Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Modern Presidency: Populism Vs. Public Justice

Timothy Sherratt


By Timothy Sherratt

February 16, 2015


Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire primaries, and Super Tuesdays will plunge us into another presidential campaign season before long (the pre-campaign is already underway). As we look ahead to this, we would do well to consider not the possible presidential candidates, but rather the office to which they aspire. The aspirants in 2016 will promise us the moon and will want to be our friend. “We Bushes,” George H.W. once declared, “wear our hearts on our sleeves.” Even a populist like Andrew Jackson would have felt no need to make such a claim, but he ran for office long before the bully pulpit, opinion polls, and public relations.

I would argue that Jeb and Hillary, Mitt (no longer, it seems), Elizabeth (well, not yet), Chris, and the rest seek an office only partially resembling the one the framers crafted. The framers’ president kept the people at bay, and their congress kept him on a short leash. Since then, the contemporary presidency has been transformed by the expectations of activist democracy and what it demands of its leaders, where government’s purpose is to translate public opinion into public policy—a view that can dismiss checks and balances as arbitrary obstacles to the realization of the People’s will.

However, what the modern presidency “delivers” is uneven, particularly when measured against the high calling of government to do public justice and of citizens to choose their governors in light of that calling. Yet this is the presidency Christian citizens must contend with. Cultivating a right vision of government and of leadership is challenging when the Chief Executive is cast as the spearhead of social change. But before we can assess responses to this challenge, we must first grasp its ramifications.


The Roots of the Personal Presidency

Political scientist Jeffrey Tulis reminds us that Woodrow Wilson  was the architect of the twentieth-century presidency. In “The Two Constitutional Presidencies”, which has anchored Michael Nelson’s Presidency and the Political System (CQPress, 2013) through ten editions, Tulis argues that Wilson made the president the fulcrum of the political system, transforming the office by designating him as the Leader of Public Opinion. The transformed presidency is known by several titles, among them “rhetorical,” “populist” and “democratized,” but I prefer Theodore Lowi’s term as both comprehensive and insightful—the “Personal Presidency.”

Only the president could claim a national mandate to govern, Wilson argued, and so the president could legitimately set the agenda through dialogue with the citizenry. The president would articulate the people’s instinctual political ideas, in a manner reminiscent, one imagines, of a professor picking up a student’s comment with “I think what I hear you saying is…” (Wilson was a political science professor after all!) Wilson wanted a living office, and he regarded the separation of powers as a defect, handicapping the people’s executive from offering dynamic leadership in response to their desires.

Regardless of Wilson’s view, the framers seem to have intentionally kept the president at arm’s length from the people by interposing the Electoral College. The president the Constitution describes was empowered to defend the nation and engage closely with the legislative process —through the power to suggest measures to Congress and to veto bills he objected to—but not to serve as the principal democratic representative; this responsibility fell to House and Senate in the name of the people and the states respectively.  Granted, this model of the presidency is no simple guarantor of the principles of public justice. However, it helps ensure that multiple perspectives are considered in public debate. It encourages deliberation, and its constitutionally limited powers may leave room for the states to frame their own policies and for civil society’s institutions to flourish.

Wilson’s president did not simply affect a democratic style but was intentionally expansionist. The personal president was expected to act, a facet of leadership that took center stage for twentieth-century Progressives, and both Roosevelts and Wilson embraced the invitation. Under Franklin Roosevelt, the growth of the executive branch permanently transformed, and weakened, the separation of powers. It also set the tone for the twentieth century, producing among other things the American version of the regulatory and welfare states and, in reaction, the modern conservative movement.

So one may reasonably ask whether Wilson and the Roosevelts, in seeking to forge stronger and thus more legitimate democratic credentials for the Chief Executive, achieved their ends?  Or did they saddle the country with the personal president and the permanent campaign, along with the apparatus of modern bureaucracy that imposes its own restrictions on democratic responsiveness? Did they give us enhanced democratic representation or the more ambiguous relationship whose medium is public relations?

Ideology aside, the president voters will elect in 2016 is arguably the one Wilson and the Roosevelts invented, and this new president will most likely govern via the politics of the permanent campaign. To secure policy priorities, he or she will “go public,” coordinating interest group support and relying heavily on massaging public opinion. Even the conservative movement that objects to big government has not disowned the personal president or the permanent campaign. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and the rest implicitly acknowledge that the active, personal president is not going to fit meekly back into the constitutional box, however much they may seek to rein in the federal government over which he presides.


Membership in the National Political Community

Ever since the modern presidency arrived on the political scene, citizens have responded unevenly, with the first big drop in voter turnout from the high percentages of the late nineteenth century coinciding with its inauguration. Relative to Congress’s numbers, the Wilsonian presidential contest does bring more voters to the polls. However, the flip side to this relatively greater draw is that the numbers remain unimpressive for an office intentionally transformed to enhance its democratic appeal. Of course, we must recognize that numbers alone do not convert public opinion into public justice. We should see high turnout levels as a desirable baseline for a healthy democracy, necessary but not sufficient.

Can the puzzle of low turnout under these circumstances be solved? If the evidence suggests that the modern presidency fails to cultivate enhanced participation in the national political community, and that its local congressional counterpart also performs poorly, how can we transform this civic lassitude into a robust engagement in the political community? Is the deck stacked or can the engaged and responsible citizen solve the puzzle?

