November 2020

The United States usually has several living former presidents. Rarely do they cause the country much trouble. But when we turn to other polities, we find that ex-presidents can often be a source of instability and corruption. 

The reasons are simple: Former presidents have strong name recognition, wide networks of personal loyalty, and a hands-on knowledge of how their political systems work in practice. They are therefore well-situated to either help or harm the polity. In extreme cases, they may even seek to retake power extraconstitutionally.

Should former presidents take an active role in politics? Is it possible that they might become too active? What ethical lines should they be made to observe? And what other rules and incentives can be set up so that former presidents keep working toward a government that is stable, constitutional, and free?

This month we’ve invited four political scientists with a variety of perspectives to discuss the important questions surrounding ex-presidents and their role in the life of the republic: Prof. Paul Musgrave of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has written our lead essay; responding to him this month will be Prof. Lori Cox Han of Chapman University, Prof. Lisa Anderson of Columbia University, and Prof. Andrew Rudalevige of Bowdoin College. Comments are open for the duration as well; we hope you will join us for a thoughtful and timely discussion.

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Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • Lori Cox Han characterizes the norms governing former presidents as mostly informal. Under them, modern ex-presidents have pursued a wide variety of activities. Regarding the newest member of the club, she writes, “The many things that made Donald Trump unique as a candidate and president… are exactly the things that will drive his post-presidential years.” She predicts that we may see renewed attention to post-presidential ethics, and perhaps new formal restrictions on former presidents’ behavior.

  • Lisa Anderson writes that the integrity of the institution of the presidency is the most important consideration in crafting our rules and norms for ex-presidents. She agrees that presidential libraries and foundations should likely be abolished, among other reforms. She closes by recommending a set of new disclosure requirements for presidential candidates, writing, “the character of our ex-presidents will never be better than the quality of our presidents.”

  • Prof. Andrew Rudalevige invokes Machiavelli to discuss the institution of the former president. Those who have served are likely to be motivated by the judgment of posterity, and that judgment should be used to keep them acting in honorable and useful ways. To that end, presidential recordkeeping should be reformed and centralized, aiding scholars in their work while limiting former presidents’ powers to hide documents from public view.