There was a time when I opined frequently on political topics on this blog. Eventually I took pity on my long-suffering readers and stopped talking about politics. Today, however, I’m doing a rare political post.
I justify this ill-conceived departure from the norm by pointing out that, although political, this post is nonpartisan. It’s more of a philosophical rumination, inspired by two essays I read recently, both by a Houston Baptist University history professor, Collin Garbarino. The essays are “Laughing at the Death of Our Republic” and “No, America Is Not Collapsing Like the Roman Empire Did.”
(Similar ideas, but presented from a more pessimistic perspective, were apparently put forward by F.H. Buckley in a 2014 book, The Once and Future King, reviewed here. I haven't read this book, though I've sent a sample to my Kindle.)
Garbarino has a provocative take on American history and our current state of affairs, and the more I've thought about it, the more it seems to ring true. In fact, it's one of those points that seem obvious once they are made explicit.
Our original system, a constitutional republic, is dead and gone, he argues. And it has been dead for some time. Does this mean America is going the way of ancient Rome, which started out as a republic and ended up with an imperial system? Garbarino says no:
We’re not heading for an imperial system because we’ve already worked out an alternative to our dead republic. … We now have an elected monarchy. Sure, we don’t call it that, but that doesn’t change that that’s what we have. …
We didn’t end up with an imperial system (and we won’t) because history isn’t cyclical, and Americans stopped trying to emulate Rome. We found a way to navigate the end of republican government without 60 years of violence [which Rome endured in its civil wars]. Our elected monarchy is actually far superior to Rome’s imperial system. We have a tradition of peaceful transition and a constitutional method for succession, two things that Rome never mastered.
One thing we do have in common with the ancient Roman Empire, however, is that we still pretend that we have a republic. Both America and Rome managed to inaugurate new forms of government without actually changing the constitution. Hundreds of years after Augustus, some Romans still paid lip service to the Republic, even though they recognized that political power rested in the person of the emperor. We do something very similar.
On paper, our American form of government has changed very little over the last 200 years. In reality, our government operates in a manner that would be unrecognizable to the drafters of the Constitution. Every branch of government has gone through a radical change in its relative power, and we didn’t have to rewrite much of anything. …
Forms of government are like a man’s facial hair. We don’t get from clean-shaven to beard overnight, but at some point we’ve got to make a judgment call. I’m looking at what we’ve got now, and it’s pretty hairy. Not that there’s anything wrong with a beard. …
The idea of “Rome” lasted for more than 2,000 years, long outliving any of its particular forms of government. This is the genius of countries like Rome, Britain, and America: Change without acknowledging it. This is true conservatism. Conservatism finds a way to navigate the future without breaking with the past. This genius is why people continue to argue over history. Transition is messier than a clean break. It’s also much more stable, and it’s most stable when no one notices that it’s occurring.
[“No, America Is Not …”]
Note that Garbarino is not at all alarmed by this development. He is actually quite sanguine. For one thing, the transformation has already taken place, and we’ve pretty much gotten used to it, even without realizing it. For another, the American political system has been in a state of evolution from the beginning. Garbarino writes:
I don’t think America is in decline. … On the contrary: America’s relative power in the world is at its height. Of course, one might justly characterize our current geopolitical situation as a worldwide race to the bottom, so perhaps saying America is still on top won’t impress anyone too much. …
I find the conflation of the idea of “America” with any particular form of government, in this case a republic, unhelpful. My stance is that America has persisted under various forms of government. The first happened to be a republic, but those days are long passed [sic].
(“No, America Is Not ...”)
Garbarino traces the origin of an elected monarchy to the Civil War and the administration of Abraham Lincoln. He argues that Lincoln's creation of the IRS set in motion a chain of events resulting in a vast federal bureaucracy that inevitably took power away from the legislative branch. I don't know if Lincoln's administration is the proper starting point or not, but I do think the basic claim is correct – our large, unelected bureaucracy has fundamentally changed the federal government and the relationship of the executive and legislative branches. During the era of the spoils system, when presidents filled nearly all civil service positions with party operatives, the bureaucracy was effectively an extension of the presidency. Today, civil-service protections make it impossible for presidents to stock a whole federal agency with handpicked cronies, but a president still appoints the top people. In many ways, the president and his bureaucracy are the only game in town – and, Garbarino says, the voters know it.
We’ve moved into a period in which everyone expects the president to act as an elected monarch. Few Americans vote—except for a presidential candidate, because the president is seen as being the only person who can fix our problems. Is it any wonder that we invest so much time, money, and emotion in the presidential election cycle?
The typical American—and, indeed, Congress—views the president as having the powers of a monarch. The president himself knows that he has the powers of a monarch. It seems that the only people in America who aren’t convinced of the president’s status as our elected king are four, maybe five, justices on the Supreme Court.
(“Laughing at ...”)
As Garbarino observes, only lately are we coming to understand that the US has undergone a slow but radical metamorphosis. I would add that for the most part, we understand it imperfectly, through a prism of partisan distortion. When George W. Bush was in office, his critics said he was "shredding the Constitution," abusing his office, signing too many executive orders, etc. Now that Barack Obama is president, his critics are saying the same things about him. From Garbarino’s point of view, both Bush and Obama governed in ways that the founding fathers wouldn't recognize, yet they did so because the system itself has changed. In today’s America, any president is going to behave like an elected monarch, because that is what the modern American president has become.
In short, the American system has evolved from its republican origins, in which the president was decidedly secondary to the Congress, to an elected monarchy in which the Congress plays a considerably reduced role and the president dominates the political scene. Congress, by and large, has been content to surrender its prerogatives to the so-called “imperial presidency," just as the Roman senate did not mind handing off its powers and responsibilities to a succession of emperors and a growing imperial bureaucracy.
In both instances, the context was similar. The Roman senate – paralyzed by infighting and factionalism, weakened by corruption, and out of touch with the average citizen – was increasingly unable to get anything done. The same has been true of our own Congress in modern times. Despite a few periods of congressional activism, the general trend has been for Congress to dither and dawdle while failing in even its most basic duties – to pass a budget, for instance.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and the vacuum of political power left by the decline of the legislative branch has been filled by presidents who use executive orders and the machineries of the federal bureaucracy to get things done. Obama has pushed further than his predecessors, but in doing so, he is simply following the century-long trend of an expansionist executive branch.
If Garbarino is right, the transformation of the US governmental system is a fait accompli. It's not what the founders intended, and there are certainly many opportunities for abuse, but the original republican system wasn't perfect, either, and fostered plenty of abuses of its own. In many ways the elected monarchy with its inefficient but orderly bureaucracy has functioned better than the laissez-faire constitutional republicanism of the 18th and 19th centuries.
I might add that if this is true, maybe we should stop fretting so much about the nettlesome issue of political dynasties. In an elected monarchy, political dynasties are probably what we should expect. The rule of the "elites" in Washington and on Wall Street, in corporate boardrooms and on college campuses, may be equally unavoidable. After all, Imperial Rome was run by a small coterie of wealthy and influential families while the masses of people ignored politics and went about their business, usually unmolested and often quite prosperously.
For years I've sensed this fundamental shift in America, and I’ve hoped for an American Cicero who could revive the ideals of the original constitutional republic. But no Cicero has arisen, and, come to think of it, the historical Cicero succeeded only in slightly delaying the end of the Roman republic. He died a martyr to a lost cause.
Rather than resisting a change that has already largely taken place, it might be better to just go with it. An elected monarchy isn't the kind of America we may have thought we wanted, but it appears to be the America we’ve got. We’ve lived with it this long. Maybe it's time we made our peace with it.