A little while ago, I wrote about the upcoming summer Olympics and how both the athletes and the fans misunderstand what should go on there. Well, every summer Games coincides with a United States presidential election, and the misunderstandings and distortions that go along with this make anything from the world of sports fade into insignificance.
For some reason, Americans love to think the president “runs the country.” They use phrases such as “most powerful man in the world” when speaking of the officeholder. They forget, or do not realize, that the Constitution speaks of Congress first and the president second. They would be shocked to realize that the president holds eight (8) powers. They are indignant that Congress can delay or prevent his initiatives and nominations.
I was reminded how widespread the problem is by an article in October’s Atlantic called “Our Fragile Constitution.” You can read the full article here, but the piece presents a slight variation on the tired old anti-partisan refrain, “Can’t our government stop fighting and start fixing?” I would really hope that such a venerable and respected publication as The Atlantic would bring some learned perspective to this question, but alas, this essay is confused at best and purposely misleading at worst.
Yoni Appelbaum purports to have uncovered the source of the problem through a revolutionary new idea presented in The Royalist Revolution by Eric Nelson. Perhaps what prevents the U. S. government from acting to fix the country is not in the stubborn partisan proclivities of today’s elected officials, but rather something written into the Constitution itself!
Appelbaum traces Nelson’s claims that the revolutionaries in the American colonies really preferred George III to Parliament, and attempted to write a royal executive into the Constitution. However, because of their carelessness and misunderstanding of history, they inadvertently created a balanced system where the legislature could delay the presidential initiatives that the citizens prefer. He concludes that the United States should not feel obligation to this “dysfunctional” system. Let the president give the people what they want!
There is so much wrong here that I hardly know where to begin. Despite calling the Constitution “fragile,” an idea reinforced by the accompanying graphic,
Appelbaum admits that the American system has endured far longer than most other presidential governments. Indeed, he is trying to make the case that the Constitution is not fragile enough, and the United States is hurt by following a system that limits executive power. I can only conclude that Appelbaum is feeling the excitement that motivates Americans to a much larger voter turnout in presidential election years than in midterm contests.
Appelbaum operates from the typical post-New Deal assumption that the best national government is an active, powerful one. By contrast, the greatest fear in the early United States was a national government that wielded too much power. Consider the economic question. Historians such as Charles Beard have proposed that the framers created a document that ensured the hegemony of economic elites.
“Must be nice to have money!”
The wealthy should have supported it overwhelmingly, right? Not necessarily. The debate over ratification of the Constitution shows a much more nuanced situation. For example, in New York state, many of the wealthiest merchants opposed the new federal system. They feared that Congressional control of interstate commerce, found in the Constitution, would rob them of the revenues they were collecting through local taxes on such trade. Their faction, what we would call a “special interest” today, was willing to let others suffer in order to benefit themselves. Remember, they did not want the Constitution.
Fortunately for historians and political scientists, the framers of the Constitution wrote down for posterity the reasons they created the system that they did. The Federalist Papers began as letters published in newspapers around the country, and explained to skeptics why the Constitution produced the best possible government for the new Unites States. Far from showing a misunderstanding of history, these essays demonstrate a far better understanding than Nelson or Appelbaum possesses.
In Federalist 10, James Madison acknowledges that forming factions to achieve selfish goals is part of human nature, and the best any government can hope to do is reduce the destructive effects of these factions. This makes sense in the context of the New York merchants and the Constitution’s central control of interstate commerce.
In Federalist 47, Madison points out that branches or agencies of government can, themselves, be factions, and any concentration of power in one branch or agency will tend to produce tyranny. Such a government would not protect people from harmful factions, but would itself cause harm. In order to prevent this, he proposes a separation of powers in a balanced government in which no single interest is able to dominate.
Federalist 51 spells out exactly how Madison expected such a balanced government to behave. Rather than assuming, as Appelbaum asserts, that the branches of government would cooperate for the good of the country, Madison proposes that, “Ambition must be made to counter ambition.” The fact that parts of the national government would pursue their special interests, and try to prevent the others from accomplishing theirs, means that any cooperation will be difficult [sound familiar?], AND THE FRAMERS WANTED IT THAT WAY. This applies to political parties as much as it does to branches or agencies of government.
Do you see why it’s silly for Appelbaum to assert that Nelson’s book “raises [the] disturbing possibility” that government inaction is “the product of flaws inherent in” the Constitution? Madison himself wrote that he preferred gridlock to government action.
And for the life of me, I cannot figure out what Appelbaum is calling the “misreading” of history by the founders. He cites evidence from Nelson that many in the colonies preferred royal prerogative to Parliamentary rule. If that was a misunderstanding, we’re right to limit the power of the president, aren’t we? If their limiting of the executive was purposeful and based on a misunderstanding, why does Appelbaum say the framers created “an executive whose authority King George could only envy?” How could such power make today’s presidents feel powerless to move the country forward?
Problems between Great Britain and her American colonies did not stem from the weakness of the executive, as Thomas Jefferson’s litany of charges against the King in the Declaration of Independence demonstrates. They happened because there was no check on the power of Parliament. The framers assured this would not be the case in the new government they created.
If political writers such as Eric Nelson and Yoni Appelbaum want to make the case for changes in the United States’ system of government, they should just man up and say it. They have no leg to stand on when they accuse the framers of the Constitution of being naive or misguided. Just look at the documents they left us.
If Madison were alive today and heard the calls for cooperation and bipartisanship, he’d simply shake his head. Largely unchanged in the 227 years since its ratification, the Constitution is functioning exactly as intended.