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Get Rid of the Presidency

Photograph Source: Rob Young from United Kingdom – CC BY 2.0

If the prospect of the Trump – Biden presidential election fills you with horror and despair, you might give some thought to not just replacing both candidates but the presidency as well, at least as we now conceive it.

For some time now, but maybe since the Kennedy administration (which ended in a hail of voter-suppressed gunfire), I have been thinking that one of the biggest problems with American democracy is the presidency itself, the idea that the chief magistrate of the country should be one person elected every four years by a few swing voters in Ohio, North Carolina, or Florida.

What good can be said of an office that regularly is awarded to the likes of Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush, and that this year, for its finalists, has Donald Trump and Joe Biden, men who otherwise would not be eligible to coach Little League teams or lead Scout troops (pussy grabbers and hair sniffers need not apply).

Instead, every four years, because of a document drawn up more than two hundred years ago, the United States puts into its highest office men of stunning incompetence (think of W’s facial expression while reading The Pet Goat on 9/11) and low cunning (“Ike likes Nixon and we do too…”), who over time have managed to turn the office of the presidency into what it is today—a violent reality show that has brought you Vietnam, Watergate, the USA Patriot Act, and Barack Obama’s “necessary war” in Afghanistan.

***

According to James Madison’s notes from the 1789 constitutional convention, the job of the American president was to “execute” the laws that Congress passed. In times of war, the president was to serve as the commander-in-chief of the state’s militias—to exercise civilian control over the military.

At the Philadelphia constitutional convention, the dispute about the presidency concerned which model to follow in creating a template of the chief executive.

John Adams and Alexander Hamilton aspired to create a constitutional monarchy of sorts, with their favorite aristocrat, George Washington, on the throne.

At the very least they were in favor of a strong, lone-wolf executive with centralized powers, while Benjamin Franklin (with the emotional support of Thomas Jefferson from Paris) and others favored a federal council, something closer to the Swiss model, in which the powers of the chief magistrate would be devolved to a committee, not on one person.

James Madison, who had loyalties in both camps and a heavy hand in drafting the new constitution, came up the compromise and helped to shape the American presidency that we know today—that of an elected monarch.

In Philadelphia in 1789, the constitutional framers had hoped they were creating an office-holder along the lines of an auditor-in-chief, someone who would make sure that the Congress (notably the House of Representatives) spent the people’s money wisely and kept the trade lines flowing through (tariff-free) interstate commerce.

It never occurred to any of them that they were creating a monster along the lines of a political Frankenstein who might someday, as if with bolts protruding from his neck and an awkward square haircut, stump his way though Lafayette Square and hold up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

***

Another problem with the original intent of the presidency in the U.S. Constitution is that it was a laissez-passer for slaveholders in southern states (not to mention their cotton brokers in New York City) to do pretty much as they pleased in terms of exploiting the means of production.

Until the corporate railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln came along, American presidents functioned as trustees for slaveowners, and nearly all (in the manner of James Buchanan during the era of Dred Scott, the runaway slave of Supreme Court fame) bent over backwards to insure that indentured service remained an unenumerated right of the moneyed classes.

A few presidents, Andrew Jackson being one of them during the 1832 Nullification Crisis, pushed back against the notion of states’ rights, but Jackson—himself a slave owner—made up for the hurt Southern feelings by ethnically cleansing Florida and Georgia of the Cherokee Nation, and turning over the rich soil of its land to his slave-holding brethren.

Only Lincoln decided that the constitution (tolerating the slave trade until 1808 and otherwise silent on the question of human bondage) was a document inconsistent with the ideals of American liberty, and he waged a brutal civil war to amend the constitution.

An unintended consequence of that war, however, which broke the power of individual states to operate farms as prison labor camps, was to concentrate in Washington and in the office of the presidency a host of powers (over the budget and the military, especially) that the founding fathers had never intended to confer on one person.

I am not blaming Lincoln alone for the rise of the imperious presidency. Many others—Woodrow Wilson included—can share that poisoned chalice.

