The Imperial Presidency is a term that we hear a lot about on the airwaves and in newspapers and magazines, however what does this phrase really mean? What are the flaws of the Imperial Presidency, and is it wise to give so much power to a single executive? We will seek to address the former in this article.
The Imperial Presidency is a term used by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in his book of the same title. It refers to the vast amounts of power that the office of President of the United States has collected over the centuries that it has existed, particularly referring to how the President has become the center of government power, as well as how the chief executive has become the primary source of authority and the primary spokesperson for the US Government.
As the authority granted to the President of the US expands, so does the potential for abuse of power. One example of this is how the US President now has the power to send troops to foreign countries without an explicit declaration of war. This has been done numerous times in the 20th century, for example, in the Korean and Vietnamese wars.
Another example is the increased frequency of executive orders given by the President of the United States. George Washington, the first president, only issued 8, President Franklin Roosevelt 3,728 and President Trump 36 (as of now).
Indisputably the authority of the President has been expanded, and abuses of power have become more frequent. John Adams, the second President, signed the Alien and Sedition Act which barred criticism of the government on pain of imprisonment or fines, made it more challenging for recent immigrants to vote and allowed the government to deport foreigners.
Using the Alien and Sedition act, John Adams stifled criticism of the government directly in contradiction to the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.
The Presidency in the eyes of Americans has also become the primary symbol of the Federal Government. Not only is he the chief executive, but also the spokesperson of the government, being the primary center of attention of news coverage and public critique.
When one thinks of the US government, one thinks of the President. He is the face of the government as well as its chief executive, being responsible for the actions of the federal government both in foreign and domestic affairs. This has lead to unrealistic expectations of the President’s powers practice it is completely impossible and can cause a downward spiral for which can be dangerous. We have seen it very recently in the 2016 Presidential elections, that supporters of the then candidate Donald Trump believed that the President can, for example, deport millions of undocumented immigrants from the US. We also saw this phenomenon with Trump’s promise to shut down immigration of Muslims into the US, which is not only unrealistic, but also illegal.
Why is this dangerous you may ask? The answer is a simple one. If a large enough portion of the US electorate believes that what the president is doing is in the national interest of the US, despite the dubious legality of his actions, then he will maintain popular support.
Which brings us to another point, checks and balances. The framers of the constitution envisioned a system of government whereby all branches of the government maintains a check on the others’ powers, maintaining a fair equilibrium in the interest of maintaining the civil liberties of US Citizens. However checks and balances can fail.
In a possibly apocryphal story, Benjamin Franklin was once asked by a woman whether or not the US was going to become a Democracy or a Monarchy. To answer this he said, “A democracy, if we can keep it”.
This is a sentiment that we have lost.
The potential for a systematic failure of the US political system is there and in recent months the public has become more and more aware of this potential. Checks and Balances only work if the people making up the branches of the government, in particular the legislature and the judiciary, are wiling to maintain it. While the courts have maintained their constitutional duty, Congress has shirked it. In its short lifespan, the Trump Administration has shown its lack of respect for ethics and precedents set by previous administrations, once again demonstrating the potential for executive abuse of authority and the need for the other branches, congress especially, to keep it in check.
If Congress keeps functioning this way, then the blame will surely fall on its members, when the failure of the American Democracy is mentioned in history books centuries later.
To close, what the Imperial Presidency really means for American Democracy can be explained by a relatively simple analogy.
Imagine a gun pointed at you, you being the American people. The gunman says that you should trust him, that he is not going to pull the trigger. Once every few years the gunman is replaced by another one and each time the qualities of the gunman’s character changes. Will you be willing to trust him?
Right now we are gambling the future of American democracy on the good character and moral standing of the chief executive and this is not a gamble we should risk. The Presidency wields huge power that should not be invested in one person.
If abused, it can lead to America’s moniker of Land of the Free, becoming an ironic one.