During the Obama era, a number of liberal writers, including this one, have grown fascinated with the prophecies of the late political scientist Juan Linz. Noting that presidential systems (as opposed to parliamentary ones) have a persistent tendency to collapse into coups, Linz argued that failures were endemic to their design. They created two elected bodies, both of which could claim popular legitimacy, without any strong mechanisms for settling power struggles between them.
Matthew Yglesias surveys American political history and its rising polarization through the prism of Linz’s analysis, and concludes that our political system is doomed. The U.S. was the exception to the otherwise-universal worldwide trend of presidential systems falling apart only because its unusually loose parties lacked the motivation and partisan willpower to push their powers to the limit. Now it is only a matter of time until a crisis brings it down. (“What if a disputed presidential election coincided with a Supreme Court vacancy? What if the simultaneous deaths of the president and vice president brought to power a House Speaker from the opposite party? What if neither party secured a majority of electoral votes and a presidential election wound up being decided by a vote of the lame duck House of Representatives? What if highly partisan state legislatures start using their constitutional authority to rig the presidential contest?”) And this is not even considering other, lower-probability scenarios.
Yglesias’s case is convincing, and he may be right. There is, however, another possibility he does not consider. Perhaps the most dangerous thing about American politics is not its institutional design but the unique power of its right wing. And perhaps, since the far right’s power is not immutable, American presidentialism can outlast it after all.