A review of American Government: Origins, Institutions, and Public Policy, by James W. Ceaser, Laurence J. O'Toole, Joseph M Bessette, and Glen Thurow
This new text has been eagerly awaited by generations of American government instructors forced to teach from texts that are not only insipid but fundamentally misleading, texts that are at best silent on the highest understanding of American politics. But a worthwhile American government text could be written by authors with the proper education in politics; i.e., an education in political philosophy. Hence this text held forth great promise, which is kept, for example, in the chapters on public opinion and civil liberties. Appendices contain the Declaration and The Federalist, numbers 10 and 51, as well as the Constitution. It is clear from the outset that this is the best text available.
But for all this, one's reservations are considerable and fundamental. The authors have compromised far too much with the established political "science" profession. Whether they did so out of pressure from the editors at McGraw-Hill, or from the necessity that the text be adopted, or from their own shortcomings is beside the point. Because the book's argument proceeds from the assumption that America was meant to be and is, in essence, a modern liberal regime, its understanding of the American regime-our way of life-is a false and even dangerous one. This is a most serious charge, which will have to be developed in both principle and particular.
The text's great flaw is its denigration of politics-its refusal to treat politics as the governing element in the American regime-and its subsequent elevating of "society" (the social or subpolitical) above the political. Accompanying the demotion of politics is an overlooking of the spiritedness essential to healthy political life. This failure to appreciate the effect of politics in forming our way of life, our regime, has critical practical consequences, as we shall see.
The problem is indicated in its first sentence: "This textbook combines the traditional and modern approaches to the study of American politics" (p. 5). By modern the authors mean not only the inclusion of voting studies and other "empirical" data. Consider the opening chapters on "The Fundamental Principles": American government is said to be "modern," a member of the species, democratic, belonging to the genus, liberal. It is characteristic of "modern government [that it] should ensure a sphere of free action of the individual." Hence, it does not "recognize responsibilities of saving souls and managing the economy" (p. 8). The student is advised to "go beyond the matters directly addressed in the legal document by which we are formally governed, the Constitution" (p. 6) and look to the larger whole, society. In fact, the student is charged with the responsibility to continuously reshape his liberal government-just as, the text alleges, the Founders and succeeding generations have already done. He must decide "what are the ends of society as a whole" and what the role of government will be in furthering those ends (p. 5). In the process, the authors appear to accept the Progressive critique of American institutions presented in the first third of this century.
In the early chapters one detects a subterranean theme; namely, that the regime lacks sufficient principles of its own. The authors' treatment of the societal goals of liberty and equality reveals the extent to which they regard these ends as sub-political, as apart from overarching principles.
The authors take as a prime example of liberty the Bill of Rights prohibitions against governments. Examples of liberty include speech uttered for any purpose that moves the speaker, a competing but equally whimsical demand for privacy, and women's campaigns for privileges that they deem "equal." To judge from the examples given, liberty is more than anything else a matter of spontaneous, inconsequential activity. Its exercise is described in language which makes it difficult to see that the acting individual has ties to anything beyond himself, least of all to the Declaration of Independence's "laws of Nature and of Nature's God." The acting individual is autonomous, achieving his best expression in the harmless and delightful world of society, where virtues and politics are irrelevant because pleasures are painless and innocent. The greatest threat to such an individual, other than government's restraint, is crude competitive materialism.
Equality is defined in two quite different senses. In one sense, it is the complement of liberty, an equal opportunity to enjoy individual autonomy uninhibited by political or social prejudice. In a more important sense, however, equality is economic. It is related to a kind of liberty, entrepreneurial liberty, which is apparently less desirable because it promotes materialism. Economic equality is a byproduct of the effort by modern nations to provide economic security. Security is the primary goal, but its achievement is defined by egalitarian standards. The drive for economic security and equality accompanied industrialization and other historic developments to which European countries are said to have responded more adequately than America. But economic equality is also said to have been an unattended goal at the Founding. It is the old ax-grinding, the double charge that, on the one hand, "The existence of poor people and the problems implied by their existence . . . were not in fact much on the minds of the Founders" (p. 540); and that on the other hand, the American pursuit of economic security "has developed more slowly and less comprehensively than it has in other western industrial states" (p. 569).
