Political Executive

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Political Executive

The office

Functions of the political executive

Executive restraints and responsibility

A typology of political executives

Trends and prospects


The political executive consists of those institutions formally responsible for governing a political community—that is, for applying its binding decisions, which may be formulated, to a greater or lesser extent, by the executive institutions themselves. The structure, function, and character of the executive have varied widely over time, and no single conceptual framework can disclose all these variations and their consequences. Yet, certain fundamentals are clear, and on these we can concentrate our attention. The two most prevalent structural forms of the executive are the presidential and the cabinet systems. The source of executive power has shifted from hereditary right, co-optation, and the use of force to election, either direct or indirect. The legitimacy of executive power has become secularized; “tradition,” divine origin, and other forms of appeal to occult forces have given way to rational criteria of achievement and popular approbation. The principal functions of the contemporary political executive are increasingly being carried out by specialized structures; these functions are representation and integration, leadership, deliberation and decision making, control and supervision of subordinate decision-making and enforcement organs. Finally, executive responsibility and accountability have become institutionalized through the acceptance and use of regular procedures.

The above generalizations may be valid for mature and developed political systems, but they hardly apply to the new nations, which are in a period of transition. Force continues to play an important role in their political life, and the legitimization of mechanisms of nomination, selection, and decision making has yet to develop. Lack of a sense of community, a low level of industrial development and modernization, and a confused party configuration continue to characterize the new nations: charisma and personal relations are more important than institutions and legitimized procedures; governmental roles and functions and the corresponding structures, including the executive, are undifferentiated; factions often play the game of politics without accepting general rules, and executive leadership is unstable because of the prevalence of factional strife. There is a gap between form and substance in the new nations, so that while most of them have copied the formal and written constitutional arrangements of developed societies, particularly the organization of the executive, they have failed thus far to endow these arrangements with corresponding political roles and functions. With rare exceptions, the executive is the political leader who has attained power and the executive structures are only a temporary and fluid machinery that serves his rule. It is only in a few of the developing societies—notably in India, Ceylon, and in some of the stable democracies of Latin America—that executive structures and corresponding roles are beginning to be clearly differentiated.

The office

The executive office consists of a number of elected and appointed officials responsible for the over-all performances of the functions associated with it. The number of officials is generally small —twenty or, at most, thirty. If we include top civil service personnel, heads of planning agencies and nationalized industries, top scientists, and defense officials who participate in deliberation and decision making, the number rarely goes beyond a hundred. While the executive is a collective entity, ultimate responsibility for decision making is sometimes lodged in the hands of one man. This is notably the case in presidential systems and in many of the cabinet systems in which a welldisciplined party controls a majority in the legislature. In totalitarian one-party systems the leader of the party is in law or in fact—and often in both —in charge of the executive. On the other hand, in a number of multiparty parliamentary democracies, notably in the Scandinavian countries, the coalition cabinets account for a genuine collegiality of decision making and responsibility. Thus, viewed from the point of decision making and responsibility and depending upon the formal constitutional arrangements, the prevalent norms in the society, and such adventitious factors as personality and circumstance, there is a continuum between genuine one-man rule and genuine collegiality. The structures are generally flexible enough to allow for movement from one form to the other, within the same political system. This, incidentally, is true both for cabinet systems and for presidential systems.

Under United States and French influence, the presidential system has been adopted in various forms and with varying degrees of effectiveness in Latin America and French-speaking Africa. The cabinet system, which originated in England, has been adopted in most of the countries of the European continent, in all the English-speaking dominions, in many of the former British colonies, and in many of the totalitarian systems—notably in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The differences between the two systems are formal rather than substantive. In the presidential system, the president is elected by the people. He holds the highest executive office over a given period of time, during which he is not politically accountable to the legislature. All top executive officials are nominated by him and can be removed by him. In the cabinet system, on the other hand, the prime minister and his cabinet are responsible to the legislature. They are formally invested with executive power by a vote of the legislature, and their term can be suspended at any time by an adverse vote.

Despite these formal differences, universal suffrage, the growth of national parties, and the progressive adoption of a majority electoral system account for striking similarities. In presidential or cabinet systems, the immediate source of executive power is the election and the party. In the cabinet system, the leader of the majority party becomes prime minister. If the party is disciplined, it is unlikely that it will overthrow the prime minister. Thus, while the prime minister is technically responsible to the legislature, he is just as immune to it as the president. In the one-party totalitarian systems that have adopted the cabinet system— and we use the Soviet Union as the prototype—it is the party that sustains executive leadership. As long as the leader controls the party ( as Stalin did) or is accepted by the higher party echelons (the Central Committee and the Politburo), he also controls the legislature and is technically immune to legislative scrutiny. If there are dissensions within the party or if the leader loses his support in the Politburo and the Central Committee, he can no longer hold his position.

