Here’s an item which seemed appropriate and topical to me, given the occasion.
(I refer, of course, to the occasion of Guy Fawkes Eve.)
I rag on Utne, but of course the reason that I read them is that they do occasionally come through. For example, by reprinting this really excellent article by none other than Gene Healy, about the imperial power of the modern Presidency, for an audience full of comfortable professional-class
I’m not a preacher,Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm snarled to religious right activists in 1995 when they urged him to run a campaign stressing moral themes. Several months later, despite Gramm’s fund-raising prowess, the Texas conservative finished a desultory fifth place in the Iowa caucuses and quickly dropped out of the race. Since then, few candidates have made Gramm’s mistake. Serious contenders for the office recognize that the role and scope of the modern presidency cannot be so narrowly confined. Today’s candidates are running enthusiastically for national preacher—and much else besides.
In the revival tent atmosphere of Barack Obama’s campaign, the preferred hosanna of hope isYes we can!We can, the Democratic candidate promises, not only createa new kind of politicsbut alsotransform this country,change the world,and evencreate a Kingdom right here on earth.With the presidency, all things are possible.
Even though Republican nominee John McCain tends to eschew rainbows and uplift in favor of the grim satisfaction that comes from serving acause greater than self-interest,he too sees the presidency as a font of miracles and the wellspring of national redemption. A president who wants to achieve greatness, McCain suggests, should emulate Teddy Roosevelt, wholiberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the officeandnourished the soul of a great nation.President George W. Bush, when he was passing the GOP torch to his former rival in March, declared that the Arizona senatorwill bring determination to defeat an enemy and a heart big enough to love those who hurt.
The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He—or she—is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.
This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous that it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of thecommander in chiefas a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.
It’s difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The United States appears to be stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentrates enormous power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalent about the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. But executive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, until citizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humbly.
Read the whole thing. Along the way you’ll find Healy introducing Utne readers to the basics of Higgs crisis analysis and Bourne’s dictum that
War is the Health of the State. The only thing to add to Healy’s analysis is to complete the thought: to stress that the progress of the Presidency from a minor administrative position to an elective dictatorship, and from an elective dictatorship to a world-spanning imperial warlord, was not just some unhappy accident, or the result merely of a a decadent culture, or of a conspiracy against the public interest by a few motivated scoundrels. It was the necessary result of an ever-expanding warfare State, and the ever-expanding warfare State was the necessary result of the whole experiment in a centralized, nationalistic
limited government (where the only effective
limit on the Executing branch of the government are other branches of government, mainly a legislature composed of aparatchiks from the same national political parties from which the President is drawn). The
incentives we [sic] have given for the warlord Presidency are built into the structure of the Party State itself, and while massive changes in cultural attitudes towards the Presidency might check or even temporarily roll back the imperial Presidency, but no lasting or fundamental change will happen without structural change — ideally meaning anarchy and freed-market competition in self-defense and neighborhood defense. Or, at the very least, the abolition of the one-man Presidency, just as such.