Presidentialism vs Parliamentarism in The West Wing

The Wake Up Call” in season 6 of The West Wing features a sub-plot in which a Belorussian delegation came to Washington on a fact-finding mission so that they could write a new constitution for Belarus based on the American presidential model. However, Toby Ziegler attempts to convince the Belorussian delegation to look to a parliamentary system rather than following the American separation of powers and presidential-congressional system because the former would best provide stability in an emerging democracy.

The Belorussians protest: The President of Belarus “needs broad powers, like [the] American president.”

Zielger retorts, “Your country has had a history of brutal dictatorship. I don’t think a strong executive is such a good idea. Half the faculty at Yale law describes the American presidential system as one of these country’s most dangerous exports, responsible for wreaking havoc on over 30 countries around the globe. It is a recipe for constitutional breakdown.”

Professor Juan Linz of Yale University has written extensively on the merits of parliamentarism as a means of ensuring constitutional stability and preserving the rule of law in The Failure of Presidential Democracy. The presidential system results in a constitutional breakdown more easily than would a parliamentary system in emerging democracies because of the deadlock inherent in the separation of powers. In a country that lacks the civic virtue and liberal political culture of the United States, that kind of deadlock leads to constitutional crises, and even military intervention, and thus the breakdown of constitutional government, as many of the presidential systems in Latin America demonstrate.

The Belorussians’ perception of the American presidency as inherently strong illustrates the conventional evolution of the powers of that office. Again, I use “convention” deliberately, because the Constitution of 1787 hasn’t been formally amended in order to expand the powers of the presidency, but this trend has occurred throughout the 20th century, particularly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s expansion of presidential power coincided with his breaking of the two-term convention; Washington himself first set this precedent, and like the American Cinninatus, voluntarily relinquished political power voluntarily and returned to his estate. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s violation of this convention proved so severe that the Congress and the state legislatures adopted the only available recourse within a codified constitution: they passed the 22nd amendment, formally limiting each president to only two terms. The original form of the American presidency limited executive power, but over time, the broadening of the franchise in turn broadened the democratic legitimacy of the presidency, and therefore the powers and authorities of the office. No country adopting a presidential republic today would be able to justify a presidency as anti-democratic as the original American presidency in 1787. A parliamentary republic would offer a more democratic and more efficient alternative because responsible government subjects executive power to the people’s representatives in parliament.

Later on, the lead Belorussian emissary claims that a president would provide Belarus with “a unifying national figure.” This is by far the most suspect and debateable proposition in the scene. I reject the premise that an elected president (or an indirectly elected president, as in the United States) can ever achieve the status of “unifying national figure”, because it implies a presidency above partisan politics. Only a constitutional monarch can ever possess the personal authority (but not the power) to achieve this role as a completely non-partisan, unifying national figure because any elected office automatically entails divisiveness, political responsibility and accountability for government policy, and partisanship. Non-partisanship simply does not exist in the American political system; their closest equivalent is bipartisanship. The American presidency almost certainly does not provide a unifying national figure; normally, it produces a highly polarizing politician. Unifying national figures are not the subject of weekly approval ratings. Perhaps in the case of President Bush, he became a unifying national figure in the last two years of his presidency when 70% of the American people were unified in opposing him! President Obama has become a highly polarizing president, based on the latest opinion polls.

Christopher Lloyd’s character concludes the discussion on presidentialism vs. paraliamentarism a philosophical note: “The [written constitution] is just the beginning. A constitutional democracy succeeds only if the constitution reflects democratic values already alive in the citizenry.” This statement contains a curious contradiction: cultural norms (which lead to the development of political and constitutional conventions) should form the basis of any new written constitution, not the inverse. The written constitution should flow from “the democratic values already alive in the citizenry” – and therefore would not be the beginning. The American presidential republic succeeded where all the Latin American variants failed because the British American colonies already possessed a vibrant liberal culture and drew upon English Whiggish principles of individual liberty and constitutional limitation on executive power. The Americans are, as Edmund Burke said in Parliament, “the sons of liberty.” The American colonists who rebelled considered themselves the inheritors of the legacy of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and merely demanded that their colonial legislatures exercise the rights and privileges as the Westminster Parliament.

The separation of the Head of State from the Head of Government provides more stability than the separation of the executive from the legislature, particularly in a country that suffers from a history of abuse of executive power. This system, known in the Westminster system as responsible government, allows the Sovereign or President to become a genuine unifying national figure because the Prime Minister and the other responsible Cabinet ministers take political responsibility for all government policy before the people’s elected representatives in Parliament. The Sovereign or President merely carries out the advice of the government, and if the Prime Minister and Cabinet give bad advice, they suffer the political and electoral consequences. The American separation of executive and legislative powers diffuses political responsibility along these two lines of authority and thus creates inefficiency and deadlock. A mature liberal republic like the United States can surmount these instituitonal inefficiencies without any civil strife, but a fledging republic that carries the burden of a bloody and violent history with no tradition of the rule of law cannot so easily overcome institutional gridlock. Such instiutitonal gridlock can easily turn into constitutional breakdown and a descent into dicatorship at the hands of an executive President, both Head of State and Head of Government, who controls the armed forces.

Recently, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg travelled to Egypt and during and television interview there suggested that she “would not look to the United States Constitution if [she] were drafting a constitution in 2012.” Frankly, Justice Ginsburg is probably correct: Egyptians probably should not emulate the United States Constitution because a parliamentary republic would better protect liberty and ensure institutional stability. Justice Ginsburg suggested that Egypt look to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as an example; however, the Constitution of Canada would probably also provide a poor model.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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9 Responses to Presidentialism vs Parliamentarism in The West Wing

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