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Rethinking Executive Power

Monday, November 28, 2005
Like most liberals, I have been enamored by the potentials of a stronge executive. As the only representative elected by the whole people, executives are in a unique position to both embody the will of the people and to provide unified direction and impetus to public policy. During the 20th century, it was liberal executives who provided the necessary leadership for liberal reforms: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson - it's an impressive list both of leaders and accomplishments.

The gradual concentration of power in executives is not restricted to the White House. Governors have grown steadily stronger over time, as they have become professionals and the state legislatures have remained amateurs. Mayors have regained a great deal of their luster as well. At every level of government the voters seem willing to invest ever-greater powers in the executive branch. For example, here is New York the voters rejected a state constitutional amendment that would shift power from an over-mighty governor to the legislature, while the voters approved two city charter amendments that would strengthen the power of the Mayor.

Once upon a time I would have considered this trend all to the good. The passage of time and greater perspective has forced me to reconsider my support of the executive as the focus of politics. Partially this is because since LBJ it is conservative leadership that has generally been represented in the White House. As a result, the powers invested in the Presidency have pushed policy to the right. There is also the long train of executive abuses over the last generation as well - Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the manifold demonstrations of incipient tyranny by the current administration. The aggressive use of executive privilege and heightening of presidential war powers, particularly with regard to civil liberties, are obvious examples of an executive that has become too strong. While the abuse of a thing is no argument against the thing itself, it does give one pause when those abuses become routine.

I have more substantive objections to a powerful executive than the problems of the day. The fact of it is that the strong executive is inherently less democratic than the legislature. Executives rely on mass persuasion and directives rather than deliberation. It is the executive branch that is most dangerous should it be inhabited by demagogues. And an over-reliance on strong leadership can over time condition the citizens to follow and obey - to look to the "great leader" to solve their problems rather than recognize that self-governance requires personal participation in the political process.

I have thought for some time that the drift of war-making and foreign policy powers towards the Presidency is a real problem, given the increasingly blatant manipulation of international affairs for domestic political purposes (the Tonkin Gulf, the Grenada invasion, and of course Iraq). I am now prepared to generalize this critique to the whole panoply of postwar executive leadership. While it certainly makes sense to invest more powers in the executive in times of crisis, this deference must end when meaning of "crisis" is debased so that you are always in such a state. A free people cannot long indulge in the fantasy of a Savior and remain free.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:40 AM
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