By Walter Horn

Steffen Ganghof, Beyond Presidentialism and Parliamentarism: Democratic Design and the Separation of Powers  (Oxford University Press, 2021) 

As Steffen Ganghof points out in his comprehensive book on alternative governmental structures, there are two angles from which one can discuss the alleged merits of the particular system, “semi-parliamentarism,” that he endorses. One approach is by empirical study. This involves a consideration of what have been the instrumental values of similar and dissimilar approaches around the world and throughout history. I should not like to disguise the fact that I could opine on those matters only with extreme diffidence. While Professor Ganghof is a leading expert on matters of comparative politics, I am not, and so am in no position to gainsay either his research or his conclusions in that area. The other critical route Ganghof calls “procedural.” It is a more philosophical take that focuses on a priori assessments of the levels of democracy and efficiency that various systems seem likely to produce. I will try to limit my swim here to those waters. 

It should be noted, however, that there is something to be said on behalf of the parochialism my comments are bound to display. Years ago, when I was involved in the reformation of workers’ compensation laws in Massachusetts, a consultant told me a relevant story about Wisconsin and Minnesota, two neighboring U.S. states. It seems that Minnesota had for perhaps a decade been engaged in reform after reform–all to no avail. Whatever legislation or regulations that might be promulgated there, the system remained expensive, slow, satisfactory to neither employers nor employees, highly litigious, etc. Meanwhile, right next door, Wisconsin’s system was a national model of efficiency, thrift and apparent fairness. The administration there reliably produced very satisfied parties. It was inevitable, then, that someone in Minnesota would suggest the remedy of simply copying Wisconsin’s statutes for use in their own jurisdiction, and that is precisely what was done. Unfortunately, that too proved to be an abject failure. 

The moral here is one that Maurice Duverger presses very hard in his 1966 book “The Study of Politics” (and that G. Bingham Powell was forced to admit in his somewhat apologetic APSA Presidential Address in 2012): local cultures, history, ideologies, myths, and existing economic policies can never be safely shoved into the background when one idealizes a particular governmental reform. The practices and cultures of the Minnesota bar, labor unions, insurance companies, etc. turned out to be not all that similar to those operative in Wisconsin–in spite of the geographic proximity of the two jurisdictions. Consider, then, to what greater extent local considerations are likely to mess up proposals for the insertion of an allegedly ideal governing mechanism somewhere when one adds in such factors as language differences, religious preferences, relative citizen interest/indifference to politics, party organization, polarization, and domestic and international trade laws and customs. Even with the careful specification of every variable included in an array of possible political structures (something that Ganghof admits can’t really be done), a lot of crucial information that cannot accurately be considered intrinsic to governmental arrangements will still affect performance. Thus, while I am not averse to utopian speculation with regard to “best institutional practices” for electoral and governmental systems, and don’t hesitate to float heavenward when musing on these subjects in my own writings, when I do get utopian, I generally consider only such amendments that in some not too distant possible world could conceivably (though admittedly never will) be made to U.S. Federal law. I recognize, that is, not only that a country that has had a presidential system in place for 250 years is never going to switch to a parliamentary structure, but also that even if it were somehow (miraculously) to do so, the result would almost certainly be chaos. I make such recognition a merit of a certain type of parochialism, and point out that a good deal of Ganghof’s book seems to me somewhat reminiscent of the Minnesota State Senator or public interest lobbyist who first noticed how quickly and cheaply Wisconsin’s Goldilocks-sized benefits get into the hands of injured workers there and thought: “Why not just do the same thing here?” 

