What would happen if the US presidency were replaced by a plural executive?

il_570xn-761091493_ix8gI’ve long advocated replacing the US presidency with a plural executive. I think that in the long run, that would drain several poisons from American political culture.

Where a single person is the focus of so much attention, the tendency to believe that the power to solve the world’s problems is in the hands of that person becomes very strong. Supporters of the political party led by a president or candidate for president then come to believe that if the president were unhindered by the restraints of the law, of political opposition, and of morality, evil and hardship would vanish from the earth. Magical thinking of this sort leads to support for wars, disregard for civil liberties, tolerance for secrecy, and other measures that have consistently produced disastrous results throughout history.  Meanwhile, supporters of the other party come to believe that it is the personal wickedness of its presidential choice that threatens the earth with the greatest woes, and under that belief lose all contact with political reality, showing ever more fanatical support for their party and its candidate regardless of the facts.

Replacing the presidency with a plural executive would eliminate the glamour and mystique that attach to the office of the chief executive, thereby allowing the clouds of magical thinking to dissipate and creating the possibility that a modicum of rationality might make itself felt in US political life.  Perhaps voters would even start to participate in elections for the most powerful bodies in all of American government, the state legislatures.

Such a rise of rationality would take time, however. In the first generation, the plural executive would probably compose a more-or-less representative sample of the existing political elite, and would organize itself around the consensus views in Washington. Of course, a country which had just managed to rid itself of the presidency and to put a plural executive in its place would probably be a saner place than is the celebrity-obsessed, war-mad USA of the early twenty-first century, and so the Washington consensus in that scenario would be quite different from the consensus that exists today. However, it is worth pausing over the thought that, if we did have a plural executive in the USA, that executive would probably be a lagging indicator of prevailing opinion in Washington conventional wisdom, since that description also fits Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Indeed, for all her undoubted talents, experience, and work ethic, as a policy-maker HRC could easily be replaced by a software program which would distill the policy recommendations of the leading op-ed pages, think-tanks, etc.  Next year, then, we are likely to have a sort of dry run of the workings of a plural executive, though in an environment still driven by delusions about a superhuman god-emperor.

Programmable politicians

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In the USA, the campaign that will culminate in next year’s presidential election is already well underway.  As regular readers of this site know, I would like to see the US presidency abolished. I think Benjamin Franklin’s proposal at the convention that wrote the US Constitution, that the chief executive of the federal government should be a council rather than a single individual, was right when he advanced it in 1787 and is now a reform most urgently in need of implementation.  Combine the president’s overmighty position at the center of the US government with the celebrity culture that tends to focus all political attention on him as the ultimate celebrity, and you have a recipe for Caesarism.  An executive council might still be a threat to the freedoms of Americans and the peace of the world in something of the way that they unitary executive currently is, but at least there would be a chance that rivalries within the  group would lead members to restrain each other from the worst excesses we see today.  And no member of any committee could ever be glamorized in the way that a lone warlord can be.

There might be an alternative to the plural executive.  In reply to a post on Secular Right in which “David Hume” (a.k.a. Razib Khan) remarked that he for one wouldn’t object at all to a candidate who had a robotic demeanor, if that candidate were driven by data and logic rather than by rigid ideology and emotionalism,  I posted the following comment:

Why not replace the US president with an actual robot? The robot-president’s major campaign donors could program it so that for any policy challenge, it produces a list of possible responses that they might accept. Among these possible responses, the program should eliminate those that will move the robot’s political base to desert it and back a robot controlled by a rival syndicate of investors in a primary. From the remaining options, choose the one that has the highest favorable rating in the opinion polls. That seems to be how the biological presidents have been making policy in recent decades, so the change wouldn’t be particularly radical. Granted, the robot-president might not look as good on television as do biological entities such as Mr O and his predecessors, but in view of the shrinking audience for news coverage of all kinds that aspect of it might not be so widely noticed as to cause trouble.

