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Unitary executive theory, Presidency


Constitutional Law | Law and Politics | Law and Psychology


The movement toward President-centered government is one of the most significant trends in modern American history. This trend has been accelerated by unitary executive theory, which provided constitutional and “good government” justifications for what political scientists have been calling the “personal” or “plebiscitary” presidency.

This essay draws on cognitive, social and political psychology to suggest that the extreme cognitive and psychological demands of modern civic life make us particularly susceptible to a political and constitutional ideology organized around a powerful and beneficent leader who champions our interests in the face of internal obstacles and external threats. The essay goes on to assess the representational and managerial claims of unitary executive theory in light of relevant work in election studies, public administration, and related areas. It concludes that the very conditions that make the personal, unitary executive presidency so appealing also ensure that no President can possibly be the leader it promises.

The essay concludes by considering the post-2008 revisionism that characterizes the George W. Bush presidency as a perversion of unitary executive theory. It points out that the Bush presidency not only was recognizably the kind of presidency contemplated by the theory, but also that the theory’s uncomplicated, unconditional certitude – qualities that make it so effective in responding to the cognitive and psychological stress of modern American life -- predispose unitary executive Presidents and their followers to extremism.

Publication Citation

University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law, vol. 12, no. 2 (February 2010)