Saturday, October 15, 2016

Perhaps Trump is a good opportunity to rethink presidential democracy

Most liberal-left discussion of Donald Trump's candidacy has focused, at least implicitly, on keeping him (and similar candidates) out of the White House. Predictably, that goal usually dictates the standard two-pronged agenda of American activism. On one hand, we are enjoined to remedy the various socioeconomic pathologies (economic anxiety, white ethno-nationalism, and so on) that created Trump's constituency in the first place; on the other hand, we have to fight him for the presidency itself.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that this framing of the liberal-left agenda is so popular in an election year - it neatly advances the theory that we need to elect a progressive president, one who can both keep Trump out of office and fight the socioeconomic conditions that led to his candidacy. Every one of his electoral opponents, of course, is necessarily making this sort of argument, and the media will predictably let the way politicians talk about politics dictate their coverage.

There is, however, an alternative that neither the Clinton nor Stein campaigns are likely to ever bring up: we get rid of the presidency altogether.

Yet that's precisely the solution that came to mind this morning when I re-read Juan Linz's The Perils of Presidentialism, available in full here. In that classic essay, Linz weighs the advantages and disadvantages of presidential against parliamentary democracy, and concludes that "the odds that presidentialism will help preserve democracy are far less favorable."

What is truly striking is how closely Linz's nightmare scenarios for democracy correspond with the dangers posed by candidates like Trump. He notes, for example, the
risk that [the president] will tend to conflate his supporters with "the people" as a whole...[this may] bring on a refusal to acknowledge the limits of the mandate that even a majority - to say nothing of a mere plurality - can claim as democratic justification for the enactment of its agenda. The doleful potential for displays of cold indifference, disrespect, or even downright hostility toward the opposition is not to be scanted...
This risk is fostered by the very nature of the presidency - thus, we even see it realized in candidates like Clinton, whose partisans routinely invoke the rhetoric of democratic consensus while marginalizing the opposition's agenda as (to quote Linz) "the selfish design of narrow interests". That move has some particularly ominous precedents when the Clinton campaign starts leaning heavily on nationalistic paranoia about meddling foreign agents.

If that dynamic is detectable in Clinton's campaign, however, it's ramped up to eleven in Trump's, which is built entirely on contrasting the will of "real Americans" with the sinister machinations of all kinds of out-groups (Muslims, terrorists, immigrants, Jews, and so on). And dangerously, the mandate of "Real America", in the eyes of the Trump right, is their license for a draconian eliminationist politics, which includes everything from religious tests at the border to assaulting political protesters.

These essentially fascist currents in American politics are in no small part driven by the battle over the presidency, which many people see as their only vehicle for exercising political agency. As Linz continues,
...a president bids fair to become the focus for whatever exaggerated expectations his supporters may harbor. They are prone to think that he has more power than he really has or should have and may sometimes be politically mobilized against any adversaries who bar his way. The interaction between a popular president and the crowd acclaiming him can generate fear among his opponents and a tense political climate.
Again, this cuts both ways. The 2016 election has clearly become the locus of intense anxiety for millions of Americans, who see the whole of their political fates bound up in a single decision. It may be Clinton's politics that causes the right to fear gun confiscation, Sharia law, high taxes, and so on - but it is the expansive power of the presidency that makes them fear that she might actually be able to do all of this, and that incites them to express intense, boundless fear and paranoia as radical enthusiasm for Trump. Meanwhile, that same enormous power seduces Trump supporters into seeing him as the silver bullet for all of their problems, and cultivates intense frustration and disappointment when he encounters obstacles to victory.

These incentives aren't unique to Trump supporters - partisans for Clinton are driven by many of the same anxieties. Suffice to say that this is not how you have to arrange your democracy. In a parliamentary democracy, political struggle is diffused into a larger number of electoral decisions, which has the paradoxical effect of lowering the stakes and diluting the toxin of social conflict.

Obviously, while a presidential system may amplify democratic discord and express it in fundamentally dangerous ways, the presidency isn't the exclusive source of conflict in the United States. The familiar problems of poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, and so on are all contributing to polarization and the rise of extremism in the United States. But this isn't a counterpoint to Linz's argument - in fact, it simply affirms it. Repeatedly, the author points to the United States as the major exception to the historical rule of instability and dysfunction in presidential democracies. But there is, Linz argues, a reason why the US has been able to make it work:
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... In countries where the preponderance of voters is centrist, agrees on the exclusion of extremists, and expects both rightist and leftist candidates to differ only within a larger, moderate consensus, the divisiveness latent in presidential competition is not a serious problem. 
In other words, the rise of Trump likely bodes the end of the presidential system, one way or another. Either we replace it with a more democratic parliamentary system, or we watch political polarization turn the presidency into an increasingly undemocratic institution incapable of mediating social conflict. For obvious reasons, if we prefer the former outcome, we probably ought not rely on presidential candidates to fight for it.