I still prefer the idea of an executive council, but the more I think about it the clearer it seems to me that a robot president of the sort I’ve described would represent a real, albeit modest, improvement over the status quo.  What, in the final analysis, have our biological presidents done that such a robot would not be able to do?  They’ve been more effective at peddling fear and instilling a sense of dependency in the American people than a black box would be, that’s certain.  And they’ve added elements of venality and personal corruption from which a mechanical head of government would be free.  So, if we can’t have a plural executive, I’d gladly support replacing the president with a robot.

Tuli Kupferberg, RIP

They say there’s a “rule of threes,” that celebrities always die three at a time.  It’s nonsense, of course, but it often seems that way.  So, the other day we lost Harvey Pekar.  Yesterday, we heard that George Steinbrenner had died.  And now, news comes to us of the death of Tuli Kupferberg.  We featured Tuli’s song “Nobody for President” here in November 2008; here it is again.

The Atlantic, July/ August 2009

the atlantic july and august 2009We as a species are currently dumping massive amounts of carbon into the upper atmosphere.  Average temperatures around the world are rising at an alarming rate, evidently at least in part as a consequence of this dumping.  No movement is in prospect that would stop the dumping, or even reduce it substantially.  So, what to do?  Some scientists and engineers want to remake the rest of the earth’s climate to accommodate our carbon dumping habit.  How could this be done?  There are several possible methods. 

We could shoot sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere.  That would be remarkably affordable- for as little as a billion dollars, it could end global warming.  The drawback is that eventually sulphur would rain down from the sky, and if we stopped shooting new sulphur dioxide up there global temperatures would increase dramatically in a very short period.  Also it would cause severe droughts throughout central Africa, a region which has not exactly been among the big winners of industrialization to start with, so that seems unfair. 

Also we could dump iron powder in the Antarctic Ocean, causing a huge plankton colony to bloom and suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  We’d have to be a bit careful about that- half a supertanker’s worth of iron powder could feed a big enough plankton bloom to trigger a new Ice Age.  And when plankton dies, it releases methane, which is a much more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. 

There are also people who would like to block sunlight by shooting millions of clay discs at the Lagrange point between the earth and sun.  These skeets might well reduce average temperatures on the earth, but they could also stop the formation of ozone in the atmosphere.  And without an ozone layer, life as we know it could not exist on the surface of the earth.  So that’s a little bit on the risky side too.  So it seems like reducing carbon emissions might be worthwhile after all. 


The American Conservative, 23 February 2009

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Daniel McCarthy chronicles the American Right’s shift from the skepticism about the office of US President that fueled the principled critique of excessive presidential power that thinkers like James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall sustained in the middle decades of the twentieth century to the abject presidentialism of the Bush/ Cheney Republicans.  McCarthy does not suggest an agenda for curbing the power of the presidency; still less does he express agreement with my favorite idea, abolishing the office.  He does not even hope for a return to the arrangement of the nineteenth century, when the Congress was the senior partner in the leadership of the federal government.  The wish he does express is that conservatives will once more express a wish for a return to those days.   

Richard N. Gamble, author of the magnificent book The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity The Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation and of a neat article about Irving Babbitt’s view of Abraham Lincoln, reviews several  recent books about Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy.  Most interesting to me were Gamble’s remarks about What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy, by Malcolm D. Magee.  The key paragraph is this:

Magee gets Wilson largely right, but one further refinement of his analysis would have been helpful in connecting American Christianity and the “faith-based foreign policy” of the subtitle. It is not enough to say that Wilson was a Calvinist or a Presbyterian. Wilson, as Magee’s evidence makes clear, was a particular kind of Calvinist and Presbyterian. He adhered to a branch of Calvinism that tried to reorder every institution by bringing it under Christ’s dominion. Magee refers to “the Presbyterian tradition,” but it is doubtful there ever has been anything so unified in American history. Wilson owed his view of the church and the world not to confessional Presbyterianism but to the transformationist strand of evangelicalism that came to dominate mainstream Presbyterianism in the late 19th century. Wilson imbibed an activist faith that in many ways distorted historic Presbyterianism. He rejected creedal, confessional Presbyterianism. In order to understand his foreign policy, then, we must understand not his Presbyterian roots in general, but the fact that he emerged from a branch of Protestantism that had more in common with low-church, sentimental, meliorist evangelicalism than with historically Reformed Christianity. Magee fills in an important dimension of Wilson’s thought and personality, but finding the precise faith on which Wilson based his foreign policy requires that the story of American Christianity be told a bit differently.

