Scott Sumner  

Imagine not knowing who the President is

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I've frequently pointed to countries like Switzerland as a political model. The basic idea is that the Swiss have a very effective system in place, and thus we don't focus on who is President. Thus people talk about "Thatcher's Britain", or "Reagan's America", but no one thinks of Switzerland in terms of who is in power at the moment. Switzerland is Switzerland.

Little did I know that even the Swiss don't pay attention. Here's the Financial Times:

Then I changed the subject, and asked my Swiss relatives if they could imagine their own political leaders tweeting. "Actually, who is the Swiss president these days?" I inquired as a preamble, feeling embarrassed that I had absolutely no idea of the answer.

Eventually Marco, my Swiss uncle, admitted that he was "not sure". 

"It used to be a woman -- Doris something," Katherine, my aunt, muttered. "But now? Er..."

Suddenly, it was my turn to experience culture shock. My Swiss relatives are well travelled, fluent in five languages and exceedingly knowledgeable about global affairs. But, they explained, nobody in their part of the Graubünden region worries much about their national president, let alone what he or she may have said on Twitter.

That is partly because Switzerland has a federal power structure whereby many political decisions -- and tax-raising powers -- are devolved to the cantons and municipalities. Moreover, one quirk of this structure is that the presidency rotates between the seven members of the country's federal council. Thus the president changes each year: last year it was Doris Leuthard; now it is Alain Berset.

But there is a bigger cultural issue here: in Switzerland, voters tend to see politics as being about functions and institutions, not about personalities.

I think of there being three levels of politics:

1. It doesn't matter very much which party is in power. The system is stable.
2. The party matters, but not the individual who heads the party.
3. The individual leader is what matters.

How can one distinguish between levels #2 and #3? Consider popularity ratings. George W. Bush's job approval rating fluctuated between 90% and 25% (or 70% to 25%, if you ignore the post 9/11 bounce.) In contrast Trump's job approval rating has moved in a narrow band, from 39% to 46%. And Trump's highest numbers were the post election honeymoon; recently the numbers have been quite stable. He can have very good weeks (tax reform), as well as very bad weeks full of negative news reports regarding controversial statements or chaos in the White House, and it simply doesn't move the needle.

My interpretation of this is that we've moved from being a nation where leaders were judged on their performance, to a tribal nation where the leader has replaced the party. Polls show that Republicans support Trump on immigration, regardless of which position he holds on DACA on that particular day. It's about personality, not party or ideas. In contrast, as recently as 2008, Bush was judged on his performance in office. GOP voters were quite willing to be highly critical, as they felt they could keep their Republican identity even while criticizing the President.

Thus while Switzerland remains at level #1, America has moved from level #2 to level #3.

PS. Interestingly, Trump recently indicated that the Chinese were smart to make Xi into a dictator for life:

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently consolidated power. Trump told the gathering: "He's now president for life. President for life. And he's great." Trump added, "I think it's great. Maybe we'll give that a shot someday."

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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Matthew Moore writes:

Can you find out if they know the names of their Canton leaders?

A huge (>95%) of Britons were unable to name any of the four (main) presidents of the European Union in the run up to the referendum (i.e. at the height of interest in the EU)

(European Parliament president, European Council president, European Commission president, Presidency of the Council of the EU)

In this case, both the Swiss and Brits and being rational. In Switzerland, it doesn't pay to know because the president has very little power. In the EU, it doesn't pay to know because the system is set up so that the large powers of the presidencies are always held by ideologically homogeneous people.

Mark Z writes:

I don’t think this has as much to do with the importance of the president to the Swiss political system as with general global importance. More Swiss people may be able to name the chancellor of Germany (speculating here) for the same reason I know who the mayor of New York is but not the mayor of my own city; it’s not because my city’s system renders its mayor less important; it’s just a less important city.

