The Neglected Question: Should We Have a President?

In Noam Chonsky’s 1998 book “The Common Good” he noted that the U.S. ruling class allows for a very vigorous debate on social, political, and economic topics, but only within a narrow window of what is to be taken seriously by the news media and opinion shapers.  This creates an illusion of healthy and spirited debate on the topics of the day, while in reality not only shepherding the political consciousness of the masses, but allowing for a means of partisan venting which allows for excess anger to be safely expelled from the system.  While the ingress of the age of Occupation has done much to till the soil that is our collective political consciousness, it has still stumbled in an attempt to convey higher progressive concepts and derive a coherent course of action from them.

It is my belief that the main impetus of the failure in this transition is attributable to the practice outlined above.  The great machine that is our modern political system is in essence running overheated, and the heated dialog (and more importantly the material conditions wrought by the recession!) cultivated is outpacing the rate at which it may be properly vented.  However, the intentionally narrow scope of “acceptable” political discourse has left many of us carrying an ill-formed and oft illogical political conception.  The result of these factors is angry populist movements such as the tea party and the occupy movement, which can often correctly identify general problems in the system (to varying extents), but struggles with suggesting feasible solutions that are outside the mainstream or have been implemented under past conditions.

Obviously there are key differences in the Tea Party and Occupy movements.  The former resembles more of a traditional political party, and its conservative bent keeps it in-line with previously established policy and social idioms.  Within this movement particularly, old ideas (typically those advanced on or near 1787) are venerated and thus its political consciousness is mired in the state of an idealized past.  The Occupy movement takes a radically different approach, finding its solutions not in an idealized depiction of the past, but rather in the varied utopian movements of American history (such as the New Harmony community, the “back to the land” communes of the 1960’s and 70’s, etc.).

The key similarity between these two nascent movements is that their ideas, while often outside the “acceptable” current of the U.S. political mainstream are often (or in the case of much of the tea party, always) based mostly on past policy or political thought.  This can be seen in some of the key appeals of both movements; a return to the gold standard, the reinstatement of the Glass-Stegall act, and the alike.  While new ideas are expressed, particularly within the Occupy movement, they are often confused or overly idealistic.  As any participant in even a moderately sized General Assembly can attest to, these ideas often flounder in practice due to the many horrible variables introduced by reality.

It is at this point I feel it necessary to clarify that this is not an attack on the Occupy movement.  Indeed there are many intelligent people within the movement whose political acumen outstrips that of this author.  However, the key problem in the transition of the Occupy movement from a generalized, communal declaration of outrage to a more focused and disciplined movement is due to a larger societal problem.  That key problem is our unintentionally internalized conceptions of society as dictated by the limits imposed upon us by the ideological superstructure built of the ruling class.  While the populist movements in the U.S. have obviously shed much of their allegiance to the mainstream political current, Americans as a whole have not been able to shake or even think to question certain conventions of a system whose class interests and media monopoly have driven said ideas to be incorporated by us.

Nobody 2012

Courtesy of Wade Hampton of the Wade's World blog. Click image for link to site.

One of the most surprisingly unquestioned norms of American politics is that of the Office of the Presidency.  While the Occupy movement has taken a very conscious and decidedly utopian decision to oppose any form of official leadership within their own movement’s supporting organizations, they have been less vocal about the legitimacy of positions of leadership outside the confines of their movement.  This is not to say that occupiers have been entirely silent on this issue; various contingents of occupies across the country have been mock-campaigning in support of “Nobody” for president.  While this definitely challenges the worth of those running for the office, it only indirectly challenges the legitimacy of the office itself.  In fact, one could potentially argue that by confining the challenge to the well-worn moors of a presidential campaign they have further supported the very concept they seek to depose.

This campaign for Nobody has been the closest Americans have been to even imagining the possibility of an America without the executive office.  To the overwhelming majority of Americans this is literally an unthinkable proposition, not in that many or even most of us would oppose it, but in that it simply is something we do not think of.  It is easy to see why this is the case.  Particularly since the infamous Citizens’ United decision, there has been an increasing trend towards ever more money being deployed in the presidential election cycle.  This in turn fuels more advertising revenue, which compels media companies to focus more attention on the presidential race.  Given the omnipresent talk of the president in U.S. politics, particularly in the ever growing election “year”, why would anyone even think that America could survive without one?

The original purpose of the president was to provide a function very similar to that of the king in the former colonies.  Many in the triumphant bourgeois of the revolution were worried that the lack of a strong executive would lead to anarchy, as the malcontent working classes assumed control and threatened their wealth and privilege.  Some floated the idea of submitting to a European royal such as Prince Henry of Prussia or Frederick Duke of York (George III’s son).  Eventually however the pressures brought from the common veterans of the revolution kept such schemes from being feasible.  Instead in 1787, the founding fathers choose to institute the executive branch under the aegis of the president, who assumed many of the powers of the British monarch, yet in a fashion constrained by the newly formed federal legislature.

