23.6.08

Barack Obama and the Theory of the Unitary Executive

In January of 2007, Chalmers Johnson wrote a citizen's "National Intelligence Estimate" on the United States for Harper's Magazine. In it, Johnson detailed the American embrace of "military Keynesianism" - an economic model in which "sustained military ambition [is required] in order to avoid [economic] recession or collapse." Johnson further explained military Keynesianism alongside the theory of the unitary executive, which the Bush administration has long embraced and championed via Dick Cheney: "The theory of the unitary executive," wrote Johnson, "holds, in effect, that the president has the authority to ignore the separataion of powers written into the Constitution, creating a feedback loop in which permanent war and the unitary presidency are mutually reinforcing."

It was Dwight Eisenhower who foresaw the perils of the "military-industrial complex" first and presided over a portion of its birth. And no longer, as Eisenhower noted, do we participate in a military philosophy whose ethos was, "American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well."

I'm not sure if military Keynesianism reached its quintessence in the Reagan 80's or the Bush 00's or has yet to show its full might a la the still burgeoning Clone War-esq works of Blackwater's Cofer Black and Erik Prince. But if the self-perpetuating cylce of military Keynesianism is to be broken, or slowed, one place it might start is with a move away from the theory of the unitary executive. My eggs are in Barack Obama's basket on this one, but there's something troubling about the fervor around him alongside expanded executive powers. I have played a small part in that play, but it's one that I should step back and think about.
There was some concern this weekend over Obama's support of the FISA Bill which allowed retroactive amnesty for telecomm companies for participating in George Bush's demand to illegally spy on American citizens. What troubled many, as Greg Sargent wrote on Talking Points Memo, is that "[Obama's] candidacy has long seemed to embody a conviction that Democrats can win arguments with Republicans about national security -- that if Dems stick to a set of core principles, and forcefully argue for them without blinking, they can and will persuade people that, simply put, they are right and Republicans are wrong." Obama's support of the FISA Bill seemed not in keeping with that tradition.

What further troubles me about Obama's support of the bill - regardless of aspects of political gamesmanship which I won't address - is how it jives with the theory of the unitary executive, and how Barack will deal with the fresh Bush legacy of expanded presidential powers. Obama will have a lot of work to do repairing the economy, foreign policy, and mending two military disasters when he is elected president. There must be, in such a case, a temptation to use exceptional powers to make excpetional changes. I trust Barack Obama not to use the sweeping powers of George Bush - to shove aside the constitution and remake the country/world - because I believe he knows that the means are the ends in this game: It's not how you want the world to look, it's how you get it there.

But his supporters, myself included, expect monumental changes that will be difficult and time-consuming to achieve. Will Barack feel pressure to use his executive power - power swollen by Bush and friends - to make change quickly? Or will he be able to temper his people's expectations, encourage patience and deliberation, and perform the near contradictory tasks of simultaneously resizing the role of the executive and tackling the wounded economy and working on withdrawal from Iraq. What makes this even more complicated is the charismatic authority with which we have endowed Obama.

The sociologist Max Weber wrote of charismatic authority that it is, "a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader." (Wikipedia)

Obama is not endowed with supernatural powers or those of divine origin, but he's certainly been bestowed with the distinction of a man, "set apart from ordinary men," with, "at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities," by many of his supporters. This can be a dangerous role to put someone in, regardless of how much Obama denies it is he who is special and insists that he is simply the "the excuse" for people's hopes and dreams.

One of the great sins of the Bush Administration, and the American people, was when Bush advised us all "to go shopping" after 9/11 and leave the work to him, and we obliged, at least at first. If Obama is elected and America is to avoid collapse and/or international irrelevance, it will not be because of the work of Barack Obama, but of all Americans under his leadership. We cannot expect to continue shopping while he does the heavy lifting. I worry that the quality of the support around him may suggest we are too enamored of the potential abilities of our charismatic leader, and still not looking to take on the burden ourselves. The organizing and grassroots work is encouraging, I just hope it lasts beyond the general election.

I've heard that the following lines, from The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, were "given" to Milan Kundera because he was writing from under the spectre of communism. Still, I think there may be precautionary value in them now.

"A year or two after emigrating, [Sabina] happened to be in Paris on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of her country. A protest march had been scheduled, and she felt driven to take part. Fists raised high, the young Frenchmen shouted out slogans condemning Soviet Imperialism. She liked the slogans, but to her surprise she found herself unable to shout along with them. She lasted no more than a few minutes in the parade.

When she told her French friends about it, they were amazed. “You mean you don’t want to fight the occupation of your country?” She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison. But she knew she would never be able to make them understand."

1 comment:

muffine said...

great post and really thought provoking ideas, al. now let's talk in the real world!