A common belief among politicians and scholars is that institutions are the building blocks of any democracy. In fact, matured democracies rely on well-developed institutions to promote effective governance, maintain the spirit of political neutrality, and allocate resources that are needed to address the needs of citizens. It comes as no surprise that countries that transition from authoritarian to democratic or party-based politics invest heavy resources in rebuilding and preserving effective institutions. To a large extent, institutionalization is one of the first and fundamental steps toward democracy. Still, even in the 21st century, personality-based politics keeps flourishing. The Presidential campaign and subsequent election of Donald Trump is one of the signs of personality-based politics in action. On the other side of the world, political personalities, such as Vladimir Putin flourished. The difference between these two phenomena are effective institutions and governance in the U.S. restrain the power and scope of Trump’s personality-based influence, presenting a contrast to the obviously authoritarian politics of the Russian Federation. This is also the case of the United Kingdom, where the stability of institutions predetermines the relative stability and direction of politics. Both the U.S. and the U.K. present role models for matured institutions that can withstand time and enhance the democratic system; however, beyond political institutions, an effective democratic framework should also incorporate social and cultural components.
Institutions are fairly considered as the building block of any democratic system. One can hardly imagine a democratic political system without strong institutional arrangements. Martin (2018) wisely notes that “democratic institutions – universal franchise (on a one-person, one-vote basis), regular and contested voting operating at two distinct levels (the level of parliament and the level of general elections), and majority rule.” That is, democratic political institutions are created as an extension of citizens’ political will. They assume responsibility and power for enforcing the rights and protecting the freedoms of citizens. Despite the typically uniform approaches to institutions across democratic nations, the exact structure, number, and form of such institutions vary considerably. For the U.S., it is the check and balances of the three branches of the state and the interaction between a huge network of federal and state government branches at all levels of political functioning. For the U.K., it is parliament and the Prime Minister as the embodiment of politics at its best (or worst). Both countries present the two role models of institutional commitments and rejection of personality-based politics. Yet, even the strongest institutions leave some space for personality-based decisions and impacts.
Personality-based politics lacks any single definition, but the word “personality” definitely speaks for itself. According to Mangwanda and Lacombe (2015), it is a situation in which personality, rather than institutions, influences the way countries handle political and social issues. It is also a situation, in which politicians are willing to attack each other personally, instead of trying to solve the existing political dilemmas (Mangwanda& Lacombe, 2015). One might think that effective institutions do not give personality-based politics a single chance. Yet, the campaign and subsequent presidency of Donald Trump tell a different story. It would be fair to call Trump’s Presidency an example of personality-based politics in one of the world’s most democratic countries. Personal insults, Clinton-Trump problematic encounters, and other stories fill the gaps of personality-based politics. They also suggest that, even in the presence of strong democratic institutions, political personalities can have considerable implications for political decision-making at federal and state levels. This is one of the key differences between the U.S. and the U.K., the latter being a role model of institutional democracy in the 21st century. However, even a country as stable as the U.K. cannot avoid the repercussions of personality-based politics with the rise of a new female leader, Teresa May, and her painful attempts to make Brexit a reality for Britain.
These personality-based controversies reinforce the importance and power of institutions as the building block of any democratic state. In the case of the U.S., these institutions provide an effective restraint against Trump’s personality-based speculations. Everything that is currently happening in America revolves around President Trump’s personality, and Congress and other institutions go great lengths to preserve the existing institutional status quo. It is a good lesson for African countries that have just begun their movement toward democracy.
Yet, it is not enough to have strong and effective political institutions in place. A strong institutional framework is that, which also incorporates social, economic, and cultural elements. According to Engelstad (2017), institutions promote a distinct civic culture. In this culture, citizens quickly learn to influence politics and social life through institutions. Beyond the basic government structures, a democratic country should also have institutions that promote social well-being (e.g. education and health care), protect the basic rights and freedoms of citizens (e.g. institutions that support social movements and voting rights) and foster modernization through continuous improvement and technological progress. These institutions should act as a single framework toward the goals of freedom and democracy.
To conclude, institutions are truly the founding pillars of any democracy. However, even the strongest institutions leave enough space for personality-based politics. In these situations, they act as restraining forces and counter the risks of authoritarianism and personality-based decision-making. A strong institutional framework should include political, social, and cultural structures. African countries that seek prosperity through modernization and democratic change should embrace the institutional and personality-based political lessons learned from other democracies, including the U.S. and the U.K.
Ed.’s Note: Samuel Alemu, Esq is a partner at the ILBSG, LLP. His partner at the ILBSG, LLP, Praveen C. Medikundam, Esq contributed to this article. They are both admitted to the bar associations of New York State, United States Tax Court, and the United States Court of International Trade. Samuel can be reached at [email protected]. Samuel’s twitter handle is @salemu
Contributed by Samuel Alemu, Esq.