For more than a century now there has been a slow drift toward Presidential government in the United States, motivated by the desire to “get America moving,” to have “progress” through “efficient” government that is not saddled with the constitutional limits on which our entire way of life was based. It would appear that, at least where politics are concerned, we all are French now.
From their beginnings in the late eighteenth century, the American and French Republics have been radically different. The one, formed out of secession from the British Empire and a desire to mesh customary rights with popular consent, found a surprising stability almost from the start from the mechanics of a constitutional structure that limited power at its center. The other, founded in claims of universal brotherhood that swiftly led to thousands of political murders in the bloody Reign of Terror, produced violence and instability, arguably for a full century and a half. Restoration followed Revolution in France, King followed Emperor in a dizzying succession interspersed with attempts at absolute parliamentary government that soon gave way to chaos.
One obvious source of the clear differences between American and French national histories had to do with the question of centralization. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed–relatively soon after the revolution he feared had left his homeland perpetually at sea–long before 1789 the French state had sapped the strength of her provinces, and of the villages and other independent associations on which liberty and the moral habits necessary for a stable, ordered public life necessarily rely. The Jacobin Revolution itself aimed to eradicate what little was left of independence and self-governance for the communities in which any good and virtuous life must be fostered. The result was a murderous concentration of power in the center, and in particular in the hands of one great leader: be he king, parliament, or emperor.
In the United States, the federal government was accepted much more grudgingly and to a much lesser degree. It was in an important sense a mechanism grafted onto more fundamental, organic communities, formalized as states but also rooted in more local associations. Fear of an overweening power at the center ensured, not only that the powers of the central government would be enumerated and strictly limited, but also that the Constitution itself would be designed along functional lines intended to prevent its concentration in any set of hands. The legislature would wield the greatest power in normal governance (ceding a higher power only within the difficult amendment process). But the legislature itself would be bound down, not just by the necessarily loose ties of periodic elections, but also by procedural requirements, the limits of enumeration, and the ability of President and court to refuse to cooperate if Congress sought to have them violate their own duties.
Only in 1958 did France achieve a kind of political stability. After yet another coup, this time softened by the intervention of the unifying figure of General Charles de Gaulle, the latest attempt at parliamentary government, like its predecessors mired in political corruption and infighting, was replaced by a form of constitutionalism vesting vast powers in the new President—de Gaulle himself. The new President insisted on expanding his power even further than provided in the new constitution, but from the start presidential powers were extensive. The French President can rule by decree within a vast realm of governmental activity. The French Parliament, meanwhile, is strictly limited in its ability to legislate, particularly where budgets are concerned. The President rules in France, with the Parliament playing the much lesser role of overseeing the government appointed and regulated by the President. The President even shapes the legislative agenda through his appointment and control of “the government,” meaning the cabinet heads and the head of the legislature itself.
None of this is to say that the French constitution is “wrong.” Constitutions and governments must fit the character of their people. It may well be that, with the ideological forces unleashed in 1789, the demise of so much of French civil society over the course of the early modern era and the capture of so much of the authority of the Catholic Church under the longstanding doctrine of Gallicanism, there is a need for a concentration of powers in the French executive so that the already-concentrated powers of the state in Paris may be brought under some kind of control. France appears unalterably committed as a nation to a secularism that empowers the state as protector of a purely civic public square and a centralization that chains localities to national standards for everything from grammar school lessons to wages and prices. Until and unless this changes, and the French people choose to accept the possibility of local self-government and true jurisdictional pluralism, France’s current form of government may well be the only one capable of maintaining peace and order in that land.
But France most definitely is not, or at least until recently was not, the United States. Our Constitution was established to provide the United States with a common face for dealings with other nations, the means of a stronger common defense, and limitations on states’ ability to stifle commerce between the states and between the United Sates and other countries. It placed the legislature at the center of its government because this is the branch most dependent on the people, hence most likely to protect their interests and respect their will. That legislature, limited in its grant of power, nonetheless was dominant because of its ability to set the national agenda and remove officers of the other branches, should they violate the duties of their offices. The “center” in American political life did not lie in any one city or government; it was, instead, a web of relationships among governments, institutions, and associations providing room for self-government and development among a variety of individual persons and groups.
Yet today it is the President of the United States who rules. He dispenses with properly enacted laws by suspending deportation proceedings for millions of illegal immigrants, decreeing that they be educated, given medical care and otherwise be cared for at state expense. After manipulating the legislative process to gain passage of a vast expansion of federal power subjecting individuals to penalties for refusing to engage in commerce by purchasing health care on his hyper-regulated exchanges, he dispenses from this legislation; he decrees “waivers” and “interpretations” altering the fundamental character of his own programs without going to the trouble of consulting the national legislature. And Congress? The President’s minions there decree that the policies are good, and thus any attempt to change them must be a matter of mere “partisanship,” hence illegitimate. Members of the other party lack the will and conviction to move against his unconstitutional regime, fearing electoral losses should they refuse to support programs related to those he has decreed.
This situation did not happen overnight. There has been no “Obama coup,” reprehensible as that President’s conduct and the conduct of his minions and enablers in the other branches has been. For more than a century now there has been a slow drift toward Presidential government in the United States, motivated by the desire to “get America moving,” to have “progress” through “efficient” government that is not saddled with the constitutional limits on which our entire way of life was based.
The stable, free government we once enjoyed was stable and free because it was rooted in a vision of society as the primary realm of public action. That is, our free government rested on an understanding that most people most of the time should look to their neighbors, to their families, churches, and local associations to help them in pursuing the goods of life. Only in unusual circumstances and in the buttressing of long-practiced customary relations was the government to be looked to for support. Even the courts rested their decisions largely on a common law vision in which customary practice was to be altered or struck down only in the breach, where it violated some deeper, more fundamental norm.
The Progressive era, so crucial to contemporary visions of good government, was sold to the American people as the solution to a variety of social and economic ills; it continues to be sold to us as the only alternative to mass starvation, countless deaths among the medically uninsured, and a return to Jim Crow. But while the ills to which Progressives point are real, their claim to have “solved” these risks lacks credibility, particularly in light of historical improvements for which their programs can take no credit. The real question is whether the price of any potential gains in public well-being from their particular programs (as opposed to more decentralized programs they simply dismiss) have come at a cost. Progressivism’s defenders see no cost, only the “benefits” of centralized government. Nevertheless, their efficiency came at the price of legislative control, of accountability, and in the end of the rule of law.
We are left with a system in which Congress can act only as a kind of “super-ombudsman,” providing constituents with publicity, expertise, and political muscle in their unequal bargaining with the rulers of various executive agencies. Congress seldom initiates policy any longer, instead waiting for presidential messages and even budgets—something not provided for in the Constitution. And now, with the growth of waivers, executive orders, signing statements, and various other unilateral decrees issued from the Oval Office, in most areas Congress is essentially powerless to counteract presidential decrees. Only by mustering a veto-proof two-thirds majority can Congress in essence “veto” a Presidential policy. And no such majorities exist in our partisan era, rendering Congress the weak sister in our new, super-presidential form of government.
There was a time when one could look to the American and French models of republicanism as near-opposites, inhabiting opposite extremes on the spectrum of republican government. The United States exemplified limited, ordered, mixed government aimed at fostering a vibrant civil life. France exemplified the demand that “the people,” taken as a political whole, should have its ideological demands put into action, even where they were extreme, in a process only barely contained within the centralized structures of French presidentialism. It would appear that, at least where politics are concerned, we all are French now.
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