Also, to the extent that the president is more of a high profile figure here, it’s largely cultural. Presidents in the US aren’t nearly as powerful as they are regarded. It’s actually rather illogical that we treat eras as belonging to the president. Arguably it would make as much sense to speak if the Ryan-McConnel era or the Ginrish era. The president’s status in American minds, both as a hero and as a villain, has less to do with the structure of our system than with our culture, imo.

Chris H writes:

Moving from higher on your scale to lower seems fairly straightforward, just choose a person sufficiently good at accumulating power to become leader. Having a society move back in the other direction seems quite a bit more challenging.

To that end, I'd say bringing back the Athenian practice of ostracism could be a tool to help de-emphasize the individual leader. Every year have a vote where everyone can name a single person they'd like ostracized and if 50%+1 voters all agree a person should be exiled, exile them for 10 years. No exceptions, no appeals, no pardons, even if you're the president in the middle of a war, sorry you've got to go. In such a case there can be a hard check on the accumulation of power in a person and a reason to make sure no single person is irreplaceable.

Of course increased federalism would also help a lot, but that can still potentially have the problem on a lower level. So I say let states have their own mini-ostracisms, only they're kicked out of only the state not the whole country. And if you think losing a single leader a year would be too disruptive, that's a sign you've concentrated too much power in a single position.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

Best book to read about why we are in the present state is: "Democracy for Realists Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government" by Achens and Bartels. It is a depressingly wonderful book.

Mark Bahner writes:
...for the same reason I know who the mayor of New York is...

I liked Mayor Poole. Good man. I was sad to see him resign. ;-)

Thomas Strenge writes:

I could be wrong here, but I don't believe that Trump has anywhere near the devotees that Obama had. I believe #3 definitely applied to B.O. and still does. My personal feeling is that Trump's support is based more on sticking it to the leftist-socialist-environmentalist-pc complex that is actively trying to remake America into a European welfare state. Again, what is my alternative?

Ed Hanson writes:


Here is a quote from the article you linked about Trump approving President for life.

"Trump's remarks were met with laughter and applause"

It was a joke, satire and ironic, not an expression of belief. And beneath you to further "fake news" in today's world.


Scott Sumner writes:

Mark, I'd say that in smaller countries like Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela, people do tend to know who their president is, which is unfortunate.

Ed, Trump said:

"He's now president for life. President for life. And he's great."

That's a joke? Sorry, but what's funny about saying it's great that China has a dictator for life? Was it also a joke when Trump praised Duterte for his campaign of mass murder? Was it also a joke when Trump repeatedly praised Putin? Or is it just possible that he likes authoritarian strongmen?

Maybe I just don't have a sense of humor, but I think what's happening in China is a tragedy. And I don't believe Trump was joking (except perhaps about the possibility of him being President for life--that might be a joke).

Tom West writes:

Certainly the polls that Scott cites to support for his claim of descent into tribalism are worrisome, but I think Trump is a special case.

Has their been a drop in the number of people who have voted outside of party line in the last few elections? That, for me, would indicate that the tribal lines have truly hardened.

(I still remember a new Canadian indicating that Canadians don't really seem to care about who wins the election. I mildly protested, but he interrupted me - "No, this is a good thing. Nobody is worried about being killed if the other guy wins.")

TMC writes:

"Maybe I just don't have a sense of humor" You may have hit upon something there. I heard few complaints when Obama joked about siccing the IRS on his opponents. People took this as a joke (even though it turned out to be true).

A surprising fact: '47.9%: Obama Had Lower Average Approval Rating Than Nixon or Bush'

Ed Hanson writes:


Its not just the words but how you say it. If Trump spoke in serious tones then the audience would not have responded with laughter.

It is the responsibility of the news reporter to capture tone and context of spoken words to put news into written form. But unfortunately today, with the change of journalistic standards from being a neutral observer and reporter to one of slant and personal opinion, you must be careful of how much you accept the reporters depiction of events.

