U.S. Presidency III: Re-envisioning the Presidency as the Tribune of the People

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James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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  1. Avatar Dave says:

    Wilson adds a third view, that it indeed does have the strength of a tyrant, but that this is good, and we need fear not because in a republic that power will be exercised only in accordance with the will of the people.

    Interesting point.

    In a way, wouldn’t Wilson’s President been a function of both the big and small c? During his entire, unlike FDR starting in his second term, even if Wilson wanted to elevate the role of the President, the federalism jurisprudence in his time was more stringent than what it became in the New Deal. Wilson could get ambitious but not too ambitious.

    For the President at the “Tribune of the People” to really take hold, it would require institutional changes in the Supreme Court, at least that’s how I read your post. Great one!Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    For all his problems as a person, Wilson recognized some serious short comings with the system established in the Constitution. I wonder what he would have thought about Linz’s the Problem with Presidentialism. Nearly all the Founders imagined a very big United States and none of them thought that we would be forever bound by the territory we got after Independence. What I don;t think they considered is how difficult it would be to govern a really large nation. The certainly didn’t envision how industrialization and its aftermath could lead to demands for a more activist government regardless of whether or not its a good idea.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      There’s really no way Founders really could have foreseen all that, is there? And as it seems that most of them wouldn’t have expected the Constitution to last so long without major revision, it might be fair to question whether their plan really was so unexpectedly awesome or whether we ought to have done a major re-do a long time ago.*

      Re: Wilson’s reaction to Linz. That’s an interesting question. While Wilson ultimately argued for a stronger presidency, that was his fallback position, so while he might not go as far as Linz in his critique of presidentialism, he might yet agree that it would be even better to go with a parliamentary model. Of course that’s seat of the pants speculation, right?
      _____________________________
      * I’ve just–today–committed to a 1/2 course (2 credit hours instead of 4) for the fall term that will be a constitutional convention, and nothing but. I’m going to make the students figure out how to organize themselves, instead of telling them how to do it, and require them to write up their proposals and provide intellectual justification for them (with citations, etc.). I’m curious to see how it works out. I figure if it takes the students half the term just to figure out how to organize and structure their process, that’s a pretty good learning experience by itself. The best part is, I won’t have to lecture at all. At. All.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        I’m going to hope for progress reports. Will you assign roles?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Wilson lived at a time when both parties were heterodox, so the idea of more ideologically unified parties in America would be weird to him. He would probably understand the problems it could cause in a Presidential system.

        At least Jefferson envisioned a replacement for the Constitution at one point in the future. I’m not sure about the others but the did include a mechanism to implement a new constitution in the one they wrote, which indicates that they didn’t intend it to last forever.

        The writers of the Constitution were working in the dark and the parliamentary system was still in embryonic form at the time. Madison’s idea that the President should be elected by Congress was a step in that direction since it would create a much closer executive-legislative link and the President would be in acceptable to the majority of Congress and most likely able to work with them.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        I could certainly use Ord. U. to provide progress reports.

        I’ll assign students to represent hypothetical states, for which I will give them a description. It won’t be the convention of 1787, but a future one.

        I want to pull them far enough out of their comfort zone that they have to think seriously about what kind of political system to design, instead of simply falling back on what they know, while not futilely trying to get them to think like, say, Egyptians, or Puntlanders.

        So my current thought is to craft a story about North America after the zombie wars, in which all governments collapsed, and people organized into self-defense units, which–as things got better–coalesced into new defacto states along a different set of borders than the old states (maybe I’ll draw from the Trumanverse). Then I can adjust the number of them to the number of students I have, give them state interests to watch out for, make it clear they’re starting from scratch instead of just tinkering around the edges, while still allowing them to be Americans. At least I’ve made a good enough argument to half convince myself.

        I plan to walk in the first day, give them the scenario, let them draw states from a hat, tell them the first meeting of the convention is the next class day, and refuse to give them any hints about hiw to proceed–they’ll have to figure that out on their own.

