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Most theories of judicial politics are built around explaining the puzzle of judicial independence. This article instead theorizes explicitly about the conditions under which politicians are prone to manipulate their courts. By positing that courts can partly endogenously shape leaders’ fate at the hands of legislative opponents, we argue that greater political insecurity leads presidents to gut judicial independence, not shore it up. Drawing on a novel data set of judicial crises across 18 Latin American countries following the third wave of democratization, we show that variation in judicial crises is systematically correlated with the president’s risk of nonelectoral instability as captured by the history of past presidential crises, presidential power, and antigovernmental protests. To identify whether the effects of protest on judicial manipulation are causal, we use an instrumental variable approach based on international commodity prices weighted for each country.
When a party or candidate loses the popular vote but still wins the election, do voters view the winner as legitimate? This scenario, known as an electoral inversion, describes the winners of two of the last six presidential elections in the United States. We report results from two experiments testing the effect of inversions on democratic legitimacy in the US context. Our results indicate that inversions significantly decrease the perceived legitimacy of winning candidates. Strikingly, this effect does not vary with the margin by which the winner loses the popular vote, nor by whether the candidate benefiting from the inversion is a co-partisan. The effect is driven by Democrats, who punish inversions regardless of candidate partisanship; few effects are observed among Republicans. These results suggest that the experience of inversions increases sensitivity to such outcomes among supporters of the losing party.
Presidential failure and Latin America have long been synonymous. Although the specter of military coups that replaced elected leaders with generals largely receded during the 1980s, presidential crises, like the one that engulfed Brazil’s political class and resulted in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, continue to grab headlines. Following the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s ruling to strip the opposition-led legislature of its authority in 2017, Congress voted to put President Nicolás Maduro on trial for plotting a coup against the constitution. A little more than a year later, Peruvian president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned rather than be impeached on graft charges related to the widening Odebrecht scandal.
Is American democracy under threat? The question is more prominent in political debate now than at any time in recent memory. However, it is also too blunt; there is widespread recognition that democracy is multifaceted and that backsliding, when it occurs, tends to be piecemeal. To address these concerns, we provide original data from surveys of political science experts and the public measuring the perceived importance and performance of U.S. democracy on a number of dimensions during the first year-and-a-half of the Trump presidency. We draw on a theory of how politicians may transgress limits on their authority and the conditions under which constraints are self-enforcing. We connect this theory to our survey data in an effort to identify potential areas of agreement—bright lines—among experts and the public about the most important democratic principles and whether they have been violated. Public and expert perceptions often differ on the importance of specific democratic principles. In addition, though our experts perceive substantial democratic erosion, particularly in areas related to checks and balances, polarization between Trump supporters and opponents undermines any social consensus recognizing these violations.
Why does institutional instability pervade the developing world? Examining contemporary Latin America, Institutions on the Edge develops and tests a novel argument to explain why institutional crises emerge, spread, and repeat in some countries, but not in others. The book draws on formal bargaining theories developed in the conflict literature to offer the first unified micro-level account of inter-branch crises. In so doing, Helmke shows that concentrating power in the executive branch not only fuels presidential crises under divided government, but also triggers broader constitutional crises that cascade on to the legislature and the judiciary. Along the way, Helmke highlights the importance of public opinion and mass protests, and elucidates the conditions under which divided government matters for institutional instability.