John Carey – Presidentialism 25 Years After Linz, pt 2

John CareyThis is the second of three guest posts by Professor John Carey. The posts are based on the keynote address that he gave to the Conference on Coalitional Presidentialism at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, on May 2, 2014.

Presidentialism 25 Years After Linz

Is it possible to size up the progress in the study of presidentialism? What approaches have provided the most traction? I think the advances beyond Linz followed from two key shifts in how scholars of comparative institutions approached the study of presidential systems, but that each of those shifts has brought its own set of limitations and challenges.

One shift was the increasing appreciation of the problems that omitted variables, and endogeneity, present for the comparative study of institutions. Jose Cheibub’s focus on presidentialism in the aftermath of military dictatorships was a huge advance here, demonstrating that, planted on similar soil to parliamentary regimes, presidential democracies were not more likely to collapse – but that the soil conditions where presidentialism takes root are systematically less hospitable to democracy. Robert Elgie’s efforts to parse the impact of variants of semi-presidentialism on regime collapse were similarly exemplary. (And I, for one, am sympathetic to the argument that divided control over the cabinet encourages regime crises.)

Lurking behind the whole question of whether and how regime type might matter to democratic performance was a question Adam Przeworski posed in a paper about ten years ago called “Is the science of comparative politics possible?” The point – not really new then, and even more familiar by now – was that institutions are the products of context, and the array of factors encompassed by the word “context” here inevitably shapes the outcomes we care about – stability, democracy, prosperity, equality, justice, security, public goods provision, etc. Przeworski’s concern, of course, just foreshadowed the “identificationist” wave that was about to wash over our discipline.

We have to ask: Can presidentialism research respond to changing expectations and standards for inference that the identificationists demand? I’m not asking this question in a kind of rhetorical build-up to a big reveal. I honestly cannot think of a research agenda in political science that presents bigger challenges for identification and inference than the study of how constitutional regime type at the national level affects the quality of democracy. I don’t have a solution, but it would require an ostrich-like capacity for denial not to acknowledge the problem in a review of this sort.

The other key post-Linzian shift was the influence in research on comparative presidentialism of theories of legislative politics initially developed in studies of parliamentary democracy and of the US Congress. The list of names here is long – and includes Tsebelis, Laver, Shepsle, Schofield, Strom, Huber, Krehbiel, Cox, McCubbins, Feddersen, Diermeier, and others. I won’t risk tedium by rehearsing the long list of studies that have applied or adapted their theories by testing them against evidence from presidential regimes. What I want to do, instead, is to raise a warning flag that we have, I think, occasionally prioritized the theories as objects of our research over more basic questions about the quality of democracy – the sort of questions Linz would not have lost sight of.

In the last decade, I have reviewed more manuscripts than I care to recall that stated their central goals as “filling gaps” in the empirical examination of existing theories. Let me suggest that when we find ourselves describing our motivation this way, it’s time for a little introspection. I’m not without blame here. I’ve spent plenty of time deep in the weeds of legislative roll calls or district-level election returns, parsing data for evidence to support hypotheses the fascination of which escapes most of my colleagues – and reviewers – never mind my parents, siblings, or children.

I’m not saying all of our research needs to reveal how to prevent the next Dirty War. Shedding light on the factors that tip the balance of influence between executives and legislatures in one direction or another is a time-honored vocation. But Madison and Montesquieu and Locke all made the case that the balance of powers mattered because it affected the likelihood of tyranny. They persuaded their audiences that the separation of powers could affect outcomes that everyone recognized as important. And remember that, for Linz, too, tyranny was front and center. My worry is that, for all the theoretical advances in the study of presidentialism since Linz, we have too often lost sight of why we, or our audience, should care.

In an article published just recently in Democratization, Paul Chaisty, Nic Cheeseman, and Timothy Power emphasized why we should care, even if we now know (or are reasonably confident) that presidentialism does not necessarily pave a straight road to tyranny. They write: “Twenty years of research have shown presidentialism to be remarkably durable, and in particular its multiparty variant has vastly over-performed relative to early predictions … [However, the authors go on to wonder whether] … The very same presidential tools that enhance governability may also undermine accountability.” I agree that the governability—accountability trade-off is what scholars of presidentialism should be studying, and I want to highlight some recent studies of presidentialism that imagine new ways to think about accountability – ways that I think would be relatively easy to explain to your aunt at Thanksgiving, or if you got interviewed by Terry Gross or Melvyn Bragg.

In an article forthcoming in Comparative Political Studies, “The Successor Factor: Electoral Accountability in Presidential Democracies,” Ignacio de Ferrari builds on the tradition (from Powell, to Stokes, to Samuels & Hellwig) of measuring accountability as the ability of voters to reward or punish an incumbent, governing party for economic performance. De Ferrari codes presidential candidates from governing parties as either incumbents (who were eligible to run again), successors (candidates anointed by outgoing incumbents), or non-successors (unconnected to incumbent presidents).

De Ferrari shows that the link between economic performance and the incumbent party candidate’s electoral fate varies systematically with incumbent/successor/non-successor status. This isn’t shocking – indeed, it would be pretty surprising if this were not the case. But then consider that de Ferrari finds no relationship between the economic performance of the incumbent government and the status of the candidates the president’s party nominated. That is, economically successful presidents were no more likely than unsuccessful ones to be able to anoint their successors. These are puzzles, and they suggest that the factors that determine whether we are in the world of high or low accountability (at least as measured by electoral rewards for economic growth) are opaque in many presidential systems.

Consider also a couple of papers by Ryan Carlin and Shane Singh, also based on data from Latin America. In one, “Executive Power and Economic Accountability,” the authors show that the stronger the constitutional and partisan powers of the president in a given country, the stronger is the relationship between a survey respondent’s evaluation of the economy and her evaluation of the president. Again, not surprising – maybe even reassuring – this suggests that citizens, in the aggregate, adjust their expectations for presidential performance according to the authorities their president wields. Yet in an article forthcoming in Political Research Quarterly, “Happy Medium, Happy Citizens: Presidential Power and Democratic Regime Support,” Singh and Carlin show that respondents’ satisfaction with the performance of democracy in their country is non-monotonically connected to those same formal authorities. The conditions that foster the tightest possible bond between economic performance and presidential approval are not the same ones that foster the greatest satisfaction with democracy more generally. So accountability in presidential democracies is not an easy animal to track and hunt.

What I’m suggesting is close attention to how we assess accountability, about what citizens want from their democracies, and what those democracies ought to deliver. If GDP growth is our indicator of good economic stewardship, then we should fear for accountability when a political system does not appear to reward growth. But maybe citizen satisfaction, measured in surveys, is a more appropriate measure of good performance. Or some measure of agreement between public support for policies and their rate of adoption? Or something else altogether?

To be continued tomorrow.

John M. Carey is the Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences, and the chair of the Government Department, at Dartmouth College. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the author of 5 books and of over 50 academic articles on democratic institutions. Research, datasets, and further information about his work are available on his website at

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