For the last 50 years Americans have been decrying the increase of presidential power whenever the party they oppose is in office. Republicans hated to see Kennedy and Clinton throwing their weight around, while Democrats deplored the ‘imperial presidency’ of Nixon and Reagan. F.H. Buckley, a Canadian law professor now working in Virginia, explains why presidents have become so powerful. He adds that it’s not just an American problem. Prime ministers in Britain and Canada have also grown more powerful at the expense of their countries’ parliaments, but to a lesser, and less menacing, degree.
He argues that American conditions today are very different from those foreseen by the founding fathers when they wrote the constitution in 1787. They were suspicious of popular democracy, and thought they were creating a system in which Congress would be dominant, with the President acting merely to carry out its wishes. Before long, however, the spread of popular democracy made the President the one figure who embodied the nation as a whole. He was both head of state and head of government, surrounded by an aura of sovereignty that no one else could match. Presidents could insulate themselves from Congress and appeal to the electorate over the heads of the other politicians, secure in the knowledge that fixed terms of office safeguarded their power.
Presidential power has swollen in the last century, along with the administrative state. As ever more federal bureaucracies come into existence, Congress delegates to them the authority to make and enforce the rules. The President appoints the administrators of these bureaucracies and fills all the important positions with members of his own party. As a result, they become extensions of his will, because they serve at his pleasure. Much of their work is so specialised, and its volume is so immense, that congressional oversight can do little more than offer broad guidelines. Presidents are now able to decide which laws to enforce, and against whom.
The growth of popular media, like the rise of the federal bureaucracy, has also increased presidential power. Briefly, in the early 2000s, it seemed that the internet might democratise news and punditry. Almost at once, however, the White House itself became a leading contributor to the news-stream, in effect creating not just the stories it wanted to emphasise but an approved way of telling them. Presidents reward obsequious journalists by granting them access and personal interviews. They punish journalists who tell unwelcome truths by freezing them out. Once denied access, they become less valuable to the papers and networks they serve.
Comparable changes have affected Britain, Canada, Australia and the rest of the British Commonwealth countries too, enabling prime ministers to concentrate power in their own hands, control the shape of media stories, and supervise an immense administrative state. But not to the same degree. Prime ministers are not heads of state and rarely inspire veneration. They live in terrace houses like 10 Downing Street rather than palaces. They have to face their opponents’ taunts in parliament, and do not enjoy fixed terms of office. Backbench or cabinet revolts can remove them from office. Moreover, they are not vulnerable to the kind of deadlock currently afflicting the US, where a Democratic president and a Republican-dominated Congress paralyse one another. Prime ministers lead the majority party and can prevail without breaking the rules, but only for so long as they command their party members’ assent.
Of the two, says Buckley, this is the better system, much less likely than a presidential system to degenerate into dictatorship. He sees recent presidents’ tendency to sidestep Congress, by appointing ‘czars’ and by using executive orders, as the road to de-legitimising the constitution. The Americans overthrew George III because they thought he was a tyrant. But now, says the pessimistic Buckley, they have burdened themselves with a chief executive mightier than any king.
In a superb chapter on the history of Canada between 1783 and 1867, he shows how it became a kind of antidote to the United States. Many of its citizens were refugees from the newly independent US who had remained loyal to Britain during the American revolution. They deplored popular democracy, with its risk of demagoguery. The US in those years periodically invaded Canada. Sometimes it changed tack and tried to persuade the Canadians to join the Union. The Canadians systematically repelled the invasions and declined the invitations. In the 1860s, while the American civil war raged, they found a peaceful way to unite their disparate provinces under one federal government. Even the apparently unassimilable French-speaking Quebec joined in, and there was no civil war. Canada, says Buckley, remains confident that its version of liberty, based on British traditions, is superior to that of its massive neighbour.
Buckley deplores the current state of affairs in the US, and sees presidential power concentration as a real threat. He rises above the partisan bickering of contemporary Washington and shows that this is a systemic problem, not just a quirk of the Obama era. Whether recent history entirely supports his claims is another matter. If the President were really as powerful as he seems to think, surely neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama would have faced the grinding and protracted struggles with Congress that have marked the post-millennial years. Despite recent difficulties, despite Congress’s credibility reaching an historic low, respect for the constitution itself persists among nearly all Americans.
This is a good book but from an author who expects only the worst. Its title is misleading. It might lead you to think that Buckley had written a tribute to T. H. White, or that he brought us political insights from Arthurian Camelot. The Once and Future King was perhaps his agent’s or his publisher’s idea for drumming up extra sales. It was a bad idea, as wrong as an astronomer giving the title Goodnight Moon to a serious book on the solar system.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £18.99. Tel: 08430 600033. Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, Georgia.