History is chock-full of dictators from divinely appointed monarchies to benevolent types who swept into power promising to be the peoples’ champion. For one reason or another, even the seemingly virtuous leaders developed a less-than-magnanimous streak leading to a usurpation of power, oppression and often death to those who fell outside favored status.
Too often, such abuses were approved by majorities or at least received the public’s acquiescence. Ultimately freedom, rule of law and security were directly tied to the whims of a dictator revered by the people.
In the U.S., we forged a different path by flipping the script. The Founders and Framers rejected the idea that individual interests were tied to the interests of a ruler. Instead, they endorsed (albeit very imperfectly at the time) the concept that all people were free and possessed natural rights.
Government may be instituted at the will of the people, but only to protect those pre-existing rights. The idea that individual liberty existed independent of and superior to government was a novel idea, but proved crucial to changing the world for the better.
The Framers and Founders anticipated less-than honorable leaders may assume positions of power from time to time, posing a threat to the natural rights of individuals. As a result, they developed a system of competing branches to secure those rights and function effectively even under threat of terrible leadership. The constant tension between the branches would prevent abuse by one.
Each branch possessed specific and complimentary authority, not possessed by the other branches, and designed to operate in a specific sequence.
First, Congress made the laws. Second, after Congress made laws, the executive enforced the laws. Third, the judiciary settled disputes between parties regarding the application of the laws made by Congress. Admittedly this process is slow and far less sexy than plenary executive edicts made via speech or tweet, and yet it is the crucial way to check and prevent abuse.
Individual thirst for power constantly eats at the heart of this ingenious system. For at least the past century, nearly every president has found more ways to circumvent Congress and too often with congressional consent. This has proven especially true when congressional majorities and the president are from the same party. In those instances, few if any checks remained.
Part of the blame falls on an unruly executive branch and a timid Congress, but at the root of the decay are the people. The romantic allure of a savior who can get done what we want done blinds us to the dangers of an all-powerful executive. We have allowed (maybe encouraged) Congress to cede more authority because regular law making is too slow and uninteresting. We want to feel like our tribe is winning, so we compromise process, minority views and institutional norms. We turn a blind eye to “pen and a phone” executive orders or specious emergency declarations designed to work around the Constitution, so long as they were performed in the name of our interests.
The 2020 presidential election is nearly a year and half away, but Democrats have lined up more than 20 candidates whose full-time job is now to campaign. Many of these folks purportedly still have day jobs as lawmakers in Washington for which we continue to pay them while they hold babies at rallies in Iowa.
Meanwhile, the current president recently announced his re-election bid to a packed arena and raised $25 million in 24 hours. To date, 2020 presidential candidates have collectively raised more than $200 million, and it’s only June (of 2019). All of this for a job that ostensibly should do very little except enforce laws passed by Congress. We build monuments to presidents, not to Congress. One of these days, we will come to regret it.
Fortunately, we have the power to set a course correction. It starts with accountability both our own and that of our elected leaders in Congress. As citizens, we have an obligation to reject an ever-growing executive branch, even if it may cut against an immediate interest.
We must also hold Congress to task for failing to place its constitutional obligations ahead of any partisan agendas or political expediency. This approach is not nearly as fun as owning folks on social media or grabbing headlines, but it is the best bet we have to ensure our liberty and that of our posterity remains protected.