Tuesday, August 05, 2008

How Presidential Greatness Subverts Republican Government

Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is one of the best books on Lincoln. It's a collective political biography of Lincoln, William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edwin Stanton, and Edward Bates, which shows how Lincoln brought his political rivals into his presidential cabinet so that he could draw from their intellectual and political strengths even when they disagreed with him. Recently, Barack Obama has said that he would like to follow Lincoln's example by bringing his opponents into his administration to create "the best possible government." In the August 3rd New York Times, Goodwin has an oped piece arguing that while this would be hard to do in today's political environment, our need for good government to meet the crises of our times would be well served by a President surrounded by people willing to disagree with him.

What bothers me about all of this--and what should bother any citizen who favors a republican form of government--is the unstated assumption that the "best possible government" is a purely presidential government. The concern with promoting good deliberation in the White House implies that this is the only place in the government where deliberation occurs and policies are made. The silence about the Congress is remarkable.

This cult of the presidency is the primary threat to the American republic. This cult is evident in our preoccupation with presidential "greatness" and "leadership." We assume that good government requires central direction from the White House. This is very far from the republicanism of the U.S. Constitution. In the Constitution, the first and longest article is the article on the powers of Congress, and those congressional powers are clearly meant to be the center of the government. But now, we have effectively elevated the presidency to the top. Rather than the original constitution, we now live under the sort of regime favored by the Progressives--a regime of presidential leadership overriding the constitutional system of checks and balances.

Lincoln warned in his Lyceum Speech of 1838 that the greatest threat to the American republic would come from the rise of ambitious men who would seek the glory and distinction of becoming the national leader--men like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon. But now, far from worrying about Caesarism as a threat to republican government, we assume that good government requires it.

We can see this in the historical ratings game: Who are the greatest presidents? Historians and political scientists play the game by ranking the presidents in terms of their greatness. The latest contribution to this game is Alvin Felzenberg's The Leadership We Deserved (And a Few We Didn't): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. He ranks the presidents in six categories: character, vision, competence, economic policy, promoting liberty, and foreign policy. Lincoln ranks at the top as the greatest president based on these criteria. But notice, again, the assumption that the whole government and all its policies depend on the President. This is not republican government. This is the presidential government of the Progressives.

Oddly enough, many conservatives have been taken over by such thinking. For example, neoconservatives like Harvey Mansfield have praised George Bush for his "one-man rule" and "imperial greatness." Like many Straussians, Mansfield thinks the best form of government would be the arbitrary rule of the one wise man, and he implies that this supports executive prerogative as superior to the rule of law. As I have indicated in my posts on Mansfield, this shows a dangerous fascination with what Mansfield calls "manly nihilism." Standing behind much of this Straussian scorn for limited government and the rule of law is Carl Schmitt's "decisionism."

As I have indicated in my recent posts on Thomas Krannawitter's new book on Lincoln, Krannawitter falls into the same trap. On the one hand, he rightly criticizes the Progressives for turning all government over to the "vision" and "leadership" of the President. On the other hand, he seems to endorse presidential government by agreeing with Benjamin Kleinerman's suggestion "that it is better for the president to act without law and, in so doing, to explain and defend his actions by speaking openly to the people about the temporary necessities that require such actions." This idea that the president should circumvent the Congress and appeal directly to the people for his authority is the core of the Progressive conception of presidential government.

As I have suggested previously on this blog and in Darwinian Conservatism, republican government based on checks and balances and the rule of law conforms to a realistic view of human nature. There is a natural human inclination to look to one man as the ruler, and some men are ambitious enough to seek the glory of such rule. (This reflects a primate evolutionary legacy of social groups organized around a dominance hierarchy with an alpha male.) But no man can be trusted with unchecked power. And there's a natural human inclination to resist exploitative dominance by one or few individuals. That's why a constitutional republic is designed to balance the powers of the one, the few, and the many.

