“The best reason why Monarchy is a strong government is that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other.” - Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (1867)
That was written by Walter Bagehot, a British journalist who wrote extensively about government and economics while he was editor-in-chief of The Economist from 1860 to his death in 1877. What he’s saying here is pretty simple: a monarchy is the easiest form of government for the masses to understand because it's so simple. No checks and balances or bicameral legislatures to figure out or follow; just one person with absolute rule.
While the American colonies fought a revolutionary war more than 200 years ago to liberate themselves from the British crown, it seems to me that this country – in its relatively short life span – has now come full circle. Today, it seems there are more American masses than ever that indeed want a return to the monarchy: an American monarchy.
For my last birthday, my brother gave me the History Channel’s Ultimate Guide to the Presidents DVD set as a gift, something I had been wanting for months. Being the history junkie that I am, I couldn’t wait to finish all three discs. I had already bought and watched The Presidents DVD set countless times, which was more autobiographical of the presidents’ personal lives than they were political. The ultimate guide covered each administration’s policies in more detail as well as a historical timeline of events each administration dealt with.
The structure and narration of the program was great, but what annoyingly bugged me about the analysis was how harsh and unfair it was to economically conservative presidents (surprise) such as Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan while how praising and lauding it was to the most hardcore progressive presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked though, considering 90% of their “expert historians” were academic professors.
But what really struck me about the ranking system was how they measured the success of any presidency by how aggressively each president expanded the powers of the office (amusingly ignoring the consequences of such actions by the domestic surveillance-pushing, price control-fixing, EPA-creating, central authority-hungry presidency of Richard Nixon who, make no mistake, was a huge big government progressive). I thought to myself, “Why not just call it the ‘Ultimate Guide to the Kings’ then? Seeing as that’s what they want the office to be.”
It then dawned on me: Maybe several (if not most) Americans do want a king over a president today. I mean look how obsessed we still are with the British Royal Family, hundreds of years after a hard fought war to divorce ourselves of even caring. (Though personally, I suspect the media’s infatuation with the Royal Family stems from a desire to capitalize on the fact that most women never seem to grow out of their Disney princess fairy tale fantasies more than anything else, but that’s a topic for another discussion.)
Having studied the history of the presidents extensively, I’ve concluded that anyone who thinks we elect our presidents based on ideology, principles or goals is a fool. The results clearly show several inconsistencies in those areas. What it really comes down to (especially in the last 40 years) is pretty superficial: likability, relatability and personality. We vote for national icons now, for the beauty queen, for the best salesman.
The stunning thing is Bagehot saw this way back in the 1860s when writing a book entitled, The English Constitution which explored and contrasted the functioning of parliament and the British monarchy with Congress and the American presidency. In the book, Bagehot noted, “Under a presidential constitution, the preliminary caucuses that choose the president need not care as to the ultimate fitness of the man they choose. They are solely concerned with his attractiveness as a candidate.”
He was saying that almost 150 years ago? It’s amazing how profound and accurate that statement applies to today’s environment. Indeed, not only do incredibly popular figures win popular elections, but their popularity could be so great that the masses (and even academia, evidently) want them to aggressively expand the powers of the office beyond any constitutional limits.
It’s what the band Living Colour wrote a song of in 1988 – “The Cult of Personality” – juxtaposing pairs of leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Benito Mussolini that are widely remembered in a highly polarized negative and positive light so as to say that the cult of personality (similar to hero worship) works in either direction.
Shortly after the 2012 election, I’ll never forget an exchange I had with a certain PolicyMic pundit (who shall go nameless, but regulars can probably figure out who it was). His exact words to me were, “The voters decided. President Obama was chosen to be the leader. His vision for the country was chosen. Congress should get out of the way. Just get the hell out of his way.”
Now that sounds like a monarchy to me if I ever heard one (or a dictatorship at least). This is precisely why the founding fathers established a constitutional republic rather than a parliamentary democracy. The founding fathers were not very fond of democracies. Thomas Jefferson described democracy as “nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%,” while Ben Franklin famously once said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”
But more importantly, the checks and balances of a constitutional republic prevent zealots like Mr. “Congress should get out of the way” from making the president a king, even if they happen to be the majority.
Bagehot ultimately concluded that the only reason America succeeded as a free country was that the American people had a “genius for politics.” But he failed to realize one critical reason why we have that freedom: precisely because the president – or executive branch – is only one-third of government, not a king with absolute rule. The Constitution was specifically designed that way to prevent the public from making any one man a dictator, careless of how popular he may be with the masses. And Congress will never “get out of his way” because that’s its job, whether its function is intelligible to the mass of mankind or not.