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The ’55-’56 All-Stars … Political Science:

What ever happened to … I remember that guy … Jeez, PhDrew, what a lack of credentials … What is this, Read more


Historical Perspective on Citizens United

Good essay from Prof. David Kaiser:

Political speech was free, or almost free, when the first amendment was passed, in two different ways: not only did the law now protect it, but the production and distribution of written materials (the only ones then available) was extremely cheap. In the early nineteenth century, yours truly might have started and turned out a weekly broadsheet almost as easily as I now turn out this blog. The point is not whether material like Hillary can be produced–of course it can, although it testifies to the decline of American political discourse in the last half century–the point is who will have the money to advertise it and broadcast it on cable television. Just as Anatole France remarked that the law impartially forbade both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges, the law now impartially allows David Kaiser, the heads of Citibank and Goldman Sachs, and Glenn Beck to make their views available on television to audiences of millions. The problem is that only three of them will be able to do so. The reformers of the 1900-80 era did not need rocket science to figure out that increasingly expensive modern forms of communication would obviously give incredible advantages to the rich and powerful and thus had to be regulated to give ordinary citizens a chance to be heard. A 5-4 Supreme Court majority has now thrown out a century of tradition and returned us to a form of political Darwinism (see my earlier posts on social Darwinism several years ago, easily located by a search at the top of the page.)

The current crisis in American life, I have been saying here now for five years, will lead either to a kind of New Deal revival or to a return to the Gilded Age. Karl Rove understands this and cited William McKinley as his political hero. The court just brought us immensely closer to a return to McKinley’s age.

Those like me who never have and never will abandon the New Deal principles they learned in their youth inevitably mourn the likely eclipse, for the rest of our lifetimes, of those principles. But once again my training as a European historian at least enables me to say that things could be much, much worse. Although the Republicans have frequently bent the law (most notably in 2000 and again this week), they have successfully undid the work of our parents and grandparents mainly through legal means. There is no Fascist movement or dictatorship on the horizon (although one could still emerge.) It was the America of the Gilded age to which my paternal grandfather came around 1900, making my own life possible. The liberal tradition will survive, even if will only be revived years after the Boom generation has passed from the scene. (I do not exclude the possibility that my own side might still prevail even in this crisis, but it does not look at all likely.) If the Founding Fathers managed to design a system that can preserve essential liberties and survive even severe swings to the right and left, they will still deserve our thanks.

Emphasis mine. Read the whole thing here.

The central theme of the recent book Packing the Court by Prof. James MacGregor Burns is the undemocratic and unconstitutional rise of Supreme Court power. He writes (emphasis mine):

In retrospect, the court has far more often been a tool for reaction, not progress. Whether in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century or the Gilded Age at the turn of the twenty-first, the justices have most fiercely protected the rights and liberties of the minority of the powerful and the propertied. Americans cannot look to the judicial branch for leadership.

Confronted with what he calls “unelected and unaccountable politicians in robes”, Burns proposes that the only way to break judicial power is for the democratic branches of government to challenge it, either through a constitutional amendment, or a somewhat more daring strategy:

Confronted by a hostile court repeatedly striking down vital progressive legislation, a president could declare that there is no place in a modern democracy for unelected judges to veto twenty-first-century laws. The president would announce flatly that he or she would not accept the Supreme Court’s verdicts because the power of judicial emasculation of legislation was not – and never had been – in the Constitution. The president would invite the partisans of judicial supremacy to try to write that authority into the Constitution by proposing a constitutional amendment. Through their representatives in Congress and the state legislatures, the American people would be given the choice denied them in 1803: to establish in the Constitution the power of judicial supremacy, or to reject that power. Only by this route could judicial rule be legitimated, “constitutionalized.” In the meantime, until the matter was settled, the president would faithfully execute the laws the Supreme Court had unconstitutionally vetoed.

It would be a risky strategy, an open defiance of constitutional customs and the myths and mysteries that have long enshrouded the court. Traditionalists would be outraged. Professors of law would express their concern in learned treatises. Powerful interests with a stake in the status quo – business groups, conservative lawyers, and their supporters in the political class – would spearhead a campaign of opposition. There might even be demands for impeachment. In the ensuing turbulence, though, the president would have an enormous strategic advantage. He would need only to sit tight. The burden would be on his adversaries to initiate the new and momentous amendment to the Constitution and to obtain a mandate for judicial rule. For once it would be the foes of reform, not the reformers, who would have to go through the constitutional hoops of amendment, with all the traps and delays.

