Juan Linz has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention in the blogosphere recently. Linz wrote that presidential regimes tend to break down because of irreconciliable conflicts between the executive and the legislature.
Many observers, not least Matt Yglesias, have interpreted Linz as stating that the problem is that presidential system allow for gridlock between the executive and the legislature, especially when the parties are ideologically coherent and commited. Kind of like, uh, the modern United States. So are we doomed now that our parties have become European-style organizations?
Well, maybe. The cross-country data is mildly supportive of the presidentialism = bad hypotesis, but is by no means a slam-dunk. Moreover, while presidential regimes are more likely to break down there is really rather little evidence that the reason was gridlock between the executive and the legislature.
The closest parallel to the current American situation is Chile in the early 1970s — but it is not very close. In the 1969 election, the People’s Union (Unidad Popular) got 60 out of 150 seats in the lower house. The Christian Democrats got 57 and the National Party received 33. The next year, Salvador Allende (the People’s Union candidate) won a plurality of the presidential vote, throwing the election to Congress, where he won with Christian Democratic support. (The Nixon Administration tried to prevent his election but failed.) Allende started a program of widespread nationalizations using existing legal authority under a 1932 law that allowed for the temporary requisition of basic goods when in the public interest. (The law also allowed the executive to put companies into temporary receivership should they be closed by a strike.) In October 1972, the Supreme Court ordered the President to obey lower-court orders overturning some of the nationalizations; Allende refused.
In March 1973, the opposition won the Congressional elections. The Christian Democrats aligned with the National Party to form the Democratic Confederation, which took 55.6% of the popular vote and 87 out of 150 seats. (The People’s Union got the rest.) Congress first attempted to amend the constitution, which failed. It then tried to impeach Allende, but could not get the requisite ⅔ majority. In May, the Supreme Court again reprimanded the President. At this point, Congress went on record asking for a coup. The coup happened on September 11, and its leaders proceeded to disband Congress and jail or “disappear” many of the legislators who had called on the military.
In short, the Chilean crisis was caused by a President who overstepped his authority and disobeyed the Supreme Court and resolved by a military that believed itself above the law. Suffice it to say that this does not characterize America’s current situation.
What about Argentina? Well, Argentina has had a lot of coups since the first one in 1930. In 1930, President Hipólito Yrigoyen’s party had comfortable majorities in both houses. The 1943 coup was against a dictatorship. The 1955 coup overthrew the elected Juan Perón — but Perón’s party controlled Congress by overwhelming margins. As in 1930, gridlock was not the issue. In 1962, the miltary overthrew President Arturo Frondizi: in that case, the prompt was Frondizi’s loss of several governorships to the Peronists in the ’62 elections. Again, gridlock was not the issue. The 1966 coup kinda sorta maybe if you squint could be gridlock-related — but really had more to do with President Arturo Illia’s confrontation with American oil companies. And 1976? That one was against President Isabel Perón’s supposed inability to defeat Communist guerrillas. Her coalition controlled Congress; once again, gridlock was not the issue.
What about Brazil? Well, the Revolution of 1930 took down an oligarchical government with an extremely limited electorate. Not really comparable. The 1964 coup knocked out a left-wing government with American support. It is true that Congress did not support President João Goulart. It is also true, however, that for his first three years Goulart presided over a parliamentary system in which power resided with Prime Minister Tancredo Neves. In 1963, a referendum restored President Goulart’s executive power: the result was paralysis. In that sense, the ’64 democratic breakdown is consistent with the hypothesis that presidentialism causes gridlock causes democratic failure. The problem is that the parliamentary system tried beforehand was doing no better at resolving the country’s political conflicts.
Colombia? Well, the 1953 coup happened after President Laureano Gómez seized dictatorial power. Gómez, in turn, won the 1950 election because the opposition boycotted it. Again, gridlock not the problem.
Let’s turn then to Mexico. Uh … no, let’s not. The 1910 revolution got started against a dictatorship. Porfirio Díaz government was many things, but gridlocked was not one of them. (In fact, Congressional votes were all unanimous after 1893.)
I could go on around the other countries of the Western Hemisphere, but the pattern is similar. Divided government is not the cause of most democratic breakdowns in Latin America. Chile 1973 is the closest, but that is one event, with little resemblance to the government-by-crisis currently affecting the United States.
So breathe easy America! We will get through this. How, you ask? Well, if the GOP keeps this up, it will lose a lot of elections, even with our gerrymandered House of Representatives ... and there is a lot of ruin in the United States. The worst-case scenario on the debt ceiling is pretty bad, and I would certainly a 5-10% fall in GDP and the corresponding human suffering a failure of the United States. But in the unlikely event that the Republicans take us there, they will not be in a position to take us there again.