PARTICIPATING AUTHOR: BRYAN GARSTEN
Bryan Garsten is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University, and author of Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment (Harvard University Press 2007). It has won the 2005 Thomas J. Wilson Prize of Harvard University Press and the 2006 First Book Award from the Foundations of Political Theory Section of the American Political Science Association.
When President Andrew Johnson was brought before the Senate on impeachment charges in 1868, one of the official accusations against him was that he did “openly and publicly and before divers assemblages of citizens of the United States…make and declare, with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangue…amid the cries, jeers and laughter of the multitudes then assembled in hearing…” Johnson had gone on tour around the country for more than two weeks, giving speeches to crowd after crowd in an effort to gain popular support for his Reconstruction policies, and--astonishing as it may seem--this is part of what he was impeached for.
True, Johnson also had a reputation for being drunk during public appearances (including his own inauguration), and he sometimes used language inappropriate for a president when talking about his foes in Congress. But these improprieties were not his fundamental crime. The basic impropriety motivating this particular article of impeachment was that he stooped to address crowds directly in the first place, that he had reduced himself to the demeaning position of trying to whip up enthusiasm for his preferred policies by the ethically dubious practice of holding popular rallies. In Johnson’s time, making a speech to a crowd on policy questions was thought to be contrary to the dignity proper to the office of the presidency. Sitting presidents avoided doing this, and so did candidates for the presidency.
But who could imagine a presidential campaign today without public rallies and popular rhetoric? And who would think of impeaching a president for giving impassioned speeches and trying to whip up support for his programs? Public norms and expectations about this have changed, as Jeffrey Tulis’s essential book The Rhetorical Presidency reveals.
The political culture of the early republic was shaped by men who were deeply suspicious of popular rhetoric. The framers of the Constitution were steeped in the early modern philosophical tradition that I explore in my book Saving Persuasion, and they designed many of the structures of our government with an eye to minimizing the influence that charismatic, powerful speakers could have on policy. Even the basic plan to create a large country filled with different states was defended as a means of resisting demagogues: “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States,” wrote James Madison, “but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.”
Today we have a different name for such a “general conflagration”--we call it a “movement” and we generally welcome it. The prospect of many young people being drawn into politics fills most of us with hope rather than dread, and we treat the arrival of a powerful and eloquent speaker as an occasion for celebration. Is this simply because we are more democratic than the founders, less prone to worry about the dangers of over-enthusiastic mobs?
In part, yes; but there is something more: We have also become accustomed to the idea of a very powerful presidency.
The reason that presidents address us directly is that it permits them to claim a mandate that they can use against the other branches of government. Andrew Johnson’s speaking tour, Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit,” Woodrow Wilson’s campaign to ratify the League of Nations, the civil rights leaders’ speeches of the 1960s, and Ronald Reagan’s work as a “great communicator” were all efforts to circumvent legislative opposition to their policies by appealing over the heads of the legislators directly to “the people.” In allowing themselves to be addressed in this way, the people willingly participated in this strategy of presidential self-aggrandizement.
The alliance between the people and the presidency has often had the salutary effect of pushing much-needed change through a system too prone to gridlock, but it has also brought us back to a mode of politics that would have been familiar, in its broad outlines at least, to early modern subjects of the British crown, or even to those living under princes in Renaissance Italy. When Machiavelli recommended that princes put their faith in the people, he did so partly because history had already shown that alliances between princes or kings and the people were a good way for monarchs to consolidate their authority and outmaneuver their rivals in the nobility.
And it must be admitted that there is something monarchical about the popular style of presidential politics today. The tours around the country that candidates and presidents take to shore up support resemble in some ways the King’s Progresses in early modern Britain; the intrigue that is stirred by first families today resembles nothing more than court gossip; and the propensity to put family members of past presidents into the presidency has certainly not diminished in the time since popular campaigning became acceptable. Democratic peoples seem to like subjecting themselves to monarchical figures and families.
More substantively, many of us fall into the habit of discussing presidential elections as if our choice of candidate were a choice of what policies will be enacted--as if whoever is elected will merely wave his or her hand and give the orders--as if the rest of our government were just a mere formality. Our language too often suggests that we regard the chief executive not as just one of the three branches of government, but as that government’s head. If campaign rhetoric today draws us closer to the candidates in one sense, it also signals our acceptance of their seeming sovereignty. Is there something submissive in our willingness to occupy the role of an audience?
The speeches and rallies that we take for granted in today’s presidential campaigns help to cement the powerful alliance between the people and the president. No one can ignore the benefit that this alliance has brought to the executive branch, which today enjoys more power and latitude than ever before. The question we should keep our eye on is whether the alliance continues to benefit the people.