2007 June 20 Wednesday
Book Sees Excessive Power In Presidency

Johns Hopkins University political scientists Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg argue in a new book that the American Presidency has become too powerful (and I agree)

Picking up where Crenson and Ginsberg's first co- authored book, Downsizing Democracy, left off, Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced explains the exponential growth of the White House's authority since the second half of the 20th century. Writing for a general audience, they approach their subject as they would a murder mystery, looking at the motives, means, and opportunities leading to the aggrandizement of the commander-in-chief.

How did the world's most powerful democracy wind up delegating so much power and influence to just one person, despite our system of checks and balances? Crenson and Ginsberg point to a convergence of factors, including fractured political parties, a weak Congress and the return of national security issues and foreign policy matters to the center of American politics.

The American people also are responsible for strengthening the executive branch, thanks to waning citizen activism and a general lack of participation in politics. All this fuels presidential candidates who are pathologically ambitious, making the modern approach to electing a president much more cynical and calculated than in the past. Today, the authors say, a president is borne on the shoulders of an inner-circle of handlers and image-makers who fashion the candidate into an electable figure. Gone are the days when the candidate's political party shaped a candidate's character or the groundswell of a popular vote mattered. Crenson and Ginsberg call this "institutionalized ambition."

"Because of the way elections are orchestrated today, we have people running who are 'monsters,' to quote Mike Kelly of the Washington Post," Crenson says. "They spend their whole lives running for office. The party they belong to is irrelevant." Though the George W. Bush administration has capitalized on this situation, Crenson and Ginsberg are quick to note that it didn't create it. Presidential Power traces more than 200 years of political and presidential history, outlining how past presidents were chosen, elected and ultimately exercised their power.

I think the sheer size of the American population causes more power to concentrate in the center. As the population grows the vote of each person coulds for less and less. This breeds apathy. As the federal government cuts into the turn of state and local governments the authority of local leaders declines and this breeds even more apathy.

Look at the Iraq war for an example of too much power to the Presidency. Congress authorized the use of force in Iraq and now has no way to take back that power since it can't muster veto-proof majorities in both houses. So the war becomes ever more unpopular and get the US presence continues.

I see the promotion of national security issues to an exaggerated degree as harmful to the Republic. Not every potential fear amounts to much. Commentators who see dangers everywhere help to make the Presidency even stronger and much stronger than it needs to be.

If we simply kept the Muslims out of the United States our risk of terrorist attacks would decline dramatically. We wouldn't need to spend as much time thinking about threats emanating from the rest of the world. The resulting decline in fear would cause a big redistribution of power away from the center. That would be very healthy for the Republic.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 June 20 10:47 PM  Politics American Presidency

Stephen said at June 21, 2007 3:12 AM:

One of my pet theories is that the effectiveness of a democratic system of government graphs as a bell shape as population increases. The US is probably to the left of the bell curve. I think I've said it here before, but I seriously think that the US might be better off splitting into two or three separate countries. It would certainly solve your Mexican issue Randall.

Wolf-Dog said at June 21, 2007 8:37 AM:

Randall Parker wrote:
"If we simply kept the Muslims out of the United States our risk of terrorist attacks would decline dramatically. We wouldn't need to spend as much time thinking about threats emanating from the rest of the world. The resulting decline in fear would cause a big redistribution of power away from the center. That would be very healthy for the Republic. "

It's too late because of the following two reasons:
1) In the future, the new weapons will be much more portable and even if all the Muslims in the United States were arrested and deported, in the distant future, due to scientific discoveries, it would still be possible to smuggle VERY advanced weapons of mass destruction by various methods that do not require a Muslim population in the U.S..
2) Although the current main goal of the Islamists is to force the US to leave the Middle East, after that goal is accomplished in a few years, they will want more as a function of their future weapons of mass destruction. Their future demands will depend on their ability to blackmail the West with their new science of destruction.

Jim said at June 21, 2007 11:06 AM:

Wolf-dog - I see that you're quite the fear & war monger in these comments. Do you or you children serve in Iraq currently? Or are you just talking about other people's teenager's dying for your war fantasies?

Randall is absolutely right on this one. We need to secure our borders and defend our self-interest by showing the rest of the world what freedom is and the American culture that creates it. The war in Iraq has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi's, whose relatives are a prime recruitment pool for attacking the U.S., thereby making this country, my country, less safe. Not to mention how thin our military is stretched in the event it had to respond to a real threat to the U.S.

