This will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.
—Joseph Goebbels, former minister of propaganda for the Nazi Party15
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Define populism and analyze why presidential regimes may be more vulnerable to populist leaders gaining power.
- Distinguish between formal powers and informal powers.
- Describe the term “bully pulpit” and illustrate why it is a significant power that presidents have.
- Explain why a president’s public approval rating is important as well as its connection to a president’s power to persuade.
In some ways, presidential regimes are easy to understand. Voters elect a single individual who they can hold accountable. The system also has the appearance of stability due to the regularity of elections.16 Except for unique structures like the Electoral College in the United States, the direct election of presidents is viewed as more democratic than the indirect selection of prime ministers by a parliament.17 Nevertheless, there are downsides to popularly elected presidents, as the rise of populism in the 21st century has demonstrated.
Presidential Regimes and Elections
As Univeristy of California professor Arend Lijphart notes, the distinctiveness of presidential regimes is that the head of government is a single individual who is popularly elected.18 The election is either direct (for example, in Brazil and the Philippines) or indirect through an electoral college (for example, in the United States). Presidents serve fixed year terms and are typically term-limited. For example, Argentina, Brazil, Kenya, and the United States allow two terms. Some countries, like Colombia and the Philippines, only allow presidents to serve a single term. After serving their terms, presidents are usually ineligible to be reelected. Even so, some countries, like Argentina, simply require the individual to “take a break,” and then the person is reeligible to run for president. In Argentina, the president can serve two four-year terms, sit out for a four-year term, and then be eligible for another two four-year terms.19
Presidential Regimes and Populism
Targeting the masses with emotional appeals, populism promises individuals a political voice in a system perceived to be ruled by elites. In the early part of the 21st century, the rise of populism and leaders who border on the definition of demagogues pose an increasing threat, with some scholars contending that democracy is in crisis.20 Indeed, democracy provides the opportunity for demagogues and populism. As University of Chicago professor William G. Howell and Stanford University professor Terry M. Moe note: “In ancient Athens, thinkers of the age recognized that their novel system of democratic self-governance lived in constant danger—because by its very nature, in allowing the masses to freely choose their own leaders, it contained the seeds of its own destruction.”21 The Goebbels quote that opens this section alludes to this same point. The essence of populism is “a suspicion of and hostility toward elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions.”22 To what extent do democratic systems—presidential and parliamentary—encourage the rise of populist movements and allow populists to remain in power? Do presidential regimes provide greater opportunities for populist leaders to emerge than do parliamentary ones? Which regime type provides greater safeguards against the potential harm that demagogues can inflict once in office?
The experiences of the United States and Brazil offer two examples for presidential regimes. The United States has a long history of populism, stretching back to the late 1800s and William Jennings Bryan. President Trump is simply the most recent American populist example. When he began his run for the presidency, Trump struck a populist tone as one who stands against elitists who don’t have ordinary people’s interests in mind; in a Wall Street Journal opinion column, he asked, “How has the ‘system’ been working out for you and your family?”23 While in office, Trump appealed to specific groups within the electorate, emphasizing a key populist theme: government is ineffective, but he would usher in a new age of responsive and effective government.24 Similarly, elected in 2018, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has been called the “Trump of the tropics,” echoes an antiestablishment rhetoric that populists embrace.25 Nevertheless, parliamentary regimes have also seen populist leaders emerge. Arguably, this has happened in the Czech Republic (Andrej Babiš), Greece (Alexis Tsipras), and Hungary (Viktor Orbán).26 Additionally, within the last 20 years, some semi-presidential regimes have seen populists emerge in leadership positions (for example, in Poland with Jarosław Kaczyński and in Slovenia with Janez Janša).
Presidential Regimes as Incubators for Populism
It can legitimately be argued that populism is more likely to gain ground in a presidential regime than in a parliamentary one. At the very least, presidential regimes serve as incubators. In presidential regimes, government leaders appeal directly to the voters and enjoy a constituency separate from the legislature. Because parties are weaker in presidential regimes, they do less to constrain government leaders. At the candidate selection stage, presidential regimes tend to be candidate centered rather than party centered. In other words, the candidates choose to run for president rather than the party selecting them. In 2016, Donald Trump received no major Republican endorsements prior to the primary season. Yet, he won the Republican nomination and was elected president. To be fair, however, as political commentator Fareed Zakaria notes, a single leader can usurp power within either a presidential or a parliamentary regime.27 The point is that democracy itself, and not simply a particular expression of democracy, is open to its own exploitation. So, on the first question, presidential regimes are slightly more prone to populism. But populists can also arise within parliamentary regimes.
