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  • Writer's pictureAmy Erica Smith

What explains the troubles facing Evo Morales, Trump, and Lula? Maybe the problem is the presidency.

The culprit isn’t just norms--it’s the rules of the presidency itself.

By Amy Erica Smith

Marchers protest possible electoral fraud in Bolivia, October 2019 / Source: Paulo Fabre

It’s been an exhausting year for those of us who obsessively follow the news across the Western Hemisphere. In just the month of November, a number of presidents and former presidents rose and fell. Most famously, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales resigned on November 10 and fled the country at the "suggestion" of the military.

That wasn’t the first big news of the month. Brazil’s former President Lula da Silva was released (at least temporarily) from prison on November 8, following a Supreme Court decision reinterpreting sentencing guidelines and substantial evidence his case was politically manipulated by an overzealous prosecutor and judge. And in the US, the House of Representatives continues its investigation into Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate his rivals.

Telescoping out a bit, here's a whirlwind summary of presidency-related shenanigans in 2019. In Venezuela, Juan Guaido and Nicolas Maduro have both claimed the presidency since January--and the one the US recognizes isn’t the one who controls the military. In Peru, President Vizcarra and Congress each tried to fire the other earlier this fall; Vizcarra appears to have won the standoff. In Guatemala, the electoral court barred the two top presidential candidates for the June 2019 presidential elections on what were widely perceived as manufactured charges. In Haiti, Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile, protesters threaten presidencies, to varying degrees. And in Nicaragua and Honduras, increasingly authoritarian presidents cling to power despite evidence of fraud in the most recent elections.

What is this malady that has stricken most countries south of the 49th parallel? Recent political science debates on the US are illuminating.

In an insightful recent piece here at Mischiefs of Faction, Julia Azari argued that the impeachment fight in the US isn't about the things the House is actually discussing. As she says, “The stories that are clear and legalistic enough for impeachment prevent the nation from discussing” its most important problems.

Azari aptly describes something we see across the hemisphere. Brazil’s former President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 on shaky charges of alleged fiscal mismanagement, not for overseeing the onset of a severe recession. Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra ostensibly dismissed Congress for an ambiguous vote of no confidence in his government, not for its intransigence and venality. And in the US, anger over family separation is sublimated into legalistic memos parsing Trump's interactions with foreign leaders. The “political system,” Azari concludes, “deceives us with [the] possibility of resolving our disagreements without ever really confronting what they mean.”

But what if, in a larger sense, the US impeachment debates are touching on the exact problem? Like the Watergate investigation, the current impeachment hearings are about what some people do to win the presidency. What if the problem is that the presidency is too tempting a prize?

I’m going to make what political scientists call an “institutionalist” argument--I’m suggesting the rules of the presidency affect politicians’ and voters’ behavior, in this case for the worse. First, though, let’s consider a different kind of “institutionalist” hypothesis.

Is a breakdown in norms eroding democracy?

Political scientists writing about the worrisome mess of contemporary US democracy often point to eroding norms: that is, widely held understandings of acceptable behavior that structure how people interact in a community, whether a legislature or a family or a country. Norms are rarely written down, but they affect almost everyone in a community. People often think little about the norms that rule their lives until they’re broken.

In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that American politics worked stably in the second half of the twentieth century because politicians shared two key norms: “mutual toleration,” or belief that one’s opponents are legitimate, and “forbearance,” or self-restraint in avoiding using the law as a cudgel to beat opponents. When these norms break down, they say, politics becomes increasingly all-or-nothing. At some point, the democratic game gets so heated that players start breaking the formal rules, too. And then, the game falls apart.

Some scholars object that there was never a golden age of norm-yness. As Azari says, mutual toleration has “constantly been shaky in American politics.”

I would add that the logical order between norms and laws isn’t so tidy. Sometimes norms of mutual toleration and forbearance subvert democratic laws. And sometimes would-be autocrats break democratic laws and norms in one fell swoop.

Take the United States during the nearly hundred years between the end of Reconstruction and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement--a period that was not democratic by today’s standards, since politics excluded African Americans. The problem wasn’t so much norms as actually illegal practices, including things like race-based terrorism and electoral fraud. To the extent elected Democrats and Republicans shared norms of mutual toleration and forbearance, those norms encouraged them to overlook undemocratic practices.

Zooming out to examine the rest of the hemisphere, Bolivia is a thought-provoking example. When Evo Morales decided to run for a fourth term in office, he ignored a 2016 referendum barring him. Was that a norm violation or just plain old illegal? The Morales-appointed Supreme Court threw out the referendum, so maybe Evo’s campaign violated the spirit but not the letter of the referendum process. But it seems very likely a future court will decide it violated the law. Distinguishing what’s actually illegal is tricky when interpretations of the law are contested.

Fear of opponents drives people to break both laws and norms.

What motivates politicians to violate both democratic norms and laws? The basic idea is simple: when people want to win really, really, really badly, they do and excuse things they would not otherwise.

