WASHINGTON: Many who call themselves ‘conservative’ find themselves embracing the growth of executive power. Something which the founders saw as a threat to freedom. Moreover as a threat to our constitutional system of checks and balances.
The only possible reason for this change is “situational ethics.” However, until very recently, when Barack Obama engaged in similar aggrandizement of executive power, Republican Party members were aghast. As Democrats are now.
It is “do as I say, not as I do.”
The Power of the Executive
The power wielded by the president regardless of party or philosophy has grown dramatically. It is now fair to ask whether Americans of either political party embrace our constitutional system of division of power and checks and balances.
The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. However, since the end of World War ll, under both Republicans and Democrats, we have gone to war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere without such congressional action.
Today, the White House claims the power to impose tariffs on trading partners, without congressional action.
The Obama administration involved us in an undeclared war in Yemen, which the Trump administration continues.
Now, both houses of Congress, in an attempt to reassert their constitutional authority, passed a resolution calling for an end to our role in Yemen. The president, rejecting Congress’s apparent authority when it comes to making war, cast a veto.
Both parties are co-conspirators in turning their backs on the Constitution and the American political philosophy.
A philosophy born from fear of government power. It would be good for them to review that political philosophy, which many seem not to understand at all.
One fundamental principle the Founders embraced was that the new government they were creating should be based on man’s true nature, not a utopian view.
John Adams noted that,
“We may appeal to every page of history we have hitherto turned over, for proofs irrefragable, that the people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous and cruel as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power…All projects of government, formed upon a supposition of continued vigilance, sagacity, and virtue, firmness of the people when possessed of the exercise of supreme power, are cheats and delusions…The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratical council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor. Equally bloody, arbitrary, cruel, and in every respect, diabolical.”
During the colonial period, Americans became all too familiar with the dangers of unlimited and arbitrary government — moreover, an executive with unlimited authority.
When the Articles of Confederation were written, fear of excessive concentration of authority was a concern.
The town of West Springfield, Massachusetts, to cite one example, reminded its representatives:
“The weakness of human nature and growing thirst for power…It is freedom and not a choice of the forces of servitude for which we contend…”
From the beginning of history, the great philosophers predicted that a democratic government would not long survive. Plato, Aristotle and, more recently, De Tocqueville, Lord Bryce and Macauley, predicted that men would give away their freedom voluntarily for what they perceived as greater security.
Bertrand de Jouvenak concluded that,
“The State, when once it is made the giver of protection and security, has but to urge the necessities of its protectorate and overlordship to justify its encroachments.”
In a similar vein, Thomas Babington Macaulay, writing in 1857:
“I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization or both. In Europe, where the population is dense, the effect of such institutions would be almost instantaneous…Either the poor would plunder the rich and civilization would perish; or order and property would be saved by a strong military government and liberty would perish.”
Macaulay, looking to America, declared that,
“Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand, or your republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians…as the Roman Empire was…with this difference—-that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your institutions.”
That government should be limited, and that powers a corrupting force was the perception held by the men who wrote the Constitution.
In The Federalist Papers, James Madison declared:
“It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is the government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
Having experienced unbridled executive power during the reign of King George lll, the Founding Fathers feared an all-powerful President. In the Constitution, they divided power between three co-equal branches of government.
By doing so, they hoped that freedom would endure.
The British Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli said that the first thing a conservative must ask himself is what it is he seeks to conserve.
What Conservatism means
Within the American political tradition, what conservatives have sought to conserve is our system of limited government. The checks and balances, and three co-equal branches of government.
Many who call themselves conservative forget that whatever new executive power they embrace when Republicans control the White House, will be there to wield, and build upon, when Democrats replace them, either at the end of the current presidential term. How can a system of checks and balances continue to work if the executive will not permit Congress to pursue its oversight power?
“It is partisan,” the White House complains.
However, that’s how the Founders meant it to be. One political faction, or party, keeping a close look at the other.
Claims of growing executive power are challenging the American political tradition. One cannot afford to both champion an all-powerful executive and also claims to be a “conservative” in the American political tradition.
Many are now trying to do so.
Which, if successful, may mark the end of genuine American conservatism.