US could be headed for a constitutional crisis, regardless of Election Day outcome

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In the modern world, there are basically two ways to run a democracy, and the method pioneered by the United States has a bad track record outside of this country. That record could be made worse as a result of the coming presidential election, no matter who wins.

The political scientist Juan Linz wrote a remarkable paper in 1990 comparing the outcomes of parliamentary and presidential systems, pointing out the ways the latter can (and usually do) fail.

SEE MORE: In-depth coverage of the 2016 election

Parliamentary systems, like those in Europe, have a unified legislative and executive branch: A prime minister, chosen from the ranks of the ruling legislative party or coalition, takes on the role of head of government, with all of the powers and responsibilities that entails.

RELATED: See more on the 2016 election

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Voter turnout at polling places across the country
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Voter turnout at polling places across the country
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 8: Horace Higgins casts his ballot at the Downtown Women's Center on Skid Row in Los Angeles, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2016. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 8: Camila Chavez, 3, plays as her grandmother Alexandrian Barrios, 58, votes at a polling station set-up at Watts Towers Arts Center on November 8, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 8: Maryjane Medina, 18, a first time voter, walks up to polling booth to cast her vote at a polling station set-up at Watts Towers Arts Center on November 8, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A man votes at a polling place at a high school in McLean, Virginia during the US presidential election on November 8, 2016. / AFP / Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - November 8: Voters fill out their ballots at a polling place in Loudon County High School during the 2016 Presidential Elections in Leesburg, Va., USA on November 8 , 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - November 8: Voters enter the polling place in Loudon County High School during the 2016 Presidential Elections in Leesburg, Va., USA on November 8 , 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - NOVEMBER 08: Voters fill out their paper ballots in a polling place on Election Day November 8, 2016 in Arlington, Virginia. Americans across the nation pick their choice for the next president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Voters cast their ballots during voting for the U.S presidential election in Manhasset, New York U.S., November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
NEW ALEXANDRIA, PA - NOVEMBER 8: Voters enter the Simpson Voting House, established in 1891, to vote in the presidential election on November 8, 2016 in New Alexandria, Pennsylvania. Americans across the nation make their choice for the next president of the United States today. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
A voter stands with a stroller outside the American Legion Post #469 polling location in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. The Justice Department will deploy 500 personnel to polling stations on Election Day to help protect voters against discrimination and intimidation, down from 2012 as the result of a Supreme Court ruling that gutted part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CONCORD, NH - NOVEMBER 08: Voters fill out their ballots at the Green Street Community Center on November 8, 2016 in Concord, New Hampshire. After a contentious campaign season, Americans go to the polls today to choose the next president of the United States. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
The early morning sun casts the shadow of a voter on a wall as he arrives at a polling location in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. The Justice Department will deploy 500 personnel to polling stations on Election Day to help protect voters against discrimination and intimidation, down from 2012 as the result of a Supreme Court ruling that gutted part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling site in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A line of voters stretches down the street as they wait for a polling site to open in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Voters enter a polling place to cast their election ballots Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Democratic U.S. vice presidential candidate Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) casts his ballot at the Hermitage Methodist Home polling station in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
A clerk tabulates ballots at a polling station just after midnight on November 8, 2016 in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, the first voting to take place in the 2016 US presidential election. The US presidential election got underway -- on a small scale -- as seven people in a tiny New Hampshire village cast their ballots at the stroke of midnight. Dixville Notch has had the honor of launching the voting, symbolically, since 1960. Clay Smith was the first of seven people to cast their ballots as Tuesday's long awaited Election Day began. An eighth resident voted by absentee ballot. / AFP / Alice Chiche (Photo credit should read ALICE CHICHE/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - NOVEMBER 08: Voters wait in-line for casting their ballots outside a polling place on Election Day November 8, 2016 in Alexandria, Virginia. Americans across the nation are picking their choice for the next president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - NOVEMBER 08: Voters wait in-line for casting their ballots outside a polling place on Election Day November 8, 2016 in Alexandria, Virginia. Americans across the nation are picking their choice for the next president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A dog walks by people voting at the Brooklyn Museum polling station in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on November 8, 2016. With an anxious world watching, Americans began voting Tuesday on whether to send the first female president or a volatile populist tycoon to the White House. The kickoff marks the end to a campaign like no other -- exhausting, often bitter -- as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump presented radically different visions of how to lead the world's greatest power. / AFP / ANGELA WEISS (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
A child sits behind his mom, who is filling out her form at a polling station in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)
A man takes a selfie with his child as he waits to vote at a polling station in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)
A line of voters stretches around the block while waiting to cast their ballots at a polling site in New York as One World Trade Center stands at left in the background, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
People arrive to a poll station to vote in Arlington, Virginia on November 8, 2016. With an anxious world watching, Americans began voting Tuesday on whether to send the first female president or a volatile populist tycoon to the White House. The kickoff marks the end to a campaign like no other -- exhausting, often bitter -- as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump presented radically different visions of how to lead the world's greatest power. / AFP / Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - NOVEMBER 08: Voters wait in-line for casting their ballots outside a polling place on Election Day November 8, 2016 in Alexandria, Virginia. Americans across the nation are picking their choice for the next president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A voter casts his ballot in the U.S. election at Su Nueva Lavanderia in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Ballot clerks Cheryl Bourassa (L) and Judy Taylor verify the ballot count before the polls open for the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Woodstock, New Hampshire, U.S. November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mary Schwalm
Voters line up outside a polling station in Christmas, Florida on November 8, 2016. After an exhausting, wild, bitter, and sometimes sordid campaign, Americans finally began voting Tuesday for a new president: either the billionaire populist Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, seeking to become the first woman to win the White House. / AFP / Gregg Newton (Photo credit should read GREGG NEWTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton steps away from a voting booth after voting at Douglas G. Griffin School November 8, 2016 in Chappaqua, New York. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
People voting at Congress Elementary School in the presidential election November 8, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. / AFP / JEFF KOWALSKY (Photo credit should read JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Former US President Bill Clinton (L) and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (R)vote at Douglas G. Griffin School November 8, 2016 in Chappaqua, New York. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 08: An early morning voter casts her vote at the Bishop Leo E. O'Neil Youth Center on November 8, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Voters will choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for president, as well as important races for Congress and Senate. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
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Meanwhile, in presidential systems, like those of the US and much of Latin America, separate elections decide the fate of those branches of government. On Tuesday, the United States will be choosing a president, but will also, in over four hundred separate house and senate elections, determine the men and women who will approve and send laws to be signed by that new president.

