America Is Moving Toward Czarism and Away from Democracy
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History's great American parables teach that if anything unified our founders, it was a deep antipathy to dictatorship. As bourgeois revolutionaries from Boston to Philadelphia courageously split with the British crown in 1776, they created three equal branches of government to prevent, in the words of James Madison, "a tyrannical concentration of all the powers" in a president's hands.
For two centuries since, civics books, Hollywood biopics and party convention speeches have constructed a mythology insisting that this democratic commitment to checks and balances makes our country a beacon of freedom -- the "shining city on a hill" overlooking a despotic world below. We are told that democracy's tumult -- its messy debates, legislative sausage-making and electoral friction -- is the best way to guarantee that public policy represents public will, therefore making us a strong and durable nation.
If that is true, then every patriot should be concerned about the intensifying efforts to supplant democracy with something far more authoritarian. Call it American czarism.
That term should be as impossibly oxymoronic as crash landings and deafening silence, considering our Constitution's desire to create a "government of laws and not of men," as John Adams said. But politics is filled with paradoxes from Reagan Democrats to Obama Republicans, and czars -- i.e., policymakers granted extralegal, cross-agency powers -- have become increasingly prevalent in our government over the past century.
After the Great Flood of 1927, for instance, President Calvin Coolidge named Herbert Hoover the federal government czar overseeing relief efforts, and Hoover subsequently appointed "dictators" (he actually used that term) to help coordinate the response.
During the power consolidations of the New Deal in the 1930s, a Time magazine story headlined "Dictator or Democrat" reported on the "suspicions of those throughout the nation who have an uneasy feeling that [President Franklin] Roosevelt, under cover of the emergency, is trying 'to slip something over' on democracy." In the 1940s and 1950s, parks commissioner Robert Moses -- famously known as "the power broker" -- amassed so much personal authority that he was able to almost single-handedly redesign New York City. And lately, presidents have given us poverty, energy, drug, health and even Iraq war czars.
Until now, this slow lurch toward czarism has primarily reflected the ancient, almost innate human desire for power and paternalistic leadership. The current president reminded us that executives see all-powerful "deciders" when they look in the mirror. And Americans -- sans kings to rally around -- have been elevating commanders in chief to superhero status well before Barack Obama's Marvel comic-book debut and George Bush's flight-suited "Top Gun" impression in 2003.
In recent years, this culture of "presidentialism," as Vanderbilt Professor Dana Nelson calls it, has justified the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps and a radical theory of the "unitary executive" that aims to provide a jurisprudential rationale for total White House supremacy over all government. But only in the past three months has American czarism metastasized from a troubling slow-growth tumor to a potentially deadly cancer.
In October, Congress relinquished its most basic oversight powers and gave Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson sole authority to dole out billions of bailout dollars to Wall Street. At the same time, it did nothing when Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke used fiats to commit "$5 trillion worth of new money, loan guarantees and loosened lending requirements," according to Politico -- all while he refused to tell the public who is receiving the largesse.
And the Washington Post has reported that lawmakers may appoint a "car czar" who "would essentially control the purse strings" of an auto industry bailout and "could force Detroit's Big Three automakers into bankruptcy" if he or she didn't like their behavior.