Even before he laid a wreath on Andrew Jackson’s tomb at the Hermitage, Old Hickory’s sprawling plantation estate in Tennessee, it was clear that Donald Trump was a president in what Walter Russell Mead calls the “Jacksonian tradition.” More a style than an ideology, the Jacksonian approach champions the masses against the classes, the republican virtue of workers and soldiers against those whom the right-wing populist George Wallace called “the pointyheads.” Elites—economic, cultural or intellectual—endanger the republic. “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” Trump said in his inaugural address. “Everyone is listening to you now.”
While his style may be Jacksonian, Trump shares an expansive conception of executive authority with his recent predecessors. Without congressional approval, Barack Obama waged a war against the Qadhafi regime in Libya that left the country in ruins. His predecessor George W. Bush relied on claims of inherent presidential authority to authorize both torture of prisoners in the so-called war on terror and sweeping surveillance of U.S. citizens and legal residents. Obama signed 18 sweeping executive orders in his first 10 days in office, only to be surpassed by Trump, who signed 20 executive actions—some of them undoing the executive orders of his predecessor, including policies on climate change.
Progressives and conservatives alike tend to raise few objections to assertions and exercises of sweeping executive power—as long as it is wielded by their president.
In many ways, the opposite of Trump’s Jacksonian style is the strain of American politics identified with President Woodrow Wilson. In the Wilsonian vision, high ideals articulated by visionary politicians should define politics, while the details of policy are best left to expert administrators. Wilson, who began his career as a professor of political science, wrote that public administration could be informed by objective science, “first, what government can properly and successfully do, and second, how it can do these proper things with the utmost efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or energy.” According to Professor Wilson, “Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices.”
Contemporary American politics pits Jacksonian populism on the right against Wilsonian technocracy on the left. The divide defines our political moment. Breitbart, the right-wing tabloid, chronicles outrage after outrage committed by out-of-touch elites in Washington and Hollywood and on campuses—trespasses against against the hardworking Americans Trump, like Nixon, calls “the silent majority.” Meanwhile, the center-left website Vox purports to “explain the news,” embodying the ethic of Wilsonian technocracy—as if, as Wilson himself wrote in 1897, “administrative questions are not political questions.” The impulsive, demagogic Donald Trump is as apt a symbol for one as the cool, cerebral Barack Obama—like Wilson, a professor who became president—is for the other.
Though they may disagree on everything else, Jacksonian populists and Wilsonian technocrats agree on one thing—the primacy of the presidency over the legislature.
And that should be a cause for concern. More than any particular president, the imperial presidency itself is a threat to democracy in America.
Both Jacksonians and Wilsonians distrust and despise legislatures, for reasons based in their own views of politics. Populists believe that government should represent the will of the people, as determined by majority opinion. Technocrats believe that government should promote the public interest, as ascertained by educated and altruistic experts, overriding the will of the ill-informed majority if necessary.
For populists, the will of the people is better embodied in a single tribune-like elected executive than in a legislature captured by special interests. Wilsonians agree with Jacksonians about the danger of special-interest corruption of Congress and the state legislatures. But even worse than corruption, in the eyes of technocrats, is the ignorance of many in the legislative branch—often, they are as ill-informed about science and intricacies of public policy as their constituents.
There’s also a straightforward ideological appeal: A presidential administration can be limited to one-half or less of the political spectrum; the entire rainbow must be represented in Congress, winners and losers together. For Jacksonians and Wilsonians alike, compromise is bad. Jacksonian populists see no reason why the single will of a united majority should be thwarted by means of compromises with illegitimate special interests. For their part, Wilsonian technocrats are appalled by the idea of diluting sound public policy by means of concessions to the irrational and ignorant. For Wilsonians, there can be only one correct course of action on which all rational people will agree; anyone who disagrees is the equivalent of a fundamentalist believer in the flat-earth theory.
Put another way, Jacksonians dislike legislatures because they do not represent the people well enough, while Wilsonians dislike legislatures because they represent the people too well. They agree on the need for a strong, if not all-powerful, presidency, but do so for incompatible reasons.
Both theories of democracy are wrong. The purpose of representative democracy is not to express the will of a unified people—there is no such thing. Nor is it to represent a public interest or national interest that can be identified by intellectuals by means of cogitation—there is no such thing as the public interest or national interest in that sense, either.