I would suggest that beneath the visible display of low participation lies a structural issue of membership in the national political community. Participation in a community presupposes membership in that community. Citizens are more likely to engage when they have a stake, a sense of belonging, something to gain or lose by the decisions they make. These overlapping facets of membership do not come about automatically, however. They need cultivation.

Where communities are characterized by low social and geographic mobility, family ties are usually sufficient to secure the apprenticeship of young members, to give them their sense of belonging. Even here, at the local level, Americans’ sense of community is forever challenged by our society’s high mobility. The sense of community is also challenged by the emphasis on individual liberty, the ever-present qualifier of community obligations. Those challenges are magnified at the national level. Like the air at high altitudes, the concept of national community is “thin” and breathing is more difficult.

The most powerful builder of national community is patriotism. But patriotism, which encourages solidarity and support for the nation and its leaders in times of crisis, serves less well to deepen community membership in the everyday context of competing beliefs and interests, which characterize every community. Patriotism calls for unity, for setting disagreements aside. But when building a national community to enhance public justice, patriotism is not enough. To foster a kind of membership that does not merely tolerate disagreement but structures the system to accommodate it for justice’s sake calls for other means, including the inculcation of civic responsibility, appropriate modes of political representation, and organizations that can articulate positions on issues of national importance. Here, however, the quality is uneven.

Homes and schools instill civic responsibility with varying degrees of success—the widely reported levels of ignorance about basic features of the political system show these significant gaps. Low levels of electoral participation (echoed in the recent midterm elections’ 37 percent turnout) reflect an electoral system that confines choices to two major parties for which many people vote out of frustrated necessity—and many, sometimes most, don’t vote at all. In contrast, interest groups abound, but their flourishing is a mixed blessing. Arguably, their focus and funding elevates private above public interest. James Madison thought that the multiplication of these factions would do no harm in a large republic where no single set of them could dominate the public agenda. Many today would find Madison’s claim too optimistic in 2015.

In short, membership in the national political community is under-developed in the American system. Every national legislator possesses a primarily state-level identity—thereby encouraging citizens to understand genuinely national or international issues chiefly in local terms. We need the local perspective but not to the exclusion of the wider lens. Only the president has the entire country for his constituency. Combine this with the seeming accessibility of the office personalized by President Wilson and Madison Avenue, and we may have the explanation for why such unrealistic expectations are heaped on the office holder. It may also explain why a desire for presidents to “transcend” the separation of powers has been equated with effective leadership in contemporary American politics. So candidates offer some version of change in lieu of substantive policy goals, and they invite citizens to indulge a politics of un-articulated desire. A just society is the poorer for such a politics.


The High Calling of Government and Citizenship

Under the conditions of postmodernity, the absence of broad moral markers for the scope and limits of government poses yet another set of challenges for forging an appropriate relationship between citizens and those we choose to govern us. In the absence of such markers, politics easily acquires unrealistic ends, or, worse, absolutist ones. Converting our language of rights into a language of absolutes, close relative of “zero tolerance” in our penal codes, for example, puts both the scope and limits of government in jeopardy. It’s all too easy to reach for absolute power when you think you are right absolutely, whether under democracy or dictatorship.

Christian political reflection, of the kind the Center for Public Justice undertakes, speaks to the scope and limits of government, including the presidency. Its starting point is the sovereignty of God. For if God is truly sovereign—king, that is—then government exercises authority at his behest. As Jonathan Chaplin expressed it some years ago, government is a divine, not a democratic, creation. Even democracies cannot make that claim!

Further, in a principled pluralist understanding, governments are limited in scope not only because God is the true sovereign, but also because all of society reflects God’s moral ordering of creation. Families, charities, businesses, and schools all have their authority and irreplaceable roles to perform. To do public justice, government should create conditions under which they may flourish, as the Center’s Guideline on Government outlines. These principles offer citizens guidance for the conduct of politics, such that they “should approach government not as the power that can give them what they want, but as the authority that ought to uphold a just public order for them and for all their neighbors.”

Government is not about ultimate solutions calling for absolute power. It should be thought of prudentially as pursuing justice, restraining evil, seeking to advance solutions that respect human dignity, and helping civil society make its distinctive contributions to human flourishing in a fallen world.

As Christian citizens, we should not expect society to pause while we have our say. Modest though our influence may be, we are well placed to cultivate, at least in our own communities, the vision of government articulated here. And as go visions of government, so go those of the president. This Presidents’ Day, let us think of the president as charged to pursue justice as temporary steward of the powers and responsibilities of the office. And let us articulate that view of his obligations so that we may know to what sort of leadership we may hold him accountable, and how we may hold him up in our prayers, as Scripture enjoins us to do.


Reflection and Discussion Questions:

  • What expectations of the president is it realistic for citizens to hold? How can they make those expectations influence the conduct of presidential campaigns?
  • A just polity calls for representation of society’s various points of view, government responsiveness to citizens’ needs, and the cultivation of conditions in which non-governmental agencies may flourish. In light of this vision of justice, what qualities ought we to seek from presidential candidates?


-  Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.


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