Presidential Polarization

56 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2021 Last revised: 2 Jun 2021

Date Written: February 18, 2021


Political polarization is a great political problem of our time. While it has many sources, one important cause is the deformation of our governmental structure. That structure once required consensus to enact important policy changes. Now the President can adopt such changes unilaterally.

Because the President represents the median of his or her party, not of the nation, the decisions of the President normally are more extreme than what would emerge from Congress, particularly when, as is usually the case, the houses of Congress and the President are divided among the parties. Domestically, Congress’s delegation of policy decisions to the executive branch allows the President’s administration to create the most important regulations of our economic and social life. The result is relatively extreme regulations that can shift radically between administrations of different parties, creating polarization and frustrating the search for political consensus. In the arena of foreign affairs as well, presidential power to engage in military interventions and to strike substantial international agreements on the President’s own authority avoids the need to compromise to achieve political consensus.

Understanding the institutional roots of polarization provides a roadmap to changing the law to restore a constitution of compromise. Excessive delegation should be curbed, forcing Congress to make key decisions. The President's initiation of hostilities and executive agreements should be limited by requiring prior congressional authorization or swift congressional ratification after the fact. None of these reforms require us to begin the world anew, but instead to return to tried and tested constitutional structures. In a politics where compromise is routinely required, citizens would become less polarized, seeing each other less as targets or threats and more as partners in a common civic enterprise.

Keywords: polarization, presidency, administrative state, delegation, war powers, executive agreement

JEL Classification: k10, k19

Suggested Citation

McGinnis, John and Rappaport, Michael B., Presidential Polarization (February 18, 2021). Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 21-05, San Diego Legal Studies Paper 21-015, Available at SSRN:

John McGinnis (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
312-503-3235 (Phone)

Michael B. Rappaport

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States

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