There are two forms of constitutional democracy: Presidentialism and Parliamentarianism. Parliamentarianism has succeeded whereas Presidentialism has almost universally failed as a democratic form of government

The idea of a democratic President is flawed. Presidential governments create dictatorships, civil wars, and instability.

There is a large amount of scholarship that compares different forms of government. They discovered one constant point: Presidential Democracies do not last. Dozens of regimes have failed across South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Only one Presidential system lasted – the United States.

Arturo Valenzuela and Juan Linz book, Failure of Presidential Democracy, compared 8 governments in Latin America and France and critiqued the structural failings of the President. here’s a review that summarizes their findings.

Fred Riggs also argues in favor of Parliamentary Governments instead of Presidents.

What’s the difference between Presidents and Parliaments?
In short, there executive powers are divided in a Presidential system. The President is separate from the legislature, whereas under a Parliametary regime, executive powers are head by the Parliament (via the Prime Minister).

There are differences in elections and legitimacy. A President is supposed to be a national leader. Members of Parliament only represent their own district.

Head of State vs Head of Government
The first reason for Presidential failures is the combination of Head of State and Head of Government roles.

A President claims to be the representative of the entire nation-state while engaging in the day to day business as head of government.

A Head of State is supposed to symbolize and speak for the nation. The requirements of a Head of Government means the President engages in hard partisan politics and solves distribution problems that may harm a segment of the country. These roles contradict one another. No President can fulfill both roles, no matter how diplomatic and capable he is.

This means Presidents may abuse one power or another. Presidents claim their authority as Head of State means they represent “the people” and they circumvent legislative dissent. Or they use their role as Head of Government to secure partisan advantages for his supporters at the expense of the nation as a whole. Either way, there is a tendency towards authoritarianism and the loss of legitimacy.

Parliaments do not deal with this problem. The Prime Minister is only the head of government. He is supposed to be a partisan coalition member – if you dislike what he does, vote for the opposition party.

Many Parliaments have a Constitutional Monarchy or symbolically elected President who are powerless heads of states. They symbolize the nation-state and are non-partisan. Heads of state rise above partisan squabbling because they do little.

The Myth of the National Vote
Members of Parliament are elected by their districts, but Presidents are elected by some abstraction called the nation.

The ideal of one-man one-vote is untrue. There are mathematical proofs like Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem which show that perfect democracy is impossible. Our goal instead is to find something stable.

Districts and regions are just as important as individual voters, if not moreso. They represent certain economic interests that are vital to the country. Voters in different regions have different “weights” according to the value of their regional economy and population size. Parliaments more accurately reflect economic interests of a people than Presidents.

If you image a country with three critical economic regions – farmers, miners, manufacturors – each region needs to be represented or the country’s economy would be harmed. There may be fewer miners, but without their political support, the economy would come to a standstill.

Interestingly, the United States Presidential System uses a Parliamentary voting mechanism rather than a national vote. This is one of the reasons why it has been more stable than other Presidential systems.

National elections obscure aggregate and individual preferences. It pushes the myth that a mass of individuals is a unified “nation” that could ever have a common preference. National preferences are an absurdity.

National Presidential Elections lead to illigitimate results leading to dictatorship or warfare.

First, the newly elected President claims a “mandate” that is somehow more powerful than the elected Legislature. This is very dangerous because it already starts off with the false belief that Presidential Democracy is somehow more pure than Legislatures.

Second, the President claims to represent the “people” – and the legislature somehow does not. Again, this is a dangerous belief.

Imagine how heavily skewed regional results can elect a President who is broadly unpopular across the nation.

Say there is an imaginary state with 10 equal-sized provinces. A President can win the popular election 52%-48% and still be broadly illegitimate. Candidate A defeated Candidate B by winning a super-majority in 3 provinces while losing the other 7 provinces. This illegitimacy can cause secession or revolution.

The percentage of the vote from each province may be divided like this: 8%-2%, 8-2, 8-2, 4-6, 4-6, 4-6, 4-6, 4-6, 4-6, 4-6.

For a total of 52% for A and 48% for B.

Under the US Electoral College, Candidate B will win. Under a popular vote, Candidate A will win.

The legitimacy problems grow worse after the election. The President must “resolve” distribution problems and he will likely favor the three provinces that supported him. This shifts resources from the seven provinces to three.

This leads to conflicts. The losing provinces may declare independence from the state, they may try to start a revolution, or the President will crack down and become a dictator.