Kirkpatrick Sale reviews a novel by Carolyn Chute, The School on Heart’s Content Road.  In a fictional town in a rural Maine, a commune full of aging hippies form an unlikely alliance with the local underemployed rednecks.  Forming a militia, they decide that the only way for Mainers to reclaim their freedoms is to secede from the USA.  Since Chute is herself a member of the real-life 2nd Maine Militia and an advocate of the dissolution of the USA, it is perhaps surprising that the militiamen are an unimpressive bunch whose revolt peters out into drunkenness and random fornication.  But not so surprising that she promises a series of four sequels. 

Bill Kauffman goes to his favorite gun show and reports that the American Left is missing a fertile recruiting ground there.  The attendees are “working and rural citizens who are pro-Bill of Rights, anti-corporatist, and open to radical alternatives.”

The Atlantic Monthly, March 2009

atlantic-march-2009A profile of Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, focuses on this gifted theologian’s attempts to lead the Anglican communion in its effort to make up its mind about homosexuality.  Williams himself has many friends who are gay and took a consistently liberal line on gay issues before 2002, when he became the nominal leader of Christianity’s third most popular tradition.  In 1989 Williams gave a speech to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement called “The Body’s Grace,” in which he argued that a Christian understanding of grace requires us to understand that persons need to be seen in particular ways.  Sexual relationships provide one of these ways of being seen that are key to the development of the human person.  Christians must therefore find value, not only in persons who are inclined to engage in  homosexual acts, but in those acts and the relationships of which they are part.  The essay is, from one point of view, quite conservative- Williams claims that the kind of being seen that deserves this value is a kind that must be developed over time and that only one person may do the seeing.  He thus sets his face against sexual liberationists who would resist the imposition of couplehood as the one appropriate form of human sexuality, and aligns himself with those who would merely extend that imposition to same sex relationships.  Compared to other Christian leaders, of course, Williams does not seem conservative at all.  Even the view that same-sexers should be allowed to imitate opposite-sex couples and to assimilate their behavior to norms that have traditionally been imposed on them is daringly progressive in the world where the Archbishop of Canterbury moves.   

Since most of the Anglican communion’s 80,000,000 members live in African countries where homosexuality is the object of extreme cultural disapproval, it has been quite difficult for Williams to hold to his liberal, assimilationist stand while at the same time meeting the first requirement of his job and keeping the communion united. 

Atlantic editor James Bennet recalls his meeting with recently assassinated Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan.  A theologian of a very different stripe from that of Rowan Williams, Rayyan’s “bigoted worldview, and his rich historical imagination, gave him a kind of serenity.”  This serenity was nothing daunted when Rayyan sent his own son on a suicide mission against an Israeli settlement and planned to send another on a similar mission.

Those of us who call for the abolition of the US presidency (what with today being Presidents’ Day and all) will thank the Atlantic for its note of “Politicians: Be Killed or Survive,” a study finding that the only political figures who face a significant risk of assassination are those who operate in systems where power is so highly centralized that assassinating one person will effect significant change in the policies of the state.

Brian Mockenhaupt reports on an effort to persuade US combat veterans that it’s okay to seek help for psychological injuries by showing them performances of Sophocles’ plays about wounded warriors, Ajax and Philoctetes.

The Nation, 9 February 2009

9febnationAlexander Cockburn quotes an interesting-sounding new book, Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, by Dana Nelson.  Unfortunately, Nelson does not recommend abolishing the presidency.  She does have as set of proposals to reduce its power, and she exhorts her readers to find ways of participating in political life that do not involve voting or require fixing national attention on one man. 

