It may seem an astounding revelation to some, given the way in which modern politics is conducted, that America’s government contains three branches, each with Constitutional powers meant to check the other two. Under the system in which we live, these three branches should exist within a constant state of interplay and interaction with each other, resulting in a balanced government without the accumulation of unilateral authority in any one place. To even the casual political observer, however, it is manifestly obvious that this ideal does not mirror the current political reality.
Certainly, there still exist three branches of government, as outlined in the Constitution. One of these, however, has taken onto itself powers that the founders of our nation could never have imagined. The executive branch and its chief administrator, the president of the United States, have gradually grown from representing one-third of government to being perceived as the rulers of it. No longer is the executive one of three equal branches, nor is it even seen as a first among equals. Today, the president of the United States is perceived nearly as a temporary king by the electorate, chosen to enact policies that are rightfully the prerogatives of the legislative and judicial branches. We have entered the age of the imperial presidency.
In order to trace the roots of this phenomenon, we must look back not 10, 20 or even 30 years, but over 150, to the time of the American Civil War. This disturbing trend in increases of executive power begins, intriguingly, with one of our most popular historical presidents, Abraham Lincoln. In his attempt to preserve the United States as a single nation, Lincoln irrevocably altered the balance of power between the state and federal governments. More importantly to the early development of the imperial presidency, however, were Lincoln’s actions which directly violated the Constitution. Not only did President Lincoln suspend the writ of habeas corpus, but he also censored the press and even arrested newspaper editors. Here, the story of the imperial presidency begins.
To the credit of our nation in Lincoln’s time, such acts were highly controversial, drawing extensive criticism. Also to Lincoln’s credit were the mitigating circumstances under which they were carried out. In time, however, the intrusion of the executive into the judicial and legislative worlds would become widely accepted. Presidential candidates would be expected to present legislative plans during their campaigns, and the Supreme Court would become so politicized as to merit comment on the ideological criteria for the selection of judges on the campaign trail. In short, the president would go from the chief executive, charged with the carrying out of the laws made by the legislative branch, to an imperial figure who was expected to head all three branches of our government.
Now, we must ask ourselves, whose fault is this? Did ambitious politicians consolidate power and transform their offices into forms they were never meant to take? There is, perhaps, some shred of validity in this stance. However, the true driving force behind these developments is far more concerning. Presidents have, on the whole, not become kings who rule for 4-8 years because of cronyism, corruption, or even personal desires for power, but because the American people asked for them to be just that.
Consider, today, what we ask of our presidents. Presidential candidates are expected to come to the electorate with tax policy proposals, economic proposals, healthcare policies, views on social policy legislation, and a host of other suggestions that are, by all rights, the responsibility of an independent Congress to enact. In the judiciary, the trend is even more troubling. Presidents today are expected to use their Constitutional responsibility of appointing federal judges to enshrine the policies supported by their administrations in the American legal system for years or decades to come. Thus, the president acts upon every branch of government for the sole reason that we, the people and the electorate, have asked him too.
It may be well and good to say that if a thing is the will of the people it should be carried out in a democracy. This principle, however, has some very major implications. Today, under President Donald J. Trump, we see all too clearly what happens when the immense powers presidents have accumulated over the past 150 years at the behest of populists who prefer a single powerful leader are handed over to a person without the proper experience to use them effectively. Like all presidential candidates, Mr. Trump came to the American people not discussing how he would perform his Constitutional duties as president, but how he would craft and change legislative policies. He came to the people as a candidate almost designed for the imperial presidency of our time, as did his rival, Hillary Clinton. They presented themselves in this role because it was what the voters wanted. That this system results in failure, abuses and government overreach is not truly their fault, but the fault of every American man and woman for the last 150 years who has supported the growth of executive power, one step at a time.
When we as a nation eschew the carefully thought out balances within our government in favor of a single ruler in whom vast powers are invested, have we any right to complain when that trend comes back to haunt us? Moreover, do we learn a lesson from it? Do we realize the dangers that the imperial presidency poses, or do we simply wallow in our complacency by complaining that we chose the wrong person to be fill the imperial presidency? Do we return to the sanity of limiting our government, of separating our branches and of keeping any one person from wielding dictatorial power? Only time, now, will tell.
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