While the question of monarch or president has been asked in the course of American history, few have so much as raised the question of the legitimacy of any post which grants such enormous power to any individual.  Yet ever since the rise of the “war on terror” and the corresponding increase in the powers of the now conceived “unitary executive”, this is a question that should be asked more now than ever.  The original compromise on the question of the executive office rest upon the dual distinctions of the presidency in contrast to that of a monarch, that the president is not chosen by birthright and that the president is constrained by the national legislature.

Both of these distinctions are becoming ever more tenuous.  As the wealth disparity has grown we have become witness to a growing number of presidential lineages; such as the Roosevelt’s, the Kennedys, the Clintons, and the Bushes.  Furthermore, as money becomes more of a determining factor in presidential elections the number of likely candidates is shrinking as the super wealthy and the established political insiders become the only viable options.  While this is not necessarily a new problem, it has become vastly exacerbated by a new class of uber-bourgeois, whose massive wealth allows them to buy political power at a degree unprecedented since the last gilded age.

Even more disturbing is the quiet creep of the exceptional executive.  With the cover of the 9/11 terrorist attacks the Bush administration begun a blitzkrieg on the constraints of the presidency, a campaign continued in earnest under their predecessors.  This campaign for dominance by the executive branch has assured that positions as extreme as the assassination of U.S. citizens without trial, formal charges, or any accountability are now uncontroversial and bipartisan positions within the mainstream current.  The Democratic party, once a chorus of voices against this growing tyranny have become silent as one of their own has adopted the throne.  No discussion of this matter can be uttered within the party for fear of losing the only position worth having in the U.S.

It certainly is not only the “war on terror” which is responsible for this presidential overreach.  The growth of presidential influence is likely attributed to the development of mass media and the quickening trend of globalization in the late twentieth century.  While the presidency has been the focal point for most countries’ political cultures for a little over a century, it has been historically dulled by provincialism brought about by local concerns.  As our vision, in a political, cultural, and economic sense, has expanded so has the tendency to look towards the personification of our countries’ political systems, the president.  This development has greatly expanded the power of the so-called “bully pulpit” at the disposal of the president, the ability of a single individual to guide the political consciousness of an entire nation.

Granted this enormous power, like all such tools, is a double edged sword.  Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lynden Johnson used it to advance much needed Keynesian reforms to the American economy.  President Lincoln used it to put an end to slavery and restore unity to a divided nation.  Indeed, perhaps a likely reason we have never thought of abolishing the presidency is due to the memory of such accomplishments as well as the fact that we measure our very history based on presidential terms.

An interesting side note: presidential approval seems to have less to do with the conventional wisdom of concurrence with a strong economy or wartime success. In the case of the latter there is indeed a massive short term gain, but this is followed in each instance by well bellow average ratings. This is probably due to the fact that the period of wartime success is immediately followed by additional mired conflict (Korea for Truman, Iraq for both Bushes). Also note in half of the listed administrations the initial approval rating is never surpassed, and only two of the twelve presidents had a higher approval rating at the end of their term than at the beginning (Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the modern standards for both political parties). Image courtesy of USA Today / Gallup, click image for link.

Despite the provocative nature of this article, and my barely concealed disdain for the current breadth of executive power, it is not my intention to highlight what a president-less U.S. would look like.  Not only because I feel that raising the question is necessary well before it can even begun to be answered, but also because I largely am unable to answer the question myself.  So total is my experience of a country personified under one individual that I can hardly relate to how we would move beyond it.

Even if I could move beyond my immersion in a history and political culture so defined by the presidency (which I believe I could), the question of how to keep power from consolidating in the hands of one person is one that is currently well-beyond my grasp.  It is not merely the legalistic question of checks and balances, but also the innately human social instinct which (like our evolutionary forbearers) has historically been drawn to a hierarchal structure lead by one individual.  Perhaps it is easier to do than to speak to vast, faceless coalitions and material conditions, as even the most politically progressive of us find our way back to describing the aforementioned forces by consolidating them into the familiar visage of a single, human being.

Note that the approval ratings for the more vague concept of "congress" are almost always lower than that of the president. The most notable exception being mid-1974 when Nixon resigned (37% congressional approval v. 24% approval of Nixon). Image courtesy of Gallup, click image for link to site.

It is important that we ask such questions of our society, even if they are difficult and especially if they are uncomfortable.  No higher form of society can be obtained if it cannot even be imagined by those who would seek to build it.  I would hope that those reading this essay would begin to look at the enormous power we have vested in the presidency, and begin to ask if such a condition is truly conducive to a more advanced and fair democratic system.  We should begin to ask if such vested power is a net good, or the seeds which shall sprout into a modern monarchy.