Quequeg said at June 21, 2007 12:39 PM:

This is another reason why I'm voting for Ron Paul. He's against "energy in the executive", Presidential signing statements, and the overuse of executive orders.

He voted against the Irag War Resolution, because the Constitution states that only Congress has the power to declare war. Congress cannot transfer that authority to the President, with resolutions. In turn, this would force Congress to deliberate and take responsibility.

He also votes against all the Free Trade Agreements, including Trade Promotion Authority (a.k.a. "fast track"), because only Congress has the power to craft trade agreements. Congress cannot transfer that authority to the President and his selected trade representatives.

Of those Presidential contenders that will actually make our country a better place to live (and not worse), I believe Ron Paul has the best chance at winning and he has specifically addressed the issue of excessive Presidential power.

Anon said at June 21, 2007 2:33 PM:

One main reason why the Presidency has become so powerful is that Congress has basically abdicated most of its power. They don't want to actually have to live with any of their decisions(or make any at all really), as it could result in losing an election and having to get a real job. Their main interest has been staying in safe districts and being reelected. Anything that could imperil this is off limits. I'm no fan of Bush, but he treats Congress with the contempt they deserve (not my words, but Pat Buchanan's). Buchanan has a bunch of articles over at Worldnetdaily.com of how Bush constantly rolls Congress despite their claims they are going to defund the war, etc...

tschafer said at June 21, 2007 6:30 PM:

Hey, Jim, I didn't hear any "War Fantasies" or "war mongering" from Wolf-Dog, and he is quite correct about the portability of modern weapons of mass destruction. I'm no fan of the Iraq War, but the idea that we can simply cut ourselves off from the rest of the world is an illusion. I'm all in favor of Randall's ideas about immigration and decentralization, but if anyone thinks that such measures will end terrorist attacks in the U.S., they are living in a dream world. We had better figure out a way to preserve our federal system and freedom in a country under threat of terrorist attack, because that is where we are going to be living for the forseeable future.

Wolf-Dog said at June 21, 2007 11:46 PM:

Thanks for clarifying my point, Jim. Although I am in favor of long term peace and tolerance, was I was trying to explain was that under the current psychological circumstances in the world, even after the U.S. leaves the Middle East in a few years and even after the U.S. totally blocks all Muslim immigration, there will still be a lot of future terrorism with weapons of mass destruction.

Thus the U.S. must prepare for this future environment by creating duplicate and decentralized backup versions of the government. There must be many independent storage locations for food and water, as well as basic supplies for the nation. And also, within 5 years, the top 50 universities must create very high quality videos of all the important courses in their curriculum, including not only the basic undergraduate courses but even the most advanced graduate courses. This way, even if all the professors in the top universities are killed, at least at the instruction level, the education of the new generation can be restored, since at least the books and course materials will be available together with very high quality videos of the lectures, exams, and homework solutions, etc. In other words, we are talking about national survival for generations.

Jason Pappas said at June 22, 2007 7:01 AM:

Parker, you’re right about eliminating the Islamic presence at home; it would make the problem more tractable. Securing the borders, monitoring their movement abroad via good intel, etc. all increase our ability to stop future attacks. Unfortunately, there is little in the public debate to further these ends.

Jim said at June 22, 2007 9:52 AM:

tschafer -

without substantial fear in the general public, you can't promote a war, because the populace almost never wants war.... only the ruling elites do - it's fun, like a game of risk.... and you get to earn interest on the costs!

we should not protect ourselves (the U.S.) by propagating death, destruction, and war in the middle east (source of expected terrorist attacks.)

we should instead analyze why they attack us, and understand what actions instigate more attacks (AND not implement these actions, unlike the current administration who is doing everything they can to promote further attacks)

simultaneously, the U.S. should maintain a very strong military force that provides substantial dis-incentive to attack (why aren't we in Pakistan going after Bin Laden for 9/11?!? ....violent people respond to strength and authority, and victims respond to justice - so what message have we sent by allowing OBL to remain free?).

and showing the world the greatness of our free, intelligent, hard-working culture. We shouldn't be "isolationists", but we should openly trade with the world, thereby mutually benefiting and strengthening ties.... I can remember when I was a kid and the U.S. were the good guys, and freedom and prosperity were spreading because other people wanted to emulate us.

and Wolf-Dog.... you're right to think of protecting yourself - it's a healthy response to the fear in our society. buy a shotgun. build a stocked shelter and fresh water cistern. many of the top universities are already making courses public, and you'd be wise to take advantage of that for yourself and family. don't count on your government to do any of this for you!

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