But here’s a link to the PDF of the IAD’s weekly Latin American Advisor newsletter with my comments, as well as those by Carlos Mesa (former Bolivian president), Kathryn Ledebur (director of the Bolivia-based Andean Information Network), and Iván Rebolledo (president of Bolivian-American Chamber of Commerce).
This week’s (Comparative) Fact of the Week is related to last night’s presidential candidate debate in the United States.
Did you know that American presidents don’t have legislative powers? Well, they don’t.
Typically, presidents are weaker than prime ministers. This is by design. In presidential systems (such as in the US) powers are generally divided between the executive and legislative branches of government. Typically, this actually gives legislature tremendous power. As in most presidential systems, presidents mostly sign into law (or they can try using their veto power) legislation passed by the legislators.
There are some “strong” presidential systems, such as in Brazil, the president does have the power to actually initiate legislature (the US president doesn’t). In fact, the Brazilian constitution even gives the president the power to enact laws by decree, which stand unless the legislature acts within 60 days (though the period can be extended an additional 120 days). In Brazil, presidents have strong legislative and agenda setting powers.
There are, of course, a few presidential systems that are so strong, they give presidents the power to set budgets. In these cases, the role is reversed: the president drafts a budget, and the legislature can only vote it up or down.
In contrast, parliamentary systems give chief executives tremendous powers. But that’s only because (in all but the rare “minority government” case) prime ministers are also the leaders of a legislative majority. And, since they happen to also be legislators (only legislators can also be prime ministers), they have all the abilities of a majority leader without the hassle of having to submit what they pass for approval to another person. In fact, prime ministers are extremely powerful—so long as they retain their legislative majority.
Which leads me to an interesting question: Why so much attention to the presidential contest in the US? And, even more striking, why so much attention to the candidates’ domestic agendas? Shouldn’t we be asking those questions of the legislative candidates? Finally, why doesn’t anyone in the media bother to remind us that, despite all their good intentions, neither candidate can lower or raise our taxes. Because only Congress can. All presidents really do, is pick out the pen they want to use for the signing ceremony.
NPR has a recent story on “America’s love affair with nationalism" that made me instantly think about my course on populism in Latin America. As someone who teaches comparative politics at an American public university, I frequently have to convince my audience (students) that understanding other countries is not just interesting in its own right, but because we can honestly learn something about our own country by understanding broader political, social, and economic phenomena beyond our borders.
My own interest in understanding populism—which stems primarily from a political sociology perspective coupled with my interest in modern democratic theory—makes me look at contemporary American politics through a very different perspective.
For example: Did you know that studies of Latin American politics suggest that presidential democracy has significant structural flaws that contribute to frequent cycles of democratic “breakdowns” (see, for example, Juan Linz’s seminal The Failure of Presidential Democracy)? I often wonder what a better appreciation of those lessons would do to political discourse in the United States.
If you want an eye-opening understanding of what populism is—and how it can be both a positive and negative force for democratic stability—you may want to check out some of the readings on my populism course syllabus. In particular, I recommend the edited volume Populism and the Mirror of Democracy. There’s a reason why both Hugo Chávez & Sarah Palin are huge social media users. (Also, did you know Hugo Chávez has his own television show—Aló Presidente—from which he does most of his governing?)