Many trends since World War ii account for the reinforcement of the political executive. Among them, the most significant ones are the widespread adoption of the majority electoral system and constitutional reforms establishing the ascendancy of the executive over the legislature. The two most notable cases are West Germany and France. In West Germany proportional representation was greatly modified by the requirement that half of the members of the legislature be elected by majority vote. Executive stability and independence were strengthened by the provision that the chancellor cannot be removed from office by a vote of the legislature unless it is accompanied by a vote in favor of a successor.

In France proportional representation in legislative elections was abandoned in 1958. In the presidential election, if none of the candidates receives an absolute majority on the first ballot, the contest is narrowed to only two candidates on the second. As for executive-legislative relations, parliament was “rationalized”; stringent restrictions were placed on the vote of censure by the national assembly, the executive was given control over legislative business and legislation; the committee system was simplified and the powers of the committees drastically reduced; and the president was given the right to dissolve the National Assembly and call for an election. The trend has been the same, significantly, in Great Britain, where the control of the executive over Parliament is made effective through the control of the majority party, and in the United States, where legislative initiative has passed into the hands of the president and party discipline in Congress has been tightened.

From an organizational viewpoint, all executives display striking similarities. The prime minister or president is surrounded by concentric circles of advisers and staff and line agencies: the first is the immediate circle of personal advisers and liaison agents; the second consists of specialized coordinating agencies with functions that cut across departmental or ministerial responsibilities (economic planning, national security, atomic energy, space programs, administrative reorganization, etc.); the third is the cabinet, consisting of top officials responsible for policy making and administration of functionally defined governmental activities (foreign affairs, trade, labor, welfare, defense, etc.); a fourth circle consists of an increasing number of independent or semi-independent agencies with regulatory and supervisory responsibilities, some of which operate or control economic services. To gain a comprehensive view of the political executive, however, we must further expand our circles to include other forces in the political system. There are the political parties and the party leaders, who must be persuaded or placated; the legislature, whose compliance to policy measures is indispensable; interest groups that must be taken into account; the press and the public at large, from which support is ultimately to be derived; and, finally, other nations, various international organizations and the international community at large.

In the new nations the lack of stable structures sharply contrasts with the leadership and decision-making tasks imposed upon the executive. Difficulties in creating a viable political community, providing unity where there was factionalism and tribalism, are augmented by the immediate and urgent needs of a rapid social and economic development through planning. This may also be one reason for the rapid turnover of executives and, in general, for executive instability. The loads upon executive management decision making and enforcement have been too heavy, and the corresponding supports, in the form of party systems or interest-group organizations, too weak. There is also a contradiction between the roles associated with political unification and community building, on the one hand, and those related to policy making and enforcement, on the other. The first tasks require personal leadership, the appeal to national symbols, and ideology, while the second call for rational skills, organizational talents, and a pragmatic assessment of goals and available means.

Functions of the political executive

The political system can be seen as a mechanism through which interests and demands are translated into decisions. The decision-making mechanism must be widely accepted by the community—that is, it must have legitimacy. Since the political executive plays an important role in transforming interests and demands into decisions, it has, first and foremost, output functions. However, since it also represents and accommodates major social and interest groupings, it plays an integrative role as well. In addition to being the central policy-making organ, it also supervises and controls all the subordinate deliberative and enforcement organs. [SeeSystems analysis, article onpolitical systems.]

Integration and representation

The integrative and representative function of the political executive is both ceremonial and efficient. The executive embodies the political community and represents it internally and externally. It provides effective links between the members of the community and the state. In some political systems the ceremonial and symbolic role is played by a politically irresponsible head—the monarch or the president of the republic. In other instances, mostly in presidential systems, the ceremonial and efficient functions are combined in the same office and man. It is, of course, the efficient functions of integration on which depends the durability of the effective ties that link the community with its ceremonial head. By integrative functions, we mean representing demands and interests and making decisions accordingly. This is the ultimate test of performance. It links the executive with the party, the legislature, and the public. It is the “hyphen which joins, a buckle which fastens” the community to the executive. To play this integrative role, the executive must provide for leadership, decision making, and enforcement.


