On the “Present Embarrassments of America”


A common element in modern American politics is love for the outsider. The expectation, or at least the hope, that a person unsoiled by Washington can be sent there to sweep it clean (or to “drain the swamp” in current parlance). Hundreds of political campaigns, if not thousands, have promoted candidates centered on this theme. This theme figures prominently in American political mythology. Think of such films as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Farmer’s Daughter,” “Dave,” and others. The idea that competence will translate from different vocations into politics played a role in the election of most of the military generals elected to the US presidency. It also played a role in the several businessmen who attained the presidency.

While discussing the virtues of the U.S. Senate, its smaller number and longer terms, James Madison underscored the usefulness of government experience. American state legislatures at the time had the reputation of producing shoddy policies. Madison refers to these as “the present embarrassments of America.” Albeit, these embarrassments proceeded not from bad motives, according to Madison, but only from incompetence.

Another defect to be supplied by a senate lies in a want of due acquaintance with the objects and principles of legislation. It is not possible that an assembly of men called for the most part from pursuits of a private nature, continued in appointment for a short time, and led by no permanent motive to devote the intervals of public occupation to a study of the laws, the affairs, and the comprehensive interests of their country, should, if left wholly to themselves, escape a variety of important errors in the exercise of their legislative trust. It may be affirmed, on the best grounds, that no small share of the present embarrassments of America is to be charged on the blunders of our governments; and that these have proceeded from the heads rather than the hearts of most of the authors of them.

Madison wrote in expectation that Congress would be the main institution initiating legislation. His counsel, however, applies equally to presidents and his advisors when, as in the modern day, the President is expected to initiate policies.

Not all is lost, however, if one goes into office without experience. Novices can learn. Indeed, Madison provides that there is no substitute on occasion other than learning while in office. As he explains in The Federalist No. 53,

No man can be a competent legislator who does not add to an upright intention and a sound judgment a certain degree of knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate. A part of this knowledge may be acquired by means of information which lie within the compass of men in private as well as public stations. Another part can only be attained, or at least thoroughly attained, by actual experience in the station which requires the use of it. The period of service, ought, therefore, in all such cases, to bear some proportion to the extent of practical knowledge requisite to the due performance of the service.

Madison identifies, as it were, a learning curve for senators. In a plural body like the U.S. Senate, however, newer members can easily free ride on the experience of the more-experienced members until they, too, learn the policy ropes. The learning curve for a unitary executive would be much steeper for inexperienced officials.

Madison wrote prospectively of the usefulness of experience in the then-proposed constitutional regime. And he wrote to engender support for the proposed constitution. So it’s understandable Madison did not also sketch the downside of experience (even if he anticipated it). While the upside of experience in the national government might be competence, the downside of experience is capitulation and capture. Washington exists in its own bubble. It is natural, if lamentable, that elected officials and their advisors typically get socialized into that environment and, ultimately, identify more with Washington insiders than with their voters.

This has been a problem particularly for Republicans. Since at least World War II, the Washington environment socialized Republican office holders and staff into thinking that “wins” for them consisted of tinkering around the edges of policy, merely slowing the growth of an ever-growing national government. The brittleness of Tea Party Republicans and the Freedom Caucus stems in large part from exasperation among Republican voters with sending Republicans to Washington with promises to change Washington, only to see instead that Washington changed their representatives. So, too, while emphasizing policies distinct from traditional Republican ones, the traction Trump achieved in last year’s presidential primary campaign against the more-established candidates stemmed in large part from the same sense of exasperation.

That sense of exasperation insured their opposition to Hillary Clinton as well. I don’t know all that many Trump supporters who dispute that Clinton was the more experienced candidate. Perhaps many would grant that she was one of the most experienced candidates ever to have run for the presidency. Their problem with her wasn’t that she was competent, their problem with her is that they understood her to be captured, body and soul, by Washington.