Linz notes that there are two major problems with presidential systems. The first problem emerges when a democratically elected president and a democratically elected legislature hopelessly oppose and despise each other. Neither the president nor the legislature can claim a true popular mandate over the other:

"In a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. This claim is thrown into high relief when a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the one the president represents. Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically."

The other threat comes from the immense power that comes with the office of President — this person becomes Commander in Chief of the most powerful military in the history of the world while also holding the reins of the wealthiest economy in the history of the world — and the rush to the head that such puissance entails [emphasis ours]:

"Presidentialism is ineluctably problematic because it operates according to the rule of 'winner-take-all' - an arrangement that tends to make democratic politics a zero-sum game, with all the potential for conflict such games portend. Although parliamentary elections can produce an absolute majority for a single party, they more often give representation to a number of parties. Power-sharing and coalition-forming are fairly common, and incumbents are accordingly attentive to the demands and interests of even the smaller parties. These parties in turn retain expectations of sharing in power and, therefore, of having a stake in the system as a whole. By contrast, the conviction that he possesses independent authority and a popular mandate is likely to imbue a president with a sense of power and mission, even if the plurality that elected him is a slender one."

One of Linz' most important observations is that the United States is the only presidential democracy in the two and a half centuries that this system of government has existed to maintain a more or less constant fealty to that system. Every other presidential system has fallen to one or another type of tyranny or collapsed entirely:

"[T]he only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States... Aside from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continuity under presidential government-but Chilean democracy broke down in the 1970s."

Possibly the most frightening part of Linz' assessment of presidential democracy, however, is his argument for why the US alone has managed to stay tyranny-free. After World War II, America enjoyed two political parties that, while disagreeing with each other on the margins of what a free society truly means, shared a basic understanding of the underlying values of such a society. Nations with parties which tended to the far left and far right were more prone to either the constitutional deadlock or rampant demagoguery that tends to plague presidential systems:

"[I]t is worth noting that the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties-which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties-has something to do with it. Unfortunately, the American case seems to be an exception; the development of modern political parties, particularly in socially and ideologically polarized countries, generally exacerbates, rather than moderates, conflicts between the legislative and the executive...

In countries where the preponderance of voters is centrist, agrees on the exclusion of extremists, and expects both rightist and leftist candidates to differ only within a larger, moderate consensus, the divisiveness latent in presidential competition is not a serious problem... But societies beset by grave social and economic problems, divided about recent authoritarian regimes that once enjoyed significant popular support, and in which well-disciplined extremist parties have considerable electoral appeal, do not fit the model presented by the United States."

When Linz was writing his paper, the moderation of American political parties was already starting to break down, and the ideological polarization of the parties would accelerate just a few years after his paper was published with the "Republican Revolution" of the 1994 midterm election. The sorting of Republicans and Democrats into distinct ideological camps has continued ever since.

Since Linz' writing, Democrats have moved to the left and, to an even greater extent, Republicans have moved to the right. A commonly cited model of political polarization of congresspeople that sorts legislators by how often they vote with ideologically similar representatives called DW-NOMINATE shows the emergence of the kind of disciplined parties Linz warned about:

And that ideological radicalization is why both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face a crisis that could shake the core of our democratic republic. Each presidential nominee represents one of the two previously mentioned ways a president could run afoul of a legislature.

SEE ALSO: When does every poll open and close in the country?

Trump has explicitly stated desires to move foreign and domestic policy well beyond the realm of previous presidents and constitutional safeguards. He wants to bring back waterboarding. He suggests that the military kill the families of suspected terrorists. He has indicated a desire for a national adoption of the controversial "stop and frisk" policy that was ruled unconstitutional when used in New York City. One of the central themes of his campaign has been a hard line against undocumented immigrants, at times suggesting a deportation force to remove the 11.5 million or so people who live in this country outside of existing immigration law.

Actually making any of these policies happen would, at the very least, open up strong questions about their legality. A president implementing ideas as constitutionally questionable as Trump's would have no historical precedent in the postwar era and would represent the kind of excess of power that has brought presidential democracies down in other countries.

Meanwhile, a Clinton administration would be functionally at war with a Republican House of Representatives, opening up the other type of crisis Linz describes. Would a President Clinton represent the will of the people, or would a Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Jason Chaffetz, who is already seeking further formal investigations of Clinton, be the real avatar of democracy? Other Republican congresspeople have already begun discussing impeaching Clinton, should she win the election.

One can easily imagine a Clinton presidency constantly accused of scandal, legitimate or not, by a hostile ideologically opposed party. And one can easily imagine a Trump presidency constantly pushing the borders of legitimate presidential power. Given the questionable history of presidential systems abroad, it's not hard to become disillusioned with the prospects of that system here.

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