The crux of executive power is leadership. Yet, leadership is a phenomenon not well understood. It varies from one system to another and from one period to another. A leader must have the ability to organize, deliberate, decide, and execute and the capacity to arouse trust and affection and to gain support. Charisma—a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm—is an indispensable ingredient of leadership [seeCharisma]. This aspect of leadership is closely related to the ability to take a determined stand and to express a belief without equivocation. As John Stuart Mill remarked, “a great part of political power consists in will. … One person with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have interests.” If we combine the rational and charismatic traits, leadership must: (a) provide for representation and identification within the community; (b) foresee common problems and suggest policy solutions; (c) provide, at the executive level, a strong following of loyal officials; and (d) receive popular support. Thus, the political executive has significant input functions to perform. By injecting new demands and expectations or by proposing solutions, it can manufacture supports. While it acts within a given structure of political forces, it can rearrange these forces and create new reference groups to gain support. [SeeLeadership, article onpolitical aspects.]

Decision making and deliberation

Political theory has long distinguished beween legislative and executive acts. This formal distinction is no longer adequate. First, the political executive can perform the leadership functions traditionally assigned to the legislature. Second, it possesses independent powers—for instance, in foreign policy and defense. Third, the practice of delegated legislation has given vast, albeit subordinate, legislative powers to the executive. Finally, the law enacted by the legislature is initiated, prepared, and drafted by the political executive—policy initiation has become an executive prerogative. The legislative process tends to be increasingly one-sided. In the totalitarian systems that have adopted cabinet government, legislative scrutiny is of no significance, and this is virtually the case in all cabinet systems that have a strong, disciplined party system. Only in the United States does the legislature continue to have genuinely independent power of legislative scrutiny and initiative. Even so, Congressional initiative tends to be limited to scrutiny and amendment of proposals already submitted by the executive. [SeeLegislation, article onlegislatures.]

In order to initiate, decide, and act, the executive must deliberate. As a result, intelligence, fact finding, liaison, and staff agencies have mushroomed. This has particularly been the case with new governmental activities that do not fit the traditional organization of the executive into departments and ministries: economic planning and supervision; coordinating the preparation of budgetary policy; providing administrative reform to create new structures that can cope with new functions; and considering national security matters from a variety of governmental points of view. Thus, new layers of agencies and offices have developed to comprise what may be called the office of the president or the office of the prime minister.

The trend is universal, but it is especially clear in developed societies, in which industrialization has created the imperative of regulation and international conflict has emphasized coordination and preparedness for quick action. It also reflects a concomitant trend in favor of developing new procedures to provide for deliberation prior to a decision. Given the sheer bulk of matters that call for decisions and the need of specific knowledge and information in order to make them, decision making becomes a matter of following deliberative and consultative processes. Increasingly, it becomes a matter of process rather than substance. In turn, the basis of the authority of the executive shifts from the personal to the procedural. The appeal of charisma becomes limited, and tradition is no longer invoked. The basis of executive authority begins to coincide with its ability to act on the basis of rationalized procedures. It is only in the new, underdeveloped nations that the charismatic leader has played, and may continue to play, an important role. Crisis situations, however, often account for the emergence of personal government in developed societies. The emerging leader either bypasses the existing procedures or sets them aside in an effort to establish new ones. In all cases the effective invocation of personal government and the successful appeal to new political institutions are closely related to the legitimacy of the political system. [SeeCrisis government.]

Supervision and enforcement

While the classic distinction between deliberation (legislature) and execution (executive) is no longer tenable, it is still true that the political executive is the agency of execution in the narrow sense. It supervises and controls all subordinate organs. However, execution, properly speaking, is within the purview of the bureaucracy. Executive decisions are general and comprehensive in scope, and their detailed implementation is in the hands of the civil service and the various subordinate agencies. The political executive, however, remains responsible for the organization and reorganization of the machinery of government. It can create and reorganize departments and agencies, establish the rules of advancement and recruitment within the civil service, and set down procedures for making subordinate decisions. Ultimate responsibility for lack of efficient execution will be focused on the political executive. But, it is increasingly understood that the political executive establishes the procedures surrounding bureaucratic decisions without assuming direct responsibility for implementing or failing to implement them. A division of labor between the political executive and the bureaucracy as a whole has developed and is reflected in different evaluations of roles and functions and differing standards of responsibility. [SeeBureaucracy; Civil service.]