Presidential government, by contrast, is based on a utopian view of human nature--the idea that the leadership of one wise man is the best government. This is the Fuhrer principle--Schmitt's "decisionism"--that stands against constitutional republicanism.

As citizens in a republic, we should not demand "greatness" from our presidents. We should demand service to a republican structure of government in which deliberation on policy is found primarily in the legislative branches.


Tony said...

Dr. Arnhart,
I assume you're not unaware of the putrid state of 1st branch. In light of the actual situation, what alternative besides presidential leadership do we have beside anarchy? Have you read "The Broken Branch"? Even they advocate a presidential nudge of Congress, similar to what McCain has been suggesting of late.

Larry Arnhart said...

Don't Mann and Ornstein argue that the Congress cannot properly perform its constitutional role as long as it is a submissive tool of the President?

Tony said...

Yes they do, but I'm not sure about the feasibility of their "way out." Without a plausible means of change, should we expect politicos not to go along with the current system?

Larry Arnhart said...

If there is no "way out" that would have the Congress resume its constitutional duties as the deliberative branch of the national government, then constitutional republicanism in the United States is doomed.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the "way out" might have died with the failure of Gingrich? Gingrich gambled that Clinton would blink, but he didn't. Gingrinch seemed to believe that party cohesiveness would trump presidential popularity. Of course, it didn't.
Gingrich tried to assert congressional control over the budget and the people sided with the President forcing the Congress to compromise on the President's terms.

Larry Arnhart said...


I would say that the psychological basis for constitutional republicanism was well stated in THE FEDERALIST (No. 51): "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place."

For much of American history, the ambition of congressmen counteracted the ambition of the President. But now, something has happened in the psychological structure of congressional political careers, so that the ambition of congressmen no longer moves them to check the president in asserting their congressional powers.

Congressional scholars might be able to explain how this has happened, and perhaps how it could be reversed.

Anonymous said...

They are the Lotus Eaters

Tony said...

Dr. Arnhart,
Pardon me for insisting on reminding you of something--having taken the course on Lincoln with you--I am pretty certain you are not unaware. Lincoln emphatically did NOT see Caesarism as the greatest danger to the republic. Lincoln's greatest fear in the Lyceum Address is LAWLESSNESS, from which anarchy would certainly proceed. The inevitable dictatorship that follows from anarchy is a welcome reprieve from the chaos.

Tony said...

If Lincoln is more forceful when speaking about the tribe of the lion and the clan of the eagle, it is because he understands the American psyche--which would not respond as well to warnings about anarchy.
But a dictatorship arising by constitutional means through the office of the presidency is not something Lincoln foresaw as far as I can tell. He certainly did not think it was our greatest danger.

Tony said...

Members of the Founding generation, however, did have some pretty serious concerns about the potential for the office of the presidency to be subverted. The best accounts of how this concern is relevant today in fact comes from Straussians (primarily of the Storing lineage). In particular Ceasar and Tulis have shown how the office has outgrown its constitutional mandate through the custom of popular leadership, and they blame Wilson for this change. This change has been institutionalized by the primary system of presidential selection. In the face of the extra-Constitutional power generated by popular presidents, does it seem plausible that Congressmen could compete with this (even if they were all ambitious)?

Tony said...

It kind of makes sense that Congress would focus on those things they have a good shot at accomplishing, namely, bringing home the bacon. Reagan, Clinton (at times), and Bush (in the beginning) showed that Congress is no match for a popular president. Odds are good now that our next president will be a man that has no experience (the thing the Founders perhaps put the most stock in when it came to choosing a president) but an extraordinary amount of popular appeal.

Tony said...

I appreciate Andy's comment about Clinton v. Gingrich. This was Congress at its strongest but it wasn't strong enough, not until Clinton started to fall in the polls and they got their revenge with the impeachment, which of course ultimately failed as well (though more because of the prudence of the Senate than from Clinton's power).
In any case, can either party afford to abandon the popular leadership approach to the presidency? McCain seems to be giving it his best shot.