The 20th century was a century of change. In particular, the relationship between the general public and their government evolved in startling ways. Each decade saw programs and agendas that shifted norms and changed the nature of American governance. Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson’s War Socialism, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty stand out as prime examples of this trend. The trend continued into the 21st century, most visible in George W. Bush’s Patriot Act, Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and now President Trump’s Trade War and push for the Wall.
Each case mentioned above is an executive response to a crisis. Each response pushed the office of the Presidency a little more beyond the constraints of the US Constitution. Each response lessened the authority of the other branches of the federal government. In each case, the other branches of government were either deemed too slow, too opposed, or simply yielded their authority for the ease of leaning on the presidency for action.
This article is not a discussion on whether the policies mentioned above are ultimately right or wrong. Neither is it about whether or not the given emergencies were real or imagined. This article is a word of warning to everyone of all political persuasions. It’s a warning that no matter the level of immediacy of the crisis, we must remember to cherish our constitutional processes. We must hold sacred the finely tuned checks and balances of federalism. The rights and liberties afforded by this country are only as strong as the form of government we have in place to protect them. Given how rare our level of freedom is in the history of the world, we should not be so quick to place that freedom at jeopardy.
The idea of the imperial presidency is nothing new. There are many, both on the Left and the Right, who condemn broadened use of presidential power when the rival party holds the office. Sadly, too few possess the requisite self-awareness to consider which actions might be a furthering of executive abuse when an ally holds the office. The nature of crisis government is at fault for this apparent perfidy.
Those familiar with the book 1984 might recall the idea that a government in constant crisis can better justify autocratic control over its people. Such a government can get the people to submit to added abuses as they desire safety amidst the crisis. While 1984 is an extreme example, it is a fitting one. Free people must always be wary of those who would accumulate power, for whatever reason. But too often, proper wariness is rarely maintained in the face of all threats. The Left responds in outrage to abuses by a Republican and yet cheer the abuses of a Democrat. The Right rages at overreaching actions by a Democrat and yet excuse away abuses by a Republican. Is this simply a sign of hypocrisy? Not quite.
It all comes down to crisis and emergency. The Left is often concerned with climate change, poverty, and healthcare. The Right, lately, has been concerned with global terrorism, immigration, and globalization. Consider the examples cited earlier; you might find most of them fall into these listed “emergencies.” A Democrat who sees The Wall as the “vanity project” of a “wanna-be-dictator” may have had no problem with extra-legislative actions such as DACA or the Paris Climate Agreement. This is not because he’s a hypocrite. It’s because he sees climate change and Central-American poverty as true emergencies needing urgent action while convinced globalization and illegal immigration are not as much of a concern. Republicans mirror this pattern, thinking the Affordable Care Act was an attack at the heart and soul of the country while seeing no problem with summary use of executive power to start Trade Wars.
The facts of the matter are that devotion to checks and balances, the limits of government power, has become the purview of only out of power interests. For eight years under President Obama, Republicans checked the power of the presidency in Congress, the Courts, and in state and local government. Now that a Republican is president, Republicans only wield these branches to channel presidential will. And, all the same interests that marched to the beat of a Democratic president’s drum have, in their resistance to a Republican president, found their belief in checks and balances. This vicious cycle stems from both sides embracing crisis government.
What has fled from our minds is that the principles of our form of government rest upon the idea that no crisis warrants weakening the carefully constructed checks and balances of the federal system. There are certainly instances where emergency powers are justified. But those instances are far rarer than most are willing to admit. The proper course of constitutional governance is sufficient to deal with most, if not all, of the concerns our republic faces.
The heightened passions of our elections are the result of a dispute over what to regard as true crisis. If each side would resist the urge to engage in crisis government, the discourse would not reach such frantic levels. Both sides need to remember that the balance of power between parties will always shift. All should be wary of setting a new precedence in response to their crisis because it could one day be used to justify further abuse in response to another’s crisis. Republicans nervous with a Democrat using emergency powers to dictate climate policy should take care when mulling over actions to deal with the border. Democrats agitated with President Trump’s arbitrary tariffs should have been more concerned when President Obama entered into treaties without Congressional approval.
I, for one, think it is time for Americans to give up their addiction to crisis government. It’s time for Americans to reacquaint themselves with the ideas of balanced and constant constitutional governance. Republicans should be watchful of Republican presidents because they know a Democrat will be president again someday. Democrats should be mindful of Democratic presidents because they know a Republican will again hold the office in the future. When a crisis arises, and urgent action through enlarged executive power becomes tempting, Americans must begin asking themselves a crucial question. They must ask themselves if they are prepared to grant future presidents the unchecked power they are giving a current president. With Donald Trump in mind, would Democrats have expanded power under Barack Obama? With Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in mind, would Republicans be so relaxed with executive authority under Donald Trump? No matter party or belief, it’s time to fully grasp that only in checking abuse done in your name can you ever hope to check abuse done in the name of others.
Originally published at http://federalistcoalition.com.