The purpose of representative democracy is to avert civil war.
A deeply divided population sends representatives to the legislature, which in its own makeup reflects those divisions, if not exactly. The ambassadors of different factions in the population then negotiate among themselves and try to settle on policies that each faction, for its own reasons, can support, in order to keep the peace. Lyndon Johnson, the greatest legislator-president in American history, found his credo in the prophet Isaiah: “Come now, let us reason together.”
“Interests” are demonized by Jacksonians and Wilsonians alike. Deals are sell-outs; compromise is surrender. But Jacksonian populists are wrong to treat politics as war, and Wilsonian technocrats are wrong to treat politics as a kind of engineering guided by science. Interest groups are not a threat to democracy; democracy exists to promote consensus among groups with different interests.
This understanding of democracy was emphasized, in different ways, by American leaders in the 1830s who responded with alarm to Andrew Jackson’s populist approach to the presidency (Wilsonianism was yet unheard of, as its namesake wasn’t born until 1856).
One such response to Jacksonian populism was offered by South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, who put forth the theory of “the concurrent majority,” a system giving numerical minorities a veto over actions taken by the majority, forcing compromise. (The numerical minority that Calhoun sought to defend was the caste of Southern slaveowners to which he belonged.) This theory can be seen as a precursor to modern theories of “consociational democracy” based on formal minority representation. In Switzerland and Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, decentralization and formal power-sharing agreements preserve ethnic peace. The chair of the plural presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina rotates among a Bosniak, a Croat and a Serb. In his posthumous Disquisition on Government, Calhoun had similarly called for a dual executive in the United States—a northern president and a southern president, each with the power of the veto.
A different response than Calhoun’s to the Jackson presidency was provided by the opposition Whig Party. Leading Whigs like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster defended the prerogatives of Congress against claims that the president alone represented the people. Whigs opposed the Jacksonian vision of an undifferentiated mass of ordinary Americans united against a corrupt elite, offering instead their own vision of a complex nation in which farmers and industrialists, bankers and laborers, each made important and interdependent contributions to economic growth—a “harmony of interests,” wrote Whig economist Henry Carey.
In the middle of the 20th century, the expansion of presidential prerogatives—under mostly liberal Democratic presidents during the Depression, World War II and the Cold War—inspired a revival of ideas like these on the political right. In his 1959 book, Congress and the American Tradition, James Burnham, one of the founding editors of National Review, argued that Congress had ceded too much authority in both domestic and foreign policy to an unchecked presidency. In a 1960 essay, “The Two Majorities,” another conservative intellectual, Willmoore Kendall, identified the “unexplained mystery of our politics: the fact that one and the same electorate maintains in Washington, year after year, a president devoted to high principle and enlightenment and a Congress that gives short shrift to both.” When the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 began several decades of Republican presidential hegemony, the American right warmed to executive power, leaving liberal Democrats like Arthur M. Schlesinger to sound the alarm, as he did in The Imperial Presidency, released in 1974 at the height of the Watergate scandal.
Today, neither party cares to defend the centrality of Congress in the American constitutional order. The motto of strategists of both parties might as well be Aut Caesar, aut nihil (“Either emperor, or nothing”). When a president of the other party is in power, the opposition party in Congress tries to thwart any action until its own president can be elected in the future. This destructive strategy, pursued by congressional Republicans under Obama, is now being urged on congressional Democrats under Trump. Jacksonians and Wilsonians may disagree on public policy, but agree in preferring to impose it by executive fiat rather than by congressional statute.
Meanwhile, the limited magistrate imagined in our 18th-century Constitution has evolved into something like an elective god-king. Recent presidents have made ever more grandiloquent promises in their inaugural addresses. In his second inaugural address, George W. Bush called for “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” In his own first inaugural, Obama topped Bush by claiming that, thanks to his enlightened environmental policies, Americans in the future “will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Ironically, Trump was more modest than Obama and Bush when he merely promised in his first inaugural: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Three presidents into the 21st century, Americans have a choice: We can acquiesce in the withering away of Congress and the rise of a plebiscitary president, a freely elected four-year dictator who makes law by executive order while canceling the executive orders of past presidents. Or—as controversial as this would be—we can rebuild the authority and capacity as well as the legitimacy of Congress, and the state legislatures, too.
Legislative democracy can be a messy and frustrating thing. But rule by the whims of an elected executive is not democracy at all.