Politics, Ethics and Change
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Politics, Ethics and Change

The Legacy of James MacGregor Burns

Edited by George R. Goethals and Douglas Bradburn

The impact of James MacGregor Burns’ writings on our understanding of moral and lasting change is explored through essays focussing on transforming leadership in contexts such as the founding of the American nation and presidential leadership throughout US history. Burns’s most influential concepts are explained, critiqued and expanded and then applied in political, business and institutional domains. The volume demonstrates how Burns’s analyses illuminate the nature of social change and transformation, the subtleties of the relationship between leaders and followers, and how together both can realize enduring human values using power resources that arouse and satisfy deep human motives.
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Chapter 7: James MacGregor Burns and the American Presidency

Thomas E. Cronin


James MacGregor Burns (1918–2014) relished political debate. He was a lifelong critic of complacency, pragmatism and those who argued that the United States has no clear national purpose. Liberty, equality, fraternity and social justice, he contended, were our founding and revolutionary-era ideals. Yes, self-interest was the dominant motivator for most people, most of the time. Yet Burns regularly looked for ways and means that would encourage Americans to transcend short-term self-interests and embrace higher moral values. Burns criticized the Madisonian and weak-party systems in the United States for the timid, centrist politics they produced. He faulted presidents—including Kennedy, Clinton and—Obama for giving in to this system rather than transcending it. The Madisonian system, with its excessive fragmentation of power, Burns believed, frustrated the strategic exercise of power, efficiency, accountability and responsibility. He advocated party reforms, constitutional change, a strengthened American presidency and a redefined and more moral understanding of political leadership all as partial means toward a revitalized commitment to achieving America’s mission. He also championed Hamiltonian and Rooseveltian energy and forcefulness in the presidency in order to make the many splintered Madisonian system of checks and balances serve principled and purposeful Jeffersonian ends such as liberty and equality. He enjoyed being a provocateur even as conservatives and mainstream social scientists mostly opposed his proposals. He set high and sometimes paradoxical standards for what he called transformational leadership.

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