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The United States is in danger. The nation has entered a treacherous era that threatens our system of government, and unless we come to grips with the challenge before us—and do something about it—we risk losing the democracy that has long defined us.
The most visible embodiment of this challenge is Donald Trump. His victory in the 2016 presidential election was a watershed development in U.S. history, vesting the presidency in a man whose authoritarian leanings, disdain for the rule of law, and utter disregard for the truth have put him on a collision course with the nation’s long-standing democratic traditions.
Why has the government consistently failed to meet the challenges of modernity?
But today’s crisis did not come about because of Trump himself. He is the proximate cause of serious trouble for U.S. democracy, but he is better thought of as a symptom of deeper, more basic causes that propagate the dangers we currently face. These deeper causes are the real subject of this essay. They are what the nation needs to understand if it is to keep its democracy intact and forge a more secure future.
The place to begin is by asking: how did Trump, who has so many obvious flaws as a leader and as a human being, manage to get elected president of the United States?
The answer comes in two parts. The first is that, since the mid-1970s, the world has been swept by powerful forces of globalization, technological innovation, and immigration that have brought disruptive changes to the economically advanced nations of the West: where labor costs and taxes are very high, businesses have strong incentives to outsource production, and the insulated lives of locals are increasingly vulnerable to a competitive, low-cost, more ethnically and religiously diverse world.
Shocking though it may seem, the most promising path to effective government lies with reforms that would enhance presidential power.
In the United States in particular, these developments have been accompanied by a sharp decline in manufacturing jobs, a hollowing out of the middle class, a stagnation in family income, a steep rise in inequality, and a surge in the number of undocumented immigrants—all of which, taken together, have generated pain, frustration, and a sense of hopelessness, anger, and cultural displacement within segments of the population.
Whites, particularly less educated whites, have come to feel marginalized in a disruptive world of high-tech wealth. As the 2016 presidential election approached, they were angry with a status quo that seemed stacked against them and unresponsive to their concerns. They were angry with the “establishment”—from the elites in both parties to the mainstream media to the financial wizards on Wall Street to the judges and bureaucrats so beyond the people’s reach. And they wanted big change. Trump connected with their concerns and became the agent of their collective discontent.
Trump won over these “forgotten” Americans by campaigning as a classic populist. He portrayed the nation as a dark and fearful place from which only he, as the autocratic strongman, could offer deliverance. He played upon racial and ethnic prejudices. He spread conspiracy theories. He demonized immigrants and Muslims—and the nation’s black sitting president. He blamed other countries for the United States’s economic woes. He blasted every aspect of the political and economic establishment as rigged and illegitimate. He praised Vladimir Putin and other autocrats. He belittled the media in an expressed effort to discredit all sources of information he didn’t like. He demanded that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, be thrown in jail, and made it a rallying cry among his supporters: “Lock her up, lock her up.”
Trump’s rise to the presidency was fueled by ineffective government.
Among U.S. presidents, Trump’s style of leadership is unique. But in larger context, there is nothing unique about it; populists have come to power in many countries, and what we are witnessing with Trump is a populist style of leadership that is very familiar, well-tested and has been an integral part of politics for millennia. Trump follows in the familiar footsteps of Argentina’s Juan Perón, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, and many other populist demagogues. There is a common political logic to how all these populists behave, the nature of their public appeals, and the bizarre, offensive, and threatening things that they say. Trump is simply doing what the others have done. He is following a formula that works.
Trump’s political ascendance is partly explained by the socioeconomic forces generated in the wake of globalization, technological change, and immigration. But the explanation has a second part that is just as important: as these socioeconomic forces relentlessly took their toll—over a period of decades—on the lives of struggling Americans, the government didn’t have an effective response. It had plenty of time and ample resources. It also had genuine policy options. But rather than deal proactively with the increasingly severe problems of modern society—as Progressive reformers did in addressing the massive demands of early industrialization, and as Franklin Roosevelt did in launching the New Deal to address the Great Depression—the government of our own time hasn’t taken up the challenge. And the public’s desperation and anger have grown.
Why did the government fail to meet the challenges of modernity? It isn’t just that policy makers didn’t grasp what was going on, or that they didn’t dedicate themselves to finding the right policies, or that they were too polarized to agree on a course of action. There is truth to each of these notions, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is that U.S. government is profoundly ineffective across virtually all realms of public policy—and these problems of governance are built into the very structure of the system itself. They trace back to the Constitution and are a product of the framers’ original design.
On reflection, this shouldn’t be too surprising. The framers crafted a government some 230 years ago for a simple, isolated agrarian society of just four million people, nearly all of them farmers. Government wasn’t expected to do much, and the framers purposely designed one that couldn’t do much, dividing authority across the branches and creating veto points that made coherent policy action exceedingly difficult.
If the populist threat is to be defused, the focus of reform needs to be on the other key condition that has fueled its rise: ineffective government.
