July 01, 2007
The Myth of the Unitary Executive?

Administrations come and, though it sometimes takes forever, they go. Individuals last a bit longer; but arguments outlive us all.

Enough with the English Civil War Already

Consider, for example, the argument between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists that caused the English Civil War in 1642, leading to the execution of King Charles I and the exile of his son, later Charles II. Apparently the historical knowledge required to make useful comparisons was insufficiently widely distributed. (Unfortunately Decline and Fall would not be published for 135 years.) What were they thinking, not killing the kid? Mercy and regicide don’t mix. Not that the alternative always succeeds, mind you; but you gotta start somewhere.

In American Theocracy, Kevin Phillips talks about the connections between the English Civil War and the American one. New England, after all, was favored with lots of Puritans, who were generally sympathetic to Cromwell’s Roundheads. Many New Englanders shipped back to England to fight against Charles I.

Big Men in the Southern states, on the other hand, expected the privileges their patrons back in England had of owning and ordering, and basically living in a Cavalier fashion (how else?). The Province of Carolina, for example, was named after the headless king. It was granted to eight supporters by Charles II when he regained the throne. (One of whom, Lord Shaftesbury, employed a secretary named John Locke.) Most of the Southerners who returned to England to fight in the Civil War were Royalists. They tended to believe in centralization of power, since they were in the center. Unfortunately we’re not able to do a controlled experiment in this regard, but had their quarters been swapped for those of their slaves, they might have thought differently.

The conflict, in other words, was inherent in the soul of the United States from long before it became an independent political entity. Monarchy or Parliamentarianism? You’re either with us or against us.

The Frustrations of History

Which adds a bit of back story to the current conflicts between Congress and the White House over whether, despite Tony Snow’s ruling, Congress has, and will execute, Constitutional oversight responsibilities with respect to the executive branch.

Kanye West might be right, though it seems to me that Shrub cares more about money than skin color; he and Snoop seem to be cool with each other, for example. But I can name one black person George Bush does care about: John Conyers, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and the only member who was involved in the Congressional fight to get documents from the Nixon White House. Then there’s Henry Waxman, neither the most beautiful Representative nor the most riveting speaker, but something of a progressive Javert. John Dean says Waxman “may be the nation’s most diligent and vigilant member of Congress”. That, beloveds, is truly what the Founding Fathers intended, Federalist Society be damned.

In the Senate, the White House faces Patrick “Go Fuck Yourself” Leahy, who just might harbor a bit of resentment against the Cheney administration’s imperial style. And Leahy, like Waxman, was elected to Congress for the first time in November, 1974, three months after Nixon resigned.

“This is a further shift by the Bush administration into Nixonian stonewalling and more evidence of their disdain for our system of checks and balances,” said [Leahy]. “Increasingly, the president and vice president feel they are above the law — in America no one is above law.”

The question now is what to do about the obvious facts — namely, that the President and the Vice President, among others, have committed serious crimes, in my view including war crimes and crimes against humanity, and violated their Constitutional responsibilities.

What I Learned About Government by Watching The X-Files

There’s an X-Files episode about Mulder and Scully going to Texas on an investigation, and filing reports afterward. Their reports are quite different, and the episode shows flashbacks from both points of view. It’s one of their silliest; the scene with Mulder explaining that it’s surprisingly difficult to shoot out the tires on an RV making circles in a parking lot is great. It’s filmed in black-and-white, and includes a sheriff who Mulder recalls as a country bumpkin with buck teeth and Scully recalls as a southern gentleman of whom Mulder is jealous.

Turns out the town is infested with the undead. Our heros realize this when, as a result of ordering pizza, they wake up with their shoelaces tied and the pizza uneaten. Aha, says Mulder, vampires.

When they finally get the scoop, they realize the sheriff is also a vampire. The vampires, it seems, have learned to live in relative peace with the surrounding community by keeping their heads down and only feeding in ways that the locals can dismiss as religious visions or alcohol-induced fantasies. The sheriff, realizing he’s got a sympathetic audience in the FBI agents, confesses, and apologizes for the pizza-delivery boy: “He never got the concept of low-profile.”

Which, I assert, is a metaphor for government. Like vampiring, government resembles typography and refereeing; when it’s done well, it’s unnoticeable. In a basketball game, where calls make much more difference than in baseball, football, soccer, or tennis, the best referees are quiet: they call all the blatant stuff and let the dinky stuff go, and they do so in a relatively even manner. This is what people want when they petition for referees to “let the players decide the game”.

Problems arise when one side adopts a consistent strategy of not simply pushing the envelope of the rules but openly flaunting its refusal to obey them. How then can a fair referee “let the players decide the game”? Inadvertent rule violations are one thing; cheating is another, and the nature of things in such cases is that the “activist” referees control the outcome. And we saw how well that worked in 2000.

The question now is, God help us, what the Supreme Court will do if the dispute over subpoenas arrives there. I doubt there’s any pro-Monarchist position that couldn’t attract Scalia and Thomas, and probably Alito. But I think, for now, that the rule of law might hope to get five votes. We’re very likely to get Kennedy, who’s often called The Swing Vote; and we might even get Roberts on the issue of separation of powers, an area in which the Court has historically guarded its prerogatives, and where the Chief Justice’s own power and prestige are affected.

Vampires and the Leisure Class

Thorsten Veblen describes another kind of vampire in his Theory of the Leisure Class. The Wikipedia entry notes, among other things, that Veblen’s critique is more radical than that of Marx, who grants the superiority of capitalism over feudalism. Veblen doesn’t; he considers capitalism to be the modern manifestation of primitive tribal behavior, in which status is the highest value.