Above all, it would be a test of leadership, of the president’s ability to mobilize followers behind a transformational goal, as FDR had so markedly failed to do in 1937. He would present the idea for what it was – a revolutionary challenge to judicial business-as-usual, to minority rule by a handful of judges, a fight for the Constitution as the people’s charter, not a lawyer’s contract.[…]

If judicial rule was not ratified by the people in the amending process, the Supreme Court’s exclusive grip on constitutional interpretation would be broken. Shorn of its supremacy, the court would still retain crucial tasks. It would still be called upon to interpret ambiguous statutes, adjust conflicting laws, clarify jurisdictions, and police the boundaries of federal-state power – virtually all of its present responsibilities except that of declaring federal laws unconstitutional. It would simply be brought closer to the role the Framers originally envisioned for it.

Quotation above taken from the Epilogue, “Ending Judicial Supremacy”, to Prof. Burns’ book.

Burns seems to expect that a constitutional crisis of this magnitude will occur at some point in the future, perhaps in the near future. With Citizens United, the opportunity for the democratic branches of govt. to reform judicial power may have occurred before even he would have expected it. What are the chances that the Democratic leadership in Congress and the White House will challenge the court?


Sotomayor Questions

Emeritus Professor James MacGregor Burns ’39 suggested these questions for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

1. The Constitution is “not a static but rather a living document,” Barack Obama wrote in “The Audacity of Hope,” echoing Thomas Jefferson, “and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world.” Do you agree? If so, how would you apply this idea to specific cases?

2. Do you believe that the Supreme Court has the constitutional authority to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional? Would you be in favor of a constitutional amendment establishing or rejecting once and for all the power of an unelected Supreme Court to veto acts of our elected Congress?

3. Throughout the court’s history, it has often lagged behind the times, as lifetime appointees adhered to outdated ideologies and attitudes. Would you be in favor of requiring justices to retire at the age of 70?

How should Judge Sotomayor answers these questions? What questions would you ask her?

Mine would harken back to this EphBlog discussion about the black performance in football.

There has not been a starting white cornerback in the NFL for more than 10 years. There are hundreds of thousands of white high school football players who would love to play cornerback in the NFL. Is this racial disparity a sign of disparate treatment? Would a white cornerback cut by an NFL team have a cause of action, either against that team or against the NFL as a whole? What legal strategy would you recommend to the attorney hired by the white cornerback?

I think that my question would generate more headlines than Burns’.


Fresh Start


No time like the New Year for fresh starts. Here is one for my professor, James MacGregor Burns ’39.

After more than 20 books, a Pulitzer Prize and many other honours for his work on the executive and legislative branches of government, 89-year-old historian James MacGregor Burns is ready for a new subject.

“I’m working on the politics of the Supreme Court,” he says, seated in a small armchair in his converted farmhouse, a sunny, cluttered, book-filled loft just down the road and up the hill from Williams College, where he studied as an undergraduate and later taught for decades.

“I felt I had treated presidents and Congresses a lot, and here was this other branch I didn’t know that much about. I had a feeling it would be even more political than I expected, and it is.”

He is white-haired and wide-eyed, an ever curious scholar dressed smartly in khakis and a striped shirt for this afternoon interview. Although clearly slowed by age, he remains active enough that when his car broke down in town earlier in the day, he walked back home, uphill, for more than a mile.

The climb up Bee Hill is not an easy one, at age 89 or earlier.

Read the whole article. I last chatted with Professor Burns two year ago, at a conference in his honor at Harvard. He was slowed by age, as are we all, but still the same charming, empathetic teacher that he was 20 years ago. I was lucky enough to be a member of the last class he taught at Williams. He held office hours in Stetson and I would climb those winding stairs to his aerie at the building’s back for hours of conversation. Which professor took over his office? Did he care for his students as much as Professor Burns cared for us?