Compounding matters, they put Congress at the center of the constitutional order, and they designed it in such a way that legislators would be electorally tied to their local jurisdictions and the special interests therein. As a result, Congress—the institution that makes our laws—is simply not wired to solve national problems in the national interest. It is wired to allow hundreds of parochial legislators to promote their own political welfare through special-interest politics.
This approach may have been fine for the late 1700s. But it is poorly suited to a complex modern society filled with vexing problems. On all manner of issues, our government is immobilized by its myriad veto points and the jockeying of special interests. Often, it is ineffective because it can’t act at all. But even when government has been able to act, congressional lawmaking has typically led to policy concoctions that are cobbled together on political grounds to attract disparate legislators with disparate interests into coalitions—not to provide coherent, intellectually well-justified solutions to the nation’s problems.
Congressional policies literally aren’t designed to provide effective solutions. Look no further than U.S. tax policy, which is not a policy at all, but a grotesque conglomeration of special-interest favors and loopholes. Or to government actions on health care, which are perennially hobbled by insurance companies, hospitals, drug firms, and other vested interests to yield policies that are a complicated, fragmented mess. Americans want a government that works. But what they have is an antiquated government that is ill-equipped to meet the challenges of modern times.
Trump’s rise to the presidency was fueled by this ineffectiveness and all the anger, anxiety, distrust, and resentment left in its wake. Again, there is nothing unique about what happened here. Populist leaders don’t just feed on popular discontent. They feed on ineffective government—and their great appeal is that they claim to replace it with a government that is effective: through their own autocratic power.
This generic formula was precisely what Trump followed in getting himself elected president. He was an anti-system candidate responding—however deceptively—to deeply felt social grievances. His appeals played upon the kinds of enmity, bigotry, and alienation that flourish amidst political dysfunction. If the United States had had a government effective at addressing the nation’s problems, he would never have come close to winning the presidential election—and this country wouldn’t be standing at a historic crossroad facing an uncertain future.
The brute fact is that the socioeconomic forces now pounding the modern era are not going to evaporate, and they cannot be stopped. Despite the rhetoric of Trump and other reality-denying dreamers on the ideological Left and Right, there is nothing that can be done—by, say, erecting tariffs, threatening our trade partners, or withdrawing from international alliances—that will bring a halt to globalization or technological innovation, and thereby re-create the calmer, more sequestered conditions that prevailed many decades ago. The past is gone.
U.S. government is profoundly ineffective across virtually all realms of public policy—and these problems are a product of the framers’ original design.
If the populist threat is to be defused, then, the focus of reform needs to be on the other key condition that has fueled its rise: ineffective government. The U.S. constitutional system can be fortified, but the challenge of making that happen is the challenge of building a government that is effective. Going forward, institutional reform is the key challenge of our times, and the nation’s success in meeting it will determine our future as a democratic nation.
For the president’s most ardent supporters, the immediate future will be littered with disappointments. Trump rose to power because U.S. government is profoundly ineffective—but once elected, he inherited that very same ineffective government and all its built-in problems. Even with Republicans in unified control, Congress has continued to be hobbled by immobilism, fragmentation, and in-fighting, its usual perversities only magnified by the Trump administration’s amateurism and incompetence. Trump had promised to make his base whole again, but he can’t possibly give them what they want. He leads a government that cannot be led.
Trump’s inability to come through for his electoral supporters, however, does not mean that they will abandon him. Nor does it mean that they will reject populism as an empty cause. Far from it. Trump and his supporters will blame his failures on the system, the establishment, the media, obstructive Democrats, and sell-out Republicans; and they will frame their struggle as a long-term battle that can only be won over a period of many years. The danger, then, is that the failures of Trumpism will only fan the flames of populism, convince more Americans that the system is illegitimate, and propel the rise of future populists.
How might our existing system be modified to yield a significantly more effective government? The nation’s harrowing experience with Trump would seem to point to an obvious answer: what the United States needs, above all else, is greater protection against presidential power. Trump is a danger to democracy, and our constitutional system cries out for more formal constraints on the presidency to make sure that he and others like him cannot push the country down a slippery slope to autocracy.
There is an element of validity to this prescription. But as a general rule it is off-base and counterproductive, and it would ultimately lead to a government that is less effective than the one we have now. The fact is—shocking though it may seem, given Trump’s menacing presence—the most promising path to effective government lies with reforms that would enhance presidential power, at least in select ways.
The effectiveness of government can be improved by moving Congress from the center of the lawmaking process to the periphery, where its disabling pathologies can do less damage.
How can this be? As we’ve discussed, the fundamental causes of ineffective government are rooted in the Constitution, particularly in its design of Congress, which is wired to be a bastion of special-interest politics and is incapable of crafting well-designed policies that solve national problems. As a decision-maker, Congress is inexcusably bad and utterly incapable of taking effective action on behalf of the nation. That being so, the effectiveness of government can be improved by moving Congress from the center of the lawmaking process to the periphery, where its disabling pathologies can do less damage—and by extending a greater role to presidents in the actual crafting of legislation.
