The separation of powers remains one of the defining features of our constitutional order. Though the rise of an “imperial” presidency and a lawmaking judiciary has undermined it, the endurance of the U.S. Constitution across two and a half centuries would appear to be a testament to its wisdom. But it has entered an unstable state. The Founders conceived the separation of powers on a particular understanding of the psychology of elites. In the eighteenth century, this understanding was widely shared, indeed almost self-evident, but it has become dangerously removed from present-day conditions.
The fear that ambitious politicians might overturn our republic, as Caesar had in ancient Rome, haunted the Founders. The French Revolution, inspired in part by the American, ended with Napoleon’s seizure of power and creation of an authoritarian, militaristic state. Some American political figures, such as Aaron Burr, seemed to dream of similar coups. But as the historian Douglass Adair (1913–68) observed in his landmark essay “Fame and the Founding Fathers,” the Founders also believed that ambition—the desire to achieve enduring glory via great, visible deeds—was crucial to the functioning of government. In their letters to one another, Adair noted, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams constantly referred to their own desires for what they called “fame.”
But “fame” had a different meaning in their time. It did not refer to being known and appreciated by many of one’s contemporaries but rather securing a reputation among those worthy of esteem, both in one’s own generation and for posterity. While the French scholar Antoine Lilti has recently shown that modern celebrity culture began to emerge at the end of the eighteenth century, the Founders could still believe that fame was something earned for actual achievements. Hardly anyone was famous for being merely well-known, in the famous quip of historian Daniel Boorstin. The models for famous men in that era were great statesmen, military leaders, and artists: those who accomplished singular, remarkable tasks that would command the respect of future generations.
The desire to attain such a reputation was thought by eighteenth-century observers in both America and Europe to be a critical part of the psychology of elites. It was entangled with such concepts as the “public sphere” (the physical and virtual spaces, from public meetings to newspapers, in which great deeds could be performed, discussed, and remembered) and “emulation” (virtuous rivalry among elites to outdo one another in building their reputations). Thinkers such as Montesquieu, the French political theorist whose Spirit of the Laws influenced the Founders, argued that constitutional governments are superior to arbitrary ones because the freedoms of the press and assembly preserve the conditions necessary to encourage ambitious elites to achieve great deeds. In despotisms, Montesquieu warned, statecraft is poor, and science and culture are stagnant precisely because ambition is discouraged.
Thinking of Caesar’s dangerous example but also heeding Montesquieu’s warning, the Founders saw ambition as both a potential threat and a necessary resource for republican government. When Madison argued in Federalist No. 51 that the separation of powers across different branches of government would permit “ambition to counteract ambition,” he did not mean that this division would eliminate ambition from public life. He meant that our Constitution’s arrangement of legislative, executive, and judicial powers would channel the ambitions of the elite in a productive way. Any would-be Caesar in a branch of American government would find himself thwarted by rivals in other branches; their energies, restrained by mutual jealousy, could then be directed to purposes that benefited the nation as a whole, winning them fame as great legislators, presidents, and judges.
This was the theory behind the separation of powers: like the Founders, future elites would be animated by a fundamental desire for political power that wisely devised institutions directed toward socially beneficial ends.
But in twenty-first-century America, “fame” has taken on a new meaning. Today’s elites seem more interested in pursuing popularity rather than earning the praise of an enlightened posterity. Elites seem to share an obsession with mere visibility rather than material accomplishments—what one might call “narcissism,” following the late social critic Christopher Lasch.
Consider the frustrating fact that political debate has become more intense and inescapable at a time when politicians hardly achieve anything. For all of Barack Obama’s heady invocations of change, he continued many aspects of George W. Bush-era foreign and domestic policy, from military adventurism to presiding over a mounting national debt. Donald Trump’s first campaign seemed like another potential rupture, yet once elected, he governed largely as a conventional Republican and jettisoned his signature promise to make Mexico pay for a wall on the southern border.
Yet presidents stood accused of seeking total political power notwithstanding their limited accomplishments. Pundits may claim to fear an American Caesar (or to welcome his advent), but we should worry instead that ambition—the psychological basis that the Founders imagined was necessary for both Caesars and republican statesmen—has vanished from the political class. Tantalizing voters with the possibility of fundamental political change, today’s politicians offer cultural victories instead of substantive ones.
Obama’s speeches and Trump’s tweets gave their supporters the pleasure of imagining that their team now occupied the driver’s seat of history, leaving “bitter clingers” or “losers” in the dust. Both political elites and their audiences seem content to let politics become a kind of dramaturgy, in which roles are performed to cheers and boos. Obama flew to Cairo to give what was then hailed in the global press as an epochal speech. Trump flew to North Korea for an equally blustery, equally inconsequential meeting with Kim Jong Un. Both enjoyed fame in its postmodern sense of media attention, not its eighteenth-century meaning of lasting glory.
Today both elites and non-elites remain vulnerable to the temptation of celebrity, the seduction of short-term attention from strangers. But the narcissism of elites differs in an important way from that of ordinary people. Lasch explained how ordinary Americans’ increasing obsession with their self-images was the consequence of economic precarity and social isolation—but the attention-seeking behavior of, say, Nancy Pelosi, who has massively enriched herself while in office, cannot be explained in those Laschian terms.
Making sense of this strange absence at the heart of our political life will demand strenuous thinking. In a recent essay on the culture wars, Canadian analyst Michael Cuenco argues that our elites appear struck with “kratophobia”: a paradoxical fear of power. Nearly half a century ago, Jean Baudrillard advanced a blistering critique of Michel Foucault’s theory about the ubiquity of power, arguing that political elites today seek only the illusion of power.
But diagnosing the problem will not be enough. To preserve our republic, we must acknowledge that the psychological theory about elites on which American governing institutions were built no longer holds true. This recognition calls for us either to alter our institutions or to shape, through new forms of elite education, the character of future leaders so that they feel the same ambition our Founders felt—the ambition on which our Constitution is based.