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The Age of the Imperial Executive

By Michael A. Genovese

The age of the imperial executive is upon us. Across the globe, executives rise as legislatures decline in power. "Presidentialism," once seen as the solution to our governing problem, is increasingly becoming the problem we need to solve in the 21st Century.

The rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński (though unelected) in Poland, and the threat of a Trump or Cruz presidency in the United States all suggest a disturbing trend: as a democratic distemper spreads across the world’s democracies, the people, angry and fearful, look to a strongman—a savior—who can lead them out of the darkness and into (or back to) a safe, secure, and bright future. The liberal democracies seem unable to cope with or conquer the problems brought on by globalization and hyper-change, and so many turn to a form of illiberal democracy as a life raft in a sea of troubles.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West began to celebrate its victory over the forces of evil as the great threat was smashed and democracy rose triumphant. It was, in Francis Fukuyama’s premature phrase, “the end of history.” A democratic wave swept across the former Soviet Republics, and the world went from about 60 democracies in 1987 to over 120 today. We had finally made the world safe for democracy. Or had we?

The rise of democracies slowly led to the emergence of presidentialism, and while presidential systems vary, the goal was to develop some form of executive leadership that was tethered to checks and balances, democratic elections, legislative oversight and controls, and circumscribed executive powers under a written constitution in a rule of law system. This form of liberal democracy became the “go-to” system of government that virtually all older and emerging democracies embraced.

But the “end of history” ended rather quickly. The danger of an Imperial Executive, about which Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. warned us in the 1970s, began to surface, and the presidential halo became tarnished as strong executives often abused power. And yet, as governments failed to live up to the demands and expectations of citizens, the people continued to demand strong leadership to solve problems. As executives became increasingly identified as “the government” (in contradistinction to the legislatures often seen as either obstructionist or ornamental), new popular demands required an extension of executive power. Often, this power grab was aided by enabling legislatures who, in an age of hyper-change, could not keep up with the executive’s ability to act first while leaving the legislature behind. If on occasion, these strong leaders solved some problems, they soon became problems themselves. As Emilio Zapata warned us, “A strong leader makes for a weak people.”

Across the globe, executives are rising in power, and legislatures are declining in power. This phenomenon is occurring regardless of the type of democracy practiced, parliamentary or presidential, with the fusion of power or the separation of power.

The chief causes of this are many, but central to the rise of the executive are globalization, hyper-change, and media focus. Globalization connects us to other nations and non-state actors in a web of interdependence that requires cooperative and, at times, fast-moving action. Hyper-change has left slow moving legislatures behind, as executives, designed to act with dispatch, act and leave all else behind. And increased media attention focused on the person of the executive distorts reality by giving the impression that the executives are bigger and more powerful than they actually are–or that the executive is the government, with the legislature an interesting but less important sideshow.

The executive is a truly modern institution. It is built for speed. Executives have an impressive adaptation capability, as only one person needs to decide and the institution (normally) follows. Executives can act, preempt others, and set the stage and tone of action. They can move quickly to wherever is necessary or desirable.

Legislatures, on the other hand, are slow and deliberative bodies. They are built on bargaining, compromise, and deal-making.  They move slowly as they must often “herd cats” to get even the simplest of things done. There are multiple veto points in the legislative process. Thus, they face an adaptation crisis. Often they are forced to react to an executive’s acts. Legislatures were built for a quieter, slower time. They are 18th century institutions operating in the 21st century.

The danger we face today is that liberal democracies are morphing into illiberal democracies, and with the centralization of power in the hands of one person, the risk of a Putinist-style democracy looms large. A strong leader armed with the support of the people can sweep away checks and balances and act boldly, governing in the name of the people. And who is to stop this imperial executive? We see this model in action in Russia, Poland, and Hungary. It threatens the United States and other democracies as well.

There is thus a Goldilocks Dilemma: this executive is too hot, this one too cold.  We can’t seem to get it just right. As liberal democracies fail to adequately respond to and solve the problems they face, the people grow angry and begin to demand bold solutions. Forget about the checks on power, we think—we demand the exercise of power. And if that means ruffling a few constitutional feathers, so be it. But if liberal democracies are too cold, illiberal democracies are often too hot.

If liberal democracies restrain power, illiberal democracies unleash it. It is tempting to demand that the executive be given commensurate power to meet the demands of our times. But the risks exceed the rewards. An executive unhinged is an executive to be feared. 

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Michael A. Genovese is author of over forty books, holds the Loyola Chair of Leadership, and is President of the World Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

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