As for China, it has been a tragedy, but completely predictable. It is still a communist state. Pray it does not lead to another state caused famine, or a conquest of bordering countries that communist are so capable of.


Scott Sumner writes:

Ed, Again, his comment about applying that to the US was presumably a joke, which is why the audience laughed. But his comments regarding Xi are part of a long pattern of Trump praising dictators. There's nothing funny about his praise for Xi, or any other dictator.

When you repeatedly say really offensive things you can't keep using the "joke" excuse over and over again. A single comment, sure, I'd give him a pass. Indeed I think we are often too quick to criticize people for an occasional tasteless joke. But there's a long pattern here.

And if these are all jokes, then where are Trump's serious statements calling for human rights? Where is his serious statement condemning Xi's move?

And BTW, here's the White House press secretary, also presumably "joking":

"The White House says China's proposal to abolish presidential term limits — a move that could make Xi Jinping president for life — is an internal matter for Beijing.

"I believe that's a decision for China to make about what's best for their country," press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a Monday press briefing."

Sorry, but "China" did not make the decision, China's dictator made the decision. Does this White House view also apply to Cuba? Venezuela?

I thought not.

Ed Hanson writes:

Good points Scott,

but it is a matter for China itself. China will sort it out as it did after dictator for life Mao. How and when China will fix the problem, I have no idea. But I am certain that nothing the US says nor anything the US does would make one iota of a difference.

Why is it that when the US actually does something realistic in its diplomacy, (in this case nothing at all) you jump all over the move? Part of Trump's appeal for his election was based on the fact that US would base its diplomatic actions on the best interest of the US. While there may be great interest with our action to the Chinese people, there is no best interest for the US to intervene in Chines politics, dictatorial or not.

What do you think the US should do instead"? Declare Xi as the illegitimate ruler of China and never talk to China until it changes? Anything less than that will have zero effect. Think Serenity Prayer.

The Chinese will have to deal with Chinese problems. After 4000 years, there is no country better experienced at it.


Mark Bahner writes:
Again, what is my alternative?

It's water under the bridge, but in this last election you had the alternative of Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party). Former *two-term* governor of New Mexico. Successful businessman. Much more suited in personality/temperament for being a president. And the man was actually honest. (Imagine that! A politician who is actually honest.)

Mark Bahner writes:
But his comments regarding Xi are part of a long pattern of Trump praising dictators. There's nothing funny about his praise for Xi, or any other dictator.

I'll second that. When he speaks approving of Xi, Putin, Duterte, etc. that is a really, really bad thing to do. There's nothing funny about it.

But I am certain that nothing the US says nor anything the US does would make one iota of a difference.

I don't agree with that. When the President of the U.S. speaks unambiguously supporting democracy and the rule of law, I think it gives hope to the oppositions in countries that are struggling for that.

Donald Trump could have commented that the U.S. 22nd amendment limiting presidents to two terms is a wonderful thing, and that all countries should have similar limits. (Of course, he'd be lying, so that's probably not good either.)

Ed Hanson writes:


I am disgusted with what is happening to Hong Kong. But no speech from the US is going to make any difference. The opposition there will win on their own or fail on their own.

Another place. What has happened in Tibet is disgusting. The US has spoken unambiguously about Tibet for decades. What good has it done. I will be clear here NONE. But fortunately Tibet is small, and regardless of what they say, China knows Tibet is not integral to itself so the feel good rhetoric you want causes little problem. But that is not true for rhetoric directly concerning the mainland including Hong Kong and Macao.

But what is best for US interest? Is it never to oppose China? NO. Trump's has been the only administration to provide real support for the democratic Taiwan. Or is it convenient to forget that? When US interest lines up with allies and democracies, Trump is not shy to move.

So my advice, take a deep breath. Realize how much of the emotional response against Trump is being drummed up by the constant attacks.


PS. Mark. I looked closely at Johnson but he was not the Libertarian you thought.

