Constitution Day Lecture with Prof. Mariah Zeisberg


With the election bringing questions about the recent history of U.S. global influence and international shows of force to the fore, University of Michigan Associate Professor of Political Science Mariah Zeisberg opened her September 20 Constitution Day lecture by noting that these circumstances make the iron hot for assessing how shifts in the balance of power between the president and Congress since World War II have affected the nation’s status and behavior as a global leader.

In further unpacking the objective of her talk, Prof. Zeisberg lobbied against relying too heavily on the conventional approach of examining and critiquing matters related to the separation of powers in terms of constitutionality. For better or worse, the fact is that the United States has amassed a vast and transformative amount of extra-territorial power and responsibility, particularly over the past century. Accepting the reality of the U.S.’s current global leadership position, Prof. Zeisberg argued, might allow us to re-frame questions about the separation of powers in such a way that discourse becomes more animated by political creativity and, in this, aspires to ideas and solutions that more adequately address the complex issues presented by the United States’ influence over peoples that are not subject to its domestic law.

The need to advocate for more innovative methods of assessing the present state of U.S. global influence is due in large part by the fact that the nation has not always wielded its extra-territorial power particularly well (and at times has wielded it disastrously). With regard to the nation’s international failures, Prof. Zeisberg posited that they have often stemmed from the legislative and executive branches being united somehow in constitutional violations. During the early- and mid-19th century, for example, the federal government as a unified front waged genocidal war against Native American populations without abiding by the constitutional mandate that war be declared or the moral tradition, derived from the Declaration of Independence, that the just causes for war be acknowledged. Similarly, during the era of profit-seeking “imperial adventure” in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Congress remained quiescent as a fact-pattern of modest grievances repeatedly triggered instances of presidential foreign intervention that resulted in gross human rights violations. In these and other instances, there was no clarification of the stakes of or variances in executive and legislative authority; there was no public deliberation over international exertions of force; and there was no respect for the autonomy of foreign audiences. The nation’s foreign affairs successes, Prof. Zeisberg added, can also be examined through the lens of the separation of powers in so far as they often arise when one branch (typically the legislature) is eclipsed to fair results. The creation of the United Nations and the subsequent promotion of global liberalism, for example, traces back to an instance of institutional creativity that privileged presidentialism.

One of the many things that more careful examination of this broad shift towards presidentialism reveals is the importance of legislatures on both a domestic and a global scale. By putting off abstract, theoretical conceptions of legislative power, and by using both Locke and recent scholarship on bicameralism as touchstones, we can see the degree to which the legislature is the institution whose vitality is most closely bound to its functionality—an institution, Prof. Zeisberg stressed, uniquely borne out of and most responsive to the needs and creative energy of the people. Re-grounding our understanding of the legislature in these practical terms could, she went on to argue, have profound implications for our thinking about the United States’ extra-territorial responsibilities. Specifically, and as an example of the kind of institutional innovation that has often been at the root of large-scale progress, she applied this line of inquiry to envisioning the creation of a new legislative body tasked with advising the president and Congress on matters of extra-territorial significance. A new branch of sorts, composed of U.S. citizens as well as citizens of those nations over which the U.S. wields influence, this institution would have the potential to bring to light many of those issues that the nation has long addressed inadequately: it would stoke globally aware public debate and deliberation; it would bring transparency to the United States’ exertion of its foreign influence; it would strengthen the link between global public law and global political processes as well as multiply the forums for addressing and the diversity of voices contributing to discourse on international affairs. In thinking through the pragmatic relationship between self-expansion and productive contribution that energizes legislatures, we might, she concluded, create a body motivated by and accountable to a global notion of public good.

Mariah Zeisberg received her B.A. in Government from University of Texas at Austin and her Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University. She was a Gilbane Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Theory at Brown University and currently serves as Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Michigan. Her first book, War Powers: The Politics of Constitutional Authority (Princeton University Press), received the Richard E. Neustadt Book Award from the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of APSA for the best book on the American Presidency in 2013. Her scholarship has appeared in I-CON: International Journal of Constitutional Law and Perspectives on Politics, among other places, and she teaches courses including American Constitutional Politics, Legal Theory, and War and the Constitution at Michigan.