O, say can’t you see?
Dangerously unbalanced powers and grab bag of doom and gloom
The nature of the power embodied in the US presidency has evolved over the years, and if Bruce Ackerman’s “The Decline and Fall of the American Republic’’ is right, the results of that evolution are unfortunate. The contemporary view that tends to see the president as the center of our country’s government and the locus of its political power is something new and quite different from what was intended by the founders.
Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale who has written more than a dozen books on American politics, makes clear that his fear is not that the nation is in imminent danger of ceasing to exist as a country. What seems more likely is that its distinctively republican form of government could be lost, crushed under the weight of an unbalanced political structure. In particular, Ackerman worries that the office of the presidency will continue to grow in political influence in the coming years, opening possibilities for abuse of power if not outright despotism.
What accounts for this sea change? In part it is a combination of pressures that have distorted American political culture in the direction of extremism and a “politics of unreason.’’ This culture forces presidential candidates to eschew subtle and nuanced views in favor of extreme positions expressed through frequently meaningless sound bites. At the same time, the president’s power to enforce his decisions without being countered or checked by other branches of government continues to grow. This is most obvious during periods of national peril, which have inspired recent presidents to claim various emergency powers that are potentially dangerous and, at times, possibly unconstitutional. And that trend continues during more peaceful periods.
Moreover, the potential for abuses of power by the executive branch is not the only threat to the republic. Equally troubling are changes in the relationship between military and civilian authorities, which runs counter to our constitutional commitment to civilian control of government. This change, too, is the result of multiple complicated factors: The fact, for instance, that “key ‘civilian’ positions are increasingly colonized by retired officers whose basic values have been shaped by their successful military careers,’’ and, more worryingly still, the centralization of power in the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that resulted from the Goldwater-Nichols act of 1986. In times of crisis, Ackerman warns, the republic could potentially be endangered both by an over-empowered executive branch and by an unconstrained and over-politicized military.
Confronting this reality requires us to give up the myth that the system of government designed by the founders cannot possibly be improved upon: “Constitutionalists should quit celebrating the Miracle at Philadelphia, and consider what, if anything, can be done to redesign the constitutional machine to minimize its risk of spinning out of control.’’
Ackerman might come across as pessimistic, but he proposes a variety of countermeasures and fixes. His stance is fundamentally pragmatic: He wants to scare his readers a bit, but only for the purpose of getting them to press for the fundamental institutional changes he thinks are necessary to prevent the political catastrophes he fears.
Chris Hedges’s “Death of the Liberal Class,’’ on the other hand, contains almost no positive proposals; Hedges takes it that catastrophe is unavoidable and generally writes as if the end of Western Civilization, if not already a fait accompli, is at any rate well underway.
One is hard put to identify a central thesis that unifies Hedges’s grab bag of doom-and-gloom beyond the fundamental thoughts that things are very bad right now for the working class, that the country and perhaps the world are going to hell, and that the “liberal class’’ of the title is somehow responsible — not for espousing bad values, but for selling out to preserve their comfortable privileges. Perhaps this is partly because Hedges is never quite clear on just who he means to include in “the liberal class.’’ Nor is it clear that this class ever possessed the power to change the course of history, as Hedges seems to assume. If university professors, to take one prominent subgroup, have been unable to exert much influence on American political life, the explanation is surely less that they have chosen to be powerless, than that the American public, which tends toward a deep and pervasive anti-intellectualism, has denied them much influence.
Still, I suspect there is a fair bit of truth in Hedges’s pessimistic view. In particular, I agree that the disappearance of a truly progressive political movement in this country, and the nation’s resulting political drift to the right, is to be deeply regretted. And I agree that the American mass media has been devastatingly effective in disseminating misinformation and encouraging conformism, and that the current state of journalism is abysmal. But whereas Ackerman, who is also concerned about the state of journalism, raises the issue in order to propose solutions (he suggests a “National Endowment for Journalism’’ that would operate via “Internet news vouchers’’), Hedges seems to have little interest in suggesting how we might counter the dangers. It is unclear, of course, whether Ackerman’s proposed reforms would do much to reduce the perils we face. But he is at least trying; and if, in the end, we are not convinced, his suggestions and provocations may well spur his readers to try to come up with something better. In these difficult times, this may be as much as we can reasonably hope for.
Troy Jollimore, author of the upcoming “Love’s Vision,’’ teaches at California State University-Chico and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.