The true genius of our so-called founding fathers was more luck than wisdom and more about fear than courage. Rich white male industrialist entrepreneur New Englanders in the same room with rich white male planter slave owner Southerners designed a government to protect the best of themselves from the worst of each other. Land owners knowing they would never vote to tax themselves, set it up so only they could vote. Worried that a president could too easily usurp power to become monarch, they balanced the powers not once, but twice, and added the electoral college just to make sure. Worried that a government sponsored religion could force them to tithe and attend church, they mandated separation of church and state. Worried that a central government would trump their regional fiefdoms, they held on to their state powers. Worried that population could trump state standing and regional culture they created the Senate. Our union has succeeded not for what it has done, but for what it has not. And how could it? Ours is a government where bold, decisive action should not be possible except, and temporarily, in time of war.
For example, the “legal basis” of Lincoln’s executive order abolish slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, was the implicit powers given to the President as Commander-in-Chief “as a necessary war measure”. (Same basis for interning the Asian-Americans during WWII and the wiretapping, torture and legalized corruption of the Bush Two presidency, etc.)
No, our founding fathers, wanted our government weak, decentralized and anything but bold and decisive. Where change would come slowly and poorly. Where the best laws and actions from our national government would be the lowest common denominator*. Fear-based, paranoia-based government because they only trusted themselves, but not so much as a group.
So what changed? A lot. The founding fathers died and the amateurs were replaced with professional corrupt politicians. The landless, the non-white and the non-male, got the vote (power to the people). More states, each with two senators changed the make up of the regional coalitions of power. Lobbyist were invented. People became more educated and better informed (newspapers, telegraph, radio, television and the internets) and population became more mobile (trains, cars and planes). New industries displaced the old wealthy powerful elite with a new wealthy powerful elite. The world became a village, then a town, then a city, then a metropolitan area complete with individualized slums and slumlord millionaires. Corporations replace partnerships, but without the personal responsibility. Wall Street was created which finally and formally gave structure to the brave new greedy, powerful elite. Self-fear gave way to self-interest. Not necessarily in that order, but that sort of thing.
Now, we have the crisis-to-end-all-crisis de jour and need for bold, decisive action, but are saddled with a government designed to do the opposite. So we get a stimulus bill with little stimulus. We get green baby steps to solve global warming and our dependence on oil. We save a half of million teacher layoffs, but no answer for our education failings. We reach out to bipartisanship with diplomacy and compromise and get three to take the hand of our new President. We embrace change we can believe in and get a Congressional camel with hundreds of humps, but little to get over ours.
I am reminded of my father jokingly remarking that “a benevolent dictatorship was the perfect form of government” even as I can’t get the memory of the Bush empirical presidency out of my head. Could it be that the dark underlord Cheney was right? Could we pretend that our founding fathers designed our republic to act as a 4-year renewable dictatorship during crisis? Until Congress says otherwise, we are, after all, at war. Obama is our Commander-in-Chief and has implicit powers with eventual limits defined only by the Bush Court, 60 votes in the Senate and our finding out. Could he, should he, use these powers to issue executive orders as Lincoln did “as a necessary war measure” and mandate bold new initiatives?
- For instance, the import of foreign oil jeopardizes our war effort by harming our economy (air, climate, etc.), could he, should he require cars to meet much higher fuel efficiency or use alternative fuels? Or maybe just ration gas and let the markets deal with it? Could he, should he require corporations be dramatically more fuel efficient? Or power companies cleaner?
- For instance, the import of foreign steel, plastics and raw materials jeopardizes our war effort by harming our economy (air, climate, landfills, etc.), could he, should he require the use of recycled materials and ration the use of new materials?
- For instance, the lower wages used to manufacture imported goods jeopardizes our war effort by harming our economy (higher unemployment, lower taxes revenues, etc.), could he, should he require the use a living wage here and apply tariffs in the manufacture of imported goods to offset the imbalance?
- For instance, the lack of access to healthcare jeopardizes our war effort by as our young people may not be healthy enough to fight (or go to school), could he, should he freeze prescription prices and mandate universal healthcare and pay for it out of war funding?
- For instance, the lack of bank credit jeopardizes our war effort by harming our economy, could he, should he require banks to make loans and rework mortgages?
- For instance, unemployment jeopardizes our war effort by harming our economy (people lives, too), could he, should he require full employment by mandating government work projects, expansion of Americorp, etc. and pay for it out of war funding?
Sounds like a dictatorship, albeit benevolent, doesn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t wish nor want for a benevolent dictatorship. Like our founding fathers, I fear too much how rich white males might abuse it. But until something gives, the best we can strive for is the lowest common denominator. And that’s, what we got.
* Wikipedia offers this definition for Lowest Common Denominator: the least common multiple of the denominators of a set of vulgar fractions.