The degree to which any democratic regime represents its citizens is, I believe, an important factor that affects its viability. I refer to questions about electoral and party systems, about who votes, about how members of an electoral system are chosen and how public officials relate to their constituents. Again, I believe that parliamentarist regimes can more easily sustain broadly representative governance than can presidentialist regimes. Space limitations compel only a summary statement of my opinions on this theme about which I have written in more detail elsewhere (citation).
When monarchies came under attack from rising capitalist (bourgeois) forces, the rebels wanted to restrict royal power but not, necessarily, to empower everyone. However, they were never strong enough by themselves to disempower kings: they needed allies. Moreover, there was no easy way to separate bourgeois from non-bourgeois elements in any society -- the obvious strategy involved claims to empower all citizens, to form a united front against monarchic tyranny. The American Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most famous document making such a claim, and it helped mobilize a popular uprising in thirteen of the British colonies in North America.
After a republic was established, however, it became clear that the republican leaders did not really intend to transfer power to all the people: slaves, women, indigenous peoples, and the poor, especially debtors, were, for various reasons, not enfranchised. Moreover, when democratic states created empires, they conquered subject populations to whom they denied the rights of citizenship. In virtually all democracies, therefore, we may say that for various reasons some but never all of the people under their authority were enfranchised.
It is difficult to describe the resulting political structure because we tend to use democracy in an absolute sense -- it implies the power of all the people of a state to participate in governance through their elected representatives, especially members of an elected assembly. In fact, democracies are typically oligarchic to some degree. How oligarchic are they? That's a big question. A big part of the answer hinges on how representative assemblies are.
It is easier, I think, for a parliament to represent all the people under its authority than it is for a congress. Consequently, if parliaments can represent more constituents than can a congress, this enhances their greater structural effectiveness as a unifying force, a point that I explained above.
Questions of representativeness involve two different though overlapping problems: the first involves conquered people who have a different cultural and historical identity than their conquerors, and the second concerns people who accept their identity as citizens of a state but either cannot vote or choose not to do so. The first problem involves questions of nationalism and decolonization which I'll discuss later. Here let me focus on the second problem, that of citizens who are not represented in a democracy.
Obviously, whenever voting occurs, there are losers as well as winners. When unanimous agreement on anything prevails, no voting is necessary and we take decisions by consensus, i.e. no one objects. Of course, under authoritarian rule, a fictitious form of "consensus" can occur because everyone is afraid to vote against officially approved persons or propositions. However, whenever free voting is possible, we may assume that there are losers as well as winners. How can the number of losers be minimized, i.e., how can more of them be winners?
The easiest way to increase the number of winners is by changing the electoral rules. The traditional rules that were followed in Great Britain and inherited by the Americans involved reliance on single-member districts in which only one person could be selected to represent each assembly district. If everyone voted, 51% of the voters in a district might feel that they were represented by the winner -- but if there were more than two candidates and winning by a plurality is possible, then the winners often represent only a minority in their districts. This procedure surely maximizes the number of obvious losers.
If we assume that many eligible persons do not vote, we can understand that even a majority of the voters in a district may constitute a minority of the population. Moreover, to the degree that residents of a district are not eligible to vote, the proportion who are represented can be even smaller. The result is that, in fact, the people who are represented in any elected assembly are, typically, less than a majority of the people who are governed by that assembly's decisions.
Proportional Representation. However, it is possible to increase the number of citizens who are represented by changing the election rules, usually by some form of proportional representation (PR). I shall not discuss the various forms even though they make a big difference in the outcomes. Let me only say that, to be effective, PR requires multi-member districts. If we choose three representatives rather than just one, for example, then various minorities in a district can also be represented and the total representativeness of an elected assembly increases. The more members chosen by a district, therefore, the more representative of all the people living in that district they can become.
PR rules not only permit more people to be represented but they also increases the incentive for voting. When only one person is elected per district, many citizens feel they can never win and so, either out of apathy or alienation, they do not vote. The result is that, in multi-member districts, with PR, voting turnout is uniformly higher than it is in single-member districts. To the degree that various minorities are well represented in governance, their concerns are considered when public policies are made and governance will, consequently, be both more effective and more widely acceptable -- i.e. it will be more democratic.
