Chait on Linz: “The Shutdown Prophet”

It is truly remarkable that a quite mainstream American writer would credit a scholar of comparative politics for anticipating the worse-than-gridlock situation that the US currently finds itself in. In fact, it is hard to exaggerate how unlikely that is!

Jonthan Chait, in New York magazine:

In a merciful twist of fate, Juan Linz did not quite live to see his prophecy of the demise of American democracy borne out.

This is one of those cases where I really have to use the Blogger’s Creed on my readers: you should read the whole thing. But, here are some pertinent excerpts:

The events in Washington have given us a peek into the Linzian nightmare…

Only custom or moral compunction stops the opposition party from using [debt-ceiling authorization] to nullify the president’s powers.

(And Chait notes that a president could do the same to Congress, were he or she to veto a debt-ceiling increase to demand some policy change.)

Indeed, there are many features of American democracy as we used to know it that depended on good will and the relative lack of ideology. With today’s Republican Party we are in a different universe, constitutionally and democratically. We could add to the list things like the absence of separation between campaign officials and election officials in states that might just happen to be pivotal in presidential elections, the power of state legislatures to redraw district lines (even between censuses), presidential appointment of prosecutors, signing statements and executive orders, etc., etc. There are many loopholes in US democracy that did not seem to matter when the parties were moderate and presidents could forge cross-cutting coalitions. But in an era of polarization, they matter.

Back to Chait, one more spot-on quote:

The standoff embroiling Washington represents far more than the specifics of the demands on the table, or even the prospect of economic calamity. It is an incipient constitutional crisis.

If readers are aware of other mainstream outlets referencing Linz, please post in comments.

20 thoughts on “Chait on Linz: “The Shutdown Prophet”

  1. You’d also have to look at Europe in the 1930s. It would have been hard not to conclude parliamentary and semipresidential regimes had no capacity at all to defend themselves against fascist takeovers when they were going down like skittles all over the continent.

    • In one of my publications responding to Linz’s “Perils of Presidentialism” I noted the oddity that of the separate paperback volumes in the series on The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (edited with Al Stepan, 1978), it was the one on Europe that was taken out of print, while the one on Latin America remained in print much longer (and may still be, for all I know). Of course, the Europe volume had many parliamentary case studies, whereas the Latin America one had all presidential (except Peru, which is type of semi-presidentialism). By the way, Linz says somewhere in his later work that it was in correcting the page proofs for the Breakdown volume on Latin America that it first came to him that presidentialism itself might have been a key part of the problem.

      In several of my published works, I have said that we should separate performance of democratic regimes from their longevity when assessing how different executive types work. I have also expressed skepticism about the causal link between executive type and democratic survivability (as have others). Still, one does not have to believe that the USA is on the brink of a fascist takeover to believe that the combination of two increasingly cohesive parties and presidentialism has serious problems for what Latin Americans call “governability”.

  2. It’s odd that shutdowns in both Australia and the United States have at times been a refusal to vote rather than an actual decision of the legislature. In 1975 in Australia the Senate never actually rejected supply, it just failed to vote on the issue. The numbers were tied and there was no way for either side to force an actual vote on the budget. It seems to be common ground that if the US house were actually permitted to vote on a continuing resolution it would pass.

    One of the many bitter criticisms of the Kerr decision in 1975 was that he pre-empted the senate, which was claimed by some reporters to be about to buckle.

    There almost seems to be a case for a constitution to provide that a legislative majority can always force a vote on a substantive issue.

  3. Has anyone tried to compare the record of different types of constitutions that provided for elected governments in succumbing to dictatorship and/ or one party rule, to see how well parliamentary, presidential, and semi-presidential systems stood up?

    The problem I see with this is that just about every country in continental Europe and Latin America has succumbed to dictatorship at one point or other, so there goes most of your data set. You are left with a bunch of Commonwealth countries which of course tend to have parliamentary systems, and the United States.

