Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Theories about Theory: Theory-Based Claims about Presidential Performance from the Case of James Madison

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Theories about Theory: Theory-Based Claims about Presidential Performance from the Case of James Madison

Article excerpt

Of the forty-two individuals who have been president, at least one, James Madison, is widely recognized as a political theorist. (1) Another, Woodrow Wilson, received a PhD at a time when political philosophy was a standard part of the political science curriculum and as a professor gave lectures on the subject (Thorsen 1988, 30, 145; e.g., Papers of Woodrow Wilson 1970, 9: 326-27, 351-52, 356-57, 362-63, 372-76, 381-83). Still others, like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Bill Clinton, read political theory and felt they profited from their acquaintance with it. Jefferson's penchant for Lockean ideals and the moral sense philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment are well established (Becker 1958; Koch 1964; Wills 1978). Adams's preferences ran more toward classical thought. He considered himself to be the latest important proponent in the venerable tradition that touted the benefits of the mixed republic, running from Aristotle and Polybius through Niccolo Machiavelli and James Harrington (Peek 1954, Introduction). Bill Clinton employed the concept of the "social contract" repeatedly in his speeches and invited political theorists such as Benjamin Barber to the White House to advise him (Barber 2001; Durant 2006). Even presidents not known for their interest in philosophy or political theory have had more than a passing acquaintance with it. At his Dickinson College commencement ceremony in 1809, for instance, James Buchanan delivered the student address and he chose as his subject "The Utility of Philosophy" (Klein 1962, 12).

Given the frequency with which Americans have elected presidents who are acquainted with political theory, we should probably know more about whether such knowledge tends to help a chief executive do his or her job, all other things being equal. Should presidents read political theory? Should they attempt to apply it to the "real world" of politics? Or should we elect those who offer an approach to presidential leadership closer to the kind of decision making described in Malcolm Gladwell's recent book, Blink (2005)? Gladwell hypothesizes that snap judgments are often superior to elaborately reasoned ones, because the human brain is predisposed by evolution to make good immediate decisions. Although many of the decisions a president must make may not be precisely like the "thin slicing" of immediate judgments that Gladwell writes of, might a similar phenomenon translate to politics? In other words, should the president rely more on his or her "gut" to make decisions, as President George W. Bush has famously described his decision-making process, rather than on a more theoretically informed view of politics that we typically think of as involving more in-depth thinking?

To explore this conundrum, I will turn to an in-depth examination of how various authors have treated the theoretical proclivities of James Madison. Given President Bush's decision-making habits and highly polarizing nature, many probably already feel that a chief executive should be careful and deliberate when making political decisions (Suskind 2004; Jacobson 2006). Madison did seem to engage in the kind of deep thinking that Bush has claimed to eschew. Yet endorsing a political theorist-president would probably make many uneasy as well. Are their qualms well founded? Those who write about Madison's presidency often comment on the effect that theorizing had upon his performance in office. Although these observations are frequently offered in passing, they provide us with a starting point to discuss how a theoretical approach to politics affects presidential performance.

In this article, I argue that two basic kinds of judgment have been proffered about the results of Madison's penchant for political theory. One focuses on the content of specific theoretical views that he internalized or developed; I will call these content-based arguments. The other type of argument is more general in nature. It suggests that there are certain actions and behaviors which typically result from the act of theorizing or implementing theoretically derived ideas; I call these arguments nature of theory itself arguments. …

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