Executive restraints and responsibility

The growth of executive power and the increasing scope of initiative and decision making call for a discussion of the existing restraints and of the manner in which responsibility is institutionalized. The restraints appear to be relatively few. First, there is the burden, common to all political executives, including totalitarian ones, of persuading the elite. Second, there are systemic restraints —no leader can attempt a synthesis of policy objectives and goals that does not reflect, up to a certain point, the existing demands and aspirations of the community. To go too far in suggesting policy goals is to become separated from supporters; to stand still is to alienate the interests and the demands that could provide support. To be effective and to gain approbation and support, the executive must gear its actions to the interests and demands within the system. As was pointed out earlier, the limits of initiative and freedom of action may be wide and it is the task of leadership to discover them. But, failure to do so or miscalculation may lead to disapproval and rejection. Third, there are various types of constitutional and procedural limitations that trace the contours of executive power and provide for executive responsibility. We already mentioned the formal responsibility of the cabinet to the legislature. In presidential systems in which the chief executive is not directly responsible to the legislature—for example, in the United States and, to a certain degree, in France–separation of powers, judicial review, legislative scrutiny, and, in some instances, the direct association of one or the other of the houses of legislature in the exercise of executive prerogatives impose restraint. [SeeConstitutions and constitutionalism.]

The substance of executive responsibility, however, lies in the party system and in periodic elections. The party is both an instrument at the disposal of the leader to attain power and carry out policies and a device that controls him, since without the support of the party, he is invariably helpless. As long as the party acquiesces or agrees, the political executive is omnipotent in virtually all political systems, despite procedural limitations. To lose the support of the party is to lose power. The political executive is, in fact, both the leader and the prisoner of his party. The only way to overcome party control is to appeal to the people. However, in totalitarian systems, there is no mechanism for this, and even in democratic systems, where the mechanism is readily available, such an occurrence is rare. Ramsay MacDonald did it in 1931, and Charles de Gaulle, in 1962. But the first was supported by a party other than his own, and the second managed to overcome a badly divided and fragmented party system. Theodore Roosevelt’s failure demonstrated the difficulty of this procedure in the United States. The appeal to the people through election provides the second type of responsibility. In democratic societies, where basic freedoms are respected, an election is the most effective instrument of control and, ultimately, of executive responsibility. It gives the electorate the opportunity to approve or disapprove of policies and to choose between competing parties and leaderships. In totalitarian systems the executive is responsible to the party only. In all cases, however, we must consider the degree of freedom that surrounds an election and the role and structure of political parties in democratic societies as opposed to the internal organization and the degree of discipline within the party in a one-party totalitarian system. We must look at the substance and not the form. This is abundantly clear in the new nations, in which institutionalized forms–either through the party system, through open competitive elections, or through well-articulated social grouping –have yet to develop. As a result, no matter what the constitutional prescriptions, the top executive and his associates are often removed from office because of mob violence, factional uprisings, or military coups. It should be recalled, however, that executive responsibility and the manner in which top political leadership is replaced or called to office did not become institutionalized in most countries until the end of the nineteenth century and, in some European systems, not until the twentieth. [SeeElections; Parties, political; Responsibility.]

A typology of political executives

A typology of the political executive requires a prior typology of political systems. The two types that we discussed–cabinet and presidential–represent descriptive, rather than analytical, categories. The same is true of the widely used distinction between “weak” and “strong” executives. A strong executive has been defined in terms of stability in office and ability to make and enforce decisions. This is the case when party support is forthcoming or when specific constitutional provisions secure the stability and the independence of the executive. Weak executives, on the other hand, obtain wherever the parties are many or lack internal discipline, so that the executive cannot rely upon a disciplined majority in the legislature–a situation often prevalent among multiparty cabinet systems. Thus, weak executives generally accompany multiparty or weak-party configurations, while strong executives can accompany either two-party or disciplined-party systems. The key variable is the party, not the constitutional and procedural arrangements. In fact, it may be argued that “executive leadership” and “strength” in West Germany since World War ii and in France in the Fifth Republic derive from the existence of a majority party rather than from constitutional arrangements.

To provide for an analytic typology, we shall use the concepts of power, legitimacy, and decision making. In terms of power, absolute and qualified executives can be distinguished: the first is endowed with unlimited powers, and the second operates within accepted and formulated restraints. Unless we refer to extinct satrapies and tyrannies, it will be difficult to identify absolute executives today. Absolute power is qualified in several ways: by constitutional limitations (i.e., separation of powers), by shared executive power (collegiality), and by clear procedures for assuring the responsibility of the political executive to the party or to the people. The combination of constitutional limitations, collegiality, and responsibility characterizes the generic category of democratic executives. The absence of such characteristics or the absence of their explicit formulation and effective implementation typifies the executives in closed polities, the most prevalent of which are the modern totalitarian systems. [SeeTotalitarianism.]

