A Quote to Ponder

On presidents

“Given his unavoidable institutional situation, a president bids fair to become the focus for whatever exaggerated expectations his supporters may harbor. They are prone to think that he has more power than he really has or should have and may sometimes be politically mobilized against any adversaries who bar his way. The interaction between a popular president and the crowd acclaiming him can generate fear among his opponents and a tense political climate.” — Juan Linz in his now-classic 1990 article in the Journal of Democracy entitled “The Perils of Presidentialism” (Page 62).

The article was written as Latin America was democratizing in the late 1980s (with constitutions, both old and new, that borrowed quite a bit from the US charter, especially in terms of separation of powers). Linz noted at the time that “the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States” (51-52). He went on to add, in what is an ominous observation given the current state of US politics, that  “political parties, particularly in socially and ideologically polarized countries, generally exacerbates, rather than moderates, conflicts between the legislative and executive” (53-54).

Of course, it is hard to read the article now, with the US parties substantially polarized, and not see many of his concerns as being salient in the US right now.

Indeed, the quote at the top of the post that led me to write this post clearly applies to Trump, but could equally apply to Sanders.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, US Politics, , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. mattbernius says:

    Great quote — for those interested, a scan of the article can be found here: https://delong.typepad.com/linz_perils_presidencialism.pdf

    I have a bunch of questions about Presidentialism in relation to Prime Minsterism — in particular in regards to being a populist figure — but I’m withholding them until I can finish the article (as I suspect they may be addressed there).

    I do wonder the degree to which the (semi) direct nature of presidential election (ignoring the EC for a moment) is inherently creates the structural issues with Presidentialism.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m hearing In Living Color’s Cult of Personality when I hear people talk about Bernie.

  3. Kylopod says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “Cult of Personality” is a brilliant song, and one of the reasons it hits it mark is that it doesn’t just go for easy shots: note how it keep juxtaposing history’s villains with people commonly thought of as heroes (Stalin/Gandhi, Mussolini/Kennedy), and then the song ends with an FDR clip. The phrase “cult of personality” is typically used by people against those they disapprove of, yet in reality it applies to many of the most celebrated figures in history as well, and the way we so readily accept the near-deification of these figures shows how susceptible we are.

    P.S. The band was called Living Colour. “In Living Color” was the comedy-sketch show by the Wayans Bros. that the band sued for stealing their name and logo.

  4. Kurtz says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I haven’t heard that song in at least a decade.

    I think it can be fairly applied to almost any contender for a major party nomination, and some who never had a shot :cough: Ron Paul :cough:. It may be more common now though–it’s hard to imagine Ford or Carter or H. W. Bush being described that way.

    It happens in business too–Jobs, Musk, Bezos. Holmes built a cult of personality on a bullshit product.

    The Celebrity-Paparazzi Complex has largely eclipsed what the subjects nominally produce. Their lives are the product now. Their artistry, at least for the ones that actually produce cultural artifacts, is a means of production. The ones that don’t are pure simulacra.

    At this point, I’m not even sure if anything in America can be properly criticized or analyzed.
    Part of me thinks that it is the result of America’s history as thesui generisnation-state–a real tree with plastic roots.

  5. Kylopod says:

    @Kurtz: Here is a description of FDR from historian Robert McElvaine:

    As with most political figures, it is very difficult to find the real Roosevelt under his public mask, which almost always wore a smile. To most of those who knew him or met him, FDR’s dominant characteristic was reducible to the word “charm.” He was able to charm even those who opposed his policies or were not satisfied with the accomplishments of his programs. Millions of Americans credited Roosevelt for everything they liked, but blamed others for what upset them. This was especially noticeable among southerners, many of whom in the later thirties became uncomfortable with the New Deal but wanted to remain loyal to their party and President. “Now I understand how it was possible for my family to worship FDR despite all the things he had done during his administration that enraged them,” southern journalist Florence King has written. “…It was very simple: Credit Franklin, better known as He, for all the things you like, and blame Eleanor, better known as She or ‘that woman,’ for all the things you don’t like. This way, He was cleared, She was castigated, and We were happy.”

    Such reasoning was not confined to the South or to conservatives. Many working-class people who were discontented with the failure of the New Deal to go far enough wrote to complain…and at the same time to praise the President. “You send the stuff to Poor but we dont get It,” protested a 1936 letter. The writer went on to say: “What wonderful man you have been I will always vote for you.” After informing him that her family’s children were suffering from undernourishment, a Californian told FDR in 1935: “You are the best president we ever had.”

