Trust & The Presidency: Part 7 of 7

Welcome to Part Seven of Trust and the Presidency!

In Part One, you learned that the framers of our Constitution had a lot of trust issues. Among these were whether the presidency could be trusted to serve the common good rather than a favored faction and whether the president could be trusted with enough power to fulfill all constitutional obligations without tyrannizing the people.  You learned the tried to overcome their trust issues by creating a presidency with constrained powers and autonomy that would be accountable to Congress. They also attempted to insulate the presidency from the politics of faction through the invention of the Electoral College.

In Part Two, you learned that, contrary to the framer’s intentions, the presidency was politicized when the state legislatures required their electors in the Electoral College to represent the popular vote in their states. In so doing, the presidency gained a power base and accountability to the voters in addition to accountability to Congress. This shift in power and accountability can sometimes motivate populist or partisan presidents to try to weaken constitutional constraints that get in the way of their ambition. In Parts Three, Four, and Five, you learned how the Presidential powers did, in fact, expand while Part Six showed how accountability was diluted in some ways. 

In this final part of the series, you will learn that there are two categories of actions citizens can take to make it more likely that the Executive Branch will serve us well.  One is all about keeping the republic. The other is all about getting the results you want. 

PART SEVEN: CITIZENS HAVE POWER TOO

A. Introduction

1.          The presidency today is far more powerful, more autonomous, and less accountable to Congress than the framers intended – even if some of these changes were willingly made by Congress in our name.  At issue is whether the Executive Branch respects our interests and delivers on them fairly in an accountable manner, regardless of who is president. Are there actions citizens can take to make it more likely that the Executive Branch will serve us well?  Yes, there are.  There are two main categories. One is all about keeping the republic. The other is all about getting the results you want.  We review each below.

B. Keeping the Republic

2.          Can we keep our republic?  In a famous anecdote, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin just after the Constitution had been agreed by the framers, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.[1]  What had Franklin worried?  During the constitutional convention, Franklin was quoted as saying, “The Executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a Monarchy…”  It may be too early to know whether Franklin’s worry proves correct, but we do know that the two significant trust issues held by the framers are still with us today, despite many changes in the nature of the presidency. The first worry about presidents serving the common good versus a favored faction is now the worry about partisanship and polarization.  The second worry about too little or too much presidential power is now the debate between those who do and do not support the unitary executive theory (see Part Three).

Application: Do you think Benjamin Franklin was right to worry that the presidency will eventually become a monarchy? Why or why not?

3.          The worries about polarization and power can interact with each other.  A powerful and partisan presidency capable of making policies favoring one faction at the expense of another can increase the political stakes of who wins presidential elections. When that happens, voters and members of Congress will become more polarized and less trusting of each other and of government.  The reverse is also possible: polarized voters can create a polarized Congress in which the political parties resist working together except for the most pressing problems. If both houses of Congress are controlled by the president’s party in such an environment, then they may be tempted to push and empower the president to pursue a highly partisan agenda rather than the common good.  Alternatively, if Congress is divided or in opposition to the president’s party or agenda, then a frustrated president will want to claim enough power to bypass Congress. Either way, polarization creates an incentive to abuse power, whether for partisanship or to sidestep Congress.  Can the combination of power, partisanship, and polarization be broken?

4.          There are two main ways we can break the combination of power, partisanship, and polarization. They need to be used together.  One way is for us to work with our elected legislators to improve the institutions and laws in ways that rebalance power, autonomy, and accountability.  Doing so will require careful thought, coalition building, and tenacity.  The second way is to work at reducing polarization.  Building a coalition large enough to overcome any opposition to reform will be almost impossible, while polarized citizens see each other as the enemy.  In fact, the very foundation of democracy is a change in mindset from destructive warfare to constructive competition.  Democracy requires the use of ballots rather than bullets to ballots, votes rather than violence.  

5.          Reducing polarization might sound daunting, but it can be done. For example, in Turkey, an opposition party waged its mayoral campaign for the country’s largest city without any negative attack ads.[2] Instead, their singular focus was on policy.  This strategy forced the main party to move away from its usual polarizing tactics and begin debating policies. The voters awarded the mayoral position to the opposition, having found their policies more attractive.    

C. Making the Presidency Work for Us

6.          Citizens have power too.  A review of the material in this series on Trust and the Presidency suggests there are more than a few actions citizens can take, on their own and in collaboration with others, to get positive results out of the Executive Branch for themselves.  You can:

  • AllSides.com and MediaBiasFactCheck.com can help you find unbiased sources.  Keep in mind also that trade journals are every useful in alerting people early to proposed changes in laws and regulations affecting specific industries, perhaps one that is important to you.
  • Senators and Representatives can conduct hearings on specific policy areas, both can make or amend laws relevant to the presidency, and Representatives have the most power when considering whether or not to launch an impeachment hearing.
  •   You now know that Presidents can sometimes be compelled by the courts – the Supreme Court ordered President Nixon to give up his audio recordings, and President Clinton had to testify in a sexual harassment case in District Court.

Congratulations!  You have completed the series on Trust and the Presidency.

You learned there are two ways citizens can make it more likely that the Executive Branch will serve us well. One is all about keeping the republic. The other is all about getting the results you want. 

The main threat to the republic comes from a combination of power, partisan presidents, and polarization.  Citizens can break that combination in two ways, and they need to happen together.  One way is for us to work with our elected legislators to improve the institutions and laws in ways that rebalance power, autonomy, and accountability.  Doing so will require careful thought, coalition building, and tenacity.  The second way is to work at reducing polarization.  Focusing on policy options instead of personalities and identities will force people to move away from emotional polarizing tactics and join the policy debate. 

There are more than a few actions citizens can take, on their own and in collaboration with others, to get positive results out of the Executive Branch.  These include educating yourself on how the presidency and the rest of our government works, and encouraging others to do the same; monitoring the news and supporting professional, nonpartisan reporting by paying for subscriptions to newspapers and magazines; participating in elections (you should always vote, but you might also be able to volunteer to help administer elections or even run for office); comment on proposed regulations or join or support a special interest group that will represent you in commenting; letting your senators and representatives in Washington, D.C. know your views; and letting your local party leaders know your concerns, needs, and desires.  You could even bring a court case if you can show the President or an Executive Branch official violated your rights.

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© Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy
July 2020

This material is to be used only for civic education.
It may be copied and distributed only for non-profit, non-partisan, educational purposes and only with proper credit to the
Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.
Written by Douglas Addison for the
Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

Principle Reviewers:
Jay Barth,
M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of Politics, Emeritus; Hendrix College

Benjamin Ginsberg,
David Bernstein Professor of Political Science,
Johns Hopkins University

Internal Reviewers:
Mark Nelson, Director
Eric Palladini, Director
Grayson Lewis, Advisory Board
Mark Molli, Advisory Board

CFFAD is a non-profit organization providing non-partisan civic education.

Cover photo: whitehouse.gov

End Notes

[1] From The American Historical Review, vol. 11, 1906, and the anecdote on p. 618 as recorded in https://www.bartleby.com/73/1593.html

[2] See Wuthrich and Ingleby (2020). The Pushback Against Populism: Running on “Radical Love” in Turkey, The Journal of Democracy.