Editor’s Note: This post explores how the American presidency is changing, and what that means for the future of America. This post originally appeared on The Progressive Book Club.
The American republic is under threat–from the American presidency. The executive branch has become a potential platform for extremism and lawlessness. Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the War on Terror–they’re not freak episodes of executive overreach, but symptoms of deeper pathologies; and preludes, most likely, to worse excesses. An inexorable four-decade power grab by the executive branch has radically changed the character of the American presidency. Our tattered Constitution has proved no defense. Crisis looms.
If these were the ravings of some cable pundit, they’d be easy enough to dismiss. But they’re the considered views of Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale and author of fifteen influential books in political philosophy, constitutional law, and public policy. His latest, The Decline and Fall of the American Republic, argues that changes beginning in the Nixon era–from the rise of presidential primaries, to the role of pollsters and media gurus, to the centralization of power in the White House, to the politicization of the military, to the manipulation of constitutional doctrine to justify presidential power-grabs (cf. Yoo, Bybee, et al.)–have created a constitutional crisis in waiting, where the checks and balances of our system are revealed as neither.
I should note that Ackerman has detailed ideas on what to do about all this. For now, though, here’s an excerpt from the book where he lays out a dark scenario of constitutional crisis, running down what he calls “the dynamics of decline and fall for the American Republic.”
I predict that:
1) the evolving system of presidential nominations will lead to the election of an increasing number of charismatic outsider types who gain office by mobilizing activist support for extremist programs of the left or right
2) all presidents, whether extremist or mainstream, will rely on media consultants to design streams of sound bites aimed at narrowly segmented micropublics, generating a politics of unreason that will often dominate public debate
3) they will increasingly govern through their White House staff of superloyalists, issuing executive orders that their staffers will impose on the federal bureaucracy even when they conflict with congressional mandates
4) they will engage with an increasingly politicized military in ways that may greatly expand their effective power to put their executive orders into force throughout the nation
5) they will legitimate their unilateral actions through an expansive use of emergency powers
6) asserts “mandates from the People” to evade or ignore congressional statutes when public opinion polls support decisive action
7) they will rely on elite lawyers in the executive branch to write up learned opinions that vindicate the constitutionality of their most blatant power grabs
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