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let me begin with a basic summary of some of the important concepts and theses found in Ganghof’s work. To start, he uses “executive personalism” to describe systems in which executive power is vested in a single person who is directly elected by the populace and cannot be removed by any elected body (except, perhaps, when this person has been determined mentally incompetent or has been convicted of a serious crime). Ganghof objects to executive personalism, because any such structure seems to him to be likely to dilute the power of parties and increase the chances of a cult of personality, making autocracy more likely to flourish. On the other hand, he does like a strict separation of powers: that aspect of presidential systems that prevents dismissal of chief executives or cabinets by any law-making assembly. And in his view, purely parliamentary forms of government lack sufficiently stark separation between executive and legislative powers. Wanting the wheat without the chaff, he offers up “semi-parliamentarism.” The particular species of this genus that he endorses is characterized by a prime minister who is both selected and subject to dismissal either by one branch only of a two-chambered representative assembly, or by a partitioned-off subset of a single representative body. But this endorsement is conditional: the chamber or subset with “confidence” authority, unlike a traditional parliament, must entirely lack legislative powers, and both of the two branches (or two separate sections of the single assembly) must be democratically chosen (though perhaps in different manners), and be otherwise relatively equal in “legitimacy” (which I take to be, roughly, power and prestige). Ideally, the ability to make laws and veto executive actions would be required to be entrusted to only the other, non-confidence-bearing chamber (or walled-off section/committee of the unicameral assembly). The general idea is that one representative body would be entrusted to select/run/dissolve the government and another would make the laws and have veto authority. Whether or not these two representative bodies are mostly from the same party or otherwise sympatico, they must be allowed to mix only as oil and water do. 

The conception of power-separation operating here, which may derive from the Shugart/Carey book of 1992, might be unfamiliar to those who take the concept to refer to something more like this: one governmental arm is in charge of legislating, one is in charge of executing the laws that are passed, (and a third is in charge of interpreting those laws as well as their constitutionality and the appropriateness of their execution). According to this Madisonian picture, separation means just that each of the three governmental arms is to stay out of the two others’ business. On the Shugart/Carey/Ganghof conception, one can determine whether the powers are appropriately separated by (and perhaps only by) looking at the origin of authority and survival in office of the people performing the functions of one or another arm–rather than by concentrating too closely on what any of them is doing on a daily basis. If one branch has a role in the appointment or dismissal of another, there’s no separation of power, if no such authority is designated, we can safely call them separate. Shugart and Carey argue for this method of determination based on the fact that in traditional Madisonian presidential systems it isn’t really the case that (veto-holding or executive order issuing) presidents have no legislative authority, or that (treaty-approving or cabinet nominee-approving) legislatures have no executive authority. As separation seems not to be a clear matter of legislative/executive functions, Shugart and Carey conclude that its existence is more sensibly to be determined by focusing on how some person or group gets into office and gets thrown out of it. Ganghof follows that reasonable approach. 

Ganghof notes that there’s no reason why separation, so construed, must require an individual person to be chief executive. That seems right. As is well known, many New England municipalities are run by select boards consisting of several members. To take another example, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania famously utilized an executive assembly in the years between 1776 and 1790, after which that idea–along with several other quite radical democratic features–was kicked to the curb by James Wilson and other local Federalists. It is therefore a bit odd that one who worries as much as Ganghof does about the dangers of putting the executive branch of a government into the hands of a single human being says so little about the virtues and demerits of a collegial executive. He does mention that such collective executives have occasionally made their appearance among nations–e.g., in Uruguay in the 1950s and 60s–but he pauses his push for his own favored architecture only to say that collegial executives “include a potential lack of efficiency and resoluteness.” That concern may be quite reasonable, but in support of it Ganghof provides nothing but a citation to a paper by David Altman which actually has as its main thesis that there is no good empirical evidence for the existence of notable inefficiencies or irresolution stemming from that structure. In any case, if one has serious concerns about “the concentration of executive power in a single human being,” but sees no help in the alternative of placing such authority in a group of several human beings instead, other remedies must be sought, and Ganghof’s solution is for countries to start replacing their current systems with semi-parliamentarism of the sort described above. 

Ganghof’s book is extremely rich and wide-ranging, covering such topics as voting v. lottery-style selection, intrinsic v. instrumental assessments of democratic systems, tradeoffs between identifiability of actors and cabinet flexibility, simple v. complex majoritarianism, term limits, compulsory voting, “normative balancing” between the different electoral practices he suggests be used in the separate chambers, various manners in which political parties in government may “marry” (along with some cracking accompanying domestic metaphors), and a somewhat novel distinction Ganghof makes between “process equality” and “procedural equality. All the concepts discussed are important, and they are interestingly and adroitly handled, with the author always displaying a wide and deep knowledge of current literature as well as a dazzling facility for manipulating and calculating empirical data. In one section he–with his colleague, Sebastian Eppner–run a regression involving 369 government formations in 28 states between 1975 and 2018, regarding the correlation between the “restrictiveness” of chambers in bicameral legislatures and the congruence between those chambers. (The utilized data are said to imply 577,879 potential governments!) I will admit that this reader sometimes found the narrative a bit dizzying. I believe, though, that there is no topic covered that ought to have been omitted. 

