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The direct election of senators and the emergence of the modern presidency

Thomas R. Gray, Jeffery A. Jenkins and Philip B.K. Potter

Political Science Research and Methods, 2022, vol. 10, issue 1, 188-197

Abstract: Research on presidential power delineates between a modern era of relative autonomy and an earlier period of congressional dominance. What drove this change? Unlike prior arguments about presidential entrepreneurship and the rise of the United States as a global power, we attribute the emergence of the modern presidency partially to an institutional change—the adoption of direct election of senators that culminated in the 17th Amendment. With direct election, senators were selected by individual voters rather than state legislators. These senators answered to a new principal—the general public—that was (in the aggregate) less informed and less interested in foreign policy. As a result, senators had less incentive to constrain presidential foreign policy preferences. We find evidence for this shift in the relationship between the piecemeal adoption of direct election and senate votes to delegate foreign policy authority to the executive. The implication is that the direct election of senators played an underappreciated role in the emergence of the modern presidency.

Date: 2022
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