Summary: Andrew Bacevich is one of our most acute political observers. In this essay he accurately describes one aspect of the rot affecting our politics. The solution he proposes reveal the deeper and more serious rot. There is a solution, if we have the will and wit to make it happen.
By Andrew J. Bacevich at TomDispatch.
Like it or not, the president of the United States embodies America itself. The individual inhabiting the White House has become the preeminent symbol of who we are and what we represent as a nation and a people. In a fundamental sense, he is us.
It was not always so. Millard Fillmore, the 13th president (1850-1853), presided over but did not personify the American republic. He was merely the federal chief executive. Contemporary observers did not refer to his term in office as the Age of Fillmore. With occasional exceptions, Abraham Lincoln in particular, much the same could be said of Fillmore’s successors. They brought to office low expectations, which they rarely exceeded. So when Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) or William Howard Taft (1909-1913) left the White House, there was no rush to immortalize them by erecting gaudy shrines — now known as “presidential libraries” — to the glory of their presidencies. In those distant days, ex-presidents went back home or somewhere else where they could find work.
Over the course of the past century, all that has changed. Ours is a republic that has long since taken on the trappings of a monarchy, with the president inhabiting rarified space as our king-emperor. The Brits have their woman in Buckingham Palace. We have our man in the White House.
Nominally, the Constitution assigns responsibilities and allocates prerogatives to three co-equal branches of government. In practice, the executive branch enjoys primacy. Prompted by a seemingly endless series of crises since the Great Depression and World War II, presidents have accumulated ever-greater authority, partly through usurpation, but more often than not through forfeiture.
At the same time, they also took on various extra-constitutional responsibilities. By the beginning of the present century, Americans took it for granted that the occupant of the Oval Office should function as prophet, moral philosopher, style-setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and — last but hardly least — celebrity-in-chief. In short, POTUS was the bright star at the center of the American solar system.
As recently as a year ago, few saw in this cult of the presidency cause for complaint. On odd occasions, some particularly egregious bit of executive tomfoolery might trigger grumbling about an “imperial presidency.” Yet rarely did such complaints lead to effective remedial action. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 might be considered the exception that proves the rule. Inspired by the disaster of the Vietnam War and intended to constrain presidents from using force without congressional buy-in and support, that particular piece of legislation ranks alongside the Volstead Act of 1919 (enacted to enforce Prohibition) as among the least effective ever to become law.
In truth, influential American institutions — investment banks and multinational corporations, churches and universities, big city newspapers and TV networks, the bloated national security apparatus and both major political parties — have found reason aplenty to endorse a system that elevates the president to the status of demigod. By and large, it’s been good for business, whatever that business happens to be.
Furthermore, it’s our president — not some foreign dude — who is, by common consent, the most powerful person in the universe. For inhabitants of a nation that considers itself both “exceptional” and “indispensable,” this seems only right and proper. So Americans generally like it that their president is the acknowledged Leader of the Free World rather than some fresh-faced pretender from France or Canada.
———————– Read the rest at TomDispatch. ———————–
This exaltation of our Leader is, obviously, not what the Founders intended — and inimical to the Republic. It is consistent with the horrifying survey data reported here last week — showing fading support in America for democracy (see here and here). It is also consistent with what I wrote about American’s unwillingness to bear the burden of self-government: America isn’t falling like the Roman Empire. It’s falling like Rome’s Republic.
Moving from diagnosis to prescribing a cure
But Bacevich, like almost everybody in America, does not see this. Instead he sees our problems as caused by structural problems — to be fixed by the list usual list of “fixes” to our institutions (no two lists agree, since people are just making these things up).
“Initiating such a debate, and so bringing into focus core issues, will remain next to impossible, however, without first clearing away the accumulated debris of the post-Cold-War era. Preliminary steps in that direction, listed in no particular order, ought to include the following…”
- Abolish the Electoral College.
- Rollback gerrymandering.
- Limit the impact of corporate money on elections at all levels,
- Mandate a balanced federal budget.
- Require mandatory national service and replace the All-Volunteer military with these draftees.
- Enact tax policies that will promote greater income equality.
- Increase public funding for public higher education.
- “Attend to the growing challenges of providing meaningful work — employment that is both rewarding and reasonably remunerative — for those without advanced STEM degrees.”
- “End the thumb-twiddling on climate change and start treating it as the first-order national security priority that it is.”
- “Absent evident progress on the above, create a new party system, breaking the current duopoly in which Republicans and Democrats tacitly collaborate to dictate the policy agenda and restrict the range of policy options deemed permissible.”
Some of these are sensible. Some are questionable. Some are utopian. Any group of government majors can prepare a list as good or better over drinks. All are irrelevant to our problems.This is a list of wishes in case the Blue Fairy appears. Most proposals for reform take this form. I have seen scores of them for reforming California, reforming the US Army, and reforming America.
A prescription for reform describes how to achieve political reforms. How to recruit people to the cause. How to train, motivate, and retain them. How to gain popular support from individuals and groups, and overcome or co-opt the inevitable powerful institutional opposition. The answers to this and similar questions, large and small, add up to a plan. As Churchill said, it need be no more than a page or two long.
That we prefer dreams to plans is why the Republic has grown so weak.
Don’t worry! Cool considerate men are making plans for America.
While we dream of the great day in the future when reform mysteriously happens, there are those planning for a new America. People cool and unsympathetic, controlling vast wealth, with large visions of a future America very different than ours. Run for their benefit, not ours.
- Important: Why the 1% is winning, and we are not — They plan to win.
- Tom Perkins tells us about the 1%’s vision of a New America.
- The 1% build a New America on the ruins of the old.
- American politics isn’t broken. It’s working just fine for the 1%.
- The 1% won a counter-revolution while we played.
We know this. That’s why we’re pessimistic about our future.
We know our disinterest in working to achieve our dreams of political reform. In the countless articles that flood the media, none of the authors “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Knowing our weakness and disinterest in working the political machinery bequeathed us by the Founders, we are logically pessimistic about the future.
- Should we despair, giving up on America?
- The bitter fruits of our alienation from America.
- Will we be better off ruled by the 1%?
- Despair: so common these days, so good for the 1%.
- Why doomster stories are so popular: we want to believe America is doomed.
When we see how to rekindle in Americans the spirit of America and love of liberty, then we can reform America. It sleeps in us, but can be awakened. Such things have been done before in world history, and in American history. We can do it, although I do not know how.
For More Information
We can fix America. See the suggestions in Reforming America: steps to a new politics.
- Can we organize the political reform of America? Our past shows how.
- The First Step to reforming America — Organizing.
- The 1% are changing America. It’s our move.
- Resolve to begin the reform of America in 2017!
- A picture of America, showing a path to political reform.
Two books that can explain our situation, but the not the cure.
- Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom — How western philosophy almost inevitablly brought us to this point.
- Caesar: A Biography by Christian Meier — The history of the Roman Republic at a somewhat similar point in time.