I take Ganghof’s attempt to set forth explicit criteria for assessing the level of democracy that can be associated with various governmental structures to be particularly heroic, even if it strikes me as ultimately unsuccessful. His failure in this endeavor seems to me to arise from the fact that if one is to successfully delimit such criteria, one must start with a working conception of what democracy IS. One cannot, that is, base any tests on the sorts of effects–individual or societal–that various architectures PRODUCE, for if one does so, what Ganghof calls “process equality” will obviously (and I think mistakenly) be demoted in favor of the specific non-procedural outcomes that one is seeking. And the problem with that is that nothing resembling democracy at all might be found to be the best way to produce those more highly valued results. 

This misstep is perhaps most clearly evident in the following passage: 

“I believe that process equality and substantive outcomes must have moral priority over procedural equality. For example, if it were true that high mechanical proportionality consistently undermined process equality (e.g., by leading to less and more unequal turnout, etc.), we would have reason to avoid it.” 

If this demotion of process does not lead Ganghof to make the proposal that procedural equality be entirely scotched, it does lead to the suggestion that it be taken as only a pro tanto good that can be overcome by considerations of such ostensibly virtuous consequences as rough equality in income distribution. I argue in my own book that roads of that type will always be blind alleys, because unless one exalts (process) democracy over any non-procedural outcome (even turn-out numbers), there may end up being no good reason to have democracy at all. Suppose, for example, that one is most concerned about an environmental apocalypse. If democracy is nevertheless placed at the highest priority, one can accommodate one’s environmental concerns by attempting to get a majority to focus on such matters as climate change or air pollution and to address those matters with their votes. That is, nothing prevents comity between the environmental and procedural goals precisely because democracy is essentially a process of getting people what they want that does not entail any description of what those desires might encompass. On the other hand, if one puts the environment (or income distribution or whatever else) at the top of the heap, there may be good reason to dispense with democracy entirely. The disdain of V.I. Lenin for what he called “bourgeois parliamentarism” because of its likely futility in bringing about a dictatorship of the proletariat provides a very good example of where all such roads must lead. 

But if I derogate outcomes in this way, how can I assess the value of alternative democratic architectures at all? As I see it, one must begin with two axioms: one involving the equality of individual free choices and a second, partly Hobbesian one calling for the principles of majority rule and minority voice. A democratic conception of self-rule means, roughly, that the people (i.e., the majority) will get good faith attempts from their governments to procure what they want via an assessment mechanism essentially involving frequent, fair plebiscites allowing for some level of proportionality. One may, of course, ask, “Well, suppose the people are more likely to get what they want through some other method? Imagine, for example, that nearly all of them want a bridge built, but that the quickest way for this to happen is for Rex to be made king and given extraordinary powers. Wouldn’t pushing a Rexian revolution provide a nice example of self-rule once he gets that darn bridge finally built?” I hope it is clear that the answer to this question is “No.” Hence, the axioms and the insistence on procedural priority. Assessments must be made only on those terms. 

Settling on such first principles doesn’t make the determination of an ideal structure terribly easy, however. Moving right into the center of Ganghof’s presidentialism v. semi-parliamentarism debate, what if the majority wants a bridge but also wants Tex (who doesn’t) rather than Rex (who does) to be their chief executive? Will it be more or less indicative of democracy if a parliamentary body appoints Rex rather than Tex as prime minister in view of the desires of the populace? My take on this is that, contrary to Ganghof’s critique, those who believe direct election of a chief executive is, other things equal, more democratic than appointment by an elected assembly are correct–but only if the electorate is also provided with the ability to recall this executive. Thus, whether the voters care more about who is the prime minister or their precious bridge, they will ultimately be able to have their way. Getting recall provisions right isn’t easy (see my review of Joshua Spivak’s book on this subject), but I think it is crucial to authentic democracy. Ganghof recites a number of the same dangers and limitations of recall that are itemized by Spivak, and I won't repeat my responses here except to say that where there is no real substitute for an essential democratic process, we must do the best we can to ameliorate any downsides. After all, there are perils connected with the use of elections to install people in office too. Furthermore, besides the additional democracy recall provides, it also seems to me the simplest solution to the executive personalism that Ganghof quite reasonably fears. 