This explains the patience Trump supporters have shown so far with the many missteps to date of this administration. To be sure, they’d prefer competence from the administration also. But if forced to choose between competence and capture, they choose uncaptured even if incompetent over competent but captured. This isn’t to say that their patience with presidential incompetence is infinite. But because their exasperation with Washington runs so very deep, so does their tolerance even of serious missteps by an inexperienced outsider.

James R. Rogers

James Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, and is a fellow with the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service. He also served as editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics from 2006 through 2013.

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  1. EK says

    Do you never tire of reciting Federalist propaganda?

    The Federalists intended to recreate something as close as possible to the king-in parliament from of government of 18th C. Great Britain and settled on a king for a term of years. They made the House of Representatives too weak and the Senate too strong and for the first 100 years the court existed chiefly to issue warrants under the fugitive slave acts and hear admiralty cases.

    • Scott Amorian says

      Actually the Framers went out of their way to avoid the form of government they had just thrown off. A large number of citizens had died, or were crippled or had a relative who were killed or crippled while fighting to throw off the previous government.

      For most of the Convention the Framers had the President chosen by the legislature, just like the Prime Minister in Great Britain was chosen. Over time this structure was found to be unsuitable and the Framers abandoned it for the electoral college. No doubt the Framers understood that the act of copying the form of government which so many had sacrificed life, limb and loved ones to get rid of would not be well received by the public.

      The Framers were trying to preserve some degree of continuity in government so they didn’t have to start completely from scratch, and the previous state and national government had inherited a lot of structure from the older English government, and not the newer British government. The Framers were trying to use architectural elements that were known to work well while eliminating elements that did not. And they were trying to create an architecture acceptable to the public. Copying the model of the British government would have been politically unacceptable to the public.

      • gabe says


        Good points.
        I would also tend to think that the claim that the intended government was meant to be akin to the “King-in-Parliament was a bit overstated as the Colonials sought a far more powerful legislature with the role of “King” reduced to chief Magistrate.

      • EK says

        The revolutionary generation knew very well that they were revolting against Parliament but that doesn’t mean that they rejected the basic form of 18th C. parliamentary government. What the Federalists did was to substitute the Senate for Commons and left the House with only the power of the purse.

        In the 18th and 19th C., Commons was controlled by the gentry by way of a limited franchise and a convenient number of rotten boroughs. In the US, the Senate, elected by the state legislatures, ensured that the same sort of American gentry exercised the same sort of control over the government.

        It is not for nothing that the period between 1790-1860 was called the Golden Age of the Senate. After the Civil War, which was precipitated by the Senate and the Executive over the period 1830-60, the House did have its time in the sun but that soon faded.

        Read some of the anti-Federalist writings.

        • nobody.really says

          What the Federalists did was to substitute the Senate for Commons and left the House with only the power of the purse.

          In the 18th and 19th C., Commons was controlled by the gentry by way of a limited franchise and a convenient number of rotten boroughs. In the US, the Senate, elected by the state legislatures, ensured that the same sort of American gentry exercised the same sort of control over the government.

          Hm–I hadn’t heard this thesis before. I had assumed that the Senate was based on the House of Lords, the House was based on the House of Commons, and the presidency was based on House of Cards. (Ok, I made that last part up. ) Are you suggesting that the Senate actually acquired the prerogatives of the House of Commons, other than the power to initiate tax bills, and the Framers picked this arrangement to control populism?


          • gabe says


            I think you are right – it was House of Cards, Aesop from Fractured Fairy Tales told me so.

      • Jim Croft says

        From what I have read about Hamilton he had little faith in the people. He thought that the people vote based on their self interest. Hr didn’t think they knew what that self interest was.
        I wonder the same thing about today’s voter.

  2. Nancy says

    “…the first 100 years the court existed chiefly to issue warrants under the fugitive slave acts and hear admiralty cases.

    Like the past, the present embarrassments of America are due to denying the essence of personhood, rendering onto Caesar what has always belonged to God. Denying that God Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage, and that our unalienable Right to Life, to Liberty, and to The Pursuit of Happiness Has been endowed to us from God is not a Federalist issue, it is, in essence, a denial of both the spirit of our Constitution, and The Spirit of Divine Law.

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