It’s easy to get caught up in the presidential horserace and forget how absurd the whole system has become. It isn’t just the ridiculousness of modern campaigns that have would-be presidents running around from venue to venue making unkeepable promises to countless constituencies. The Presidency itself today has taken on a role in American life that is completely beyond what the Founders intended.
This is the case that Gene Healy makes in his new book, The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Presidential Power, and in a piece today in Reason Magazine:
This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the “commander in chief” as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.
It’s difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The United States appears stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentrates enormous power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalent about the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. But executive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, until citizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humble.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The modern vision of the presidency couldn’t be further from the Framers’ view of the chief executive’s role. In an age long before distrust of power was condemned as cynicism, the Founding Fathers designed a presidency of modest authority and limited responsibilities. The Constitution’s architects never conceived of the president as the man in charge of national destiny. They worked amid the living memory of monarchy, and for them the very notion of “national leadership” raised the possibility of authoritarian rule by a demagogue ready to create an atmosphere of crisis in order to enhance his power.
I haven’t had a chance to pick up the book yet, but knowing Gene’s working, it will undoubtedly be eye opening and entertaining. In the meantime, read the whole article in Reason.