    Whatever a Roosevelt supporter disliked was someone else’s fault. For conservatives, the guilty party was likely to be Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, or Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. For those on the left, blame was more frequently placed on relief administrators, Republicans, “Wall Street,” “the Interests,” or simply “them.” In any case, the fault was not the President’s. “I am sure the President,” a Seattle man wrote, “if he only knew, would order that something be done, God bless him.” …. Even people on the verge of starvation believed this. A mother of seven hungry children wrote to the President early in 1934: “You have tried every way to help the people.” Another Californian complained of “slave wages,” but wrote to FDR: “You are wonderful. But surely this treatment is unknown to you.” A Chicago man was another of those who were sure the President could not “know whats going around here.” The treatment of relief clients, he said, was very unfair, but “we know that it is not your falt but is the foult of those who are working in the relief stations.”

    Poor people were ready–even eager–to believe that local officials were destroying food and clothing to make the unemployed turn against FDR. “I’d give my heart to see the President,” a destitute North Carolina woman told FERA investigator Martha Gellhorn in 1934. “I know he means to do everything he can for us; but they make it hard for him; they won’t let him.” Here the “they” who were at fault were left unenumerated….

    Will Rogers captured the early attitude toward Roosevelt when he said: “The whole country is with him. Just so he does something. If he burned the Capitol, we would cheer and say, ‘Well, we at least got a fire started anyhow.'”

  6. An Interested Party says:

    @Kylopod: Well there’s the rub, eh? A charismatic leader can prove very successful in uniting different groups of people and giving them a common purpose but if it goes too far, we have somewhat mindless hero worship, as your excerpt shows…still, it seems less harmful with someone like FDR who was actually trying to help people as opposed to, say, Stalin…

  7. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Kylopod: It wasn’t just the common people who were responsible for the cult of personality. A friend of mine from grad school told me that, at her undergraduate institution, one of the history profs taught a course colloquially known as “Bend a knee to Franklin D.”

  8. @Guarneri:

    Congress has abdicated its responsibilities, leaving a vacuum for Presidents to fill and happily increase their power, for many, many decades.

    To a degree, I agree. But the issue is that the very nature of separation of powers systems is that power tends to accrue to the president. So it less abdication as it is a flaw inherent in the system.

    Even worse, in the US context, the Senate makes legislating even more difficult. By design it is not representative of the nation and the filibuster has meant that the minority can block legislation–this has been especially true as it has evolved into a procedural tool in the last couple of decades.

    So, not so much abdication as serious systemic flaws.

  9. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I saw @Guarneri’s post before coming into work and had planned to comment something along these lines. Clearly I’m starting to pay attention to your posts* about underlying structural issues and their systemic influence.

    The other thing I’d add to that is that the issue of “modern” parties and primary systems also comes into play here. As has been brought in particularly stark relief, the overall party and primary structure radically disincetivizes members of the President’s party from attempts to reign him or her in — especially in cases where they hold control of a given House of Congress.

    To be clear, this isn’t unique to the current PoTUS — it’s just that due to his policies and pushing of norms, it’s much more apparent than in past administrations (though plenty of examples exist from them).

    I guess all of this gets back to the problematic Green Lantern framing of a lot of issues as simply a lack of political will. That’s was definitely my thinking for quite some time — even up to a few years ago.

    [* – I was literally planning to say based on my reading of Steven’s posts this strikes me as more of a systemic issue. Glad to see my representation of your view point was going to be correct.]

  10. Kurtz says:


    It’s worth noting that that the contiguous US is comparable to the size of the whole of Europe.

    I don’t think there is an example of a nation that covers this amount of area without some authoritarian tendencies.

  11. Kurtz says:


    I think the following may be true

    Through most of the 20th century, the parties were somewhat heterodox. Ideologically homogenous parties changes the political calculus.

  12. mattbernius says:

    I’m not enough of political culture scholar to comment intelligently on this one.

    I’m not completely sure that the parties are particularly homogeneous right now (though the narrative is we don’t have a lot of Blue Dog Democrats or Rockefeller Republicans as in the past).

    As someone who tends to put a lot of emphasis on the media’s role in shaping culture, my sense is that there is far more attention paid now to the heterodox/homogenous issue and that may lead to a perception of greater alignment than actually exists. Likewise, I wonder about how things like gerrymandering and clustering also come into play here to further increase the perception of homogeneity.

  13. @mattbernius:

    I guess all of this gets back to the problematic Green Lantern framing of a lot of issues as simply a lack of political will.

    Our politics is plagued by this. Everyone attributes failures to lack of will, when will is not the issue.