        This course has several motivations. Minor ones have to do with matching a half class to the other half class I’m teaching (Nuclear Weapons and Power) so I do neither an overload nor an underload, and my desire to avoid an extra prep (hence, let the students do all the work). But the major motivation is pedagogical, and has nothing to do with the subject matter of the course. I’ve been paying attention to what businesses say they want college grads to know, and among those are how to work in groups and how to analyze problems. A term-long group project of the whole class and the design of a government from scratch ought to do more of both than multiple short term projects, I think. And the evidence seems to show that students learn a lot more from hands-on work than from lectures.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        The writers of the Constitution were working in the dark

        Yes, thank you. This point should be more frequently emphasized. But I suppose it would tend to undermine reverence for the Big C, and that would be un-American or something.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        @james-hanley

        “* I’ve just–today–committed to a 1/2 course (2 credit hours instead of 4) for the fall term that will be a constitutional convention, and nothing but. I’m going to make the students figure out how to organize themselves, instead of telling them how to do it, and require them to write up their proposals and provide intellectual justification for them (with citations, etc.). I’m curious to see how it works out.”

        that sounds great – hope they participate their asses off!Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        I actually aimed my comment more at a school of liberals and leftists that view the Constitution as a being deliberately written to disenfranchise the poor and protect the proerty of the rich. There were a lot of not so good compromises from a moral perspective that were made in order to create the Constitution but without these compromises there would be no United Stated. I also think that this line of thought is projecting a malovelance on the writers of the Constitution that simply isn’t there.

        Madison and company really didn’t have a lot of models for the American system of government. They had what the knew about the UK, Switzerland, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for contempory somewhat representative government. They could study the Roman Republic and Athens for lesson from the past. What the settled on is a somewhat misinterpreted version of the English government after the Glorious Revolution with the hereditary elements left out. They probably saw the President as being akin to how the imagined the British King should be. Addams once refered to England as a monarchal republic I believe.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        The Charles Beard approach?

        I have some sympathy for that approach. The men at the Convention truly were elites with varying degrees of distrust of the masses. “Democrat” was a dirty word to them (Madison took pains to critique democracy as tyranny of the majority in Federalist 10), and they did fear the leveling activities of a guy like Daniel Shays.

        But I think the argument goes too far when, as you say, it implies malevolence, and an assumption that the Framers were trying to rigidify a status quo and keep others subordinate. I suspect they saw the states as a land of opportunity and believed they were setting a framework that would promote opportunity. (Slaves excepted, of course.)Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Thats why we get the doopey and rather stupid comments about the United States being a republic and not a democracy from time to time on various internet fora by certain conservative posters. These arguments seemed designed to basically says that liberal legislation should not pass because all liberal legislation is inherently against the Consttituion or something.

        The writers of the Constitution came from a privileged background but they were engaging in a radical experiment for the time. There own class interests mitigated against going all the way but I do not think they intended the system to keep the lower orders down forever.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Thats why we get the doopey and rather stupid comments about the United States being a republic and not a democracy

        Yeah, there’s something to that claim, but what there is to it is never what they think it is.Report

      • Avatar Matty says:

        @leeesq My understanding is that the US president as an actual political figure *is* closer to how British monarch were in the immediate aftermath of the Glorious Revolution than to what the monarchy has become since. The modern idea of a wholly apolitical figurehead monarch was a much more gradual development through the 18th-20th Centuries and not something King William himself would ever have signed up to.Report

    • Avatar Dave says:

      LeeEsq,

      Wilson recognized some serious short comings with the system established in the Constitution.

      As did just about everyone involved in the framing and ratifying of the document.

      What I don;t think they considered is how difficult it would be to govern a really large nation. The certainly didn’t envision how industrialization and its aftermath could lead to demands for a more activist government regardless of whether or not its a good idea.

      I think it is unreasonable to expect people to be able to look into the future and anticipate future changes that would be inconceivable to them based on their current situation.
      However, they Framers did look at the then-current situation with the government as it functioned under the Articles of Confederation.

      There was a group of people that wanted a purely national form of government that, as you say, could be activist. It was soundly rejected. Even the draft of the Constitution that came out of the convention, a “partly national partly federal” form of government as Madison described in Federalist 39 was seen by the Constitution’s opponents as forming a consolidated government that would ultimately destroy the sovereignty of the states.

      To your point, even if the Framers could see in the future and could argue the need to increase the power of the federal government, that would not have been enough to sway the Anti-Federalists, many of whom still wanted a much-weaker form and would have preferred the Articles of Confederation stayed in place.

      In some states, it was hard enough getting the Constitution we have modified. Had the federal government been delegated more powers than it had, it probably would have never gotten off the ground.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        a “partly national partly federal” form of government as Madison described

        That’s a funny phrasing to modern ears. We’d simply describe it as federal, and say what he meant was partly national partly confederal. But that distinction developed later–it wasn’t until nation states, with various types of republicanish governments, as opposed to principalities and empires, became the norm that those fine distinctions really developed. They’re a product of post-Convention history, but the innovative structure created by the convention was an important case study that helped shape those distinctions.

