Constitutional Models for Stable Democracy

Posted: March 27, 2012 in analysis

A few months ago, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was discussing the drafting of a new Egyptian Constitution in Egypt, and she said that she didn’t believe that the US Constitution was the best model.  This terribly offended many commentators, as can be seen here, here, and here.

But could there be a good reason why Justice Ginsburg doesn’t think the US Constitution is a good model?  I think there is; Presidential systems do not lend themselves well to long-term stable democracies, which is the goal of a well-written Constitution.  Of course, the United States is the exception, but how well do other countries with a Presidential system fare?

Once more, I will rely on the Polity IV database to judge the degree of democracy in a country.  As a reminder, the Polity IV project rates every country every year from -10 (totally autocratic) to +10 (totally democratic).  The threshold for a functional democracy in this scale is generally considered to be +6 or higher.

I define a stable democracy, somewhat arbitrarily, as a country with a Polity IV score of +6 or better every year since 1970, and without any coups, revolutions, or other extra-Constitutional transfers of power in that time.

Armed with this information, it only remains to check the 43 or so countries large enough to be listed in the Polity IV database that presently have Presidential systems of government to see if they meet these conditions.

And there are five.

  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • Cyprus
  • Sri Lanka
  • United States of America

Plenty more countries are functioning democracies now, but only those have been so long enough to be called stable.  Far more Presidential countries show the same trend; spurts of true democracy followed by descents into authoritarian rule.

Of course, without any comparison, 5 of 43 (or 11.6%) might be a good score.  So let’s check parliamentary democracies.  There are 64 of those (and a few with hybrid systems overlap, including Sri Lanka).  How many of them are stable democracies?

  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Botswana
  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Germany
  • India
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Jamaica
  • Japan
  • The Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Sri Lanka (shared)
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom

So, for Parliamentary systems of government, 20 out of 63 (or 31.7%) are stable democracies.  That sounds like much better odds.

Another thing that I don’t understand about these complaints is that they seem to undermine the theory of American Exceptionalism, also popular in conservative circles.  If anyone can adopt the US Constitution and become just as free as Americans, what is so special about America itself?

In fact, I think I may have just gathered evidence that there is something special about America, but whether it is due to some inherent quality of the American people, or just the unusual circumstances under which the country was formed and grew is well beyond the scope of this article, or indeed this blog.

P.S.  Yes, it has been nearly six months since I wrote anything.  It’s hard to find subjects that lend themselves well to this kind of analysis, and I have several half-finished but not very good drafts sitting around unpublished from that time.

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