There is no such thing as a unified nation. Parliaments understand this, but Presidents do not.

Fixed Terms
Turnover is slower in Presidential systems. Presidents serve fixed terms – 4 years and 6 years are most common, usually with one re-election. This makes it difficult to remove broadly unpopular Presidents in a crisis. It also strips Presidents of power near the end of their term when they become “lame ducks.” Either extreme leads to instability.

Parliaments can call snap elections. Coalitions change and reform in a flexible and continuous way. This means there are more frequent changes in power to respond to popular demand or new political needs.

Centralization of Power
Presidents have more in common with Kings than Prime Ministers. They centralize the power of head of state along with military command and claims of a broad popular mandate. Presidents have power of patronage. They appoint men to officers across the entire state. This centralizes executive power in the hands on one man.

Presidents are more inclined to silence opposition, support their cronies, and abuse their coercive power to achieve their ends. Again, they justify this because they are acting on behalf of this abstract entity called the “people.”

Winning the Presidency becomes a “Winners Take All” problem, where the losers are politically punished. Corruption and nepotism is worse in Presidential Democracies, and Presidents are more likely to silence critics.

Usurpation of Power
Presidents expand their powerbase in ways that are impossible for Parliaments to do.

Verticle Usurpation is when the President takes away political power from local provinces and centralizes the power in the hands of the national government. Horizontal Usurpation is when the President takes power away from the other branches of the national government. At it’s worst, a dictatorial President will stack the courts, form a rubber-stamp legislature, and eliminate local democracy.

Coalition Building
Parliaments govern only when they secured a majority of members reflecting at least a majority of districts in a country. Coalitions and power-sharing are vital.

Presidents by-pass the hassle of building coalitions and take their case to the “people” and make executive orders. This leads to the authoritarian impulse.

Presidents do this anywhere they can. If they are too limited to command domestic policies, they will command foreign policy. Even the United States has always had an imperial President commanding its foreign policy.

Failure Rate
The rate of failure shows that there must be somethings that make Presidential Systems unstable.

We can basically predict whether or not a democracy will succeed based on its per capita income and whether or not it has a President.

Russia’s Presidential Democracy is bound for dictatorship. As is Venezuela’s, and many other countries.

So why is the United States the exception to the rule? It’s actually not so exceptional – it strongly resembles parliamentary systems.

As Fred Riggs said:

Unfortunately, I believe, our ignorance of the regime-maintaining requisites of presidentialism blinds us to the negative impact of progressive reforms on the survival of this type of democracy.

In the U.S. itself, debates about proposed “reforms” fail to consider their likely impact on the viability of the constitutional system.

Truly. Many of the “reforms” would limit Congressional Power (installing term limits) and vastly increase Presidential Power (national elections instead of state elections)

The US Presidential System is more fragile than reformers want to admit.

Why has it lasted over 200 years when most Presidential systems last less than 25? In part because the US was founded with a Westminster Parliament model in mind. It evolved from the British system of legislative-based government during the colonial period. The Parliamentary system was even considered during the Constitutional debates.

Even still, Presidents are seen as illigitimate and unable to be the Head of State. One Presidential election resulted in the Civil War.

The Electoral College
This is basically a Parliamentary mechanism. US Presidents are selected like a British Prime Minister. The Electoral College is a second Congress – with the same number of members – with the sole duty of electing the President. This means the elections are district and state based rather than a single national election.

Federalism and Separation of Powers
This makes the President a lower-stakes contest than in most countries. The US system managed to prevent usurpation of powers for the most part. Federalism keeps many political decisions at the state and municipal level, rather than a national cause.

Two Parties
Most Presidential systems have multiple parties which leads to greater factionalism. Presidential governments with only two parties last longer than those with multiple parties.

A strong two party system means that a President is automatically opposed by one party and cannot even maintain loyalty in his own party – particularly amongst members of the legislature. A smaller, more unified party in a multi-party system is easier to command.

Parliaments, on the other hand, do just as well with any number of parties.

It could be that American distrust of power overpowers the President’s ability to centralize power. This is partly due to American capitalism and markets, as Fred Riggs argues. Economic Freedoms limit government expansion and regulation – reducing governmental power over individuals. This loss of power may be good or bad, but it does reduce the absolute power of Presidents nonetheless.

It looks like American Presidential Democracy is an historical accident. Parliamentary democracies outperform Presidents across the world.