. government was designed, things may only get worse in the long run.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Juan Linz, the distinguished Yale political scientist, died on Tuesday morning in New Haven, Conn., at the age of 86. He was a great man whose death happens to have coincided with a series of news events that nearly perfectly illustrate some of the main themes of his work. Linz, you see, was a student of comparative government, of political institutions, and of democratic breakdown. He saw these, naturally enough, as related issues. He looked at the success of democratic institutions in Western Europe and their frequent failure in coup-ridden Latin America and saw the contrast as driven more by constitutional structure than by culture or economics.

And his analysis has a disturbing message for residents of the contemporary United States. The current atmosphere of political crisis isn’t a passing fad and it isn’t going to get better. In fact, it’s very likely to get worse. Much worse. And lead to a complete breakdown of constitutional government and the democratic order.

To see why, start with Linz’s analysis of Latin America in his two-volume series The Failure of Presidential Democracy. The problem, according to Linz, is right there in the title: too much reliance on presidents. In Linz’s telling, successful democracies are governed by prime ministers who have the support of a majority coalition in parliament. Sometimes, as in the British Commonwealth or Sweden or post-Franco Spain, these prime ministers are formally subordinate to a monarch. Other times, as in Germany or Israel or Ireland, there is a largely ceremonial, nonhereditary president who serves as head of state. But in either case, governing authority vests in a prime minister and a cabinet whose authority derives directly from majority support in parliament.

When such a prime minister loses his parliamentary majority, a crisis ensues. Either the parties in parliament must negotiate a new governing coalition and a new cabinet, or else a new election is held. If necessary, the new election will lead to a new parliament and a new coalition. These parliamentary systems are sometimes very stable (see the United Kingdom or Germany) and sometimes quite chaotic (see Israel or Italy), but in either case, persistent legislative disagreement leads directly to new voting.

In a presidential system, by contrast, the president and the congress are elected separately and yet must govern concurrently. If they disagree, they simply disagree. They can point fingers and wave poll results and stomp their feet and talk about “mandates,” but the fact remains that both parties to the dispute won office fair and square. As Linz wrote in his 1990 paper “The Perils of Presidentialism,” when conflict breaks out in such a system, “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and 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.” That’s when the military comes out of the barracks, to resolve the conflict on the basis of something—nationalism, security, pure force—other than democracy.

It used to seem as though Linz’s theory had one enormous and obvious flaw: the United States of America. The success of American democracy seemed to show that institutions were not the key. Old-fashioned Anglophone pluck and liberal values triumphed under both presidential and parliamentary systems. If something was going wrong south of the border, blame some aspect of Latin culture or economic development. But Linz always did have an answer to this objection. In the 1990 paper, he said that a full explanation of America’s success was complicated, but that “it is worth noting that the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties—which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties—has something to do with it.”

That was 23 years ago. Today, of course, we have ideologically disciplined parties that are “responsible” in the sense that they make a serious effort to deliver on their stated policy agendas. We also have a government shutdown, a looming debt ceiling breach, and a country in which regular order budgeting is an increasingly distant memory.

In a January interview with the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews, Linz explained that the cover to the Spanish edition of his book on presidential democracy was illustrated with a photo of the White House. “I said I’d prefer some other presidential palace,” he said, “but now it’s failed the same way.”

Obviously, this doesn’t mean a coup is coming this week. Republicans will probably back down from the brink. We’ll probably avoid breaching the debt ceiling and the president won’t even need to resort to crazy platinum coin loopholes. It’ll probably be fine. (Besides which, one thing both parties agree on is that the military should keep getting paid even while nobody else does.) But Linz’s work raises the deeper question not of what will happen next week or next month, but next year or next decade. In a world with well-sorted parties and little ticket-splitting, the geography-driven differences in voting results for the House, Senate, and president are going to lead to persistent conflicts, in which both sides feel they have an electoral mandate to stand firm and there’s no systematic way to resolve the issue. That’s very bad news for America, and nobody knows how to stop it.