The Economist front page unites brexit, Trump, Le Pen, and their purported ally Putin.

It’s the presidential democracy, stupid!

The spread of right wing nationalism in Western Europe has been contained, for now, and the results of the french election point to the understated role of the presidential-majoritarian system in enabling populism.


Shortly after the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the triumph of the brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, a question loomed large: was right wing populism spreading in the developed world? if so, who was next? Three major elections that featured right wing populists were coming Europe’s way in Austria, Netherlands, and France.To the surprise of many analysts, the pro Europe establishment candidates prevailed decisively.

While many differences exist, the effect of different electoral systems matters, particularly in diffusing polarization.

Polarization, whether it is feed by migration anxiety, economic anxiety, or both, is at the heart of the breakdown of support for traditional parties and the rise of outsider populist candidates. How a political system responds to it is the fruitful question that analysts and pundits should address.

More representation in parliamentary systems

The most constraining electoral system for individual choice is the majoritarian presidentialist setup and its two party politics. It is especially frustrating for a highly polarized electorate.

In the U.S election of 2016, four easily observable voting blocs emerged: right wing populist, left wing populist, right wing moderate, and left wing moderate. These factions were not new, but they were stronger and more uncompromising than ever before, or at least, than in the past 50 years.

One can expect a four way race between these factions to look much like the French election first round; nearly evenly fragmented with a few points difference, followed by a subsequent run off.

Sadly for the U.S, the majoritarian system forced everyone to corral into two choices, and this inevitably breeds disatisfaction (a driver of abstention) and coalescing (having to pick your lesser of two evils). Although many french voters felt like they were picking a lesser of two evils, their preferred faction at least had a shot in a general race. Opportunity is important, and while it can be argued that the U.S. primaries served this role, they did not, because they were one layer below the presidential contest.

Disatisfaction with a forced choice explains the lower Democratic turnout, while coalescing explains how moderate republicans ended up voting for Trump in an astonishing majority. This latter point was crucial to Trump’s election.

Note that in France many Mélenchon voters (the disappointed far left) abstained or voted blank, with their leader even abstaining from endorsing Macron himself — much like Bernie Sanders truly felt about Hillary Clinton. Many Fillon voters coalesced and went to Le Pen, the right wing alternative. Yet, as the below chart shows, Macron could not have won so decisively without drawing support from the socialists, the conservatives, and the far left. The leaders of which forcefully rejected Le Pen, forming a united front of the majority of voters.

Source: Financial Times

Not only did this not happen in the U.S, but it actually couldn’t happen. The nature of an electoral system where the winner takes it all increases the political costs of endorsing/voting outside your party.

While Mélenchon and Fillon voters ‘sucked it up’ and voted for Macron, they knew they would still be able to vote for their fragments in parliamentary elections two months later and fight for their priorities then. In essence, they could at least receive representation later.

In the U.S fight, everything was at stake for loyalists of the two parties and independents who leaned either way. Clinton needed most of Sanders supporters and half of conservative moderates. She obtained basically none of the latter. In such a situation, she then needed all of Sanders voters and a high democratic turnout. She also did not get that.

At the end of the day, conservative moderates had more to gain by voting Trump because at least “their team” would take it all, and they could then “rule" with the possibility of full parliamentary control. The differences within their party (between populists and moderates) could be worked out later, and that was a more favorable prospect than having a Democratic president.

The electoral college, a tweak on the presidential election that heavily favors small population centers, threw a wrench into the already unfavorable situation. Trump’s right wing populism happened to play well in the midwest, were cultural anxieties and white job insecurity was high. If the nonurban areas of France were favored in the electoral system in this same way, it would have been, as they say “a whole other ball game”.

Presidentialism as the weak democratic system

A wide body of literature exists in Political Science that studies the differences, strenghts and weaknesses, of the presidential and parliamentary systems. There has been no better time for Americans to visit this topic than now.

In particular, “The Perils of Presidentialism”, by Juan J. Linz, looks to Latin America, a region that has the most presidential systems, which have been unstable and marred by bouts of authoritarianism. Through this exploration, one can see how the problem of representation, coupled with strong executive branches (strong presidents), can open the path to authoritarian reversals more easily than in a parliamentary system.

By this logic, it is no coincidence that in Turkey, a country currently experiencing an authoritarian reversal, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was motivated to change the country’s system from parliamentary to presidential through a recent referendum.

The United States was always the outlier, the only presidential democracy that did not show weakness. Now we are seeing evidence that this may not be the case. The first phase has ocurred: americans successfully elected a populist outsider. The next phase would involve a greater concentration of power in the executive and the weakening of the other branches of government. The last phase is the authoritarian reversal. Will the United States continue on a path to authoritarian reversal or is the system really “exceptional”? Are its institutions able contain the shock at the first phase? We are about to find out.