How the American Presidency Will Lead to America’s Decline

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


Photo credit: *clairity* via Creative Commons


Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle7 years ago

I agree. I supported and support Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama; however, I feel the OFFICE of the presidency has too much power. As the author states, this is problematic for the structure of a republic, whether the power resides with Repubs or Dems.

Christa Heck
Christa Heck7 years ago

To Patricia S.:

I hope you meant your comment ith tongue in cheek.

You see I became alarmed when R. Reagan, the then California governor changed the name of the Department of employment to "Human Resources" . A few decades later we have "Homeland Security". This is no trivial vocubalry change.
It all happened in Germany and people wondered how it could have happened. A. H. attributed his sucess largely to the power of radio. How much more powerful is TV. Only that man had enough honesty to have an official "propaganda minister" We don't even acknowledge such a thing. God Bless America. i mean that with all my heart. We need it desperately. I love this country. It breaks my heart.

Judith P.

Never thought we could be this bad and majority of people still complacent. The chatter on the news programs avoids the obvious as they give their meaningless commentaries. It is like an Wizard of Oz world but with skulls in the trees, tanks in the fields, and the homeless and hungry in the streets. We are waiting to see who is behind the curtain.

helen s.
helen s7 years ago

Patricia S. - yes indeed. A true American; a president who
would not bow to ANYONE and neither has any other US
president done so. Only the Bower-in-Chief - displaying his
low-class to the entire world. In his autobiography (or whatever
you want to call it), The One stated: "If the political winds should shift in an ugly direction, I will stand with the Muslims."
Enough said.

Past Member 7 years ago

interesting and possibly accurate...i'd feel a lot better about this type of book if it had two from the left and one from the right...but i do agree that the executive branch is out of control...and so is the legislative branch...the judicial branch was to be our protectors...but they have turned out to be bloated, lazy barons of law that do as little as possible. ...our constitution and laws are enough...but when our protectors will not abide by them...and passes laws to mitigate them and the courts do isn't the fault of our founders and the beginning's really our fault because we have been so lazy and uninvolved that mischief has come on board...we didn't care enough to deal with it initially...we elected people that have no morals or ethics and we just let them run amok...and now...look what a mess they have made....

Pavel T.
Pavel Tajc7 years ago

This is no surprise if a candidate needs such a huge budget to just have a chance and there are only two political parties in the game. Then, only those candidates are selected and nominated who are known to receive financial support and masses are then "handled" by media. So, it's the richest choosing their presidents and masses are just given candidates they can choose from. This is no democracy - this is a pure capitalism - rule of the money.

Donald MacDonald
don MacDonald7 years ago

The last real president was JFK.


Patricia S.
Pat S7 years ago

Ronald Reagan great president.

Best wishes!

Walter G.
Walter G7 years ago

Anyone bother to read Georgie's 'memoirs?' A synopsis of all of the asinine excuses he tried to pronounce while in office? Who can hardly wain to see his library? I understand it will contain the world's largest collection of Bevis and Butthead comics ever seen!

Walter G.
Walter G7 years ago

Will lead? Will Lead! I think one will find the statement is very much in the past tense already! it is not just the oval circus with desk installed, it is the whole government system. The worst thing is that they all to a man, woman, or whatever gender claimed are in denial about this issue. They have all decided that by the time the "bomb explodes," and everything comes crashing down around the ears of their constituents, that they'll be safe and sound out of office, in Rio, Basel, or some other lovely spot, far away from the fallout. No amount of reality check will change the attitude, only more still unbelieving FORMER politicians, eyebrows arched in surprise, packing out their offices, may give the vaguest of hints as to their future. It all goes to this question, "How can we possibly govern you sheeple without incumbents?" The answer, from amid all the "Baah" sounds might be, "IF WE ARE STUCK WITH CON MEN OF YOUR ILK, WHO NEEDS A GOVERNMENT?" Not a problem, we'll just put them back on the street, where they'll still steal from us by falsifying income tax deductions and making speeches for tax free money. Political diarrhea, friends, go take a ( _ ) and wipe your ( _ ) You can insert any executive branch pin-head's name which comes to mind. My apologies to the bidet set, they at least save trees.