I recently received a question on a post published back in 2017 that used Thucydides’ description of the Oligarchy of 411 to reflect on the protests then going on. In short, this post drew together a couple of threads, including how we remember protest in Ancient Greece given the limits of our evidence and the my concerns about the consolidation of power in the executive branch. The reader asked: how do I feel about the consolidation of power in the executive post 2020?
By way of preamble, two caveats:
First, the original post was, as much as anything, a reflection on the limits of our evidence for the ancient world. I have a hard time believing that the weight of the protests of the past few years would fail to leave a trace simply given how much material has been produced. Perhaps some sort of digital apocalypse could render that evidence unsalvageable, but I find that unlikely.
Second, what follows stems from my opinion. I consider myself a reasonably astute political watcher, both as a function of how I interpret civic duty and as a relic of the time when I thought I was going to work in politics—and one of my favorite courses in college was on the American presidency, but my areas of expertise have developed in rather different directions. As such, I am speaking here as a citizen rather than as an expert.
As to the actual question about the growth of the executive, not much has changed.
To his credit, President Biden has also made a conspicuous effort to work through Congress rather than through executive orders. The enormous caveat here is that this has been made possible by slim majorities in both chambers. I don’t want to speculate on what Biden would do if this were not the case, but there hasn’t been a move to substantively curb the power of the executive. To give a couple of examples, President Trump faced a historic second impeachment, but in neither investigation was he convicted by the Senate and most of his worst precedents like eternally-interim appointments were allowed to expire without either being regulated or held to account. Biden may be not actively flexing the executive in ways that expand it further, but that is not the same thing as rolling it back.
For my part, I would like to see regular, transparent processes to hold politicians accountable for their actions.
However, too narrow a focus on the state of the executive in American political life also misses the forest for the trees. That is, a more serious anti-democratic movement developed parallel to, but not directly in-step with the growing power of the executive. Dark money political interest groups have gerrymandered states in ways that force Democrats to win a super majority of the votes to have a slim majority in state legislatures that, in turn, allow Republican state legislators to simply ignore ballot measures approved by the voters. The other priority for these dark money groups has often been to install a favorable judiciary, which was Mitch McConnell’s legislative priority during the Trump administration. These groups would obviously like to have the presidency — there would be less reason for so many states to install voting restrictions after the 2021 election and lay the groundwork to reject an unfavorable electoral outcome in 2024 otherwise — but it is not their singular focus.
When the two came together, as in the obstructionism spearheaded by McConnell that prompted President Obama to work through the executive and thereby gather ever more power or how congressional Republicans enabled President Trump to circumvent Congress to an even greater extent, the result was the expansion of executive power under both Republican and Democratic presidents.
(Reading over the original post, I noticed that I characterized the process as the legislature “acquiescing” to the consolidation of power. This isn’t quite right, as I’ve noted here, but I do still think that the legislature has been complicit in the process.)
Recent events are revealing just how much the American constitutional system relies on a consensus belief in the founding myths of this country and institutional norms. At the same time as the shallowness of the former have been revealed, the latter have been under attack in an increasingly polarized country. The Constitution was never a perfect document, but it has been calcified by originalism, rendering whatever flexibility it contained impossible.
Here in 2021, the consolidation of executive power can’t be untangled from these other threads that are more aggressively eroding the political system. That is what concerns me as a citizen of this country right now, more than the growth of the executive. The first is an existential threat, the second has concrete consequences but I see it as an academic exercise if the first isn’t addressed first.