Beyond Party Politics: The New President and the Growth of Executive Power

Beyond Party Politics: The New President and the Growth of Executive Power

Even a president intent on redemocratizing our state will find it to be hard work. The growing power of the executive is a deeper problem than the combination of national security threats and abuses of power can explain. It is a process that began in the 1980s and goes beyond party politics—it is part of the structural evolution of the liberal state. The big question is how a president intent on redemocratizing our state will use today’s greater power of the executive.

Much has been said since 2001 about the erosion of our liberal democracy. Among the leading causes usually mentioned are the Patriot Act, particularly its use by the Bush-Cheney administration to strengthen executive power, and our deeply flawed electoral system. Both are indeed critical factors feeding the democracy deficit.

But there is a third cause, one that has received far less attention and has been obscured by the declaration of a national security emergency. It is the fact that the development of a global corporate economy has further strengthened the executive branch and weakened the legislative. This process started long before the second Bush administration and cuts across political parties. It began in the 1980s, when the current globalization phase took off, and has continued since.

There are several reasons for this oversight. The fact that economic globalization might be contributing to the growth of executive power and the debilitation of Congress falls out of the picture when you frame matters in terms of national emergencies. This frame cannot accommodate the fact that this process began more than twenty years ago and continued no matter which party was in power.

Nor has the globalization literature focused on this growing power imbalance. One reason for this blind spot is that the writers tend to consider the state as a whole and to argue that either not much has changed for the state or that the state has become much weaker. A more nuanced argument in the literature emphasizes state adaptation to the new conditions represented by economic globalization; but even here the focus is not on the redistribution of power inside the state.

Finally, that economic globalization went hand in hand with a sharp increase in executive power goes against three strongly held beliefs: that global markets need small government to thrive, that economic globalization weakens the state, and that strong (including global) markets feed democracy.

In fact, economic globalization has had its own autonomous effect in sharpening executive power and in weakening the legislature. This is separate from questions of national security and abuses of executive privilege. It will take more to stop this consolidation of power than having an administration that does not abuse its executive power and that would eliminate the Patriot Act, though this would certainly make a difference.

My research has identified at least five trends...