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Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government—and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency, William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe

Reviewed by Matthew J. Dickinson



As the book's title indicates, William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe believe that the Constitution was drafted for purposes more appropriate for a bygone era and that today it prevents the political system from addressing pressing national problems. In making this claim, the authors try to distinguish their argument from contemporary critiques of the political system that focus on a polarized Congress, a faulty electoral system, a divided public, or the role of money, to name some of the most commonly cited explanations for the nation's political dysfunction. The problem, they argue, runs much deeper, rooted in a document written during a vastly different time, when expectations for what the national government should do were much lower and political participation was far more restricted than is the case today. Real reform will occur only by recognizing that the Constitution is a relic and proceeding accordingly.

Their argument unfolds in four chapters. The first summarizes the Framers’ goals when writing the Constitution, most notably, the desire to establish a more effective government based on popular consent, but with limits to direct popular participation. Within a century, however, this system of shared powers, superimposed on existing state governments, became increasingly anachronistic as barriers to political participation fell and the publi

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