        And of course they didn’t create this “partly national partly [con]federal” system because they had a great vision of it’s sheer awesomeness, but–as you indicate–as a compromise to get buy in. They all knew they needed a bit more national, to avoid fragmenting, but damned if many of them wanted to cede too much power from the state they were representing.Report

      • Avatar Dave says:

        Most modern ears probably wouldn’t appreciate the distinction unless they went through the ratification debates and the history to see what Madison and company were trying to do. The “partly national partly federal” description was not only a way to describe the structure of the government but also, and just as important, the means in which he communicated the concept of “divided sovereignty”.

        “We the People of the United States” is treated as that today. As relatively innocuous as it sounds, it drew major fire in the ratification conventions and among the most ardent opponents of the Constitution (those views would later be revived by the 19th Century states rights movement when it attempted to reinterpret the Constitution as a purely federal form of government, completely discarding the notion of divided sovereignty).

        Without a sovereign American people, the Constitution would have likely been just as toothless as the Articles.Report

  3. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    How do Wilson’s 20th-Century predecessors fit into this narrative? I know virtually nothing about McKinley, except that his campaign was strikingly modern, but “Tribune of the People” sounds like how TR might have thought of himself too, though Taft was more likely to feel constrained by the Constitutional view of the presidency than TR was. Also, he was really fat.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      McKinley and TR pushed toward the modern presidency sufficiently that they’re generally considered the first modern presidents. Then there was a “relapse,” which as I’ll explain next week was in large part due to the fitful start toward and partial, temporary, pullback from the new primary system of candidate selection. This retrenchment gave us Taft, then Wilson (selected on, iirc, the 46th ballot at the convention, but obviously differently minded), then Harding and Coolidge, as un-aggressive a couple of presidents as we could ever name. It also gave us Hoover, whom I struggle to classify, but then we get FDR, who brings the modern presidency into fruition.

      I actively dislike the common misrepresentations of Hoover. Not only did he not do “nothing” in response to the Depression, but close scholars argue the New Deal actually started under his watch, and FDR initially campaigned against his economic interventionism. Hoover also ought to be recognized as a true American hero for his famine relief efforts during and after WWI, which helped feed millions of people who faced starvation. He’s mocked because the Depression began on his watch, but FDR had two full terms worth of Depression and gets viewed as an economic savior. It’s hard to see a man like Hoover as not being a modern president, and indeed he was probably a transitional figure–we’d gone too far by that time, perhaps, to fully return to 19th century and he was not the type of man to support quite such a passive presidency, perhaps, yet he was no Roosevelt (either of them). He may be the most in-between eras of all our presidents. Perhaps. His presidency gets so overshadowed by the Depression that it’s hard to interpret it outside of that framework, which necessarily distorts, as much as the Civil War distorts the Lincoln presidency.Report

      • Hoover also ought to be recognized as a true American hero for his famine relief efforts during and after WWI, which helped feed millions of people who faced starvation

        ….unlike the bumbling Harry Garfield, whose coal policies literally left millions in the cold.

        (I joke. I think he did the best he could with what he had. But my (very limited) research suggests people generally liked Hoover much more than Garfield.)Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    What is the role of personal charisma in the Wilsonian vision? We think of the modern Presidency beginning with McKinley and TR, but that’s got to be at least in part the result of their respective depths of charisma as much as their political skills. And articulation of their respective and surprisingly different visions of policy.

    But both developing media and a pull towards a Rooseveltian scheme of making the President a hero gave us both Herbert Hoover (recall he was something of a heroic figure before the economy crashed, making his name taming problems associated with the Mississippi and Colorado Rivers) and his nation-changing successor. Neither a competent technocrat with good inside skills like Grover Cleveland, nor a minimally-acceptable-to-most nonentity like Franklin Pierce, could really step up to the plate and project a personality onto the body politic.

    I assume Wilson had little but contempt for his predecessor — Taft found the bully pulpit distasteful and stressful, and lacked much interest in forming an agenda to sell to the public. He seemed content to leave governing to Congress and in the arena he had most discretion, foreign policy, he stumbled badly particularly with Japan. (Taft is famous for his Henry VIII-like weight — he was never a thin man but the Presidency put over 100 pounds on the fellow, much of which he shed, not for lack of personal wealth, after leaving office.) all the man ever really wanted was a seat on the Supreme Court — he was ultimately a lawyer, not a leader.Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

      Was Taft even a notable CJ? It seems amazing a man could be the only person to achieve both the presidency and chief justiceship and yet seem, historically, a weighty person only because of his girth. A decent fellow though, I think?

