Presidential Power to the People
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President Jackson became a kind of mythical repository, even after his death, for desires about political unity, not so much political representation. It’s really in the early 20th century, though, that the invincible president became intractable, right as popular culture was starting to promulgate the superhero and FDR was leading the nation out of the Great Depression and into World War II. Citizens were trained to imagine that the president would be this kind of superheroic character who will offer extralegal solutions to their problems.
How does imbuing an executive with superhuman power weaken our democracy?
The American Revolution was fought so that the people could have sovereignty. Imagining that our president will be our savior makes us reimagine democracy in opposite terms. The president has all the power and we get our power as a people from him, which is the way of a monarchy. It’s something that’s developed over a couple hundred years, but it takes us back to exactly the place that we as a nation tried to reject.
Later in the book, you write about the emergence of the “unitary executive” during the Reagan administration. What drives this political philosophy?
The unitary executive is a corporate model of undivided leadership. It’s a model of power that wants to operate unilaterally in the name of efficiency and profit. It’s the place where an unchecked capitalism comes into severe conflict with democracy, which is an inherently inefficient process. It’s an extraconstitutional democracy that takes its authority and momentum from that superheroic conception of the president. He or she is the arbiter of our collective interest.
It’s based on the idea that the executive branch needs to set one course for the country and stay on it.
That’s the rhetoric we hear around strong leadership: that companies and nations succeed when they have a strongly unified mission, and there’s no time or room to consider different approaches or directions. We’re in the midst of an information and organizational explosion where we have all kinds of interesting alternative models [for problem solving]—open models that already work better for certain kinds of companies and organizations. We know those models can be more productive and more profitable, yet nobody is applying those lessons to our political system.