The Decline and Fall of the American Republic

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Overview

Bruce Ackerman shows how the institutional dynamics of the last half-century have transformed the American presidency into a potential platform for political extremism and lawlessness. Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the War on Terror are only symptoms of deeper pathologies. ­Ackerman points to a series of developments that have previously been treated independently of one another—from the rise of presidential primaries, to the role of pollsters and media gurus, to the centralization of power in White House czars, to the politicization of the military, to the manipulation of constitutional doctrine to justify presidential power-grabs. He shows how these different transformations can interact to generate profound constitutional crises in the twenty-first century—and then proposes a series of reforms that will minimize, if not eliminate, the risks going forward.

The book aims to begin a new constitutional debate. Americans should not suppose that Barack Obama’s centrism and constitutionalism will typify the presidencies of the twenty-first century. We should seize the present opportunity to confront deeper institutional pathologies before it is too late.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ackerman (The Failure of the Founding Fathers) makes an academic yet mostly accessible argument against the "triumphalist" (a "Johnny-come-lately to the legal scene") attitude of American constitutionalists on both sides of the political divide and suggests that this signals a dangerous complacency. Ackerman, a triumphalist himself, elaborates on themes developed by Arthur Schlesinger in The Imperial Presidency to warn, "The triumphs of the presidency in the past have prepared the way for a grim future," citing "the decisive triumph of the presidential primacy and caucus system (1972)" for opening the door "for extremists candidates to win major party nominations." Ackerman also tackles more commonly accepted criticisms, like the use of sound bites and polls, and the presidential reliance on signing statements to nullify laws, and sees the de facto inclusion of the military as part of civilian government, as well as the enhanced role of White House staffers (including the National Security Advisor, a position not ratified by the Senate) as symptoms of a government in desperate need of reform. As part of Harvard's "Tanner Lectures on Human Values," Ackerman's effort will appeal most to serious scholars of constitutional law. (Oct.)
The Rumpus

Ackerman makes a powerful case that the Executive's reach has expanded by leaps and bounds over the last half century, due to factors internal and external to the presidency itself...The questions he raises regarding the threat of the American Executive to the republic are daunting. This fascinating book does an admirable job of laying them out.
— Bezalel Stern

Balkinization blog

In his extraordinary new book, The Decline and Fall of the American Republic, Bruce Ackerman begins, quite literally, by condemning the "triumphalism" that surrounds most discussion of the Constitution...I certainly agree that he has identified a genuine problem with our polity, and I admire him, not for the first time, in having the willingness to speak in tones that many of his more moderate and "reasonable" colleagues in the legal academy will undoubtedly dismiss as overwrought.
— Sandy Levinson

Boston Globe

The nature of the power embodied in the U.S. presidency has evolved over the years, and if Bruce Ackerman's The Decline and Fall of the American Republic is right, the results of that evolution are unfortunate. The contemporary view that tends to see the president as the center of our country's government and the locus of its political power is something new and quite different from what was intended by the founders. Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale who has written more than a dozen books on American politics, makes clear that his fear is not that the nation is in imminent danger of ceasing to exist as a country. What seems more likely is that its distinctively republican form of government could be lost, crushed under the weight of an unbalanced political structure. In particular, Ackerman worries that the office of the presidency will continue to grow in political influence in the coming years, opening possibilities for abuse of power if not outright despotism.
— Troy Jollimore

American Prospect

The persuasiveness of [Ackerman's] individual points varies, but the overall view is rather compelling.
— Matthew Yglesias

Geoffrey R. Stone
In The Decline and Fall of the American Republic, Bruce Ackerman, one of our nation's most thoughtful and most influential constitutional theorists, sounds the alarm about the dangers posed by our ever-expanding executive authority. Those who care about the future of our nation should pay careful heed to Ackerman's warning, as well as to his prescriptions for avoiding a constitutional disaster.
Joyce Appleby
Alarmist or alarming, The Decline and Fall of the American Republic, is a serious attention-getter. Bruce Ackerman has adroitly woven recent changes in our institutional arrangements into a provocative argument that the expanding powers of the 21st century presidency have put our constitutional order at risk.
Benjamin R. Barber
At once audacious and plain spoken, Ackerman offers a fierce critique of democracy's most dangerous adversary: the abuse of democratic power by democratically elected chief executives."
The Rumpus - Bezalel Stern
Ackerman makes a powerful case that the Executive's reach has expanded by leaps and bounds over the last half century, due to factors internal and external to the presidency itself...The questions he raises regarding the threat of the American Executive to the republic are daunting. This fascinating book does an admirable job of laying them out.
Balkinization blog - Stephen Gardbaum
Bruce Ackerman's The Decline and Fall of the American Republic is a profoundly important constitutional wake-up call. It presents a powerful, multi-layered, yet highly accessible argument that the body politic faces the serious and unprecedented structural risk of presidential extremism and lawlessness--and a series of new checks and balances that offer the rare combination of pragmatism and originality. One hopes that the book will receive its just desserts by provoking a vigorous new constitutional debate not only among fellow academics but also, more importantly, among We the People.
Balkinization blog - Stephen Griffin
Ackerman's central contention is right on target--our constitutional system is in grave difficulty. He points to the right evidence, a recurrent series of crises linked to the exercise of presidential power: Watergate, Iran-contra, and the illegalities of the Bush II administration. These crises must be taken seriously as objects of analysis as they are central to a proper understanding of where we stand. Ackerman is also right to claim that the constitutional triumphalism so pervasive in our political culture has gone stale.
Balkinization blog - Sandy Levinson
In his extraordinary new book, The Decline and Fall of the American Republic, Bruce Ackerman begins, quite literally, by condemning the "triumphalism" that surrounds most discussion of the Constitution...I certainly agree that he has identified a genuine problem with our polity, and I admire him, not for the first time, in having the willingness to speak in tones that many of his more moderate and "reasonable" colleagues in the legal academy will undoubtedly dismiss as overwrought.
Boston Globe - Troy Jollimore
The nature of the power embodied in the U.S. presidency has evolved over the years, and if Bruce Ackerman's The Decline and Fall of the American Republic is right, the results of that evolution are unfortunate. The contemporary view that tends to see the president as the center of our country's government and the locus of its political power is something new and quite different from what was intended by the founders. Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale who has written more than a dozen books on American politics, makes clear that his fear is not that the nation is in imminent danger of ceasing to exist as a country. What seems more likely is that its distinctively republican form of government could be lost, crushed under the weight of an unbalanced political structure. In particular, Ackerman worries that the office of the presidency will continue to grow in political influence in the coming years, opening possibilities for abuse of power if not outright despotism.
American Prospect - Matthew Yglesias
The persuasiveness of [Ackerman's] individual points varies, but the overall view is rather compelling.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674057036
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2010
  • Series: Tanner Lectures on Human Values Series , #12
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 280
  • Sales rank: 1,405,158
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University.
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