The Case for Abolishing the Presidency
In high school history and government classes, I was taught the basics of American government, but through a rose-colored lens. Perhaps that lens was placed there beforehand by growing up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every school day since first grade. Perhaps hearing “with liberty and justice for all” for about half of the days in each year put the idea in my head that it was true, but certainly not much of what I learned in high school history or government, or the required undergraduate government classes in college did much to dispel that notion. However, when I decided to become active in politics and got involved with the Green Party, I began to learn some of the harsher realities that got left out of those courses. Since then, I have learned more about the undemocratic tendencies of our political system, and that liberty and especially justice in this country are reserved for the few.
While there are many aspects of our political system that are undemocratic and/or oppressive of the people’s right to self-government, no institution is more so than the presidency. The mere fact that no singular person can possibly represent the broad range of perspectives of even a small nation, much less one of 300 million, combined with the fact that our system allows the president to populate the highest offices of the executive branch and determine all executive branch policy provides testimony to the unrepresentative nature of the presidency, and thereby the entire executive branch of our federal government. This is compounded by the president’s power to veto legislation that has passed both houses of Congress, nominate justices of the Supreme Court, and to act as commander-in-chief of the mightiest military the world has ever known. The amount of power vested in the office is more than any one person should ever have, and the unrepresentative nature of it makes it completely incompatible with any form of legitimate democracy. These are chief among the reasons why we the people of the United States must develop a movement to abolish the presidency.
While the powers of the presidency may have seemed appropriate in 1787, many realities have changed. The United States has become the world’s largest economy; almost immediately, we developed political parties that have more influence over our national politics than the separation of powers among the branches of government; slavery and indentured servitude have been abolished; former slaves and women have been guaranteed the right to vote; our nation has expanded across the continent; and our military has become more powerful than any in history. Furthermore, beyond our borders, other nations have developed political systems that are more representative that we might borrow if we are truly concerned about “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Perhaps the most important of these changes with regard to the inordinate power of the presidency is the might of our military. In 1787, the most likely, if not the only conceivable use of our military was in defense against a more powerful attacker, especially England, France or Spain, all of which still had colonial entanglements in North America. Indeed, in 1812, we had to defend ourselves against an attack from England. This was perhaps the first and last justifiable use of our military. Regardless, since then our military has engaged in several imperialist wars, and none legitimately in defense of our constitution. Most of these have begun as a result of actions taken by our presidents, and only later approved by Congress with a declaration of war, or in the last six decades by authorization to use military force without such a formal declaration. It is likely the decisions to attack Mexican troops in the disputed territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers, to initiate an embargo on the Japanese, to fabricate the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and to fail to respond to the attacks on New York and Washington, DC on 9/11/2001 were all done with some consultation among the Cabinet or other presidential advisors, but since all these positions are filled by the president, there is little chance that such deliberations included a broad spectrum of opinions.
Some other aspects of the presidency that have proven to be antidemocratic are less due to changes than to trial and error. For instance, the veto power of the presidency was intended to provide a check on Congress, but the fact that only about 10% of all presidential vetoes have been overturned suggests that the 2/3 supermajority needed to override a veto may be too great an obstacle, unless we are to believe that one person (the president) is 9 times more likely to reach the better conclusion that a democratically deliberative body (Congress). In fact, this is more likely a result of the bipartisan nature of our politics, which makes it nearly inevitable that one party will achieve a majority, but virtually impossible to have a 2/3 supermajority.
Another flaw in our political system that exhibits the undue power of the presidency is that federal judges, including Supreme Court justices are nominated exclusively by the president. Yes, they must also endure the confirmation of the Senate, but no matter how many times the Senate might reject a president’s nominees, the next nomination will also be made by the president. One of the detrimental effects of this system is that the Senate may on occasion confirm a nominee simply to avoid being seen by the public as obstructive, even though it may be the president who is refusing to nominate anyone who is worthy of the position. To some degree, these appointments have always been political, despite the concept that the judiciary should be independent of politics (hence the life tenure granted them in the constitution), but the politics associated with judicial appointments, especially to the Supreme Court, has heightened over time. In fact, I have heard several people argue in regard to this year’s (2008) presidential election that the most important reason to elect a Democrat this year is to ensure that the Republicans are not able to pack the Supreme Court any fuller with conservative justices, and I am sure that there are complementary arguments being made by some conservatives in regard to the rationale for electing a Republican this year, even though the Republican candidate is not very well liked in conservative circles. Consequently, we may elect someone to ostensibly the most powerful position on earth not based on that person’s own merits, but merely because of secondary considerations, such as likely judicial appointments.
All of these very important reasons for not vesting so much power in a singular individual notwithstanding, there is another reason that we should abolish the presidency that I believe is equally important. The preamble of our constitution sets out that the purpose of that document, and our experiment in representative government, includes a desire to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility… promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” By maintaining a system of government that has such a decidedly unrepresentative structure, and that allows the interests of capital to supersede the interests of the people, we have failed to meet any of these objectives. Only by moving closer to democracy, by becoming vastly more representative in both the legislative and executive branches, and by seeking even greater independence for the judiciary, can we hope to realize these aspirations. Only when both the legislative and executive branches are made up of the people in a (proportionally) representative fashion and our judiciary is appointed by a process entirely independent of the other branches of government will We the People be able to set and enforce policy that is truly for the benefit of all, by truly striving for universal justice, peace, welfare and liberty.
The most unrepresentative of these in our current system is certainly the executive branch, which generally represents a large plurality, very nearly a majority, or perhaps sometimes actually a majority of Americans who bother to vote, but in any case, leaving a large portion of the American people unrepresented in the executive branch. While changes are needed in the legislative branch to make it more representative and more functional, the executive branch requires greater change more urgently. Furthermore, although it is difficult to prove empirically that decisions reached through one method are superior to those reached by another, it seems entirely logical that more often a better decision would result from a deliberative process and the meeting of many minds than from allowing one person to make unilateral decisions.
With all these points in mind, I suggest that the American people must create a movement that will eventually replace enough legislators at both the state and federal levels to amend the constitution to abolish the presidency and replace it with an executive committee. That committee, whatever we may call it, should be proportionally representative of the American population as a whole, should rotate the duty of presiding over that committee among its members, and should play no part in the legislative or judicial process. The nation’s military forces should not be commanded by a member of that committee, but should be subordinate to it, and commanded by a smaller committee made up of the various military departments’ chiefs-of-staff and secretaries (or whatever we may choose to call them after the reconfiguration of the executive). Furthermore, I would recommend that each of the departments of the executive (including the various departments of the military) should not have individuals (Secretaries) but rather smaller committees (Secretariats) leading them that are still somewhat representative of the population. The Cabinet could simply be the sum of all the departmental Secretariats.
Since many of the problems of our political system stem from the influence of money on elections, we should either have all state and federal elections paid for entirely through public funds, or we should select federal officials through some method other than national elections. Possibly the best solution would be to combine these two ideas: electing half of the Cabinet (including half of each departmental secretariat) through a publicly-funded party-line proportional vote, and the other half selected by an independent commission, which should be selected randomly to meet proportional demographic criteria. If the membership of the Cabinet is considered too large to make emergency decisions, we could authorize it to select a Steering Committee from among its members, with frequent rotation of terms to prevent any overreaching for personal power.
Although these specific suggestions about how we may eventually revise our executive branch may be different than the actual revisions we may choose through the democratic process of constitutional amendment (or perhaps through a new constitution), the office of the presidency has overstayed its welcome. We must abolish it and replace it with an executive branch that is not partisan and controlled unilaterally, and that does not have the power to control our legislative and judicial branches.