  14. @Kurtz:

    Through most of the 20th century, the parties were somewhat heterodox. Ideologically homogenous parties changes the political calculus.


    though the narrative is we don’t have a lot of Blue Dog Democrats or Rockefeller Republicans as in the past

    The parties emerged from the century-long effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the 1990s. That is: the phenomenon of Southern conservatives refusing to vote for Republicans. The pivotal date is 1994.

    This reminds me that I have been intending a post on this.

    I was alluding this in the OP when I reference Linz’s statement that presidentialism has worked in the US but also noted the problems with polarized parties. In 1990 we didn’t have polarized parties. We do now.

  15. @Guarneri:

    The degree of polarization ebbs and flows given the issues of the day, and has here and everywhere since the founding of governments.

    I missed this on my first reading.

    In fact, no, the polarization of the type we are seeing in recent decades is new for US parties and is not just part of a natural ebb and flow.

  16. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Our politics is plagued by this. Everyone attributes failures to lack of will, when will is not the issue.

    To be fair, this is a far broader problem than just in politics.

    Again, “pull oneself up by your own bootstraps” was originally intended to be an ironic statement about the impossibility of overcoming systemic challenges simply by force of will. And yet, over the course of the 20th century it came to mean exactly the opposite.

    Being partial to Weber, I’m always going to look towards his reasoning in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” for a plausible explanation about the intertwining of will, success, and moral superiority. But ultimately it’s a toxic formulation and is clearly doing far more harm than good.

  17. @mattbernius: Agreed. And hooray for a Weber shout-out!

  18. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And hooray for a Weber shout-out!

    I am definitely a Weber stan. And not just for the Protestant Ethic — his writings on bureaucracy, technology, and science in general are just so good.

  19. Kurtz says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Looking forward to the post. I am looking for an academic view on this rather than the popular notion. Though, if you have time:

    The broad timeline seems to be:

    -New Deal brings Progressive Republicans across the aisle.

    -The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Vietnam causes a rift within the Dem coalition.

    -1980: Reagan Dems vote Republican for President, but remain Dems in other areas – – – > by 1994, the transition completes.

    -Rockefeller Republicans end up as fiscally conservative/sociall liberal.

    Is this roughly correct? I’ll explain my curiosity a little more when I’m off work for good.


    I think the media argument is both true and a little too convenient.

    I posted this a few weeks ago.

    The whole article is worth a read, but I’d like to call attention to this graphic.

    Not a single newspaper as a trusted source on the Right. Fox and two opinion radio shows.

    They grouped local sources as newspaper and local TV, so the network news were the national broadcasts. IIRC, those shows only give a little attention to political news.

    Random aside: i looked up party re-alignments hoping for a decent article. I didn’t find one I could quickly go through to check what I thought.

    I ended up at a wiki article. It includes this line:

    For the first time in its history, the Democrats were a statist party instead of a libertarian one

    I think I’m going to look at the edit history later. The wiki wars are usually interesting.

  20. Mu Yixiao says:

    When talking about polarization and hetero/homogeneity, I think one thing’s missing:

    Who is “the party” that we’re discussing?

    * Candidates
    * Elected representatives
    * Vocal supporters
    * Party members / voters
    * People who identify with the party

    I think the list becomes increasingly moderate and heterogeneous the farther down the list you get.

  21. 95 South says:

    @Mu Yixiao: Right.
    Our parties aren’t homogenous. It just looks that way because there’s little overlap among voters, and none among elected officials.

  22. mattbernius says:


    I think the media argument is both true and a little too convenient.

    I think this is a bit of a language/definition issue. When I’m thinking about “media” I’m not using it in the common vernacular.

    I’m using it to refer to the evolution of an ecosystem of customized, interactive, fragmented media networks that are highly focused on maintaining audiences and need constant content to function.

    While there have been similar partisan institutions in the past, there are a number of things that make these modern mediums unique. While the rise of this type of media doesn’t explain everything, it’s a key part of the broader formula.

  23. mattbernius says:

    @95 South:

    It just looks that way because there’s little overlap among voters, and none among elected officials.

    Can you unpack that a little bit?

    I distrust the homogenous argument as well. But I don’t understand specifically what you mean by there being no overlap among “elected officials”. Especially within a party, that really doesn’t seem to be the case – i.e. that there’s no overlap on policy preferences or goals — especially when you look at institutions like the House or Senate.

    Or am I misinterpreting your point?

  24. @95 South: @mattbernius: One quick observation: by definition parties as large as the Rs and Ds cannot be homogenious.

    They are, however, more ideologically sorted than they have ever been.

  25. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    In political science analysis is heterogeneity and homogeneity seen as absolute terms? Or is it a continuum?