Logically, therefore, when we want to consolidate democracy and enhance popular support for a government, we need to make it more representative and, in principle, we know how to do that by means of proportional representation. However, in practice, the needs of a system may countervail this logic. In general, because minorities in a parliament can be represented in coalition cabinets and because they can also be well heard in parliamentary debates, PR works well in parliamentarist regimes.
However, the dynamics of presidentialism means that increasing minority representation in a Congress can be dysfunctional for system survival. First of all, the separation of powers means that an elected president heads the government, not a cabinet responsible to members of parliament. No matter how many minorities are seated in Congress, the president may choose to disregard them -- when that happens, the minority constituents come to feel that they have been betrayed -- why choose representatives who cannot, in fact, really influence public policies? Moreover, insofar as every congress faces serious obstacles to making decisions by majority vote on a vast agenda, the presence of minorities large enough to block majority approval of legislation becomes a serious obstacle to decision making. By contrast, under the fusion of power generated by parliamentarism, since governments can only survive by gaining majority support in Parliament, even the members of larger parties have to listen to minority members in order to survive.
Parliamentary regimes can enhance voter representation by adding mandatory voting to PR, a change that increases the incentives and opportunities for previously unrepresented minorities. Because of the cabinet system, greater minority representation does not, necessarily, undermine the regime's viability. By contrast, since delegates representing minority groups in a congress cannot be assured roles in the government of a presidentialist regime, they are likely to become embittered foes of the regime rather than its supporters.
Furthermore, a strong mandarinate advising the cabinet can often work out compromises that, in fact, meet the most urgent needs of minority groups and representatives of the poorer classes while also retaining the support, both political and financial, of the more affluent parts of a population. By contrast, the transient appointees and retainers who staff cabinet members in presidentialist regimes are, I fear, unable to visualize and formulate such complex compromise solutions. Instead, they need to focus on the more immediate problems involved in securing the support of major party members in Congress for the legislation they most urgently need.
In fact, many presidentialist regimes that have collapsed actually have proportional representation -- they may also have mandatory voting to compel citizens to vote. Ironically, the good intentions that lead to more widely representative governance in presidentialist regimes also undermine their viability -- it looks as though presidentialism can really succeed only by being oligarchic. In order to survive, a presidentialist regime needs to limit voting to centrists (independents) -- i.e. persons with enough property and education to have a stake in system maintenance. Their votes can centripetelize power by compelling rival parties to support similar policies and to elect legislative members who are likely to agree on many measures and to negotiate successfully with the president. To a considerable degree, actually, the electoral and party system prevalent in America has had this result -- although Americans will scarcely admit it, the fact is that oligarchic democracy has always existed in the U.S., permitting this unstable form of democracy to survive.
By contrast, any more representative congress that seriously reflects the interests of poorer, less educated, minority communities will tend to support costly welfare programs that help their members at the expense of the more affluent citizens whose taxes are needed to pay for these programs. Sadly, efforts to make governments more democratic and representative of mass interests and minority concerns have not only often succeeded in Latin American countries but, I think, they have also undermined the viability of these regimes and contributed to their collapse. Authoritarian rulers, backed by the bureaucracy and the more affluent people in these countries, have suspended democracy and, in most cases, accepted military authoritarianism instead. The sad conclusion which I draw from these considerations is that, although increasing the representativeness of a regime is a desirable democratic goal, it is much easier to achieve this goal under parliamentarist rules than under presidentialist ones: in fact, when presidentialist regimes do adopt rules that make them more representative, they almost certainly undermine their own support base and produce a catastrophic breakdown followed by authoritarian rule.
The following comments can only hint at the relation between constitutional design and the solution of the economic and social problems created by industrialism and nationalism. In both cases, I believe, parliamentarism has a better chance of success than presidentialism.
The major problems of industrialization involve the management of public enterprises and, to the degree that private enterprise and capitalism are supported, the regulation of markets and supporting services. Capitalism easily leads to monopoly and great abuses of power which can only be prevented by public policies that actively support competition by defending the interests of smaller businesses and industries. Frequently, a combination of public/private management is called for in the case of "natural" monopolies, such as those involving communications, transportation and power. Public controls are needed to assure safety, environmental conservation, patent protection, the regulation of weights and measures, the supply of capital and security for savings and of money -- in fact, a host of public services that are necessary for capitalism to succeed without destroying itself.
