Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Twentieth-Century Remedies

Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Twentieth-Century Remedies

Article excerpt

American history shows us that when governmental processes appear to break down, old institutions can be redeployed to operate in new ways, and new institutions can be built around them to reorient the work of the whole. In the early years of the twentieth century, reformers overcame widespread fears of governmental dysfunction by redeploying the presidency; their solutions to the newly emergent problems of governing under the Constitution worked around new conceptions of presidential leadership. This Article examines this faith in the leadership cure, with particular attention to the different roles it assigned to the presidency to revitalize American government. Drawing these ideas forward, I point out that these roles now appear to be at cross purposes, and I question whether the twentieth-century solution to problems of governing is sufficient for negotiating the problems now in view.


Political dysfunction is not a new concern. One hundred years ago, anxieties remarkably similar to those that have instigated this Symposium drove a radical reassessment of American government.1 The progressive reformers in the vanguard of that reassessment were sharply critical of the course of American political development, certain that something fundamental had gone wrong.2 They expressed deep ambivalence about the Constitution as an instrument of modern government and broad agreement on the importance of breaking what they perceived to be its stranglehold on political possibilities. As they saw it, basic constitutional commitments needed to be relaxed: provisions to limit government; to protect vested rights; to check and balance governmental action; to separate powers - all seemed to be dangerously out of step with the demands of the day.3

The progressives responded to the crisis of governability in their day by redeploying the institutions embedded in the constitutional framework, especially the presidency.4 In one way or another, their new solutions to the problems of governing under the Constitution all revolved around presidential leadership. Investing in the presidency had an obvious appeal, for it held out an endogenous remedy to seemingly systemic maladies. By the same token, improvising a solution out of such unlikely material entailed a good bit of jerry rigging. As in other aspects of the progressive program, pragmatism was the keynote of the turn to the presidency. The radical thrust of the progressives' diagnosis may not have aligned perfectly with the adaptive character of their prescription, but they were content to test the possibilities for leadership, and nothing in their approach to it foreclosed experimentation on other fronts later down the line.

In recent years, much has been made of the misalignment of institutional forms and reform aspirations that followed in the wake of the progressive turn. Scholars have argued with increasing concern about whether investment in the presidency was the best way forward.5 No one denies, however, that the redeployment of this office responded to new demands for action in a nation radically changed by the traumas of industrialization, or that the creation of the "modern presidency" thoroughly rearticulated governmental operations.6 In grappling with evidence of governmental dysfunction today, we have good reason to take a hard look at the limitations of the progressive solutions, but that should not stop us from thinking for ourselves about the potential for some creative redeployment of the resources at hand. The progressives showed us that even jerrybuilt solutions may work well enough for a time.

The question of the moment is not whether the twentieth-century investment in the presidency was wise, much less whether it worked. The question is whether we should expect any remedy improvised pragmatically in midstream to suffice indefinitely. Faith in presidential leadership is now part of the civil religion, and its ritual invocation every four years suggests a level of complacency foreign to the disposition that originally agitated on its behalf. …

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