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Imperial Presidency

2020 has been a bleak year, but it ended on some upbeat notes. A friend sent around photos of her newest grandchild, born on December 21, reminding us that in the midst of too many deaths from avoidable diseases, life renews. 

Another friend, whose large family stretched across the nation fills her life with constant stories and excitement, wrote about spending her first Christmas alone in decades. She used the time to reflect and realized that 2020 is also what we think of as perfect vision, and wondered what this Christmas presented as an opportunity to look for other ways of seeing this year. Did the absence of holiday bustle and noise give us the chance to look at the past year with more clarity?

A third friend sent an African saying that until lions start writing, history will honor the hunters, and a reminder that we need always to keep the long view, even as we deal with immediate problems and needs. 

To breathe new life into the progressive movement, we need to reconsider how we view current problems, and take a radical step backwards, toward the future our Founding Fathers imagined for us. 

In 1789, many people wanted George Washington to be our king. But Washington had just spent several years fighting a war to end George III’s rule over the colonies, and he had no desire to be George I of the new nation. He embraced what the Constitutional Convention had written. He wanted a government that one of his successors described as “Of the people, By the people, For the people.” 

In 1789, “the people” was white men, and in many places only white men who owned property. Non-whites weren’t included, and neither were women. But the founders wrote the plan to be ratified not by state governments, but by “the people.” And they wrote into it provisions by which the people could change the plan. And the people did, over time. 

George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and watched as men of vastly different interests, temperament and beliefs argued and compromised and worked out a plan under which a vast array of different opinions could form a unified government. A patrician, raised under royal rule, used to the single man rule of plantation life and then years as commander of an army, Washington left the Convention embracing a new concept in which no “top ruler” made the final decisions on anything. 

We must take our eyes off the glam and pomp of the White House and get into the trenches of city halls and state houses

And it worked. It worked as the people expanded rights from just property owners to all white men. And it worked when the country survived a civil war over ownership of human beings as property. It worked when the people decided to amend the plan to make non-whites full citizens, and to expand the government’s ability to tax them, and to give women political rights. 

The people, after years of devastating war, chose to return Lincoln to office, and thus to continue a war that put human interests ahead of personal interests. The people, over the resistance of the government, gave workers more rights. The people pushed for and forced politicians to build social safety nets. The people, against government resistance, marched for, and gained, Civil Rights, and an end to a horrible colonial war. 

Without the demands of the people, politicians would still allow factories to dump waste, without limits, into our waterways and skies. Would still allow workers to be injured and killed, without compensatiion, in dangerous factories. The people drove the politicians, the government to all these improvements on the original plan. 

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Not without resistance. The anti-democratic forces in the nation fought to restrict labor rights, and to legalize discrimination. The G.I. Bills after WW-II were exercises in innovative ways to enforce segregation. As mass media began to consolidate, in the 50s, corporate messaging was increasingly strident. We were told that we needed stronger, royalty-like figures. Dick Nixon told us that “If the president does it, it’s not against the law.” By the time of Reagan, a majority were beginning to believe that the president was god’s annointed, not to be challenged or doubted. 

Bush-1, Clinton and Cheney all built on this view. The imperial presidency got to be a meme, and an accepted truth to too many. We let presidents take us to war, without the declarations required in the Founder’s plan. We let corporate dollars flow into legislators’ and regulators’ pockets in exchange for privileges and exemptions. Most Americans had grown comfortable and sedentary and wanted little to do with their own “self-governance.” 

But not all. A few women kept pushing for real equality under laws that were too often ignored or limited. And gay Americans created a movement to be seen as equal instead of aberational and to limit and end laws designed to criminalize sexual orientation. As social media technologies evolved, artists, most notably black musicians, bypassed the ‘morality’ restrictions of the FCC, and took their messages directly to the streets. (Credit here also those musicians and radio DJs who blurred, then erased the “race music” redlines.) 

But familiarity breeds contempt. And the corporate media drumbeat continued to stress the importance of central leadership. Just as the USSR hammered home the message that every decision by Stalin was genius, the U.S. media told us, over and over, that it was unpatriotic to even question Dick Cheney and his war profiteers. President Obama reinforced the concept. Once Mitch McConnell publicly proclaimed that the Republicans would resist everything the new, black President attempted, President Obama’s successful accomplishments simply underscored the impression that a man of exceptional ability could be an effective ruler. 

Then came the Donald. Republicans who had promoted Nixon’s, Reagan’s, and Cheney’s imperial presidencies now joined with a man who wanted total power and control. And they built four years of a royal government in which it was “treason” to question or even silently doubt the orange messiah. 

Over the years of increasing reliance on an imperial presidency, the idea seems to have rubbed off on “progressives” as well. We hear constantly about what President Biden should do, must do, is doing wrong. Voices want him to be the ruler, the decider, the only important person in government. The King that George Washington refused to be. 

But “The Squad” doubled in size in November elections, while “establishment” politicians railed against them. Once again, the people, against government resistance, demand to be heard. It isn’t an imperial president who cleaned up Georgia elections, but Stacy Abrams and the people around her. 

It isn’t President Biden we need to put pressure on but our individual Congressmen and Senators, and our City Counselors and those who run the police and the water departments, and those who decide to repave the roads in Brentwood every couple of years, but the roads in South Central every couple of decades. 

If we want a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” we, the people must be both “of” and “by” that government. We must be involved, must push, must demand, must complain - not to titular head of the national government. But rather to those in offices that we can directly effect. 

We must take our eyes off the glam and pomp of the White House and get into the trenches of city halls and state houses, of police departments and of rent control offices that are too often more solicitous of the desires of landlords than of the needs and legal rights of tenants. 

People love to quote Ben Franklin’s answer, when asked about what kind of government the Founding Fathers had created for us. “A republic, if you can keep it” he said. Not a republic if the politicians allow you to keep it, but “if you - the people - can keep it.”

Tom Hall

As we start a new administration, Franklin’s words are a test for us all - are we willing to do what is necessary to keep the republic that we have? 

Tom Hall