Presidents’ Day: America, the Ruled!
Happy Presidents’ Day. Not so much in Tucson / Pima County. Here, we let the kiddies out of school to celebrate the rodeo later this week. A Tucson thing! And, although with closed courts Rubin & Bernstein shuttered its office, LB and I worked and encountered plenty of professional offices, open for business and fully staffed. (Staff: no rodeo days for you, and we need to examine holiday policies.)
I heard a fine discussion about presidential power on the NewsHour this evening. Is expanding presidential power inherently bad for democracy was up for discussion. The answer, from historians Douglas Brinkley and Andrew Rudalevige? Probably.
We have elected 43 men to lead us and had one—Gerald Ford—handed to us. (In my methodology, Grover Cleveland does not get counted twice.) Meritocracy counts for plenty. Think Lincoln, Truman, and Carter. Modest men, up from regular people. On the other hand, our 44 presidents include two father / son sets (the Bushes), a grandfather / grandson combo (the Harrisons), and the Roosevelt cousins. And we came damn close to a husband / wife pairing. (The Roosevelts were, in fact, only fifth cousins, while James Madison and Zachary Taylor were second cousins.) Hardly a country which makes the presidency available to anyone.
What to make of all this? Our Founding Fathers had many disagreements.* Still, they designed a structure which represented the antithesis of a top-down, royalist model. We’ve had strong presidents, some of whom ignored separation of powers issues in ways that challenge us today. Think Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, for example, who are two of our most revered presidents. But our system tamps down the power, by design. (We should expect nothing else from revolutionaries, revolting against a king.)
Now, though, we seem to gravitate toward strength for the purpose of filling a vacuum. Maybe the celebrity culture explains the matter. We want a focal point, who we can revere or, of necessity, despise.
Or maybe it’s the fact that our Congress pales, ever more. (Why? Crappy campaign finance laws. Inadequate compensation. And a federal system which gives us the United States Senate, the antithesis of an unrepresentative body, and a resting place for marginally competent individuals in flyover states.) In a power set, if my power ebbs, yours will flow, and power flows, in modern times, to POTUS.
There are surely other reasons, too. A complex mix!
So, what? With Donald Trump we see power from weakness. Autocracy based on falsehoods, turning tools for the betterment into swords, designed to stab democracy in its mid-section.
Wait. What? Yes, when the president uses the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. § 1601 et seq.) to take money Congress appropriated for one purpose and use it for another, when Congress expressly refused to appropriate the money for the president’s desired purpose, he stabs democracy where it hurts!
We’re in dangerous times because we elected an ignorant, bigoted man to lead us. Maybe we will survive this attack on our collective existence. If so, when we figure out how to manage the cleaning up, we ought to examine how we got here, and what we want going forward. Maybe, just maybe, history tells us we like, more than we want to admit, the path which allows us to end up with the likes of what we have today.
*The notion that we can decide legal issues based on what our forefathers thought reflects fanciful thinking, as if all of the rich guys with wigs agreed on every issue.