We’ve lately seen the Congress flailing to come up with a way to block President Obama’s unilateral actions.
Matt Continetti has a great piece today on the late James Burnham, the National Review editor who wrote—among other things—Congress and the American Tradition (1959).
Nobody understood what Congress was designed to do better than Burnham and nobody would be more dismayed to see Congress unable to respond to the overweening power by the executive. Of course, though President Obama is more dismissive of Congress' rightful authority than any of his predecessors, the demise of congressional vitality did not start with him:
What Burnham identified in this book was a dramatic modification of the way Americans understood democracy. The constitutional system designed by the Founders established Congress as the first branch of government, the mediating institution between the people and the state bureaucracy under the chief executive.
Beginning in the 19th century, however, and accelerating under Wilson and FDR, the executive branch acted not with reference to the Constitution but in the name of “the people.” Congress lost its primacy, its powers, and its prestige. Government was no longer constitutionalist. It was Caesarist.
Invocations of “the people” were a mask for the interests of the rulers.
“The changing balance,” noted [Burnham biographer] Daniel Kelly, “reflected a long-term trend, the managerial revolution, which meant government by executive fiat and the development of a potentially totalitarian welfare state.” Democracy was understood not as a republican system of checks and balances but as the struggle for resources and for status between client groups of the government. Even the president, “more creature than creator,” was less in control than the managers were.
Congress retained its ability to conduct investigations as well as its power of saying “No.” But the new understanding of democracy had reduced dramatically the importance of the House and the Senate. And this new understanding was itself the by-product of changes in the ideology of the ruling class.
Whereas the state once had been seen by the elites as a threat to liberty, later leaders came to regard the state as the benefactor of all. As you can see, Burnham—whom Continetti characterizes as “a seer” and “a visionar”–predicted what we now see.
Let us hope that in 2016 the presidential candidates will be forced to talk about whether it is desirable and possible to restore our former view of the state. I urge you to read Continetti’s entire article on Burnham.