Whatever you think about the particulars of the impeachment trial, the broader truth of this point is increasingly impossible to deny. Almost every other problem in our constitutional system now is a function of or a response to willful congressional weakness. And that willful weakness is not best understood as a reticence to exercise power but as a fundamental failure to understand the nature of Congress’s purpose, function, and role. It’s a failure evident among members of Congress, but also among other constitutional officers, and among the broader public.
That failure is rooted in a deformation of our concept of representation, which itself reaches back to that Wilsonian presidentialism. Long before he was an elected official himself, in his political-science work, Woodrow Wilson argued that the president is the most representative (and therefore the most legitimate) of our public officials because he is the only one chosen by a national electorate. The idea was that the presidency could focus and consolidate the public will in a single person who would then represent our society. This has been a core belief of progressive nationalism ever since, but it has long since become a bipartisan vice and it’s behind a lot of the disfigurement of our republican politics. The fact is that our society is not politically consolidated in this way. It is diverse and manifold, and it is therefore best represented by a plural rather than a singular institution.
The presidency is formed around a single person not because representation is best served by a unitary figure but because, as Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist No. 70, unity is the first and most essential ingredient of energy in the executive. The president’s job isn’t fundamentally representative. It is Congress that is shaped to be representative. And more important still, Congress is shaped to enable the diverse interests and views of our society to be represented in a way that also enables them to negotiate and bargain, and ultimately to accommodate each other.
This is a primary purpose of Congress as an institution — to enable and compel accommodation in a divided society. And the fact that accommodation now seems nearly impossible in our politics is a result of Congress’s failure to recognize and serve its purpose more than it is the cause of that failure.