Constitutional Decay and the Politics of Deference

The Annual Walter F. Murphy Lecture in American Constitutionalism

April 4, 2011
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Jeffrey TulisAssociate Professor of Government, University of Texas at Austin
Author of The Rhetorical Presidency, and coeditor and coauthor of The Limits of Constitutional DemocracyThe Presidency in the Constitutional Order, and The Constitutional Presidency

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” In this singular insight, James Madison revealed the distinctive design of the American governmental order. This was the stunning conclusion of his new science of politics, that the core of governance could be a dynamic agonism, a perpetual conflict, between institutions crafted to meet the multiple needs of a democratic people fueled by the ordinary attributes of human nature. By tethering the ordinary ambitions of politicians to the constitutional responsibilities of the branches where they worked, a well-designed constitutional order would not need to make politicians virtuous in order to make government effective and responsible. Responsibility could be made a by-product of man-made institutions rather than an attribute of the inculcation of human beings remade. This lecture is a diagnosis of the decay of that idea and the consequent core pathology of modern American politics. Today, the Congress abdicates its core duties to the President, and the President and the Congress together often defer to the Supreme Court to legally resolve disputes previously settled politically. As examples, I will discuss budget politics, war powers, Senate consent for Supreme Court appointments, and impeachment. The Federalist provides a theory that enables us to identify and understand these very serious problems of constitutional abdication, and at the same time shows the Constitution itself to be one of the deepest sources of this pathology.

This very special annual lecture celebrates the work of the late Walter F. Murphy, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus, Princeton University, and his dedication to excellence in the study of American and comparative constitutional law theory.  A decade after joining the Princeton faculty, Professor Murphy was named the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, succeeding Woodrow Wilson, Edward S. Corwin, and Alpheus T. Mason in one of the Nation's most prestigious Chairs. 

Jeffrey K. Tulis is Associate Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes on topics that bridge the fields of political theory and American politics, including more specifically, American political development, constitutional theory, political philosophy and the American presidency. Professor Tulis co-edited The Johns Hopkins Series in Constitutional Thought (with former Murphy Lecturers Sotirios Barber and Sanford Levinson). In that Series is Walter F. Murphy’s magnum opus, Constitutional Democracy: Creating and Maintaining a Just Political Order. The James Madison Program cosponsored two conferences designed to carry on the research program that Walter Murphy’s book exemplified. Princeton University Press has published the results of those efforts in a volume edited by Professor Tulis and Stephen Macedo, titled The Limits of Constitutional Democracy (2010). 

Tulis’s own work is the subject of a recent special issue of the interdisciplinary journal Critical Review, where the editor describes his 1987 book The Rhetorical Presidency as “one of the two or three most important and perceptive works written by a political scientist in the twentieth century.” Tulis has three books forthcoming with Princeton University Press: Legacies of Loss in American Politics (co-authored with Nicole Mellow), on liberalism and the logic of American political development; an expanded edition of The Rhetorical Presidency; and The Politics of Deference. He has served as President of the Politics and History Section of the American Political Science Association, received the President's Associates Teaching Excellence Award at the University of Texas, and held the Mellon Preceptorship at Princeton University, where he taught before moving to Texas. In 2008-09, he was a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton. Professor Tulis received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.


Constitutional Decay and the Politics of Deference


Lewis Library 138

Cosponsored by:

  • The Program in Law and Public Affairs

Funded by:

The Bouton Law Lecture Fund

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