To manage capitalism and public enterprises, an efficient and experienced public bureaucracy is also needed. Increasingly, all the peoples of the world have come to demand the products of industrialization -- automobiles, airplanes, radio, television, the internet, and a host of useful products dependent on new power sources such as coal, oil, electricity and nuclear energy. Those who do not already enjoy these benefits urgently yearn for them and demand that their governments make them available.
In order to meet the growing demands of people everywhere for the products of industrialization, governments need to improve their ability to manage and regulate the processes of industrial production and the market systems that help to drive them. For reasons that I have already explained, parliamentary regimes are able to maintain and control a mandarin bureaucracy that can successfully carry out the various functions of government that are necessary if industrialization is to succeed. By contrast, presidentialist regimes are not able to establish and control a mandarin bureaucracy -- it would simply overwhelm them and, under bureaucratic (i.e. military) domination, corruption and the abuse of power is endemic, leading not only to oppression but also to inefficiency and failure in the management of industrial problems.
Critics may point to the American success story as a refutation of this argument. My answer is that, like all other presidentialist regimes, the U.S. has not established a mandarin bureaucracy. However, exceptionally among all presidentialist regimes, it was able to adopt a law that permits the employment of a large number of professionally trained and experienced civil servants, under the nominal leadership of political appointees. Elsewhere I have explained in some detail how and why this system works but the reasons are truly exceptional, deeply rooted in American history, and quite unlikely to be repeated in any other presidentialist system. They also require the maintenance of oligarchic rule and the perpetuation of political principles that are no longer acceptable in most countries where higher levels of representativeness are needed than presidentialism can tolerate.
This brings us, finally, to the problem of nationalism. Clearly, shared cultural norms, religious beliefs, languages and historical identity all contribute to the success of democratic governance. To the degree that national minorities demand sovereignty and proclaim their separate identity, they will reject the rule of governments dominated by people whom they see as enemies, not fellow-citizens. The development of modern nationalism and, following the collapse of all the modern empires, the emergence of ethnic nationalism as a driving force in many new states created by the fallen empires, all pose serious problems for any democratic regime. The ongoing struggles in Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda, Indonesia, Nigeria and many other countries illustrate the difficulties that must be overcome if democracy is to succeed and military authoritarianism to be avoided in many contemporary states. Since I have already written extensively on this subject, let me avoid repetition by citing some of this work (citations).
Instead, I will focus on the question whether or not parliamentary regimes are more likely to handle ethnonationalist movements successfully than presidentialist regimes. All of the answers given above are relevant to this question. If parliamentarist governments can create a sense of national identity and the authority of the state more easily than can presidentialist regimes, then it follows that they are also better equipped to secure the loyalty and support of ethnic minorities who might, otherwise, mobilize to demand their own sovereignty based on the right of self-determination. By expanding the representativeness of a state through proportional representation, members who can speak for ethnic minorities have a better chance of being heard and becoming influential in the politics of parliamentarist than of presidentialist regimes. Insofar as parliamentarist regimes can support more effective bureaucracies that, in turn, can better sustain the processes of industrialization and economic growth, ethnic minorities are more likely to find that the existing state can do more for them, economically, than could any new state they might create by border changes.
All of these premises presuppose the possibility of absorbing ethnic minorities into the main stream of a democratic polity -- even if they continue to see themselves as members of a "hyphenated" minority -- Russian-Americans, Indian-Britons, Vietnamese-French, or Korean-Russians -- they are willing also to become partners in the overall national state as individual citizens. There still remains the irreconcilables -- these are citizens who, despite the opportunities they may have to vote and participate in the governance of a democratic state, would rather secede and become the citizens of a new state, or perhaps join a neighboring state with which they have historical connections. We may even view the non-violent withdrawal of Slovakia from membership in the former Czechoslovakia as a kind of democratic success -- at least they avoided the bloody conflicts that accompanied the separation of Croatia and Bosnia from Yugoslavia.
However, there may be a third option that involves grants of real autonomy to ethnic nations within a state. Is it possible for a federalized democracy to grant minorities enough independence for them to feel satisfied as members of a larger "nation?" On a small scale, a prototype can be found in the British isles where self-governing island states (the Isles of Man, Jersey and Guernsey) are able to co-exist with Great Britain -- they are not subject to laws made by the British Parliament, where they are not represented, but they do accept the suzerainty of the British Crown so that, for example, the Queen of England is also the Lord of Man. The principle I have in mind is something like a confederacy as illustrated by Switzerland -- its self-governing cantons are jealous of their own ethnonational identity but submit, for limited purposes, to the overarching authority of the confederal government.