Why take greater advantage of the presidency? Because its wiring is very different from Congress’s and actually propels its occupants to champion effective government. Presidents are institutionally predisposed to think in national terms about national problems, and their overriding concern for their historical legacies drives them to seek durable policy solutions to pressing national problems.
Needless to say, they are not always right or successful. And many of us, on the losing end of elections, may disagree with a given president’s agenda. But regardless of their differing approaches, presidents routinely aspire to be the nation’s problem-solvers-in-chief. That being so, if legislative power can be shifted partly in their direction—and away from Congress—the prospects for effective government stand to be much improved.
How might executive leadership be responsibly leveraged in the service of effective government? The way forward, in our view, is to expand the president’s agenda-setting authority by requiring that Congress vote up or down on presidentially crafted bills. Such a reform would streamline and enliven the legislative process, reduce its perversities, and enhance the prospects for coherent, intellectually well-justified policies—which presidents, far more than Congress, have incentives to craft—all the while ensuring that formal protections remain in place to keep presidents (and others) within proper democratic bounds. They would still be constrained by multiple checks and balances already built into the political system, including the courts and the Bill of Rights.
Our nation has a long history of reforms aimed at improving government effectiveness through enhanced presidential leadership. At the center of the Progressive Movement stood a clear conviction about the value of the presidency in promoting rational, efficient, and productive policy reforms. In the decades that followed, politicians paid due tribute to the benefits of what John Dearborn calls, “presidential representation.” Debates over the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act, the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934, the Executive Reorganization Act of 1939, and the Employment Act of 1946 all featured sustained commendations of the president’s national perspective, commitment to long-term solutions, and attention to rational procedures—qualities, all, that run in short supply within Congress.
The fear of losing, and indeed the fear of Trump, easily leads to short-sighted thinking.
We want to be clear, however, that these are relative assessments of presidents and Congress. Presidents are not angels. And not every expansion of presidential power promotes a more effective government. Indeed, as the Trump experience vividly illustrates, some of the president’s current powers may even inhibit it, and they need to be constrained by targeted reforms.
Among other things: (1) The president’s ability to control the nation’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies needs to be curtailed through limitations on the appointment power and the adoption of strict rules for behavior. These agencies are super-powerful, and they can too easily be put to nefarious use. They need to be mainly in professional hands, guided by professional norms. (2) The president’s pardon power, granted by the Constitution, is entirely unjustified—and dangerous if criminal activity infects the president’s inner circles—and should be eliminated. It has nothing to do with effective government. (3) The president needs to be required, by law, to be totally transparent about his business and economic interests, and to take appropriate actions—through divestment, for example—to ensure that no conflicts of interest exist, or even appear to exist, that might compromise his decisions in office.
The argument we’re making in this essay, then, hardly amounts to a blanket endorsement of all presidential power. Responsible limits can and must be embraced. In this era of surging populism, the challenge is to leverage those features of the presidency that stand to improve the capacity of government to solve the nation’s pressing problems—and to limit, and even eliminate, those features of the presidency that do not. The name of the game is to selectively harness and use the presidency to social advantage, not to simply boost its power.
Still, some people may object to any expansion of executive authority for the simple reason that a president they oppose would be more likely to pass objectionable policies into law. It is true that presidents would be better able to get more of what they want. And the specter of Trump looms large here, because so many people are ardently opposed to him and his policy agenda. Even so, everyone needs to recognize that this is a democracy, and elections are supposed to matter—whether the losers happen to like the outcomes or not. Losing is an integral part of democracy, and it needs to be accepted as a normal part of a healthy system.
An effective government won’t always do what we want. But it will facilitate problem solving and thus protect our democracy.
A focus on specific policies, however, is the wrong way to approach the problem of effective government. Much more fundamental than the policies that get passed at any given time are the institutions that govern how those policies get made—and that is what we are really talking about here: the design of institutions that would make U.S. government more effective. The point to be underlined is that the fear of losing, and indeed the fear of Trump, easily leads to short-sighted thinking. It is crucial not to be short-sighted in the design of institutions.
Specifically, it is a big mistake for the nation, and for U.S. democracy, to think that government should be tied up in protective knots—for the ages, regardless of who holds elective office—to ensure that no president or government could ever do anything that we don’t like. The price of such tightly protective arrangements, after all, is that action of any kind becomes very difficult, and government will rarely be able to do anything positive either. Above all, it will lack the capacity to do what government should be doing and must be doing—by responding effectively to the demands and needs of U.S. society—if it is going to defuse the populist threat to our democracy and prevent the rise of future demagogues.
An effective government won’t always do what we want. But it will facilitate problem solving. And in so doing, it will protect our democracy. A presidency that is selectively more powerful is the key to making that happen.
Terry M. Moe is the William Bennett Munro Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
William Howell is the Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics at the University of Chicago and the author, most recently, of The Wartime President: Executive Influence and the Nationalizing Politics of Threat (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
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