By now the left-wing press has said so many rude things about Sarah Palin that it would be superfluous to add to the stew. The Republican vice presidential nominee no doubt has her flaws, but seems to be the sort of solid pit bull of a mother without which no American community could long function. More than Palin herself, it’s her appeal which seems so over the top, an idol set up by certain people who, in any other context, would be the first to condemn idolatry. After all, if you think the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 A.D. was too liberal on the subject of icons…it might also behoove one to keep a cool distance from political messiahs of either sex.
And yet…perhaps there is nothing wrong with a little bit of hero, or rather heroine, worship in this particular case. Palin has tapped into the populist streak in the American psyche, and she has the bona fides to do it. It’s the general feeling…a feeling based on considerable evidence, that the United States is run in the interests of a series of interlocking elites, not "we the people," which has coronated a hockey mom from Wasilla as the darling of the "overfly states" as well as Alaska. The only irony is that the enthusiasm is all out of proportion to the office which she seeks.
No, I don’t mean the vice presidency.
Let’s face it (Dick Cheney aside), nobody runs for the splendid chance of ruling from the Naval Observatory for four years. Anyone who resides at that address, under present political circumstances, is just engaged in a four or eight year campaign for higher office. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t the plan of the original constitution. The founders, being acute students of history, started off thinking in terms of the Roman consulate. They knew that the Romans had a co-presidency, elected each year and rotating responsibility for domestic and foreign affairs. This notion was quickly torpedoed by the crypto-monarchic movement of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists; however a vestige of vice presidential consulship was retained until the ratification of the 12th amendment in 1804. Up until that time America’s second magistrate was also the runner-up in the previous presidential election. For example, sans that amendment, John Kerry would have been the leader of the senate under Bush…a position of considerable power, particularly if, as in the past two years, the legislative and executive had been controlled by different parties. In that case the vice presidency would have the potential of becoming "the executive of the legislature"…a kind of semi-parliamentary office.
But enough of alternate history: in post-12th-amendment reality the vice president is the creature of the President, who is not only chief magistrate but the head of his (or her!) party. The only exception (purely hypothetical I am sure) would be if the president were such a weak character that he became dominated by the gravitas and expertise of the junior office holder. Now that might be somebody…but not John McCain.
Once having established that the vice president is a creature of the senior magistrate, we can safely conclude that a woman of Sarah Palin’s potential has no possible interest in that office, other than for use as a tent to ice-fish for something else. And since the u2018something else’ is obvious we can move on to the taboo question: Who is the President a creature of?
"God!" Yes Sarah, as indeed we all are, but in this context we are referring to…
"The People." Text book correct…which is to say completely false. The idea of a populist presidency is a mirage. It just can’t, and never will happen. Certainly America has had its share of populist leaders, and some of them have even campaigned for the supreme office. There was William Jennings Bryan, who struck many of the same chords a hundred years ago that Sarah Palin does today…but he never became president. Not for want of trying, but because the presidency is just not that sort of animal…it was not intended to represent the American people or its values.
Shocking? If you can’t remember this having been taught in school, don’t worry, it probably wasn’t. But the founders who established the office knew well enough what they were doing. They were familiar with the notion of a tribunate: a high office in which the will of the people is expressed through concentrated executive power for democratic ends. For very good reasons the founders abhorred this notion, and created the presidency to be a kind of anti-tribunate.
Yes Sarah, imagine that! The office of the presidency, the one that you intend to seek in four to eight years, was designed explicitly by Alexander Hamilton and like-minded men to keep power out of the hands of the people. To be specific, it was intended to keep power in the hands of an eastern establishment centered around New York, Philadelphia, and later the custom-designed capital we now call "Washington." And ever since then the office has functioned very well in accordance with the original plan.
It seems our Sarah may have to decide between the office and her status as one of the "we" in "we the people"…or at least the wee people as opposed to the big (and generally bad) people. But in the case of the contemporary presidency it gets even worse. For there is yet a further complication, one that not even the Machiavellian brain of Mr. Hamilton could fully imagine in his time. However his much wiser contemporary, the Anti-federalist leader George Mason, did grasp the future danger. In reward for his perspicacity Mason (until recently) has been held up as a faithless prophet of doom. Yet in a sense Mason predicted that the presidency would work even better than its planners envisioned. The Federalists intended to make the executive, in the interests of stability, the guarantor of a national elite, but Mason went beyond this, and suggested that the presidency would function, or perhaps dysfunction, as the agent of foreign interests.
To be sure Mason was off on some of the specifics of his prophecy. On June 17th 1788 he delivered a speech to the constitutional convention claiming that the president would eventually wind up serving for life and be corrupted by foreign powers. While American presidents don’t literally serve for life, they are part of a continuously seated government which is an easy target for both domestic and foreign lobbyists. Mason stated that this highly visible concentration of power would make it easy for anyone in the world to purchase the good will of the president. Or to put it in the crassest terms, it is easier to purchase one office-holder than many.
(Nota bene: "purchase" may refer to any binding contract, transacted through media such as common interest, sentiment, honor, or prejudice…not just the obvious lucre.)
One must remember that, while it may have taken America’s rise to globalism to highlight the efficiency of the chief executive to foreign interests, the function was already inherent in the office, not the result of some sort of post-Wilsonian policy revolution. It is a structural aspect of our system of government, safely beyond ideological shifts between left and right, internationalist or nativist. Now, contrary to the Tom Tancredos of this world, I’m not entirely convinced that the dictation of policy in Washington by foreign lobbyists is any more evil than its dictation by their domestic counterparts, but it is decidedly no more "populist." After all, it is not the leaders of world’s democratic movements which have come to joyously join their votes with our representatives in Washington. The foreigners are ruled by their elites as well.
If this sketch of the presidency, in its essence and its very constitutional inception, is even half true (say, the half about being an agent of domestic powers…not to mention foreign powers) I do think it puts Sarah Palin’s political ambitions in a rather tragic light. For if she is sincere in her desire to turn self-rule back to the people outside the Washington beltway, there will have to come a point at which she recognizes that the very office she seeks is the chief obstacle to her aim. There may be something comical about comparing her popularity to that of Eva Peron. After all, what would the Argentine descamisados (lit. "shirtless ones") of Evita’s day have in common with today’s Alaskan moose hunters insulated in their vinyl and down jackets? But like our Sarah, Evita was nothing if not sincere. It wasn’t for want of beauty or a strong will that her reform movement failed. It was rather that one woman couldn’t change the prevailing reality of her land: a country settled by first world immigrants, which was swiftly attaining third-world status.
In spite of the best efforts of government economists the United States has yet to attain perfect third-world status, but we already have tragedy enough: a country settled by people seeking freedom from molestation has morphed into a meddling, interventionist empire. Sarah Palin seems to have made her peace with the "empire" side of the equation, but she wants an empire ruled by the families next door, the good people of Wasilla and all those other towns of middle America where honesty and decency still flourish. And who knows, perhaps the axiom "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" can be gotten around somehow, either by pure force of will and good character…or failing that, a miracle.
Well, Evita believed in miracles too.
Mark Sunwall [send him email] studied Austrian economics at George Mason University and now teaches Rhetoric and Social Science at the University of Hyogo. He is an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.