Reader Aidan wanst to know why Professor Jim Burns ’39 “hates the Constitution?”

In his excellent column, Mr. Friedman calls for nation-building here in the United States to deal with our intractable problems at home and abroad.

For decades, I and other political scientists have called for rebuilding our horse-and-buggy 18th-century constitutional system, with its divided powers and inevitable gridlock. We have warned that the system survives mainly by putting more power into the hands of the president — a dangerous fall-back when we are governed by an inept president.

Proposals for reform range from institutional changes such as abolition of the Electoral College to fundamental transformations such as democratizing our political parties and synchronizing terms of office for House, Senate and president.

I hope that Mr. Friedman will spell out his own strategies for comprehensive nation-building in future columns.

Aidan, of course, jests. Burns (my professor 20 years ago) does not hate the Constitution. And he has, indeed, been arguing for decades for a more parliamentary style of government. But, still, there is some revisionism here. Burns never worried about “putting more power into the hands of the president” back in the day when our presidents were more to his likely. Consider Burns’ The Deadlock of Democracy: Four-Party Politics in America. From a Kirkus review:

How is it that our President, who has the vast and overwhelming support of the nation, cannot enact into legislation his foreign and domestic programs? The answers to these and other related questions are the subject of this book. Professor Burns concludes that we have been captured by the Madisonian model of government, a system of checks and balances that requires the consensus of many groups and leaders before a nation can act, while we have rejected (or neglected) the competing system of Jefferson, emphasizing strong leadership, majority rule, party responsibility, and competitive elections. The author’s thesis is that the pattern of national politics is essentially a four-party pattern each of the two parties divided into congressional and presidential structures–and that the chief executive is therefore forced to manage multi-party coalitions. Because the congressional and presidential parties share to a great extent the same powers, they can block each other. This deadlock has resulted in a government unable to supply the steady leadership and power necessary for the conduct of our affairs.

When Kennedy was in office, Burns wanted the President to have more power. Now, not so much.

An extreme anti-Federalist like myself is more consistent. I want all presidents to have less power. Three cheers for gridlock!

Happy July 4th to Ephs far and wide.

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