Following Max Weber, the basis of executive legitimacy may be classified as rational, traditional, and charismatic [seeLegitimacy]. Rational legitimacy—the development of institutions and procedures that channel executive decision making and, hence, legitimize it–is prevalent in both totalitarian and democratic systems. Traditional legitimacy is generally associated with static and primitive societies and is, therefore, characteristic of very few contemporary executives. Charismatic legitimacy is most prevalent in intermediate stages of development–where tradition has been exploded, but authority has not been institutionalized and legitimized. This type includes many of the new Afro-Asian nations.

Finally, in terms of decision making, executives can be classified as monocratic or pluralistic, personal or collegial, arbitrary or limited. The obvious “syndromes” here are the “monocratic-personal–arbitrary” and the “pluralistic–collegial–limited.” But, these syndromes do not fit neatly in empirical situations–unless we limit our comparisons arbitrarily (e.g., Great Britain versus a Latin American dictatorship). Generally speaking, one can equate the “monocratic–personal-arbitrary” syndrome with totalitarian systems and the “pluralistic-collegiallimited” one with democratic systems if it is remembered that ingredients of all six can be found in all contemporary political systems. The types suggested are only analytical types; they must be carefully related to a generalized theory of political systems in order to study the empirical forms they take and the conditions under which they are likely to develop and change.

Trends and prospects

As we have seen, the burden of decision making thrust upon the political executive has grown immensely. The effective performance of executive leadership calls for an unprecedented balance between leadership and technical know-how, information and evaluation, specialization and coordination. Political structures must adjust to new environmental demands. The adjustive process of the executive branch over the years, particularly since World War I, has involved devolution, depoliticization, and the creation of new administrative organs. Devolution is the delegation of the power to make decisions to subordinate organs or agencies. Every effort has been made to decongest the political executive by explicitly authorizing subordinates or subordinate agencies and boards to make decisions. Depoliticization is the process whereby certain issues are removed from the realm of political controversy and executive discretion. Collective bargaining; wage fixing on the basis of a preagreed device that pegs wages on the cost of living index; and the establishment of public corporations, boards for nationalized industries, and regulatory commissions are some of the most usual practices. Finally, an inevitable solution to the problem of handling the new burdens is to create new agencies and offices and lodge them within the office of the president or the prime minister. [SeeCentralization and decentralization; Delegation of powers.]

The multiplicity of the new functions and the growth of new administrative structures to cope with them account for the emergence of two opposed developmental trends: concentration and diffusion. Concentration is a constitutional and political requirement. Even in collegial executives, one man increasingly bears the responsibility for decision making. The growth of powers, the multiplicity of offices, and the division of tasks within the executive have only underlined this. It has been heightened by the considerations of defense and strategy. Institutionalized forms such as the inner cabinet or the National Security Council are likely to give place to restricted committees of very few officials. Crisis government and corresponding flexible structures to cope with crises have now become permanent aspects of executive decision making. Yet, at the same time, the more important a decision, the more it is contingent upon a complex process of deliberation and consultation in which offices and men with specialized tasks participate. It is increasingly diffuse and bureaucratized, while it appears to be highly concentrated and often personal. A separation of powers that limits the ability of the top executive to reach a decision and act is informally institutionalized within the political executive. Divergent points of view, varying evaluations, and conflicting information about the same situation confront the top political leader. As decision making becomes routinized and bureaucratized, the top political executive often becomes limited to ad hoc compromises and may be reduced to immobility. This conflict, between the concentration of decision making and the diffusion and impersonality that go with the routinization of decision making, must be resolved if the political executive is to play its role of leadership effectively.

The trends we noted above apply primarily to the developed political systems. In the new nations the executive, along with virtually all other governmental structures, is still in the process of establishing itself as a legitimized instrument of decision making. The problem ahead is not so much finding a proper balance between personal leadership and bureaucratic mechanisms for decision making, but rather establishing viable and stable structures with specialized roles and effective capabilities to suggest policies and make decisions. Whether this will be accomplished or not depends upon a great number of factors—the development of a sense of community, agreement on the basic rules of polity, the development of institutions with specific tasks, and, above all, the routinization and institutionalization of the personal government which continues to be the rule today.

Roy C. Macridis

[See alsoLeadership, article onpolitical aspects. Directly related are the entriesCaudillismo; Dictatorship; Government; Monarchy; Oligarchy; Parliamentary government; Presidential government. Other relevant material may be found inAdministration; Decision making; Legislation; Parties, political; Representation.]


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