Finally, recall brushes aside any problems thought to arise from what Ganghof calls the “vertical inequality” between voters and their representatives. If the electorate can fairly easily dump office-holders, a trustee relationship should not seem egregious–even though one party is and the other is not involved in making quite consequential public policy decisions on a daily basis. But, of course, if recall provisions are to work, they must, like all democratic mechanisms, be accompanied by a general acceptance of the rule of law among both the governors and the governed. Without that, no choice of governmental structure matters very much. As indicated, Ganghof’s book covers a multitude of fascinating and important issues in acute, thought-provoking ways, and I don’t want to focus only on what I perceive as shortcomings. So let me add that, on the plus side of the ledger, Ganghof makes a number of what I take to be important and innovative suggestions regarding the benefits of using different electoral schemes for the selection of members of the two chambers he visualizes, and the “normative balancing” of the two methods. While I myself prefer the unicameral option Ganghof presents, I think he's dead right about the value of employing multiple schemes that maximize different facets of democracy. This is one of a significant number of issues on which I find myself in agreement with Ganghof. But even if I were competent to opine on every subject discussed in this book, agree or no, I’d have to pass over most of the issues in light of space considerations. So I will limit my closing remarks to a subject that I’m afraid will again reflect my parochialism. 

Way back in 1787, when the littlest American colonies were doing their utmost to ensure that they wouldn’t basically disappear into the oceanic tides of their bigger brethren if the Confederacy were to be converted into some kind of “more perfect union,” perhaps the most intractable question the Philadelphia conventioneers struggled with was how the chief executive would be selected. A small number of delegates (led by James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris) argued that he (naturally  he) should be elected by the (white, male, maybe freeholding) populace. Most of the others could not decide among the following: (i) selection by the national legislature, (ii) selection by the state legislatures, (iii) selection by the state executives, and (iv) selection by electors to be chosen by the voters specifically for this purpose. Each time this matter came up for a vote, choice (i), a design that would have been roughly parliamentary by keeping the legislative body in charge of picking and dumping a sort of prime minister, would narrowly squeak out a plurality. But when the matter was assigned to a special committee, a group that included “separation of powers” maestro James Madison, it was option (iv) that was finally drafted. Madison had originally voiced lukewarm support for popular election of the executive, but when it became clear that the widespread fear and loathing of the general electorate among the conventioneers could be handled without resorting to Congressional selection, he shifted to what seemed to the conventioneers a palatable compromise--that of the Electoral College. What concerns did the delegates have about having one or both of the Houses of Congress select the President? After all, that would have been an arrangement quite similar to what was and still is used by mother England, and one would expect a people so wary of monarchy to favor methods that allow for the easy ditching of an unwanted executive. The delegates were troubled by the idea that the newly minted Congress would spend much of its time brokering presidential bids instead of making good laws, and would be more subject to interference by foreign powers than would a group of (presumably non-cabal-fomenting) electors whose sole role would be to meet briefly in their own states to decide election winners once every four years. So, Madison, like an insurance agent at a rotary meeting, never stopped selling his doctrine of the separation of powers, and the delegates, each jealous of his own property and prestige, were willing buyers. As keeping legislative functions strictly separate from the implementation of laws was likely to make governmental overreach less likely, it was just the sort of thing to warm the hearts of a fearful elite. And of course, the ratifiers in the states were also mostly property-holding white men. Thus, did the U.S. end up with its horribly anti-democratic E.C. 

Like Madison, Ganghof worries about the danger of executive encroachments leading to eventual autocracy. His solution of a particular sort of bipartite assembly does get him the separation of powers that he desires, but, as I have argued, only at the expense of what I take to be a deterioration of authentic democracy–the ability of a citizenry to directly elect its leader. The good news is that an effective recall provision allows not only for the maintenance of separation that is provided by presidential systems, but by giving the electorate the power to dismiss as well as select both their executive and legislative officials, also even makes presidential systems more democratic, more responsive to what the people want. That is why the general authority to recall all government officers except judges should be seen to be an indispensable feature of any authentically democratic government.

About the Author

Walter Horn is a philosopher of politics and epistemology.

His 3:16 interview is here.

Other Hornbook of Democracy Book Reviews