Ah, the joys of opposition. So easy to be noble, with no obstacles to vapid virtue signalling. As we all know, and the Liberal Democrats especially, politicians not unlucky enough to actually be in office are spared the onerous burden of making difficult, sometimes distasteful, decisions which are unlikely to make them popular with anyone.
But another thing opposition politicians are spared is the temptation to use the immense power at their fingertips to achieve their lofty goals, in ways they might otherwise find underhanded or even squalid.
Despite their later passion for autocracy, many of the Romanovs from Peter the Great to Alexander I faced this very conundrum, attached as these enlightened despots were to the concept of the rule of law. The trouble was, when it came to it, the temptation to use their autocratic power to achieve what they genuinely believed to best for Russia always overrode the risk of delegating this to the more complicated and unpredictable process of constitutional government they claimed to believe in.
In his seven years as American head of state, Barack Obama appears to have faced a similar lack of resolve in overcoming the temptation to exercise the now-formidable power of the president, having made executive orders – laws which do not require the involvement of Congress at all – 147 times in his first term alone. This is particularly damning when one considers that, in his 2008 presidential campaign, Mr Obama told supporters at a town hall meeting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he was opposed to the use of executive orders – at least by George W. Bush.
I take the Constitution very seriously. The biggest problems that we’re facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the Executive branch and not going through Congress at all. And that’s what I intend to reverse when I become president of the United States of America.
As John Adams quipped in the eponymous HBO mini-series on hearing of Napoleon’s 1799 coup, “From monarchy to republic and right back to monarchy” (I have no idea whether he actually said this). Adrian Humphreys of Canada’s National Post hit the nail on the head earlier in the week with Obama’s most recent executive order on gun control; nearing the end of his final term, this was the action of a president with nothing left to lose. So, faced with a Republican Congress which has resolved to oppose him on anything simply for the sake of it – and which would oppose anyone on gun control regardless – he decided to make the law all by himself instead.
This descent from Republic to Cæsarism has been going on in the United States since at least the Civil War, and was greatly accelerated by Richard Nixon, but its continued acceleration is not only a betrayal of the republican system of checks and balances instituted by the Founding Fathers – it is turning an increasingly aggressively polarised nation into a powder keg just waiting to go off. And gun control is, perhaps, the greatest example of this.
The beauty of the system the Founding Fathers designed was not only that it divided federal power between the legislature, the judiciary and the executive – who at that time exercised a much more modest office – it also offset the power of this comparatively weak federal government with that of the states. This was particularly important in a young federation of commonwealths which had, as they do now, very different characters, cultures and economies, and which collectively fell within the spheres of at least two ‘nations’ which, while all professing a sincere belief in the founding principles of the Revolution, differed somewhat in their interpretation.
These differences and the lack of crystal clarity over the relationship between the state and federal governments were two of the principle causes of the American Civil War but, even in the 1960s, F.A. Hayek was able to speak of a ‘common tradition’ of (European) liberalism in American politics which ran through the Democratic and Republican parties. Today, however, we have an increasingly socialist Democratic Party and an increasingly fascistic Republican party, neither of which seem overly concerned with following the Constitution, with the principles of the Revolution, or with listening to each other – preferring instead to shout one another down and childishly obstruct the other’s attempts to get anything done. No wonder 40 per cent of Americans don’t even bother to vote.
In a highly divided and increasingly angry country like America, a federally centralised government with more and more power being placed in the hands of one man is the worst possible system going, because any decision made by this Cæsar is almost guaranteed to royally piss off the 49 or so per cent of people who voted for the other guy. You only have to look at the last few presidential elections;
Barack Obama 51.1%
Mitt Romney 47.2%
Barack Obama 52.9%
John McCain 45.7%
George W. Bush 50.7%
John Kerry 43.8%
George W. Bush 47.9%
Al Gore 48.4%
Indeed, the fact the vagaries of the Electoral College system meant George W. Bush could legitimately become president in 2000 with fewer popular votes than his opponent (this also occurred in 1824, 1876, and 1888) is yet another reason against the existence of a powerful executive in the United States. As is the highly geographic concentration of votes for each of the respective parties – blue on the coasts and Great Lakes, red in the south and the Great Plains – a situation which demands laws are made far closer to the very disparate communities on which they are imposed, as the Founding Fathers intended.
Paul is the Conservatives for Liberty Creative Director. Follow him on Twitter: @Whiggery
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty