Obama’s executive order granting amnesty to 4 million illegal aliens exposes yet again the hypocrisy and cynicism of the most partisan administration in recent history. Typical of a president who seemingly can’t remember or doesn’t care what he has publicly told the people, Obama went ahead and took action that more than 20 times he had publicly said he couldn’t legally take. And he did so not because of some pressing “crisis” of illegals living “in the shadows,” a rationale that ignores the real crisis–– illegal deadbeats and thugs serially passing though a porous border in order to create mayhem and disorder in our communities. Rather, this action was a rank partisan gift to vocal activists and clients of the Democratic Party.
More important, however, this latest instance of presidential overreach undermines the most important foundation of the Western political tradition going back to the ancient Greeks––the suspicion of any necessarily flawed man’s excessive power that inevitably flouts the limits imposed by the supreme law of the land.
In ancient Athens, for example, the turannos or “tyrant” was the exemplar of the dangers that flow from excessive power vested in one person. It wasn’t that the tyrant was completely evil and oppressive. Many Greek tyrants, like the Athenian Peisistratus, benefitted their communities. Yet given human nature, even a well-meaning leader given excessive power often will abuse it to gratify his own selfish desires, ambitions, and interests at the expense of the law and the freedom of his fellow citizens. In ancient Greek political thought, the tyrant became the monitory example of power’s ability to corrupt, and thus often was depicted as violent, paranoid, and excessive in his actions.
The American founders were intimately familiar with this tradition. For them a generalissimo like Julius Caesar, who violated the Roman Republican constitution and ruled as an autocrat until his assassination, was the warning against creating a too powerful executive. One of the most popular Romans of the pre-Revolutionary period was Cato the Younger, who committed suicide rather than submit to Caesar. Joseph Addison’s play Cato was the most popular theatrical production of this period. George Washington had it produced for his troops during the grim winter at Valley Forge, and Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death” was a paraphrase of a line from the play.
Thus when the Declaration of Independence says of George III, “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” the word “Tyranny” is not used lightly or metaphorically. George III is being placed into the long tradition of the tyrant whose oppressive rule, as Aristotle wrote, is “arbitrary power . . . which is responsible to no one, and governs all alike, whether equals or betters, with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects, and therefore against their will. No freeman willingly endures such a government.” That’s why our political ancestors fought the Revolution, and then wrote the Constitution as a safeguard against a future tyrant.
Indeed, in the debates of the delegates to the Constitutional convention, the fear that “power is of an encroaching nature,” as George Washington and others said, guided their crafting of the office of chief executive. In the debate over whether the President should be compensated for his service, Benjamin Franklin feared adding money to the attractions of power the chief executive would possess, “for the love of power and the love of money” when united in one office have “the most violent effects.” Presidential power will attract “the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits.” Hence the Constitutional order checks the power of the executive by the legislature and the judiciary, with Congress given the power to make laws and impeach the executive, and the most democratic assembly, the House of Representatives, given the power of the purse in order to deny an overweening president the funds necessary to advance his ambitions. Finally, the states choose the presidential electors who elect the president, giving the states yet another check on presidential power through term limits and the ballot.
The 22nd amendment limiting the president to 2 terms is testimony to this traditional distrust of power, particularly because it was passed by Congress in 1947, a few years after the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, who was a popular president elected 4 times. As Thomas Jefferson said in 1807, when the 2-term limit was a custom initiated by George Washington rather than established by law, “if some termination to the services of the chief Magistrate be not fixed by the Constitution, or supplied by practice, his office, nominally four years, will in fact become for life.” This healthy fear of power continuing in one man’s hands for too long reflected the long tradition of the distrust of power based in turn on a tragic view of a flawed human nature. It explains the great care Alexander Hamilton takes in Federalist 69 to set out the differences between the president and a king, mainly because the former is subjected to numerous limitations on his power, making “difficult to determine whether that magistrate would, in the aggregate, possess more or less power than the Governor of New York.” Most important, this fear of power is the central assumption behind the mixed government and balance of governmental powers characterizing our Constitution.
Obama, of course, has rejected this venerable tradition and embraced that of the Progressive movement. Social and technological change, the Progressives argued, have rendered the Constitutional order an anachronism, making necessary a more powerful executive and federal government. Woodrow Wilson’s 1908 Constitutional Government in the United States set out the arguments for this idea. He complained that the chief executive was “only the legal executive, the presiding and guiding authority in the application of law and the execution of policy . . . He was empowered [by the veto] to prevent laws, but he was not to be given an opportunity to make good ones.” That complaint leads directly to Obama’s eagerness to make “good laws” as defined not by the people through their representatives, but by himself and his political faction.
And just as Obama, by legislating via executive order fiat, has proven he is impatient with the mixed government that puts limits on his policy ambitions, Wilson rejected the balancing of power and conflicting factions codified in the Constitution. Government, Wilson wrote, “is a living, organic thing, and must like every other government, work out the close synthesis of active parts, which exist only when leadership is lodged in some one man or group of men.” Here we see the imperial president’s preference for unaccountable technocrats and “experts” like the mendacious Jonathan Gruber, instead of working with the legislators elected by the people and subject to electoral accountability.
Finally, Obama has governed based on the Wilsonian preference for concentrating executive power rather than submitting it to Constitutional checks and balances. “You cannot compound a successful government out of antagonisms,” Wilson wrote. Of course, in Wilson’s view “successful” is defined as solving technical problems or achieving an ideologically biased “social justice,” unlike the Founders, who thought a successful federal government is the one that keeps separate the executive, legislative, and judicial powers and thus protects the freedom of the citizens. And instead of the Constitution’s realist acknowledgement that a vast country of various interests cannot be unified in one leader without risking the people’s freedom, Wilson wrote that we must “look to the President as the unifying force in our complex system, the leader both of his party and of the nation.” The question begged, of course, is unified around what? Which interests or ideals? In reality, they will be reduced to those of one faction that will come to dominate the others, backed by the coercive power of the federal government and its cadres of unelected administrators and bureaucrats.
Obama has governed explicitly as such a “leader.” On every issue from the environment and health care to immigration––87 pages worth of executive diktats–– he has reduced the various and conflicting interests and ideals of the citizens and states to those of his own party and its progressive ideology. But this usurpation of power has come at the expense of state and individual political rights and freedom, not to mention the undermining of the Constitutional order designed explicitly to protect those rights and freedoms.
Obama has set a precedent that, if left unchecked, will be tempting for other presidents to follow, taking us even further down the road of tyranny. From ancient Athens to the Founders to those traditionalists today who understand the primacy of freedom in the architecture of our political order, such a leader has been characterized by one word––tyrant.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy’s Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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