In Veblen’s view, the development of human society grew from the prehistoric search for necessities, specifically food. At first, everyone brought back what they found, and everyone ate. Then some people realized that they could intimidate others, or attack them and steal their take, and avoid the hard work of gathering.

Over time, this “leisure class” did less and less real work. They preferred hunting to gathering. Hunting generates food when it’s successful, but it burns a lot of calories with uncertain results. They might occasionally raid neighbor tribes and bring back booty that was useful to everyone, thus provoking Paleolithic blowback. Which in turn creates the requirement for a constant vigil to protect the home land.

The leisure class concentrated on two things:

  • Warfare, manufacture of the associated weapons and propaganda, and rules to restrict the knowledge of weapons
  • The development of various forms of status to differentiate the two classes

There are several natural results of this social structure, such as endemic warfare and lies, and the endless struggle for alpha-dog status. (“Think I’ll buy me a football team.”)

Veblen argues that status quickly dissociated itself from utility, to the point that one can now determine the status of an activity largely by judging its usefulness: the more useful it is, the lower its status. Think farming versus bond trading. Even activities that might seem to have useful side effects, such as the physical fitness required to play football, can be masquerades, according to Veblen, who considers that the “relation of football to physical culture is much the same as that of the bull-fight to agriculture”.

Thus he derives the concept of conspicuous consumption, consuming more than you need: if you can waste, you must have a lot, so waste indicates high status. Once you’re consuming as much as you can, you want people to know it, otherwise you don’t get the status points.

Next there’s conspicuous leisure. If you can sit on the porch and wave as the neighbors leave for work, you’re higher status than they are. Then comes vicarious consumption — your dependents are also wasteful — and vicarious leisure — your servants sit on the porch and wave.

Veblen proceeds to apply this viewpoint to a variety of society’s oddities, often with comic effect. You can tell, he says, that society affords God very high status by looking at the number of people employed for his vicarious leisure. He has a stretch of about two pages on why dogs are higher status than cats that is hilarious. In his view, hunting is an expression of the right of the leisure class to do whatever useless thing strikes its fancy. The fox hunt, for example, is certainly not done for the sake of calories, and that inefficiency is a hallmark of status. The more useless, the higher the status.

He must have been pretty popular at cocktail parties back in 1899 with that kind of line.

What’s This To Teach Us?

So when I catch myself having Nixon flashbacks, I remind myself: yes, this is really a new version of the same battle. Yes, this is a battle that’s apparently endemic to American life. Yes, it even goes back three and half centuries to the English Civil War. And, okay, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s what humans have always done. We’ve also always killed each other. Doesn’t mean we can’t stop.

We’re not seeing replays from the Nixon years randomly. This struggle’s been going on for centuries. Should the United States have an all-powerful executive, kinda like a pope or, here’s an idea, a king? Or should we elect, say, a legislature or a parliament to make the rules?

It comes down — surprise! — to the rich and powerful few against the meek and voiceless many. And the rich are way richer now, compared to the rest of us, than they were only a decade or two ago. Maybe, after all, we should just return to a feudal society and admit the rich will always control us. Feudal serfs, after all, were assured food, clothing, and health care, such as it was, by the lord’s need for laborers at the next harvest. We peasants had some value. (Especially after the Black Death, when the number of laborers dropped in Europe dropped by about a third in a year and a half. Good times!)

Alternatively, we could shoulder our burdens as citizens and try to emulate the founders, or rather to realize their highest statements of ideal. We are many, and we have recently found new ways to organize and to make ourselves heard.

There is much to do. War still rages in Iraq, there is still great poverty in the richest nation in history, and many of our citizens are without health care. Past generations of Americans have surmounted obstacles more difficult than these. It is our turn.

It’s possible that we’re on the verge of a new flowering of democracy in America — of all places! — arising from the abuses of the Cheney administration.

But if so, the first step is to confront the abuses and the lawbreaking head-on. I don’t mean that we’re ready to confront our own national nature as couch-potato bullies; that’ll have to be put off. At a minimum, though, we must accept that our government can be hijacked by people whose actions, whatever their statements or even intentions, are destructive to the point of criminality.

And that this affects us all.

The President and the Vice President command, and to some extent control, the entire federal bureaucracy, including what amounts to a private army in the CIA, and a huge and nearly unaccountable intelligence community with an unknown budget. I haven’t read everything written by the founders, but I have yet to encounter anything I could interpret as countenancing a President’s private army or an unaccountable spy network. This, it seems to me, is exactly what they were rebelling against. And exactly how things happened in Rome.

Archy or An-?

In this continuing argument, I’m reminded of the judgement of Lazarus Long:

Political tags — such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth — are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.

I’m basically a libertarian in that I don’t want government to tell me what to do. But I also think we can do things collectively that we can’t do alone: schools, roads, hospitals, moon shots, cures for cancer. What do we call the entity that executes our wishes in this collective fashion? I think the word is government, but I’m not stuck on that.

I’m also a socialist in that I think our collective actions should have the goal of increasing the common wealth. And it seems to me that a big part of our common wealth is our heritage of participatory government.

If we fail to confront the blatant law-breaking by the President and the Vice President in some institutional way, we will take a big step down Rome’s path. Probably we can’t impeach both Bush and Cheney before the 2008 election. But we should try.

And there’s no statute of limitations on war crimes.


Posted by Chuck Dupree at July 01, 2007 05:59 AM
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Great post. Sometimes I think the one percent of genes separating us from the chimps genome is the one that controls body hair. Far as anything else goes we're pretty identical.

Posted by: Aitch Jay on July 1, 2007 9:10 AM
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