  4. You’d have to include South Africa as a fairly sad example of a Commonwealth parliamentary system that degenerated into a one-party state in the apartheid period. Newfoundland also managed to pass into a weird regime in 1934 when they voted to abandon self-government. Given the tiny number of Westminster systems compared with the wider Commonwealth, that is a pretty sad record for regime failure.

  5. I was thinking of Italy and Japan as the main examples of parliamentary systems that degenerated into dictatorship. Also Turkey in 1981, and maybe Hungary in the 1940s.

    But my point is that the vast majority of democracies have become dictatorships or one party states at some point in their history (in fact I think it was Aristotle who first pointed this out). So the whole comparison might in fact be pointless.

  6. In 1948 the National party and its allies won just over 50% of the South African house of assembly on just over 40% of the popular vote. In 1853 they won 60% of the seats on just 40% of the popular vote. In 1958 they achieved 66% of the seats on 55% of the votes. In 1961 they won 67% of seats on 46% of the vote. In 1968 it was 75% of the seats for 58% of the vote. Throughout that period the franchise was restricted by excluding all non-Europeans from voting, by increasingly effective gerrymanders, and by exiling, banning and imprisoning anti-apartheid whites at an increasing rate, although obviously to a much lesser degree than the black majority. The constitution was repeatedly violated, most notably by the ramming amendments through an unlawful sitting of the house of assembly and the senate in 1855. Lands and property seized from the black majority were distributed exclusively to supporters of the Nationals. Civil liberties were repeatedly suspended, particularly immediately before elections. Every redistribution maintained and strengthened the rural gerrymander which initially put the Nationals in power by a reversed majority. The executive took ever greater powers at the expense of the parliament and the courts.

    By the 1970s the opposition held a single seat in the house of assembly and that situation continued until just before the regime collapsed in 1994.

    It’s really quite difficult to characterise that as democracy, even within the white minority.

    The Newfoundland is so clear as to be unarguable. The Old Commonwealth comprised Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the Dominion of Newfoundland. 2 out of 6 is not a very good fail rate. Even 2 out of 7, if you count Britain itself, is not a good number.

  7. BTW, it was a little strange to hear during Australia’s republic debate that the monarchy guarantees civil liberties and democracy. The white minority regime did not become a republic until 1961. Petitions to the Crown by, and on behalf of, the black majority, against the enactment of clearly oppressive laws were greeted with a grim and exceptionless silence from the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1904 to the proclamation of the republic in 1961.

  8. Constitution of Costa Rica at Constitute

    Article 140
    [The following] are duties and attributions that correspond jointly to the President and to the respective Minister of Government:

    (15) To send to the Legislative Assembly the bill of National Budget at the time and with the requirements determined in this Constitution;

    Article 178
    The bill of ordinary budget will be submitted to the cognizance of the Legislative Assembly by the Executive Power, at the latest [on] the first of September of each year, and the Law of Budget must be definitively approved before the thirtieth of November of the same year.

    Article 179
    The Assembly may not augment the expenditures budgeted by the Executive Power, if the new revenues that should cover them are not specified, [with] previous report of the Office of the Comptroller General of the Republic on the fiscal effectiveness of them.

    There does not appear to be an automatic continuance provision, but it’s not a constitution I know well.

  9. Newfoundland received self-government in 1856 at the same time as the other Canadian colonies but did not confederate. They were granted dominion status in 1907.

    They asked the British to resume direct rule in 1933 after a fairly spectacular economic and political collapse in the face of the Great Depression. The British abolished the parliament and cabinet and appointed a group of UK civil servants called the commission of government who ruled until 1947. Shortly before the end of direct rule the British decided they could not afford to subsidise the colony any longer and Canada became the only option.

  10. A little more detail on Newfoundland. Prime ministers fleeing for their lives while parliament house is sacked does not completely fit the otherwise placid and refined image of the Westminster model.

  11. Ed, at #6, yes there is quite a large literature on just that question. You are right that it is not an easy question precisely for the reasons you note.