Safeguards against Populism
Some scholars argue that parliamentary regimes are better able than presidential regimes to respond to the conditions that give rise to a populist movement.28 Parliamentary democracies not only tend to have stronger welfare systems, but they are also more able to respond with policies that address underlying issues like systemic inequities and inefficient government. And, interestingly enough, the leaders of populist parties in Eastern Europe appear to be losing favor.29
This does not mean, however, that presidential regimes do not also possess safeguards. Presidential regimes possessing strong institutions and a consolidated democracy have the ability to address the problems demagogues cause even if they do not prevent their emergence. Though the United States has a long history of populist movements, the influence of individual populists in the United States has thus far proven to be rather short lived.
What Makes a Populist?
This brief clip highlights common traits many populist politicians share.
Still, populism does prove to be attractive. Recall that Donald Trump was not the only candidate in recent US election cycles who could be characterized as a populist. In both 2016 and 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders offered a populist alternative from the left. While Sanders did not ultimately win the Democratic nomination in either election cycle, his presence demonstrates populism’s potential appeal across the political spectrum, even if the goals of alternate varieties of populism may differ. The conditions that gave rise to Trump as well as the European populist movements remain, which means that populist movements from both the left and right may arise.30
Finally, the Goebbels quote also illustrates the threat demagogues pose to democracies. Once in office, demagogues have the ability to attempt to change the system by which they were elected. For example, in a tweet, President Trump questioned the legitimacy of voting procedures and whether the 2020 elections should be delayed.31 However, while individuals matter, institutions matter as well. Democracies with strong institutions have always been able to withstand challenges to the democratic process. Not only was the 2020 election held when scheduled, but the aftermath of the election, with its many court cases, also illustrated that institutions provide the necessary safeguards against demagogues.
Executive Power in Presidential Regimes: Formal and Informal Powers
Presidents have both formal and informal powers. Veto power, the power to nominate Supreme Court justices (as in the United States), or the power to convene the National Assembly and specify issues the assembly needs to address (as in Ecuador) are all examples of formal powers. Formal powers vary greatly from country to country. Presidents also have informal powers. Informal powers are those that emerge through tradition or custom or that are inherent in the office. It is often said that presidents have a “bully pulpit,” which means that, by virtue of their position, presidents have opportunities to speak on issues with the assurance that their voices will be heard. In doing so, presidents can offer direct appeals to citizens to persuade those citizens (and legislatures) that the chief executive’s approach is the correct one. Along these lines, presidential scholar Richard Neustadt states that a president’s greatest power may be his power to persuade.32
What Can I Do?
Empirical Analysis and Executives
When people think about empirical and quantitative analysis, the image that often comes to mind is of a large spreadsheet with rows and rows of often-indecipherable data. While numerical analysis is a component of empirical analysis, it is not the only component. When you analyze the longevity of particular coalition governments or compare the policy outputs of presidential and parliamentary systems, you also engage in empirical analysis. At its core, the idea of empirical analysis is to look at any observable fact—something that is empirical—and gain an understanding of something larger than that one individual fact. Empirical analysis aims to put that fact into a larger context. Do presidential systems tend to represent the policy preferences of the citizens in their societies better than other systems? By studying executives, you hone empirical analysis skills that can be applied in many different contexts. For example, empirical analysis skills can be useful if you decide to become a teacher and you are trying to determine which teaching method may be most successful in your classroom. These skills are also helpful if you are a web designer and want to determine which format will appeal most to visitors to your site.
A key component of a president’s power to persuade is the president’s public approval rating. In today’s political environment, a great deal of attention is given to this number. In the United States, Gallup conducts multiday surveys to compute a president’s ongoing job approval rating. The importance of the public approval rating has even shown up in popular movies such as the 1995 film The American President. In the film, fictional President Alan Shepherd and his Chief of Staff A. J. MacInerney discuss the prospect of the president dating.
Shepherd: I don’t want to check a polling sample to see if this is okay, like I’m asking permission to stay out an hour past curfew. This isn’t the business of the American people.
MacInerney: Mr. President, the American people have a funny way of deciding on their own what is and what is not their business.
While the movie is fiction, it illustrates an important point—the impact a drop in polls will have on the president’s legislative agenda.
Consider the first administration of President Bill Clinton. Upon taking office, one issue Clinton focused on was gays in the military. For his first few months in office, this contentious issue consumed considerable attention, launching a national debate that culminated in Clinton’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. At the time, the country was evenly split and deeply divided on the issue (48 percent supported it; 49 percent opposed).33 In 2011, the policy was formally repealed.34 When President Clinton took office in January 1993, he had a 58 percent public approval rating. By June it had fallen to 37 percent. It could be argued that his inability to have any major legislative success that first year was, in part, due to his falling approval rating. Clinton’s failure to enact major legislation was not simply due to relatively poor approval ratings or “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” But that didn’t help. Public opinions polls are not unique to the United States, and neither are their effects. Faced with declining polling numbers in 2021, President Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) found his message of opposition to the coronavirus vaccine lacked persuasive power. As of mid-August 2021, over 70 percent of Brazilians had received the vaccine.35 Even his supporters were lining up to get vaccinated.