Mark Z writes:

Mark Bahner,

"I don't agree with that. When the President of the U.S. speaks unambiguously supporting democracy and the rule of law, I think it gives hope to the oppositions in countries that are struggling for that."

While I think Trump's praising of 'strong men' is bad, I would disagree that the correct course of action would be instead to go in the opposite direction and openly condemn these foreign leaders. Rightly or wrongly (depending on the country), the people of many such countries view the US more as a foreign imperialist than a beacon of freedom and democracy, and criticism from the American president galvanizes the leader rather the weakening him. Obama's criticism of Duterte, for example, however valid, likely did more harm than good.

With the exception of extreme cases, presidents should, imo, try to avoid moral commentary on other country's internal political issues. Nothing unifies the citizenry behind a leader like criticism from a foreign power.

Mark Baikal writes:

In a presidential system of government such as the USA, it is enforced by the constitutional rules that it is relevant who is president. What is a sign of ill political culture is when according to the constitution all power is with the parliament, while in reality, the leadership orders the parliament how to vote.

I have always wondered why, for example, the chancellor of Germany is a relevant person, even though all laws should correspond to the opinion at the median of a 600 person parliament.

Even the selection within the parties of party heads and candidates for parliament is democratic from the ground up.

Note in Germany there are no physical threats to vote as ordered by the party leader, and the members of parliament do not receive many lucrative positions for voting according to the party line.

The only mechanism for the relevance of the party leader or the chancellor then is really that the chancellor is a figurehead, the public face. And then all party members feel that they would damage their party if the party seems divided on any issue, especially its leadership. Thus we regularly have communist-like intra-party election results for the party leaders, with results of >90% quite common. The problem here is that the people value a unified party in itself.

Mike Sax writes:

It's amazing as I never really think about Switzerland but:

1. Switzerland stays out of major international geopolitical conflicts

2. They appear to have very little domestic political and social conflict.

3. Haven't had a recession since the early 1990s.

It's like a country 'with no problems' or something...

Scott Sumner writes:

Ed, If Trump said nothing about foreign policy I'd be thrilled. Instead he praises one dictator after another, and bashes our democratically elected allies. Is that what you call realism?

DougT writes:

There is a long tradition, since Plato, of forecasting political devolution. I think it's deep, deep in our psyche to fear the decent from meritocracy to aristocracy to democracy to anarchy to tyranny. At least, that's how Plato outlines the progression.

As for Switzerland being a high-functioning representative democracy, that's also a long tradition. Small states on the periphery of large powers can often afford greater civil liberties. I think that's outlined somewhere in Montesquieu.

Of course, being small, they can't guarantee their citizen's security. That comes at the pleasure of the neighboring Great Power. Witness Switzerland's monetary impotence compared with the Euro-zone.

Ed Hanson writes:


I am not trying necessarily to change your mind about Trump, just trying to bring new perspectives toward him. And your posts have certainly done that for me and I appreciate it.

Here is one lens through which to view Trump. It is only somewhat true that he "Instead he praises one dictator after another." He does not praise the supreme leader of Iran, not the dictator of NKorea, nor the Castros of Cuba, nor the dictator of Venezuela. These are country that have direct effect on American interest. For those that he does "praise", it follows one or the other of two guiding principles, which are:
Except in cases of strategic American interest (America First) the internal politics of any country is theirs to determine and deal with. This is especially true if the country is militarily strong which could put America at risk. That being Putin and Xi.
A country that is our ally will not be berated publically by the President. That being Duarte and such. It is from the leaf of the Socialist and Communist book, whose 'no enemies on the left' principle has served them well. I ask you to remember Obama, who had a - no friend was not subject to criticism and no enemy such as Iran need to be criticized. As bitter as it is sometimes, I will take the Trump approach as superior.

Remember Scott, the words you wish for will not result in change, but can make things worse for America. It's the real world out there, not an academic execise.



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