America’s Fragile Constitution
The Founders misread history and established a dysfunctional system of government. A case for a little less reverence.
Since the american Revolution, many new democracies have taken inspiration from the U.S. Constitution. Around much of the world, parliamentary systems became prevalent, but some countries, particularly in Latin America, adopted the presidential model, splitting power between an executive and a legislative branch.
When, in 1985, a Yale political scientist named Juan Linz compared the records of presidential and parliamentary democracies, the results were decisive. Not every parliamentary system endured, but hardly any presidential ones proved stable. “The only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States,” Linz wrote in 1990. This is quite an uncomfortable form of American exceptionalism.
Linz’s findings suggest that presidential systems suffer from a large, potentially fatal flaw. In parliamentary systems, governmental deadlock is relatively rare; when prime ministers can no longer command legislative support, the impasse is generally resolved by new elections. In presidential systems, however, contending parties must eventually strike a deal. Except sometimes, they don’t. Latin America’s presidential democracies have tended to oscillate between authoritarianism and dysfunction.
Until recently, American politicians have generally made the compromises necessary to govern. The trouble is that cultures evolve. As American politics grows increasingly polarized, the goodwill that oiled the system and helped it function smoothly disappears.
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