Borrowing Constitutional Designs: Constitutional Law in Weimar Germany and the French Fifth Republic
Structuring the State: The Formation of Italy and Germany and the Puzzle of Federalism
The proper domain of political science is the study of institutions. Two new books prove this admirably. Skach examines a type of constitutional regime that is neither parliamentary nor presidential, but semi-presidential. After World War II, Charles de Gaulle advocated and, when he returned to power in 1958, provided France with such a regime. After that, "semi-presidentialism moved rapidly across Europe, Asia, Africa and even to Latin America"; eleven former Soviet republics and eight NATO members have chosen it. Skach shows the complexities of semi-presidentialism and outlines the conditions that must prevail for it to function well. She wisely concludes that semi-presidentialism may be hazardous to the political health of newly democratizing countries and that it works best when "presidents are integrated into the party system" and have limited emergency powers and limited control over the military. Her emphasis on "the contingent nature of constitutional law" is sound, prudent, and convincing.
Ziblatt brilliantly addresses another institutional puzzle: Why, when Italy and Germany became nation-states, did Italy become a unitary state and Germany a federal one? Ziblatt is a careful and methodical researcher who applies to the study of historical processes a vast array of qualitative and sensible quantitative methods. His findings lead him to repudiate three suggested explanations: ideology, cultural-historical factors, and the relative military power of the constituent states. The decisive variable, according to the author, is what he calls "infrastructural capacity." When they have strong preexisting structures -- institutions, norms, formal rules -- the states incorporated into the new nation-state can negotiate their membership; when these structures are too weak, it is not through a process of negotiation, but through direct annexation, that unification proceeds. Ziblatt concludes that "only by looking at when and how different subspheres within the state develop" can we understand "why states take on the wide range of institutional forms that they do" -- a bold and original analysis.