No doubt this is a complicated story and no simple solution is feasible, either under parliamentarism or presidentialism. The choice between integration under the laws of a single state, or partition and the coexistence of separate states seems to be an inescapably draconian option. However, let me speculate that in this case the role of head of state acquires exceptional significance. Under presidentialist rules, the head of government is also the head of state -- the chief symbol of unity in the state is also the effective manager of its government. By contrast, under parliamentarism the two roles are separated. The historical reasons which led to the separation are well known, but this historical accident could also have an unexpected political utility. In the case of the autonomous islands mentioned above, the British head of state presides over several democratic regimes, each with its own parliament. The British head of government, as leader of a parliamentary committee, has no authority in these affiliated autonomous states, but all can coexist under the authority of the British Crown.
The Head of State. By contrast, under presidentialist constitutions, where the head of state is the head of government, it is impossible to make such a distinction. Assume, for example, that an autonomous republic of Puerto Rico were to be recognized within the United States. If the roles of head of state and head of government were separated, the former could be accepted in Puerto Rico as a symbol of unity but the latter would have no power. However, under the presidentialist system, since one person occupies both roles, a President reigning as head of state in Puerto Rico could not be distinguished from the same President, as head of government, ruling everywhere except in Puerto Rico! Since we lack even a term for this concept, it is clearly a novel idea but certainly worth considering. Moreover, there are examples to draw on.
Perhaps if we could give the concept a name, it might be easier to think about the possibility. Two neologisms that come to mind are addominium and federacy. They suggest more unity than a confederation or union (like the emergent European Union) but less centralization than a federation, like the United States or Brazil. An addominium might be thought of as a political entity (like a state) with a single head (of state), but with several heads (of government) for each constituent sub-state. My argument is just that, if we were to visualize such unions as viable democratic formations within the geographic boundaries of existing states, they could more easily be formed in parliamentarist democracies, where the separate role of head of state already exists, than they could in presidentialist regimes where one person always occupies both roles.
Imagine, for example, that Bosnians could imagine themselves as members of a single federacy (addominium) with a distinguished jurist or scholar (perhaps from some other country) willing to serve as their joint head of state, while each component unit within the union would have its complete autonomy. Although each autonomous sub-state might have its own territorial heartland and parliament, various unified services (on the model of the European Union) would be carried out under the overarching authority of the head of state. Perhaps a council of nationalities could be established with the head of state as its presiding officer to deal with matters that involved two or more of the sub-states -- including the resolution of conflicts between them -- but within each state its own representative "parliament" would have all the direct powers of governance.
I am not offering this suggestion as a proposal for action, but only as an idea for discussions on the need for and feasibility of addominiums (federacies) linked by a common head of state but separated by fully autonomous self-governing authorities. If such an idea were to be adopted, I believe it would be easier to implement under parliamentary rules (where the role of head of state is clearly separated from that of head of government) than it is in presidentialist systems (where these two roles are combined in one person).
The problems of consolidating democracy and making it work for all citizens -- and for the rest of the world also, since we are all, now, members of an increasingly interdependent global system -- are complex and fascinating. They require us to think about the preconditions for democracy to work -- civil liberties and human rights, social welfare and public health, the rule of law, cultural norms, civil society, mass media, state security and foreign policy, etc. I have not formed an opinion about these matters -- i.e., whether parliamentarism could be counted on to solve these problems better than presidentialism. Perhaps both can work equally well or one may be able to solve some of these problems better than the other.
I am also persuaded that after presidentialism is deeply entrenched in any state, it is almost impossible to make a transformation to parliamentarism. This means that if we accept the status quo as something we cannot change, then we have to do our best to live with it, even if it means accepting oligarchic principles that stand in the way of broadly democratic principles of representativeness and political identity (or autonomy). Perhaps the most important lesson that can be drawn from this exercise is a warning for new states that are still establishing their constitutional structures -- if choice is possible and the constitutional framework is not yet entrenched, then think about the long-term implications of their constitutional decisions: consider that, for many basic problems, parliamentarism offers better prospects for finding acceptable solutions than presidentialism.
Bibliography [to be added later]
Jump to part I.
For more detailed analysis see Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism .