Quarterly Journal of Political Science > Vol 18 > Issue 2

Executive Absolutism: The Dynamics of Authority Acquisition in a System of Separated Powers

William G. Howell, University of Chicago, USA, whowell@uchicago.edu , Kenneth A. Shepsle, Harvard University, USA, kshepsle@iq.harvard.edu , Stephane Wolton, London School of Economics and Political Science, Center for Economic Policy Research, UK, s.wolton@lse.ac.uk
Suggested Citation
William G. Howell, Kenneth A. Shepsle and Stephane Wolton (2023), "Executive Absolutism: The Dynamics of Authority Acquisition in a System of Separated Powers", Quarterly Journal of Political Science: Vol. 18: No. 2, pp 243-275. http://dx.doi.org/10.1561/100.00021219

Publication Date: 11 Apr 2023
© 2023 W. G. Howell, K. A. Shepsle and S. Wolton
Presidencyjudiciaryseparation of powersexecutive authority


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In this article:
Literature Review 
The Baseline Model 
Analysis: Authority in the Limit 
Analysis: Dynamics of Authority Acquisition 
Precedents vs State-Dependent Decisions 
Robustness Checks and Extensions 


We study a dynamic model in which a politician (most commonly an executive) makes authority claims that are subject to a hard constraint (administered, typically, by a court). At any period, the court is free to rule against the executive and thereby permanently halt her efforts to acquire more power. Because it appropriately cares about the executive's ability to address real-world disruptions, however, the court is always willing to affirm more authority. Neither robust electoral competition nor alternative characterizations of judicial decision-making fundamentally alters this state of affairs. Moreover, we show modest authority claims in one period yield opportunities for more substantial claims in the next. The result is an often persistent accumulation of executive authority and a degradation of judicial checks on presidential power.