A Friendly Amendment to Susan McWilliams Barndt’s Essay

Susan McWilliams Barndt’s essay on preventing tyranny by making public office less appealing is characteristically incisive. I share her desire to make the presidency in particular less attractive. Susan, to be clear, wants to make public office unappealing for people who seek it for private gain—not for people who seek it for honorable purposes. I offer the following as a friendly amendment to see whether Susan would accept it.

I don’t think the presidency is appealing primarily for venal reasons. Trump is an outlier in that regard. I do think it is appealing for other constitutionally unhealthy motives, including the excess power and regal celebrity that have accreted to the office. The founders’ safeguards against tyranny, which consist primary of the separation of powers and the checks and balances that maintain it, can work, but they have to be used. 

That requires less powerful presidents and more ambitious members of Congress. The key to the first, which depends on a motive for the second, is depriving the presidency of power. That alone would drain the presidency of some of its appeal and, even more important, diminish public obsession with the office. Venal corruption, such as through campaign contributions (an argument for another day), is inevitable any time so much power changes hands at one time. 

But a less powerful presidency requires more ambitious members of Congress, and per Federalist 51, the ambition they need is the desire to exercise power and therefore protect their turf. The “great desideratum,” to borrow Madison’s phrase, is not only making Congress more appealing but also making it more appealing for the right reasons. Those reasons include an honorable (and moderated) ambition for power. Yuval Levin’s diagnosis—that politicians are too often motivated to use institutions as platforms for performance rather than power—seems compelling. That, I think, is where institutional reforms need to start.

I agree with Susan that the constitutional system is designed to inhibit “overweening ambition.” But it also depends on healthy ambition. We should crack down on venal corruption (though I do not regard the presence of money, as in campaign contributions, as ipso facto evidence of it). But we also need institutional solutions that encourage ambition in its constitutionally necessary forms.

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