    Or they really not preferred terms because they don’t enable good descriptive analysis? To that point, I see why “ideologically sorted” is a more useful descriptor.

  26. dazedandconfused says:

    The constitution clearly lays out a system which limits populism in the matter of selecting presidents, but doesn’t well address the selecting of nominees.

    What had been limiting populism was the party’s maintaining control over the selection process. That has been lost. Party polling have become elections of nominees, and only a very small percentage of the public participates in these “elections”. The highly motivated rule the process because wing-nuts are by nature highly motivated.

    Solution? Adopt the Australian system of semi-mandatory participation. Fine people for not voting, essentially, and particularly in the nomination process.

  27. just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @dazedandconfused: How does that fine thing work for people who don’t identify with political parties? Or do I get to vote Libertarian, Constitution, Natural Law, Socialist, whatever in the primary? And if I do, how does that resolve the electorate skewing the control of the central party problem as identified here?

    ETA: I find it interesting to see the continuing tilt toward an authoritarian solution to a democracy problem–not enough people voting? Easy, force them to. Problem solved.

  28. 95 South says:

    @mattbernius: I agree with Mu Yixiao’s point about polarization between parties, especially at the top. The parties’ leadership have opposing goals and agendas. There isn’t much agreement across the aisle. It’s also true that each party is increasingly factionalized.

  29. mattbernius says:

    @95 South:
    Ah, got it. We’re talking about two different things. I think a lot of us — or at least myself — were referring to homogeneity (or ideological alignment) *within* a given political party, not across political parties.

    That was my confusion. Thanks for the clarification.

  30. Kurtz says:


    On your media definition: makes sense. That is certainly a problem. It seems that the destabilization of fact started before the current intermet environment, but that’s judt a hunch.

    On homogeneity:

    I intended this to mean something like Steven’s description of the parties: ideologically sorted.

    But this can be interpreted multiple ways.

    At any rate, I’ve been arguing recently that a lot of doubt expressed here and elsewhere about the electability of Sanders is based on shallow use of ideological labels.

    Two articles from Matt Grossman are related to the current discussion.

    Today, at Fivethirtyeight.

    From 2016, at Vox.

    Part of this is in response to 95 South’s claim that the parties are more factionalized. That didn’t ring true to me.

  31. dazedandconfused says:

    @just nutha ignint cracker:


    They tax people an extra bit, IIRC it’s about the equivalent of $50.00, and everyone who votes gets a $50.00 bill for their wallet. Those who really, really, really don’t want to vote just forfeits their $50.00. Nobody is dragged off to jail, nobody is arrested. They also have a national holiday for voting, so people don’t struggle to get to a polling place after work. We, on the other hand, insist upon that. Don’t even hold elections on week ends. I suppose voting on weekends or a holiday might be viewed as a threat to freedom by somebody somewhere but I’m at a loss as to how they rationalize it.

    It works because it makes it so Aussie politicians don’t have to outrage some small minority into bothering to show up. That focuses things more on policy and less on BS. It also makes it very hard to play that game of “primarying” other people in your own party into knuckling under to everything you say or do.

    You want more parties? Fine. But what has always brought this nation to two, not one more and not one less, two, parties is the nature of our winner-take-all election accounting, not voter turnout.

    When we formed a democratic republic we were working pretty much from scratch, and even thought there would not be political parties, and made no accounting for their existence in the Constitution. However every democracy since about the middle of the 19th century has proportional representation. When we formed a new government in Iraq we, the US, even gave them proportional representation.

  32. just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @dazedandconfused: Thanks for the explanation. You should read First Dog on the Moon in the Oz edition of The Guardian sometime. There’s ample “outrag[ing] of small minorities” going on there, too.

  33. mattbernius says:


    On your media definition: makes sense. That is certainly a problem. It seems that the destabilization of fact started before the current intermet environment, but that’s judt a hunch.

    Arugably it been with us from the dawn of time. But the Media influence starts at a minimum with the advent of printing and pamphleteering.

    However, the really key thing, if you buy into Benedict Andersen and Michael Warner, was the start of letter columns in newspapers. It’s at that moment when “average people” are given a voice. And that has really profound effects. That gets accelerated by call-in radio and, more importantly, national syndication. So now pockets of people can suddenly find others across the US (and being to imagine themselves — or people with their opinions) all over the place.

    So that starts to really prop up tribalism and closing of media ecosystems. That get accelerated in the early days of the Internet by making it easier to create those types of sharing communities (see this blog as an example).

    What really tips things with the internet is that for the most part, it reduces dialog to text. And that opens the way for first sockpuppeting and trolling and more recently bots.

    And that’s hacking into our most base of herd instincts.