There is no shortage of think pieces out there diagnosing the state of American politics and conjecturing as to where things are heading. But one recently caught my attention presenting a pretty interesting, if disconcerting, analysis and thesis about the changes unfolding in American democracy. It came to me via The Interpreter newsletter, named after the New York Times column by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub. (I highly recommend signing up if you want a regular dose of thought-provoking political analysis in your inbox.) My time is short, so I’ll just share the relevant excerpts:
What happens if that foundational democratic assumption in the separation of powers collapses? What would American democracy become?
There’s actually a term for it: delegative democracy.
“Delegative democracy is an old concept is political science,” Amy Erica Smith, an Iowa State political scientist, told us. It emerged after a series of Latin American dictatorships transitioned to democracies in the 1980s — but to a sort that seemed less than fully democratic.
“There was this collective head-scratching over what sort of democracy we have in Latin American,” said Dr. Smith, who studies the region. “We had free and fair elections that met the minimum criteria for democracy. But they didn’t look exactly like what we think democracies are supposed to be.”
The key difference, the experts decided, was separation of powers. It existed on paper in Latin America democracies, most of whose constitutions were modeled on that of the United States. But, in practice, the courts and the Congresses did what they were told. They delegated their power to the president — hence, delegative democracies.
That, Dr. Smith said, became an important lesson: “Norms matter more than formal institutions.”
These countries, for the most part, were still democracies. But they didn’t function all that well. They had what’s called “vertical accountability” — leaders had to answer to voters, who could kick them out of office — but not “horizontal accountability” from other branches of government.
That tends to degrade governance. There’s little to keep the president from putting her interests first. Corruption and abuses of power become more common. Apolitical agencies get politicized, hurting their ability to function. The president’s support base tends to get preferential treatment; those not in her support base can face discrimination or worse.
(This is a good reminder that, although Americans tend to think of democracy as a binary — you’re a democracy or you’re not — it’s better to think of it as existing on a spectrum. Delegative democracies tend to fall near the fuzzy middle.)
(This is also a good reminder that presidential systems, like those in Latin America or the United States, are unusually prone to backsliding. Delegative democracy is a risk more or less exclusive to presidential systems. Parliamentary systems have more formal, and historically more reliable, ways to check the executive’s power.)
To that last point, there has been interesting, if disconcerting, scholarship on the inherent weaknesses of our presidential system, which is limited mostly to the Americas. In most cases it leads to polarization and gridlock that culminates into coups, civil wars, and other forms of political violence. The only thing that has kept the system more or less uniquely functioning in the United States is the near-universal adherence to democratic norms touched on by Dr. Smith.
Many presidential systems also endure a transformation called “presidentialization”, in which the checks and balances of the system melt away or become folded into the executive. Again from The Interpreter:
For much of American history, voters thought about their Congressional votes as a separate issue from their support for the president. That is no longer really the case. Research shows that Americans increasingly place nearly all votes — for any office — based on how they feel about the president. If they like the president, they vote for members of her party. If they don’t, they punish her by voting against her party.
As voters have come to treat Congressional Republicans like the president’s subordinates rather than as members of a distinct body, Congress has done the same.“When a party becomes presidentialized, the separation of powers ceases to apply, effectively,” Matthew Shugart, a political scientist at University of California, Davis,wrote on Twitter.“Presidentialization has various manifestations, but fundamentally it’s about electoral incentives.”
Republican lawmakers know that their fate is tied to the president’s. If he succeeds, they succeed; if he fails, they fail. That makes Congress less a separate institution than one subservient to the president.
And no doubt the same calculation applies to any party, now that this has become standard practice among American voters. I am not quite sure where we go from here — what are your thoughts?