In particular, American wars (from Mexico in 1846 through to Iraq and Afghanistan) have remade the presidency into what it is today, a caricature of democracy dressed up in the raiments of a mail-order autocrat.

***

When it came to defining the presidency, the constitution got more wrong than it did right.

The vote wasn’t given to the citizenry but to electors, wise men in the provinces who would gather (in early December) every four years and pick a president. (Golf club membership committees work the same way.) But the way electors have been chosen over time has been a political variation of blind man’s buff.

What went wrong almost immediately were the so-called presidential elections, which since 1792 have been rigged, fixed, finagled, gerrymandered, massaged, bought, and sold—yet another cornered commodity market, although this one trading only in political influence.

Despite what you read about democracy-in-action in your high school civics classes, most accessions to presidential power have come as a result of a deal, bullets, blackmail, or fatal illnesses.

Yet this is the ritual held up to the rest of world, when someone in Washington is delivering one of those hectoring speeches about American exceptionalism.

Only in a handful of presidential elections has a candidate actually taken office after securing more than 50 percent of the votes cast.

Even in the last election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million but Trump was installed in office, for corralling more electoral votes.

Here’s a short list of brokered, anointed, non-elected, or somehow accidental American presidents: George Washington, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and George W. Bush.

Mind you, not all of these presidents were bad. As was said of Hayes: “He did such a good job I almost wish he had been elected.”

And here’s a list of some presidents who took office by the grace of providence or its fix-it men: Abraham Lincoln (four candidates were running and he got only 39.8% of the vote), Benjamin Harrison (Cleveland won the popular vote in 1888), William McKinley (Mark Hanna sold him in 1896 as if he were a new line of soap and then bought some extra votes, just to be sure), John F. Kennedy (dead men voting in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Cook County), Bill Clinton (he can thank Ross Perot), and Donald Trump (he lost the popular vote but won the Russian caucus).

My point is that the words “American democracy” and “ the presidency” have very little in common. Most elections in U.S. history are variations on the Supreme Court in 2000 giving the job to George W. Bush much as he was tapped at Yale for Skull and Bones.

Unless I miss my mark, 2020 will be a rerun of many earlier contested elections, with voter suppression, lost and shredded ballots, foreign interference, broken voting machines, absent absentee ballots, and hacked computers defining a dubious outcome.

***

How then to remake the presidency so that the office adds up to something more than a cereal-box kingdom?

Adopting Franklin’s and Jefferson’s Swiss federal council model might go a long way toward restoring trust in government, and it would work as follows.

Instead of the president being one person, the chief executive of the country would be a duly constituted collective body—say of seven individuals—that as a group would share the burdens and responsibilities of the highest office.

In Switzerland (where I live), while there is a person with the ceremonial title of president, it is only the Federal Council as a body that can make executive decisions.

Does it work? Swiss democracy and its Federal Charter have been around since 1291, so something about the consensus of a council at the head of government must function well.

More applicable to the United States: in 1848 the Swiss adopted a constitution largely based on the American model; the only exception is that they made the chief executive a committee, not one person.

The Federal Assembly—both branches of the Swiss parliament—elects the members of the Federal Council every four years in December. (If that sounds familiar, it should. The Federal Assembly is the electoral college of the Swiss system.)

Generally in Switzerland the federal council is a blend of the left, right, and center, and it also has geographic diversity.

Nor does Switzerland tear itself apart every four years with a presidential election that costs more than $1 billion and only gives the illusion of self-government.

Instead, Swiss voters cast about thirty to forty votes a year (in person, by mail, or on the internet, and it all works seamlessly; no one stands in eight-hour lines), on a host of questions, initiatives, and referenda. Every Swiss citizen, in effect, is a parliamentarian.

Only periodically do Swiss voters choose actual candidates; most of the time they are supporting one of the country’s many political parties or voting yes/no on specific questions.

The advantage of a federal council in the United States is that it would introduce into the government a coalition executive that would make decisions consistent with the views of the major political parties and hence (we hope) the electorate at large.

And the idea would be faithful to the original intent of the U.S. Constitution—that of having electors decide on the chief executive.