Playing at Politics
In the end, the authors' brave claim to rise in defense of political principles reverberates with the hollow ring of modern liberalism's campaign for autonomous individualism and cradle-to-grave security. Or, as Leo Strauss put it in responding to Carl Schmitt, their campaign is to free the playful man and eliminate the dangerous. In this vision, man is most at home in an a-political world of international homogeneous culture.
The authors assert that equality is the "most ambiguous of America's fundamental ends" (p. 12). But assuredly, if equality is ambiguous, so then is natural right. Equality has always been the standard for measuring each man's natural right to pursue safety and comfort according to his own lights. It has also been the standard for men engaging in acts of "constitutive legislation." By such an act, repeated continuously, men consent to govern and be governed in a particular mode, and in the light of the political element and to the institutional framework which sustains it. It is remarkable that such scholars as Harry Jaffa, Paul Eidelberg, and Edward S. Corwin, who have developed such themes, are given so little attention in this text.
The authors' misunderstanding of fundamental political principles occurs in a chapter which nonetheless gives an excellent account of the major political events of American history. The chapter's conclusion reveals its problem: The several political events reported are regarded as instances of the development of constitutional principles. According to the authors, constitutional principles were in flux when the suffrage was extended, first to blacks and then to women, and when the social welfare state was adopted. Each of these changes has "added a distinctly new element to the original political system" (p. 144). This might come as something of a surprise to those who inaugurated the changes. Neither the various extensions of the franchise nor the welfare state was initially proposed as a change in the regime. Rather, their advocates claimed they were fulfillments of the regime's ideals. The authors are misleading, then, when the conclude this chapter with the observation: "We can see that each generation faces anew the challenge of constitution making-shaping, accepting, or overthrowing the understandings and choices it has inherited" (p. 86).
Right of Revolution
The student might never guess from all this that when Jefferson advocated a periodic exercise of the right of revolution, he understood it to be a well-defined kind of activity, a review of the legitimate powers of government. Moreover, he might never guess that Jefferson meant the right of revolution to be exercised under the guidance of a principle which he shared with his friend, Madison, who said in The Federalist, Number 47, that "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."
This text recommends quite the opposite of what the Founders would have wished. It recommends taking a revolutionary posture toward constitutionalism itself in an effort to better approach the goals of society, or subpolitical interest groups. This kind of revolutionizing of the constitutional heritage is indeed anti-political. It lacks any forceful reference to man's position in nature, to his natural rights, or to his pursuit of nobility. For these it substitutes willful assertions of the "right of revolution." Nowhere are the arbitrary implications of this willfullness better illustrated than in the indiscriminate lumping of black rights with "women's rights." The authors leave in the dark the origins of contemporary feminism and the radical criticism of constitutional government which the movement has always implied.
With these flaws in its theoretical foundations, it is predictable that the text's second main topic is "intermediary institutions." It is only after these five chapters on public opinion, political parties, campaigning, voting behavior, and interest groups that the authors take up institutions of government-President, Congress, and Court. What impression is the beginning student to gain from this ordering of subject matter? Must it not be that the institutional arrangements are not decisively associated with the Founders' principles? Had the authors taken the Founders more seriously, they would have shown how the institutions developed from those principles. Instead, the institutions become somewhat awkward instruments for "intermediary institutions" such as pressure groups to achieve their purposes.
Part II begins appropriately with a discussion of what is held to be the source of political activity, public opinion. "Basic value systems" are said to constitute a national "consensus" (p. 106). These "value systems" are decisive in the sense that "opinion . . . sets the broad boundaries of acceptable public discourse" (p. 129). A "value system" is not, however, a product of constitutional arrangements. On the contrary, the Constitution was the means by which "the founders, although recognizing the legitimacy of public opinion as it would be expressed (indirectly) through elections, sought to place impediments on it as a direct force in the governing process . . ." (pp. 131-32). The authors fail to consider the possibility that voters may want the leadership of just and public-spirited men, and want to work within a system which has been structured for regularly honoring its "natural aristocracy." Thus the text's authors fail to connect the character of officeholders with the quality of the legislation they will produce
The text's point of view might be caricatured as follows: Opinion as Dr. Gallup structures it is real opinion, but opinion as the Constitution structures it is not. The authors do recognize, as did the Founders, that direct democracy will not work. But they offer no adequate alternative, no method for distinguishing the "basic value system" from other opinions, except to point out that "deep-seated attitudes" resist "quick or easy change." Thus the course is set for subsequent chapters which define society and its intermediate structures, parties and interest groups. These are portrayed as superstructures over the various idiosyncratic groupings to which polling is open: religious, economic, ethnic, ideological, etc.
