Presidency has emerged as strongest of three branches of U.S. government, Stanford historian says
Stanford history Professor Jack Rakove offers a long-term perspective on some of the changes and challenges facing the U.S. political system. The presidency has emerged as the strongest of the three government branches while Congress is seemingly paralyzed by partisanship.
Amid today’s relentless 24/7 news cycle, it’s difficult to put this year’s election events into a deeper historical and philosophical context.
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To explore how the presidency and the practice of politics have changed since the early days of the republic, Worldview Stanford interviewed Jack Rakove, the William Robertson Coe Professor in History and American Studies. A historian of the American Revolution and the origins of the U.S. Constitution, he is the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on James Madison.
This interview is part of Wide Angle: Election 2016, a Stanford media series that offers scholarly, nonpartisan perspectives on the forces shaping the election.
What can history teach us about the 2016 election?
Historians are very nervous about the idea of learning lessons from the past. That sounds somewhat counter-intuitive because common sense wisdom is that we study the past to learn lessons that we can somehow apply to the present. Many, perhaps most, historians would say something rather different – that the reason we study history is partly to understand the origins of the present. You cannot be an informed person in any full sense of the term if you don’t know how the past led to the present, or how the present evolved out of the past.
But when it comes to the question of lessons, many historians think that the real value of learning history is not to synthesize too easily or too casually or too deliberately. It’s really to try to appreciate differences.
It’s a hard lesson to grasp, but it means that when you’re operating in the present, you want to do your best to understand the present on its own terms, being historically informed about its origins, but not allowing history to run roughshod in some crude or gross or simplistic way over how you view the events or the developments in your own life.
How have perceptions of the presidency changed since the early days of the Republic?
I’ve come to think that of all the institutions we have, particularly given the repeated deadlock in Congress, the presidency has become the most important of all. Partly, we live in a dangerous world. For better, for worse, we need to have a vigorous national security state and that creates all kinds of difficulties. Rule-making has to be done somehow when Congress itself is paralyzed.
I think one of my big concerns is that when I look at the last three presidencies, it seems to me that there has been a concerted effort to delegitimate individual presidents, but its net effect may also be to delegitimate the very nature of executive power.
Going back to 2000, I have written a lot arguing for a national popular election. My initial rationale, originally my strongest rationale, was that one person, one vote is the fundamental norm of modern democratic political justice, and votes should not have different weight depending on the accident of where they happen to be cast.
“The founders of the Republic created a representative political system based on give-and-take and compromise. Given the current levels of gridlock and polarization, are we in danger of losing that capacity?”
—History Professor Jack Rakove
The founders of the Republic created a representative political system based on give-and-take and compromise. Given the current levels of gridlock and polarization, are we in danger of losing that capacity?
When I think about how the framers of the Constitution, or let’s say the founders more generally, thought about politics, the person I think about most often and with the greatest depth is James Madison. One of the things that really fascinated Madison was the whole topic of deliberation.
By deliberation, he really meant calm, patient, increasingly informed discussion where representatives would go to Congress. They would be locally accountable to their districts, so locally responsible for expressing their interests and their concerns. To use a term very popular in the 18th century, they should have deep sympathy with their constituents.
When Madison tried to imagine what the new Congress would look like, he rightfully anticipated that for a long time, it would consist mostly of amateur lawmakers. Most congressmen would serve only a term or two, and in fact that was historically true pretty much for the first century of the Republic.
The model of deliberation is you would show up. You would be in effect educated on the job. Education would involve deliberation. It would involve a process of you providing information and acquiring information from others. Now, for lots of reasons, we’ve abandoned that system.
In a world that faces daunting challenges – many of which are global in scope and impact – are America’s political institutions still up to the task?
The world in 2016 faces a number of challenges. Two of the most obvious ones are the consequences of globalization and its impact on the economy, and the consequences of terrorism. These, of course, are deeply disturbing phenomena, but if you’re a historian like me and you take the long view, these are really not such new things.
The world economy’s been globalizing since at least the 16th century, arguably earlier. Terrorism in different forms goes back to the religious wars of the 16th century. Not a wholly new phenomenon either, as are other religious conflicts at other points in time.
The one issue that I think is most outstanding and would be the most severe test of the capacity of institutions throughout the world is obviously climate change, which carries with it the specter of massive damage to our very habitat, the kind we can’t really imagine. Our ability to think rationally about the sources and the consequences of climate change is severely diminished and impacted by highly partisan politics, which in the 21st century doesn’t even take the data supporting climate change all that seriously.
Many segments of the electorate find it hard to accept the reality of the data, even though 98 percent of the scientific community seems to agree that the general model holds up.
To me, it leads to a really interesting question and it goes back to the preamble of the Constitution: “To secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.” I’ve often asked the question: What does it mean to talk about posterity?
If you talk about posterity in terms of climate change, you are talking about posterity in a truly cosmic, massive-scale sense of the term.