Friday, October 14, 2005

One of the Founding Fathers' Mistakes

The founding fathers of the US did the best they could. They analysed the governance of countries around the planet and throughout history looking for what they did wrong and how to prevent it happening in the US. The Constitution was a compromise between conflicting viewpoints and it was always intended that it would be overhauled on a frequent basis to correct any problems before they got out of hand.

The founding fathers did not anticipate the inertia in keeping the Constitution unaltered in the face of flaws. They did manage to add the Bill of Rights but after that major amendments were few and far between. But that was a minor mistake.

The founding fathers thought that men of good faith would, in general, rise to positions of power because the people would take an interest in ascertaining the true nature of candidates. That was true back in those days when the citizenry were well-informed and sought to investigate all sides of every issue. These days when people get their opinions force-fed to them by the likes of Limbaugh and O'Reilly, the scum easily floats to the top. That was a bigger mistake but the founding fathers can be forgiven for not predicting the invention of radio and television and how much those inventions would turn the citizenry into sheeple.

Some have claimed that the UK parliamentary system, where the Prime Minister (chief executive) is a Member of Parliament (legislator in the lower house) makes him more vulnerable to his actions being questioned. It is certainly true that the worst abuses of power by Thatcher, Major and Blair occurred when they twisted the rules to allow them to act "presidentially." And yet there is something to be said for the separation of powers.

In any case, the founding fathers didn't have much choice. The geographical extent of just the original thirteen states and the modes of transport available at the time meant they had to have a chief executive separate from Congress. In order to truly represent the views of his constituents, a Representative has to spend time with them, yet to make laws he has to meet in Congress. Given the distances and modes of transport it was impracticable, back then, for Congress to meet three or four days a week and return to their constituency for the rest of the week. The founding fathers anticipated that Congress would meet once or twice a year.

That wasn't a problem because technological and cultural change occurred at a much slower pace back, then so new legislation at the Federal level was not as frequently required (especially as the Federal Government exerted less influence back then). What was a problem was that somebody was needed to ensure that the legislation that Congress passed was executed. Even worse, if the US were to be attacked it would be no good saying "Sorry, Congress isn't due to meet again for another four months so could you postpone your attack until then so they have a chance to authorize defensive measures?" so you needed an executive who was also Commander in Chief in times of war.

In short, the founding fathers needed a President because of transport limitations of the time. Were they to be recalled from their graves to redraft the Constitution they might, seeing fast cars and even faster aircraft, reach a different conclusion. So that's not a mistake either.

The founding fathers were adamant that there should be no king. And that is the foundation of where they made a big mistake, although they didn't have the knowledge to realize that they had.

A king who is an absolute monarch without restraint is a bad idea (I hope that is so obvious I don't have to explain why). A king with life tenure, even if he has the restricted powers of the US president is a bad idea: there is no mechanism to say "OK, George HW Bush, you screwed up big time so we won't re-elect you." Kingship through imprimogeniture (it passes to the first-born) is also a bad idea: George HW Bush was a bad president but Dubya is far, far worse.

So why was it a bad idea to dispense with kings entirely? Because there is no separation between the head of state (figurehead) and the chief of state (chief executive). The Queen of England is supposedly merely a figurehead (legally she has almost no remaining powers that she could exert without causing a constitutional crisis that would lead to her downfall; practically, as the world's richest woman she has far more indirect power than most people suspect) and serves as a psychological counter-balance to the Prime Minister. Prime Minister Blair is a lying, evil, corrupt scumbag? That's OK because at least we have the Queen to look up to. King George is a syphilitic lunatic? That's OK because the Prime Minister makes sure George can't do much harm.

The US President combines head of state (ceremonial figurehead) and chief of state (chief executive officer) in one person. And that's the big problem. Americans venerate the flag. Americans venerate mom and apple pie. Americans venerate the President because he's head of state. That makes it very difficult for them to acknowledge when the President, as chief of state, fucks up big time. "You can't criticise him because he's [tones of awe and reverance] The President."

Americans therefore find it difficult to distinguish between the office of President and the officeholder. The office of President is entitled to certain protocols and courtesies, and those are conferred upon the officeholder. Other than the courtesies due to the office itself, the officeholder must earn respect. I have had great difficulty convincing some people of that. They insist that people should respect the President merely because he is the President and that he is therefore above criticism. Respect must be earned.

The office of President has the courtesy that its holder is addressed as "Mr President" but anything beyond that official courtesy must be earned. You should always say something to the President like "Mr President, why did you invade Iraq?" and not like "Oi, you evil fucking scumbag, why did you invade Iraq?" because the protocols due to the office require that mode of addres. However, it is permissible to say "Mr President, you evil fucking scumbag, why did you invade Iraq?" if, indeed, the President is an evil fucking scumbag.

To quote from part of an article Teddy Roosevelt wrote for the Kansas City Star during WW I:


The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.


Unfortunately, because the President is figurehead as well as chief executive, many Americans find it nearly impossible to criticise him. That has been true of all US Presidents, not just this one (who is the worst the US has ever had). Until recently, when his failures became apparent to all and his poll numbers plummeted, a newspaper that criticised Dubya might as well have said that the US flag is ugly, apple pie tastes bad, and the American dream is a nightmare (and then waited for some shit-for-brains Dubya supporter to torch their offices).

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