Every year in mid-February, tens of millions of Americans take the Monday off in celebration of the presidency. And while the average civics teacher will tell you that we do not appreciate our national political heritage nearly enough, the typical American is not only too respectful of the presidency on this day; he is far too enamored of the institution all year round.
The president of the United States has far more power than any office in the history of humanity. It is trite even to make the comparison. The current president claims the right to detain, torture and kill anyone on earth and to start wars and occupations in any nation of his choice. He claims the right to levy taxes on anything, prohibit anything, mandate anything, spy on anyone, and demand that all jurisdictions on the planet bend to his will. While the laws of economics limit his actual power to alter reality, the pure destructive potential of the modern presidency is beyond unspeakable. Nuclear holocaust, prospectively amounting to the greatest atrocity ever, is generally within his reach.
No matter who is president, it ends up costing many people their lives. Practically all US presidents go to war and kill foreigners. Even the best modern presidents, like Warren G. Harding, violated the Bill of Rights and acted at times like a despot. Even the great Grover Cleveland gave America an income tax, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and some questionable precedents in foreign diplomacy and federal police powers. He was arguably the best. Another fairly decent one was Martin Van Buren, but his conduct on the Trail of Tears is unforgivable. The revered Jefferson administration was in many ways a big mess.
This is the best it gets. The worst presidents, for their part, rank among the greatest political criminals in world history. (And these tend to be the ones we’re supposed to admire most.)
Most Americans want to keep the modern presidency, even as they argue passionately over which would-be tyrant should fill the spot. The differences between candidates are seldom significant and every year the major choices become worse.
Sure, someone with Ron Paul’s rare principle and dedication could do great things as president, but only so long as public opinion supported retrenchment of the state. Only to that extent can a politician facilitate big steps toward liberty. Ron has of course contributed greatly to that public opinion, but he is the first to acknowledge that it is a classical liberal culture, and not great men standing alone, that makes a free society.
In other words, even the president himself ironically has not the power to bring down the modern presidency, whose demonic power is much greater than any single holder of the office and is a reflection of a national political climate worshipful of presidential supremacy. Even after seven years of Bush, that overall climate is still dismal. Consider McCain, Hillary and Obama. All of them promise change, and yet all three want to keep the basic infrastructure of the imperial presidency. They all want to greatly expand the presidency in one way or another. McCain promises ever more war. Hillary wants to nationalize medicine.
Obama promises lots more spending but he is an interesting case. He actually terrifies me precisely because I find him rather likeable. When a radical libertarian finds something to like in a statist of this caliber, you know we are dealing with a dangerous politician.
His appeal is somewhat understandable. Of course, much of Obama’s program is anathema, but on crucial issues like war and civil liberties, he sounds much less crazed than Bush, McCain or Hillary. Listen to the conciliatory way he puts things. He sounds much less offensive to many basic old liberal principles than the others.
Then it hits me. He’s not saying anything at all, really, except what everyone wants to hear. He is a masterful politician and represents what most Americans want out of their president — someone they can be proud of and feel good about, someone to shape their warm and fuzzy view of what it means to be American. This view varies somewhat, depending on the group, from the center left/progressive coalition that backs Obama to the neocon/theocon/Wall Street Bush coalition. But it is clear that most all Americans want a president they can respect.
I don’t. I don’t want Americans to get their faith back in the presidency. It is a horrible institution and the more the people give it blind trust based on the personality they see, the more awesome its power and abuses. In the 1970s, the presidency was gloriously disrespected and thus relatively impotent. Reagan brought faith back into the presidency, at least for the right and center. Clinton later did the same for the left and center. Their administrations were quite detrimental for American liberty.
Modern politicians get votes not mostly on their policies but rather on how they make people feel about America. When Americans favor the president more, they also tend to think more highly of the presidency. They want more from their government, and are less bothered when it commits great wrongs. It has been populist solidarity with the state that has created the democratic leviathan of the 20th century, with all its power to bomb, usurp and torture. Vast American pride in the presidency is what has allowed it to become the nation’s master and such a menace to the world.
Americans shouldn’t look to the president for their self-respect, patriotism and cultural identity. The presidency in its current form is entirely too powerful and thus an inherently corrupting and inhumanely destructive thing. The presidency as it supposedly should be, under the Constitution, is a relatively humble office overseeing the executive branch, one of three composing a radically restrained government with very limited enumerated powers. Today, the presidency overshadows the other branches, the states, and all Constitutional and statutory limits on its power. In any event, why should 300 million people, and to a great extent the rest of the world, have to live under one all-powerful law enforcement official? The whole idea seems like some kind of insanity. How did this become the American way? If we are to restore our freedom, we need our compatriots to snap out of this trance. The silver lining in the Bush administration has been the disgust he has elicited so universally, especially among the left and center. This has constrained his actions somewhat. I am not looking forward to the many Americans turned off by the obvious horrors of the Bush administration once again respecting and trusting the president.
Short of a mass campaign against the omnipotent presidency itself, which Ron Paul’s has come closest to representing in modern electoral history, no presidential bid is going to excite me much. I prefer the president kill far fewer people and loot the country less. I prefer fewer peaceful prisoners to more. But we will all lose out on peace, freedom and wealth so long as Americans love and celebrate the presidency, looking to it as savior, moral guardian for the nation, stabilizer of the economy, provider of goods and necessities, protector against evil and liberator of the world. Indeed, given the choice between an Obama, Hillary or McCain who might breathe new life into the presidency and restore the respect and awe it once elicited; or, on the other hand, the stale, despised and pathetic George W. Bush, I am more than tempted to say: Four More Years!
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.