As to political parties, the student learns that they are continuous transmitters of certain opinions, or "ideologies" generated by the culture's autonomous systems of thought; he does not learn that they are instrumentalities of the constitutional executive. Parties lend form to public opinion during critical periods. In between, the parties slacken into "nonpartisan" coalition builders, aids to promoting stability in government. Without very good reason for doing so, the text concludes by implying some dismay at "a steady decline or weakening of most structural and organizational aspects of the parties" (p. 176).
Low View of Institutions
The text's virtual reduction of the major institutions of government to instruments makes the separation of powers little more than an ingenious device for frustrating tyranny. It is not perceived as a means of ennobling government. As is characteristic of defenders of the subpolitical realm of society, the authors favor not executive but some form of legislative governing. The text simply ignores the distinctive qualities contributed to the Founders' government by their proud inventions, the Presidency and the Supreme Court.
The Part II chapter on Congress seems to be strongly influenced by the corresponding chapter in Martin Diamond's earlier text, The Democratic Republic. But it fails to continue his practice of showing how demands for structural and procedural changes in Congress which often pretend to be neutral really grow out of political partisanship. The authors insert instead, apparently unconsciously, their own partisanship. To cite one instance, they declare that the committee system adversely affects decision-making by contributing a "lack of coherence in national policy" (p. 303). On the other hand, "The greatest contribution that party leadership can make in Congress is to offset some of the defects of the decentralized decision-making of the committee system." Diamond would certainly have been quick to comment that such analysis grows out of a bias favoring "Camelot," or parliamentary democracy, over America's separated powers.
The same kind of sensitivity to partisanship that is missing in the chapters on Congress might well have enlivened the text's discussion of the other two branches as well. Unfortunately, such discussion is missing. Instead of a fascinating description of the struggle to dominate or transform constitutional officers, the authors seem merely to be going through the weary routine of incorporating every prospective on the separated powers that has ever been invented, from Berman's step-by-step description of how a bill gets through Congress to Barber's psychoanalysis of Presidents. The bored student would never know that, according to Federalist Number 78, the executive dispenses the community's honors. He would never know that the Presidency was designed, as Eidelberg says, to embody the Aristotelian virtue of magnanimity. Nor would he know from the chapter on the judiciary that it was designed, as Corwin tells us, to enforce a reasoned "higher law" on reluctant legislatures.
In addition to creating a bias in favor of legislative governing, the defense of society spawns a complementary science of society. This science is developed more fully in a Part IV chapter on the science of the "Public Policy Process" than in introductory chapters. In the course of developing their science of society, the authors are more forthright than they previously were in laying waste to any foundation for thinking that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are sources of American politics. The Constitution is represented as providing merely a neutral framework for policy: "The founders were more interested in setting up a framework that would prevent tyranny than they were in translating popular opinion into policy" (p. 521). Public policy is said to originate with autonomous sources in society, and it does not necessarily even reach fruition in acts of constitutionally established offices. According to the authors, we now have apluralist system of policy origination, developed to energize the originally neutral machine.
When they treat of public policy, the authors report the successes of the muckraker reformers not as hard-won and still controversial victories, but as givens. Thus it is easy for them to view the formulation of contemporary policy problems as biased in favor of New Freedom and New Deal legislation. Anyone with reservations about the wisdom of this legislation and other associated legislation will be angered by some of the partisanship which is implied by the repeated reduction of controversy to fact, especially in the chapter on "The Social Welfare State."
