Book Review

A Different Democracy: American Government in a Thirty-One Country Perspective

[By Steven L. Taylor, Matthew S. Shugart, Arend  Lijphart, Bernard Grofman; Yale University Press; 2014]

Every democracy has a unique institutional structure, party system, and balance of executive, legislative and judicial powers. But because the American Presidential model was invented from scratch in 1787, it is quite unlike any other. Just how different this model’s institutional configuration is and how it makes a difference in governance is the subject of an excellent book by four distinguished political scientists. The book’s idea originated in 1996 with Arend Lijphart and Bernard Grofman, and they later invited two of their colleagues to help handle the project’s growing requirements.

The authors compare America’s democratic system of government with those of 30 other nations.  All were chosen for their longevity (continuous democracies since 1990) and population (five million or more, with New Zealand the only exception). These countries are from all regions of the world, however a majority are European: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K.

The findings confirm that no other country has the same mix of institutions, power distribution, and checks and balances as the United States. The authors conclude: “If we distil the most fundamental variables of governance as a means of narrowing the institutional configuration, we can start with presidentialism as a filter, which quickly takes us from 31 cases to only seven: the U.S., Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia and Mexico. The filter of bicameralism eliminates Korea, while federalism removes Chile and Columbia.” In another area of comparison, countries with Judicial Review, the study found that only two others had this check on government as potent as the U.S.: Australia and Canada.

So, under the three basic criteria for comparison—presidentialism, federalism, and judicial review—the United States stands alone. The authors noted two additional features that make that country’s democracy even more distinctive: its longstanding commitment to constitutionalism (the oldest written constitution in the world); and its widespread use of party primaries to nominate candidates.

As to how all this makes a difference, the book compares America’s performance in several areas of public policy, from taxes to healthcare to defence, and on the global Democracy Index. In almost all policy areas, the U.S. performed better than the median average of all those democracies during the 20 years of study (1990-2009). In taxation, for example, America collected 27.30% of GDP, well below the median of 34.50% and much less than Denmark’s high of 48.89%. On healthcare, the U.S. expenditure per capita was the highest. Its defence spending as a percentage of GDP was the second highest, behind Israel. America’s overall score on The Economist’s Democracy Index was also above the median, although it ranked low in civil liberties and pluralism.

On policy making, the authors conclude, “Our survey of the United States in comparative perspective has shown that most other democracies have institutional configurations that diminish the number of veto gates, and therefore are less complex in their operation.

“Of course, less complex and rapid processes are not always better, but the point is that the policy involves fewer actors who can block a change, which makes policy change more likely.” Notably, they add, “very few collation-based parliamentary systems have a policy-making process as complex as that of the United States, even if they also happen to be federal.” [pp. 358-59]

In showing how distinct the U.S. system really is, “A Different Democracy” debunks the theory that presidentialism is a less stable form of democracy.

The book’s comparisons between parliamentary and presidential democracies address the age-old debate between those two systems, that the former is more efficient because it fuses executive and legislative powers. But efficiency in governance is not necessarily a good thing. Decisions made quickly by a ruling coalition are more prone to error, less widely accepted, and more difficult to enforce. Fewer veto gates also tends to make governments more onerous. A major advantage of America’s more complex albeit less efficient system is that government is more effective, and remains limited.

In showing how distinct the U.S. system really is, A Different Democracy debunks the theory that presidentialism is a less stable form of democracy.  America is the world’s oldest representative democracy, but since the publication of The Perils of Presidentialism (Juan Linz, 1990) which showed that more presidential regimes succumb to dictatorship than parliamentary ones, the conventional wisdom is that presidentialism is prone to authoritarianism. But since the other so called presidential democracies don’t follow the basic principles of the American original, they can’t be considered “Presidential” when they fail.

A Different Democracy makes a strong case that the U.S. Presidential system is an effective and stable form of government. Considering the country’s successes over the past 234 years under the same Constitution, this verdict is undeniable.

– BhanuDhamija

[Steven Taylor is chair of political science, Troy University; Matthew Shugart is professor of political science, University of California, Davis; Arend Lijphart is research professor emeritus of political science, University of California, San Diego; Bernard Grofman is professor of political science, University of California, Irvine.]