Get your history right on America’s political system

October 3, 2013

On October 2, Dylan Matthews published a piece in Washington Post entitled “The Shutdown is the Constitution’s Fault.”

He argues that shutdown is indicative of a degree of political polarization that could lead to the rise of authoritarian government in the United States, and that a central reason for this is the separation-of-powers system of government we have, rather than a parliamentary system.  In a parliamentary system, there is a unity of executive and legislative branches and often only one legislative body rather than two, or only one truly decisive one.  There are a host of theoretical arguments in favor of both systems.  The problem with Matthews is that the historical examples he cites in support of his contention are nothing less than preposterous.   We are told that Germany under the Weimar Republic, Venezuela, and—of all things—the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 18th Century (actually the 16th-18th Century, but no matter) are examples of how a separation-of-powers system can cause extreme political polarization and a breakdown of democratic rule.

As if the militaristic and authoritarian German culture that survived under the Weimar Republic; the total absence of democratic tradition that existed (and still exists) in Venezuela; and the autonomous nobility and weak monarchy of Poland-Lithuania between 300 and 500 years ago can seriously be compared with the American political tradition and its English roots…

As if only structures, rather than strategic situations, economic development, culture, and social characteristics of societies mean nothing—it’s just whether you’ve got a unicameral legislature and a Prime Minister or not…

For that matter, Matthews can’t even cite something which supports his thesis accurately. He endorses the statement of now-deceased political scientist Juan Linz that only two countries with a separation-of-powers constitution—the USA and Chile—had been politically stable for 150 years until the military coup that ousted Marxist Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973.  This would intrigue anyone who knew of the 1891 Chilean civil war; the military dictatorship of 1927-1931; and the ten—yes, ten—governments that held power in a single year of 1931-1932.

If Matthews wants to be an Aristotle and write about the vices and virtues of different systems of government, fine.  But if he’s going to cite historical examples in support of a thesis, he should know his history better, and have a better understanding of the forces which affect a country’s political development.


Robert L. Goldich retired from a 33-year career in the Congressional Research Service in 2005. He was the senior CRS military manpower analyst when he left. Bob is currently writing a book on conscription in history, from the first human civilizations to the present.