      As to charisma, Wilson doesn’t specifically use that term in either of the works mentioned (that was a Weber construct, who wrote around the same time as Wilson, but in Germany, so Wilson may not have picked up on it), but I think it’s fair to say he was thinking along those lines, even without using the word. He spoke highly of oratory (and reportedly was quite a good one himself), and of the need to win oeoole over and gain their love. Because how else can you be their tribune?Report

  5. Avatar Damon says:

    “theoretical reinterpretation”: when the Constitution became “a scrap of paper with words”Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      I understand where you’re coming from, but is there truly any possibility that centuries could pass with no theoretical interpretations? Some might be more subtle, less overt than Wilson’s, but is it something that can actually be humanly avoided?Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        Not when “theoretical reinterpretation” becomes law of the land.

        You want to change gov’t or the constitution, there’s already a mechanism for doing so.Report

      • Avatar Dave says:

        Seeing as the ratification did not provide us with a “settled” interpretation, it’s hard to see how latitudinarian constructions can be avoided.

        I’d argue that Thomas Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution of 1798 followed by the states rights doctrines that emerged during the 19th Century were radical reinterpretations of both the Constitution as well as the Founding-era history. We didn’t need centuries for that to happen.

        Also, without getting too far into the weeds, I’d say that the “re-interpretation” that took place during the New Deal, especially in the Supreme Court’s decisions in 1937 and beyond, was completely unavoidable.Report

  6. Avatar Kolohe says:

    ” The process of formal amendment of the Constitution was made so difficult by provisions of the Constitution itself that it has seldom been feasible to use it;”

    Which in turn becomes ironic and/or morrisettian in hindsight, as homeboy had more amendments ratified on his watch than anyone else other than the first George W., plus one more right before he took office.

    Speaking of amendments, is that one of the ‘institutional’ factors implied yet not explicitly stated? Specifically: Congressmembers, he thought, are too parochial, concerned only with satisfying their own constituents. I think it’s a non-trivial distinction for this analysis of evolving Presidential power that the literal constituency of US Senators prior to the Wilson administration were the respective state legislatures, *not* the citizenry of the respective states. And I believe this has altered both the specific relationships between the Senate and the Presidency, and the House and the Senate, and to tie in with your main theme, the political party machinery and the Senate. (which spills over to Presidential nominee selection).

    Furthermore, and to tie in with what someone said about ‘greatness’ one the previous posts, don’t personality and circumstances conspire with larger historical forces to make WIlson the precise pivot? (as opposed to say, Cleveland, or the first Roosevelt, or Hoover)

    First of course, are innovations in transportation and communication that made federalization of government functions finally practical (and professional – vice, say, the hodgepodge of ignorant yet earnest errors and outright malfeasance that was typified in the Bureau of Indian Affairs from the end of the Civil War to the New Deal).

    But there’s also three historical coincidences which, at the time, were part of the platform of the ruling political coalition (and the larger political establishment, in and out of power), but are not really related nor co-dependent. We have the start of the (permanent) income tax, which finally gave the federal treasury a stable income source. We have the first big global conflict that the US got directly involved in (discounting, of course, the war of 1812 & french+Indian wars as proxy wars) – a war footing that largely continues to this day. And we have the first large scale federalization of police powers, with the very first war on (some) drugs – another policy that continues to this day.

    So, with the Wilson administration, we finally have an Executive Branch that finally has stuff to do on a day-to-day basis. And thus creates the need for a CEO type compared to a Chairman of the Board type.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Speaking of amendments, is that one of the ‘institutional’ factors implied yet not explicitly stated?

      No, not in my plans, because I haven’t seen that argument really developed in the presidential literature yet. But it may have a sound foundation that ought to be explored.

      don’t personality and circumstances conspire with larger historical forces to make WIlson the precise pivot?

      I’d generally agree. I think it would have happened anyway, in the nearer term rather than the longer term precisely because of those historical forces, but not necessarily in the late 19-teens.Report

  7. Avatar Citizen says:

    The will of the people should be left where it is found.Report

  8. @jm3z-aitch

    Thanks for these posts on the presidency. I know I haven’t participated much. In part, that’s because I haven’t necessarily done all the required readings. (Can I get an extension?) But it’s also because there’s nothing to remind me of my own ignorance about something than taking a class in it. I’m learning a lot, and I look forward to future posts.Report

  9. Avatar James Hanley says:

    @pierre-corneille

    Thanks. Now I feel bad that I probably won’t get my next post up this week. 😉Report

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