This issue includes part one of “Adventures in Editing,” Ted Solotaroff’s recollections of his time as an associate editor of Commentary in the early 60s.  Anyone interested in writing will enjoy Solotaroff’s description of how he learned to do that job.  Anyone interested in narcissists will enjoy his description of how Norman Podhoretz behaved as the editor-in-chief of the magazine in those days.  One bit that sticks in my mind is near the end of the piece:

Shortly after I’d come to Commentary, I’d had a conversation with Norman about recruiting writers for the magazine. It didn’t seem to me such a big deal; I said I knew of four or five people at the University of Chicago alone who could write for Commentary.

“You think you do, but you don’t,” said Norman. “You don’t realize how unusual you were for an academic.”

I said I wasn’t that unusual: I’d lucked into an opportunity my friends hadn’t had. “I’ll bet you a dinner that I can bring five writers you’ve never heard of into the magazine in the next year.”

“I don’t want to take your money,” he said. “I’ll bet you won’t bring three.”

We turned out to both be right. With one exception, the novelist Thomas Rogers, none of the former colleagues I had in mind sent in a review or piece that was lively enough to be accepted. A former fellow graduate student, Elizabeth Tornquist, who was turning to political journalism, also managed to crack the barrier. The others had fallen into one or another mode of scholarly dullness or pedagogical authority and, despite my suggestions, had trouble climbing out to address the common reader. My efforts to point their prose and sense of subject in a broader direction brought little joy to either party. “How dare you revise my formulation of an intellectual problem” was a fairly typical reaction.

Which may explain why so few “little magazines” really make it. It certainly explains why someone Podhoretz was needed to make Commentary into the magazine it was.  Only someone who didn’t mind losing friends could edit their work as mercilessly as was necessary to make a periodical worth reading and talking about; only someone who didn’t mind sucking up to the rich and famous could raise the money and generate the publicity necessary to keep it afloat.

The Atlantic Monthly, January/ February 2009


Garrett Epps declares the creation of the presidency to have been “The Founders’ Great Mistake.”  You’d think the history of the last 85 years would have made that clear to everyone, but evidently it has not.  Epps does not propose abolishing the presidency.  Instead, he outlines a plan that would keep the office in existence, but make the president dependent on the support of a majority in Congress.  In effect, Epps would replicate a parliamentary system.  That would be, if anything, worse than what we have now.  At least now the president and Congress can fight each other to a standstill.  Under Epps’ system, there would never be an opposing force to block the worst ideas that came out of the leadership of the ruling party. 

Mark Ambinder’s piece on the way the Obama campaign handled race as an issue contains an interesting line:

Even during the 2008 primaries, a discomfiting pattern had emerged: Barack Obama did his best overall in the states with the largest or the smallest percentages of African American voters—think of South Carolina, where blacks made up 55 percent of the Democratic-primary vote, and Vermont, where they made up less than 2 percent. Obama won in states where black Democrats had already attained a measure of political power, or where whites had never competed with blacks.

Ambinder seems close here to an idea that has been rattling around on the far right for some time.  Some writers, such as Steve Sailer, have claimed that “white guilt” is in fact a sign of disengagement from African Americans.  Whites who support policies that might put other whites at a disadvantage to African Americans do so in order to show their superiority over other whites.  On this view, “white guilt” is not a sign of belief in the equality of African Americans.  Quite the contrary, it rests on a belief that African Americans will never be able to compete at the highest levels of achievement.  Those who declare themselves racked by white guilt do so in order to show that they themselves are able to do so, and look down on those whites who have to worry about African American competitors.  I don’t know if I believe that idea, but I do think it deserves wider discussion than it has received.  Certainly it shouldn’t be relegated to Sailer’s blog and similarly confined venues.  

Mark Bowden profiles Bob Fishman, who directs CBS’ television broadcasts of NFL games.  The sheer number of decisions Fishman must make in the course of a minute of airtime staggers the mind.  Cognitive psychologists should study the guy.

Nobody for President

Tuli Kupferberg of the 60’s band The Fugs presents a song called “Nobody for President.” 

Again, How Much Is 1 Vote Worth?