In a simple cost-benefit framework, we can think about the benefits of winning and the costs of losing. Political scientists often point out that polarization raises the stakes. As Jennifer Victor explained here earlier today, extreme polarization motivates US Republicans to ignore evidence of Trump’s wrongdoing in order to keep Democrats from winning. In Bolivia, high polarization probably led Evo Morales to seek a fourth term. It also may have triggered electoral fraud--one of those things that’s unambiguously illegal!--when an outright first round win was threatened.

Still, thinking cross-nationally, the problem is bigger than polarization. Fear of losing might have little to do with conflicts between left and right. For Democrats in the US South around 1900, prospective loss raised the specter of African Americans taking over politics. Much of the Guatemalan political elite faced the threat of corruption investigations if Thelma Aldana won. It is easy to see why politicians would break norms and laws to avoid such steep costs. Fear of one’s opponents is a powerful motivator.

Of course, the costs of losing an election are typically both ideological and non-ideological. Different members of a coalition care about different costs. Many Democratic and Republican voters fear life-or-death policy threats from the other side winning: the cost of inaction on climate change, or the toll of abortion. For activists from Evo’s party MAS in Bolivia, the prospect of losing likely triggered fears of both policy reversals and a loss of status for newly empowered indigenous groups. We could speculate that an incumbent such as Trump fears personal costs, such as business revenue loss or litigation.

Strategic politicians often mobilize citizens with the potential dangers of loss. As prospect theorists say, losses loom larger than gains. The greater their fear of losing, the more voters are willing to excuse--and even engage in--their side breaking laws and norms.

What conditions in society exacerbate fear of loss? As both the Bolivia and US examples suggest, politicized ethnic, racial, and religious divides magnify fear of losing. I've written about social media here before; I suspect social media exaggerates partisan fear and anger. We could brainstorm a long list of other factors.

But today I want to return to an oldie-but-goodie: presidentialism.

Presidentialism increases the benefits of winning and breeds fear of opponents.

In an evergreen essay published in 1990, Juan Linz outlined the “perils of presidentialism.” Presidentialism refers to a system where voters elect both the head of the executive branch (i.e., the president) and the legislature, which are supposed to monitor and interact with each other in a system of checks and balances. Under parliamentarism, by contrast, voters elect the members of the legislature (i.e., parliament), who in turn appoint an executive (typically called a prime minister) who leads parliament.

Having watched Latin American democracies break down in the 1960s and 1970s, Linz outlined a litany of problems with presidentialism. We can condense his argument to three points:

  1. The presidency is “winner-take-all.” In a two candidate race, whether you win 15% or 49.999% of the vote, you lose just the same. There’s no compromise or consolation prize. In the US, you’re shut out of power even if you win a majority of the popular vote but lose the electoral college! And, in the contemporary era, the responsibilities of the presidency just keeps growing--making it a really big and powerful prize.

  2. Okay, so there is sort of a potential consolation prize: you could still win a majority in the legislature. But then, we face the problem of “dual legitimacy.” Both the legislature and the president each legitimately claim to represent the popular will. Trump claims to have a mandate to build the wall, and Democrats in the House believe they have a mandate to stop family separations.

  3. Presidentialism offers woefully inadequate tools for resolving conflicts stemming from dual legitimacy. It’s very hard to oust “a stubborn incumbent” constitutionally, even if millions of people are marching in front of the presidential palace--such as we have seen across Latin America in recent months. The trouble is that the president and congress each have fixed terms in office and limited ways of firing each other. Impeachment processes are long and uncertain and, as Julia Azari pointed out, they're limited to certain types of misconduct. You can’t impeach a president just for extremely unpopular policies.

These problems help explain the hemisphere’s presidential shenanigans. The winner-take-all nature of the presidency increases both the desirability of the prize and the fear of having one’s opponents capture it. This probably encourages questionable electoral behavior, from the United States to Bolivia to Guatemala. The dual legitimacy problem brought Peru nearly to breakdown in September. And it is hard to say how popular protest in Haiti, Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia might have ended if it were easier for legislatures to constitutionally remove presidents.

Parliamentary systems at least partially resolve all three problems, Linz argued. They encourage compromise through coalition governments. They also endow democratic legitimacy in a single elected body. Last, they allow the prime minister and legislature to dismiss each other in the normal course of business, without resorting to impeachment.

Of course, adopting parliamentarism wouldn’t exactly be easy. In 1993, Brazilian voters rejected a referendum to switch away from presidentialism. Most of the time, though, politicians elected under one system have little incentive to switch the rules. Moreover, recent events from the UK to Hungary show that parliamentary systems sometimes produce intractable gridlock or turn authoritarian--though overall they do work better.

So what should we do to reduce fear of loss? If we can’t adopt a whole new machinery of government, we can tinker with the gears of the institutions we have. Even more importantly, we need to look for ways to improve media and elite rhetoric. We will all win when losing gets less scary.


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