[T]hey came in sight of thirty [or] forty windmills…and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, “…[L]ook there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay…for this is righteous warfare, and it is God's good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth."
"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.
In Bruce Ackerman’s The Decline and Fall of the American Republic, the author argues that the American presidency has become too powerful; that it represents an existential threat to our constitutional republic; that its current status is ripe for abuse by an extremist president; that current practices encourage the rise of an extremist president, and that significant substantive changes (which he, of course, considers “reforms”) to our political system are necessary in order to alleviate the threats presented. Ackerman professes fear that an extremist will rise and assume the office of the Presidency. He contends that either or both parties may be captured by extremists or that some economic or military disaster may occur “and the extremist reaps the whirlwind” (23). Once such an extremist takes office, Ackerman fears that he or she will manipulate public opinion and abuse the power of the office in a way that nullifies the true nature of our republican form of government. I found Mr. Ackerman’s argument, in which he identifies numerous interesting and significant issues that confront the modern American republic, to contain undeniably legitimate strengths–as logical points on which to build an argument. I concluded, however, his conclusion that extreme fundamental changes in our system of government are necessary or proper renders his argument a failure. While one might agree with his contention that “the pathologies of the existing system are too dangerous to ignore,” (3); one need not agree that the presidency has become “a vehicle for demagogic populism and lawlessness in the century ahead” (4); and one need not agree that such extreme measures as those Ackerman proposes are necessary or even beneficial to our country.
Ackerman’s argument is predicated by an interesting and undeniably accurate portrayal of the growth of power and influence of the office of the American presidency since the time of the Founders. He states that “the Founding design has been outstripped by contemporary realities” (15). Such contemporary realities include changes in the nomination process for presidential candidates: the rise of the modern party system, the loss of communication control from the party leaders to the media, and the movement towards state primaries (16-18). Ackerman argues that these developments “shifted the balance in the direction of extremism” (18). The growth of the Internet, and its ability to facilitate fund raising, weaken traditional elites, and mobilize voters is credited with “breaking the grip of the old political...