Just one housekeeping note: I recently signed up as an affiliate with Bookshop — a site that dedicates a portion of its book sales to independent bookstores. It’s a neat alternative to Amazon, and I hope to curate lists of recommended books and such on it eventually. Links to books in the newsletter will now be affiliate links that’ll earn a little bit for the newsletter and give a little bit to Bookshop’s fund for bookstores.
Let’s hop to it.
As you may or may not know, I’m currently working on a book about “American democracy” — or, more precisely, about why I don’t think such a thing really exists. There’s a lot of reading material to sift through, and I’ll share much of it with you in the months ahead. But one of the few fortunate things about our current political situation is that the best writers around are all asking similar questions about where we’re going and poring over similar texts. So today, as I think I’ll often have occasion to do, I thought I’d briefly share a couple of recent pieces from writers I really respect on some of the themes I intend to explore in the book.
First, The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie ran a column the other day about the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution and what that process should mean to us today— a subject I’ve touched upon before:
Despite the obvious problems at hand, many Americans were skeptical of making any major changes to the structure of the national government. You can see some of the substance of that opposition in the anti-Federalist critique of the Constitution.
“Both reason and experience prove that so extensive a territory as that of the United States, including such a variety of climates, productions, interests, and so great difference of manners, habits and customs, cannot be governed in freedom — until formed in states, sovereign, sub modo, and confederated for the common good,” the Virginia anti-Federalist Richard Henry Lee wrote in a 1788 letter to Samuel Adams, expressing a core sentiment behind the articles.
Racked by overlapping social, political and economic crises, paralyzed by stalemate and unable to reform itself, the United States under the articles was a failure. And yet, the Confederation Congress would endure for another year after 1787 as Americans debated a new constitution. The important point, however, is what it took to get to a place where those elites could agree that something must be done: internal rebellion, state failure and foreign conflict. To agree to something new, the country had to be pushed to a breaking point.
Bouie goes on to argue that it’ll take similar pressures — beyond the mere force of argument — to motivate substantial changes to the American constitutional order now. And I agree — the best writing on reforming our political system can do is prime certain factions for action when an actual moment of material opportunity arises. And we’re going to face a set of major crises in the decades ahead — more upheaval from the right, the knock-on effects of climate change, etc — that really might trigger productive and progressive responses from the public.
As an aside, one of the books Bouie references here is Michael Klarman’s The Framers’ Coup. And I highly recommend it myself — there’s no better way to get your head straight about the origins of the Constitution and the motivations and immediate concerns of the men who drafted and first defended it.
Next, The Week’s Ryan Cooper recently wrote a piece about the specific defects of presidential systems — both our own and the many abroad that have failed even more catastrophically than ours is failing now. According to the political scientist Juan Linz, these systems tend to be hobbled by three flaws — inevitable conflicts between presidents and their legislatures, fixed and inflexible terms in office, and the high-stakes of elections for the position:
Linz argued that a tradition of bipartisan compromise; diffuse and politically overlapping parties that served more as patronage machines than disciplined, ideological blocs; and a large majority of moderate voters tended to defuse the conflicts inherent in a presidential system.
All those immunities are lost today, and America has every one of the morbid symptoms of a presidential system in crisis. The Obama administration saw unprecedented conflict between the president and Congress, with House Republicans threatening default on the national debt and Senate Republicans denying Obama an appointment to the Supreme Court, another first. Trump was the first president ever to be impeached twice. Biden now enjoys a Democratic Congress, but if Republicans win the midterm elections, even more bitter conflict is absolutely guaranteed (witness Rep. Lauren Boebert [R-Colo.] and Matt Gaetz [R-Fl.] "joking" about blowing up the metal detectors in Congress recently).
The rigidity of the presidency has also proved to be a wretched hindrance of late. Last year, we had possibly the biggest numskull in the entire country overseeing the public health bureaucracy during the worst pandemic in a century — and no way to get rid of him. Trump proved impeachment of a deeply corrupt or even openly seditious president is rendered meaningless by modern partisan discipline. Our one means of removing bad presidents is a dead letter.
Finally, the extreme power and prestige of the presidency — ironically produced by the very separation of powers scheme that was supposed to restrain concentrations of power — has motivated ever more extreme politics. The president is not just "the head of state and government," to quote a pseudonymous writer, but also increasingly seen as "the embodiment of the polity itself."
The presidency isn’t going away any time soon, of course, and realistically, we should expect the position to continue exacerbating our political tensions and dysfunctions as long as the Republican Party’s disposition remains the same. Still, thinking through the deficiencies of the system is instructive — again, we might choose to believe, optimistically, that we’ll have the opportunity to construct a new political order in the century or so ahead.
Reasons to Be Cheerful
Big Bird, who is evidently six, finally got the vax this weekend. Can birds get COVID? Better safe than sorry, I suppose.