A peculiarly a-political and technical quality is evident in the text's policy problem discussions. There are said to be three such technical policy problems: properly managing the social welfare state, ministering to new minorities, and subordinating international ideological tensions to keep the peace. The discussions are cast in the cool language of an analysis sterilized of all political passion. Of course, the student learns of controversies on the responsibilities of the federal government. But they are in-house disputes about the extent of the government's activity, not about its aims.
Just as the authors are freed of the necessity to engage in spirited defense of their view of what is right, so in their view is their government. It is a nonpartisan government, charged to act positively, especially in managing the economy, andnegatively to prevent local governments from inhibiting freedom, especially in matters of civil liberties. In sum, the authors are committed to a paternalist government which will ensure material security and moral diversity. It is a state in which peaceful creativity will flourish, its playful activity unimpeded by harsh necessities of nature or of the human spirit.
It turns out, then, that the final word as to who governs is not with the "majoritarianism" to which explicit allegiance was initially given, but with those who teach the majorities about society's proper aims. Because these authors see no adequate basis for public-spiritedness, because they equate public-spiritedness with an altogether insufficient human capacity for self-sacrifice and altruism, they are unable to be really sanguine about voters' majorities. They are blind to the Founders' view that men may serve disinterested goals out of spiritedness. And they are blind to the fact that it is from the Founders' view of nature, and not from their own perspective of something resembling the homogeneous world-state, that rights of individuals arise and majority rule becomes a necessary inference. Thus, the authors find themselves at a loss to criticize the Supreme Court's anti-majoritarian activities favoring minority rights, the contemporary proxy for individual rights. "One hesitates," they say, "to call [this decidedly and peculiarly non-majoritarian process] elitist in any traditional sense, for while the decisions are made by a small number of persons, they have for some time now usually been made to aid a minority" (p. 597, emphasis added).
The pseudo-scientific premises of this text are what finally account for its approving a legislative log-rolling kind of activity which indiscriminately accommodates all public opinion, even when the various views are incompatible, or even mutually exclusive. Political opinions are not, however, simply tolerated. They are consistently treated with contempt. They are subtly transformed into what the authors consider a more acceptable form. Voter concern about unjust distribution and redistribution of wealth is transformed into a concern about whether individual security requires too much regulation to be compatible with pluralist society's concept of liberty. Similarly, voter concern about religious truths as they bear on personal and family integrity is transformed into a concern about how such "values" can be peacefully accommodated to their competitors. In short, this text is preoccupied with scientific public policy so much as to be simply inaccurate in stating what political issues are deciding important American elections.
The authors-and those who think like them-need to take presidential politics seriously, including presidential leadership of parties and public opinion. There was, after all, a reason for George Washington's casting his only vote at the Constitutional Convention: to cement a majority in favor of the unitary executive. Repeatedly since World War II, presidential elections have provided an occasion for voter protests against their own Congress and the party dominating it. Those elections revealed a voter rebellion against the decay of moral standards and against the humiliation of America internationally. While genuine presidential politics has been historically episodic, it has in recent times been persistent, and this in spite of scholarly and journalistic efforts to ignore it.
It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the Founders were specific in assigning the military powers to the President. As they make clear in The Federalist, the connection between the power of the sword and the honor of the community is palpable to Madison's "gallant" Americans. It is fitting that an American Government text which persistently substitutes the activities of society for separation of powers politics should conclude with a chapter which seriously underestimates the totalitarian threat to political life. This presentation ignominiously treats the difference between freedom and totalitarianism as "an ideological split that exacerbates world tensions" (p. 634). And at a time when the free world is severely threatened by its inferiority of weapons, both conventional and nuclear, this text frets endlessly over whether sound domestic politics is compatible with effective international action. For the two to be compatible, these authors believe, it is necessary to overcome the Hamiltonian disposition to believe that "self-interest was the motive force behind the foreign policy of all nations" (p. 603). It is necessary, they say, to employ instead, the Jeffersonian view that standards of individual behavior can become the standards of nations. The inevitable consequence of following such a recommendation in a world of totalitarian aggression would be that citizens would receive a forceful reminder of the wisdom of the Founders, for they would quickly experience for themselves that very state of nature which the Founders posited in order to better assess man's natural equality. They would find themselves in such a state of nature because their government had, in the absence of real political life, opted to abandon its first object, the securing of public safety.