***

During 2020 I was thinking about a federal council when I followed the presidential campaign trails through Iowa and New Hampshire.

Over several weeks, I saw all of the candidates in person (including the carnival-barking Trump at one of his rallies), and I listened to most of them give more than one speech or interview.

Listening to the candidates speak, I found few of them (Biden in particular) to be persuasive as individuals, but it was easy to imagine that some of the candidates could be stronger if brought together as members of a governing body.

So here’s my federal council from the candidates in the 2020 election:

In no particular order, the most articulate candidates that I heard in 2020 were Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, William Weld (he ran against Trump in the Republican primaries), Deval Patrick (former governor of Massachusetts), Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Walsh (a Republican – Libertarian former Congressman who also opposed Trump).

Could those seven persons run the executive branch of the United States? I think they could. They would represent the left, right, and center; they would have ethnic and gender diversity; and they would speak for a wide variety of constituencies within the country. Plus there would be collective strength in numbers.

On his own as president Bernie Sanders might be little more than a left-wing version of Donald Trump, someone given to sweeping pronouncements (although in a more dignified manner and without the company of porn stars).

On a federal council, however, Bernie’s passion for social justice, education, climate initiatives, and a limited foreign policy might even find allies among conservatives Weld and Walsh, provided he was willing to compromise on monetary and fiscal restraints.

So too would a council be the obvious instrument to rein in some of Warren’s exuberance and professorial hectoring, but still allow her to bring to the government her commitment to economic fairness and health-care reform.

Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Patrick are centrists who speak well for various constituencies, and all three would be valuable team members.

The way the council operates in Switzerland is that each member is responsible for certain ministries (education, foreign affairs, treasury, etc.) for a year’s term, and then they rotate jobs (including that of president), which means that council members become well-versed in various government issues.

For what it’s worth, in Switzerland Covid infections are down to about ten new cases a day, and there are only 18 persons with the virus in intensive care around the country, although in the early days infection rates were similar to those of the United States.

Yes, nominally, there is a Swiss president (in recent years very often a woman—there have been six in the country’s recent history), who is trotted out to meet world leaders and to represent Switzerland at forums. But executive authority rests in collective decision. On her or his own, the Swiss president cannot do very much.

***

For a variety of reasons most recent American presidencies have ended in failure. Lyndon Johnson saddled the country with the Vietnam War. Nixon went down over Watergate, clearly nothing a committee would have tolerated.

Carter, although a decent man, was over his head with inflation and Iran, and could have used some adults (more than Jody and Ham) in the room. Reagan was a part-time president and had little interest in the details of government, other than to pay off his friends and large companies.

George Herbert Walker Bush, in effect, served Reagan’s third term but found himself squeezed from the left and right, not to mention by his own incompetence. Clinton’s personal failings would have mattered less if he had been one of seven governing the executive branch.

Both George W. Bush and Obama were symbolic presidents, each representing some lost ideal of their parties, but neither had much to offer in terms of management capability, and each blundered into ruinous foreign wars.

On his own as the American chief executive, the narcissistic sociopath Trump is a train wreck, for the presidency and the country. Even if elected, Biden will be a lame, if not a dead, duck, his presidency over before it starts.

Do we need more examples, especially during a financial and health crisis, that the office is failing us?

I cannot promise that a presidential federal council would not make mistakes, but at least such a body would be aligned with the parties and political interests in the House and Senate, and most Americans would feel that there was at least someone at the executive level who was speaking for their interests. (Look through the list of my federal council, and you will find someone on it you admire and respect.)

Yes, for a council to succeed it needs compromise, but think of all the committees in your life that, on balance, function well. They exchange ideas, barter favors, and in the end move forward, generally for the common good. At least most of them don’t storm off in a cloud of tear gas across Lafayette Square, waving a Bible.

If you are interested to figure out where you fit on the Swiss political spectrum, go to SmartVote and answer the questions.

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Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails and, most recently, Appalachia Spring, about the coal counties of West Virginia and Kentucky. He lives in Switzerland.  

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