The Antiparliamentary Origins of Modern Presidentialism: Losing Faith in Representative Assemblies in the Interwar Atlantic

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 8:50 AM
Maryland Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Noah A. Rosenblum, Columbia University
In the aftermath of the First World War, as the United States and Europe faced a series of domestic and international crises, public law theorists on both sides of the Atlantic began to question whether representative government was up to the challenges of modernity. They constituted an international community of thinkers and lawyers who sought to reimagine the meaning of democracy. Their arguments often took a strongly antiparliamentary direction, rejecting representative assemblies on practical and theoretical grounds. In their place, they championed the rule of a strong, singular leader. So doing, they laid some of the intellectual foundations for modern presidentialism as a form of democratic order. This paper tells that story.

It begins by bounding and reconstructing this North Atlantic community of legal discourse. The paper shows how writers as varied as James Bryce, A. Lawrence Lowell, Joseph Barthélemy, and Carl Schmitt all contributed to a shared critique of representative assemblies. The paper traces their antiparliamentary turn to presidentialism through institutions of international intellectual exchange, including the Institut International de Droit Public and the Interparliamentary Union. The paper shows how these visions of a strong executive were not understood by their expositors as anti-democratic, but rather as the culmination of democratic legitimacy.

The paper contributes to a growing body of work exploring the repressed and consequential legacy of illiberal thought in putatively liberal regimes. It makes three specific historiographical interventions. First, it challenges still-dominant nation-based accounts of the crises of the 1920s and ‘30s, showing that “the crisis of democratic theory” was transnational in scope. Second, it shows that to address this crisis, thinkers drew on intellectual resources that spanned legal regimes and traditions. And third, it attends to these borrowings and convergences to suggest that the division between “democratic” and “anti-democratic” regimes has been overdrawn.