The same day that I saw Burns, I drove to Williamstown and had a fun conversation with a member of the class of 2009, a young man with all of Burn’s energy and committment but seven decades younger. Talking with two such talented Ephs, seperated by nothing except time, brings home the connection that binds all Williams graduates together.

Happy New Year to all the Ephs!


Burns ’39 Channels Reagan

It is nice to know that Political Science Professor James MacGregor Burns ’39 can tell what Ronald Reagan would have thought about the the proposal to put him [Reagan, not Burns] on the dime.

James MacGregor Burns, a Williams College professor and noted FDR biographer, said: “I may not have agreed with Ronald Reagan on very much, but I liked him as a person. However, you display a real ignorance about Ronald Reagan if you think that he would support any attack on the memory of FDR, who Reagan regarded as a personal hero. Even after becoming a conservative Republican, Reagan remained a huge fan of President Roosevelt. I simply refuse to believe that Ronald Reagan would countenance the removal of FDR from the dime to make way for his own image. In short, he would be horrified by this idea.”

More info here.

It’s funny but I can’t recall Jim Burns saying that he “liked him as a person” about Reagan in the late 80’s, but I guess that we all mellow with age.


Burns ’39 on Reagan

Political Science Professor James MacGregor Burns ’39 is quoted in a Boston Globe article about Ronald Reagan.

James MacGregor Burns, a historian at Williams College, called Reagan a ”man of conviction” and said that is the most important leadership quality a president can possess.

”I put him at a relatively high level among all American presidents because he had the one quality that is most important in leaders. . . . you always knew where he stood,” said Burns, who has written several books on presidential leadership. ”I admired him, and I kind of liked him. Even if you are a liberal like me, you have to take your hat off to a man who stuck to his conservatism and won.”

I’d wager that if Burns — a Pulitzer Prize winner like Halberstam — had been the Commenecent speaker, he would have taken the time and trouble to compose an original speech for the occasion. Something for the class of 2005 to keep in mind.


Worldwide War Against Desperation

For Williams news junkies, a good source is the College’s listing of media references. The list is not comprehensive (not sure how one would create a comprehensive list), but is does have many interesting tidbits. Alas, no links are provided. But that is why we have this blog!

An example, provided from the list, is a book review from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of “Transforming Leadership” by James MacGregor Burns ’39 and professor of political science emertus. The review, written by the paper’s executive editor David Scribman, is adequate, if a bit shallow. It notes that:

for most of us leadership is uncomfortably close to pornography; we don’t know how to define it, but we know it when we see it. But James MacGregor Burns isn’t like most of us. In a lifetime of scholarship, he has sought to identify leadership, analyze leadership, understand leadership. Now a man admired for his biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and remembered for his trilogy on American history has leaped into the leadership fracas. He knows it when he sees it, of course, but in his latest volume, he is seeking to define it, too.

Burns, of course, has been trying to define leadership all his life. In this context, a failure to mention Burn’s 1982 magnum opus on the topic, Leadership, suggests that the writer may not be overly familar with what Burns thoughts on the topic. Scribman concludes by noting that

This slender volume, stuffed with anecdote and analysis, is more than a study of leadership. It is also a call to arms — for a radically different sort of conflict from the ones engaged in by the great figures of history. Burns has in mind a great conflict involving great values. He envisions a worldwide fight against poverty and hunger.

“In millennia past, the most potent act of the rulers of nations has been the recruitment and deployment into battle of great armies of their people,” Burns writes.

“Can we, in coming decades, mobilize throughout the world a new, militant, but peaceful army — tens of thousands of leaders who would in turn recruit fresh leaders at the grass roots, in villages and neighborhoods, from among the poor themselves, to fight and win a worldwide war against desperation?”

Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to read the book myslef, but these sentiments are certainly consistent with what Burns has been saying and writing for more than 50 years. Of course, Burkean that I am, my preference would be to aim for much smaller, but more concrete, steps. How about: “Can we, next year, mobilize 10 Williams graduating seniors to go out into a dangerous part of the world (Burma, Iraq, Liberia) and try to help the people there make their lives better?” Burns, for all his well-deserved stature as an intellectual giant of the Left, might accomplish more thinking small than in writing (another) book as call-to-arms.

Think globally, act locally.

That’s what the bumper stickers tell me, at least.


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