    For instance, I have a couple of pieces with Scott Mainwaring from several years ago that makes the general point:

    Matthew Soberg Shugart and Scott Mainwaring, “Presidentialism and Democracy in Latin America: Rethinking the Terms of the Debate,” pp. 12–54 in Presidentialism and Democracy in Latin America, ed. by Scott Mainwaring and Matthew Soberg Shugart. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    Scott Mainwaring and Matthew Soberg Shugart, “Juan Linz, Presidentialism, and Democracy—A Critical Appraisal,” in Politics, Society, and Democracy: Latin America (Essays in Honor of Juan J. Linz), ed. by Scott Mainwaring and Arturo Valenzuela. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997. (A nearly identical version also appeared as Scott Mainwaring and Matthew Soberg Shugart, “Juan Linz, Presidentialism, and Democracy—A Critical Appraisal,” Comparative Politics 29, 4 (July 1997).)

    As I said above, it is useful to separate out the “performance of democracy” and the “breakdown/survival of democracy” when assessing these issues.

  12. Ideological polarisation would be a factor. If one understands the US Constitution to be impliedly directing the House “Pass all the President’s budgets except for those few you are convinced are really, really, disastrously bad economics” and the Senate “Confirm all the President’s nominees except for those few you are convinced are really, really, disastrously incompetent or dishonest”, then deadlocks will rarely occur if the President is a Truman or an Eisenhower and the Congress is split three ways among northern liberal Democrats, southern Dixiecrats and Romney-style Republicans. Barring the occasional Fortas, Carswell, or Bork, the numbers won’t be there for a sustained campaign to hold up the budget or leave the Administration with unfilled positions for long. (These being the two ways in which the US system most closely approximates Westminster no-confidence motions).

    First, it’s numerically harder to put together a consistent majority with three factions (two of which usually united for presidential campaigns but then spent the three and a half years in between stymieing each other in the legislature). You don’t want to burn bridges with someone who might consider allying with you on a future vote.

    Secondly, it’s ideologically harder to do with a straight face. Painting the Democrats as effete northeastern liberals, or the Republicans as knuckle-dragging theocrats, would be a much harder sell when 30-40% of Democrats in Congress were well the right of Wendell Wilkie or even Richard Nixon.

    However, the ideological sorting-out among parties that followed the 1964-65 Civil/ Voting Rights Acts (the Zell Millers and Jeane Kirkpatricks leaving the Democrats, the Rockefellers and Jim Jeffords-es and Rodhams and Arlen Specters leaving the GOP) means (a) there are only two factions now, not three – or, more accurately, that the various sub-factions in Congress are arrayed along a Downsian spectrum rather than in a Condorcetian cycle, and (b) it is easier to sell “Kenyan Muslim socialist”/ “war on women” to one’s base because there is virtually no one left inside one’s own tent who will be collateral damage from the attack.,

  13. I’ve finally got round to reading the entire article… Despite the comparative politics references it includes a lot of rhetoric. Additionally,the last part is stained with the same lack of respect for the Constitution which pervades the federal government. To me, it only makes sense if by ‘constitutional order’ he means ‘existing institutional order’.

    It all raises the question of to what extent this wasn’t meant by the writers of the Constitution. Certainly putting the power of the purse in the hands of Congress wasn’t unintentional. The founders were building on England’s experience with kings drawing and spending funds unlawfully because Parliament would not give the king the money he wanted. Independently of what Madison & co. would have thought of the current situation and its effects, if a gridlock of sorts was constitutionally possible under the British monarchy, wouldn’t the founders have meant for it to be possible for Congress to deny the President funds in much the same way?

  14. If you accept the intention of the founders as controlling (I don’t, but it’s not an argument for a political science blog) you need to deal the founders’ absolutely clear antipathy for political parties. They certainly intended the congress (not the same body as the majority party in the house of representatives) to exercise the power of the purse. That is not the same thing as believing that a part of the congress should shut down the government for partisan reasons.

    One could argue with equal force that the founders intended the electoral college to function as an independent body and not be unconstitutionally subverted by the evil practice of popularly-elected electors. Once you reach behind the text of a constitution to start excavating the intention of the founders you very quickly find yourself in intellectual quicksand.

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