Ralph Nader Attacks the Imperial Presidency but Ignores the Do-Nothing Congress

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Ralph NaderIt’s interesting that Ralph Nader took to the pages of AlterNet to rail against the “imperial presidency” but had nothing to say about our runaway, do-nothing Congress. It makes no sense to rail against the one while ignoring the other. The United States government is built on a system of checks and balances first articulated by John Adams in his Thoughts on Government (1776) and tinkering with any part of the whole will affect the whole.

Nader, worrying about drone attacks and how the world perceives us, complains,

For our national security, the American people must recover control of our runaway, unilateral presidency that has torn itself away from constitutional accountabilities and continues to be hijacked by ideologues who ignore our Founding Fathers’ wisdom regarding the separation of powers and avoiding foreign entanglements that become costly, deadly and endless quagmires.

All right. I get that. But I’ve been kinda wondering myself what we can do about our Congress, which has hijacked Barack Obama’s presidency. Sure, there have to be limits to the president’s powers, but there have to be limits to those of Congress as well, particularly when it comes to Congressional obstructionism. In many ways, the president has far too little power. Since he took office in 2008, the Republicans in the Senate and House have treated Obama like a figurehead, insisting that he do exactly what they tell him.

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That was not what Adams envisioned back in 1776. Our system of government is a delicate one (In truth, every system of government is delicate). But Nader’s arguments notwithstanding, the idea of a strong executive goes all the way back to Adams, and the imperial presidency can be traced back to him as well. Adams proposed a strong executive to go along with a bicameral legislature (which he favored over Thomas Paine’s proposed single house) and a judicial branch.

Adams recognized the potential for tyranny in a legislative body. The delegates of the Constitutional Convention recognized them as well and the Constitution is in part a response and a check on the excesses of democracy prevailing under the weak Articles of Confederation. A popular majority, it was early recognized, is an incubator of tyranny.

Of course, our immediate problems with an imperial presidency originated during the administration of George W. Bush, who decided that he could do anything he wanted, regardless of the law, simply by announcing that the law did not apply to him. Republicans did not object to that (though they object now because it is a Democrat in the White House – and a black one to boot). That Democrat, Barack Obama, has behaved in a much more restrained fashion than Bush (not that you would know it from Republican propaganda).

But if the term “imperial presidency” dates from the 1960s, the idea is an old one, as the presidency of John Adams itself demonstrates (nor was Adam’s rival, Thomas Jefferson, a weak president).

I am not arguing here in defense of the imperial presidency. I am arguing that it is a simple-minded response that focuses only on the presidency and ignores the legislative and judicial branches. Not only do we have legislatures legislating, but we have judges legislating from the bench. And we have a president who is trying to govern a country while obstructed at every turn by a filibuster rule that short-sighted Democrats decline to change for fear they won’t have it as a weapon in the event of a Republican majority in the Senate; and by a Republican majority in the House that refuses to pay our government’s legitimate debts and then blames the president for it, and that refuses to recognize those appointments a president legitimately makes.

It would be nice if our problems were as simple as those Nader outlines. But they are not. They never are. They were not in 1776 or 1783 or 1787 and they are not in 2013. And what Nader fails to see is that it is the president, in the person of Barack Obama (whom he has opposed twice for the presidency) who stands between the Republican Congressional Hawks and war.

The Republicans have given us two major wars in the past decade, each as long as the fabled Trojan War, and they would give us more if they could, if not in Syria then in Iran. A legislature is just as capable of going to war as an executive, and there is no evidence that any more thought goes on in those 535 heads (435 in the House and 100 in the Senate) than goes on in the one head of Barack Obama.

However we feel about drone attacks, we cannot, as has happened with Ralph Nader, allow our prejudices to go to our heads. Our whole system of government, which has for over two centuries sustained us as the world’s first modern liberal democracy, is problematic. It is established by the United States Constitution, which was written by men who, wise as they were, could not have conceived of the modern world, however much thought they gave to unborn generations.

It is up to each generation to make that Constitution work. Like it or not, it is a living document. It must be, for it is too thin a reed to sustain the weight of history on its back otherwise. There are no easy solutions in a world as complex as our own has become and simply clipping the president’s wings on the issue of drones will not resolve our problems with government.

Our problems with government will be resolved by the will of the people in the shape of elections putting into position people who will respect the Constitution and its system of checks and balances, which will in turn strengthen it. We need to elect to Congress people who will check the worst impulses of presidents (and yes, I am thinking of George W. Bush here) and we need to elect to the executive branch men or women who will stand up to Congress and not content themselves with being mere figureheads. And appointed to the courts must be people who will not seek to exceed their own authority by legislating from the bench, and that includes especially the members of the Supreme Court, too many of whom were, to our woe, appointed by a president who sought to impose a conservative world view on our country.

We have problems. Let’s not make them worse by simplifying them. Political power derives from the hands of the people, and neither the president, nor Congress, nor We the People, dare forget that.

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