Academic journal article Constitutional Commentary

Constitutional Maturity, or Reading Weber in the Age of Trump

Academic journal article Constitutional Commentary

Constitutional Maturity, or Reading Weber in the Age of Trump

Article excerpt

We might be in trouble. That, at least, would seem to be the premise of this symposium: after all, symposia on the current state of constitutional law tend to proliferate when there is anxiety about the current state of constitutional law. And this symposium is hardly alone in expressing such anxiety--conferences, books, and articles fretting about the American constitutional order in "the age of Trump" abound. (1)

One common technique for getting a handle on anxiety is to try to take a step back, to think in broader terms about the situation. And turning or returning to some of the classic works of the past, works inspired by a similar set of questions but written in a different time or place, can often assist us in thinking through what might be new about the present--and, at least as importantly, what might be familiar about it.

In this Essay, I propose to look back about a century, and across the Atlantic, to the great German social theorist Max Weber. In Weber's work, we find important insights into both the institutional structures of the modern state and the character traits that constitute a successful politician. For Weber, maturity, understood in terms of balance, or the productive negotiation of the tensions between conflicting principles, characterizes both the successful state and the successful politician. In this moment in American history in which concerns abound about both the resilience of our institutional arrangements and the character of our president, it is especially illuminating, I think, to turn to Weber's reflections on both types of maturity.


"America cannot continue to be ruled by amateurs."

- Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation (1919) (2)

When he delivered his Politics as a Vocation lecture a century ago, Weber insisted that the United States had just begun to enter its political maturity. The domination of American politics by the Jacksonian "spoils system"--the organization of party machinery around the dispensing of patronage--was characteristic of its political youth. (3) Indeed, the spoils system was only possible because of American immaturity: "For it is self-evident that the existence of three to four hundred thousand party supporters who had nothing to show by way of their qualifications for office but the fact that they had served their party well--such a state of affairs could not survive without major abuses: corruption and the squandering of resources on a vast scale such as could only be borne by a nation with as yet unlimited economic prospects." (4)

But then we grew up and got rationalized. "Civil Service Reform" (5)--a phrase he left in English--"is now creating lifelong pensionable posts in constantly growing numbers. In consequence, posts are now being filled by university-educated officials who are just as incorruptible and competent as in Germany." (6)

The Prussian's comparison to Germany was a double-edged sword. He was in fact deeply concerned about the modern German state. In Weber's view, Otto von Bismarck's creation of a powerful centralized bureaucracy and the first modern welfare state had come at the expense of political leadership. Once Bismarck himself had left the stage, there was no one with the combination of talent and training to take his place: "Since the resignation of Prince Bismarck Germany has been governed by 'bureaucrats,' a result of his elimination of all political talent. Germany continued to maintain a military and civilian bureaucracy superior to all others in the world in terms of integrity, education, conscientiousness and intelligence.... But what about the direction of German... policy during recent decades?" (7) The ship of state, though powerfully rowed, was rudderless in Weber's estimation, because Germans had gotten out of the habit of thinking about politics, instead abdicating the governance of public life to the bureaucracy alone. And without a vibrant public politics up and running, there was no way to develop a new generation of political talent, such that the rule of the bureaucracy risked becoming a self-perpetuating cycle. …

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