The Corner

Wonkblog: We Need an Elected King

In my piece yesterday, I wrote about critics of the American system of government, among them Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews. In the course of my essay, I explained that opponents of the Constitution tend toward the Wilsonian view of things:

Hostility toward America’s rigid separation of powers has a rich, if unappealing, history on the Left. Woodrow Wilson — a man whose animus to the constitutional order that he had sworn to uphold approached almost treasonable levels — was savvy enough to recognize that the expansive long-term ambitions of the Progressive movement were simply incompatible with the country’s founding documents. In consequence, Wilson proposed, Americans should change their expectations of government, invest their democratic ambitions in one man (the president), and abandon the country’s messy political settlement in favor of a streamlined and “efficient” state that was more akin to that in the Kaiser’s Germany or in the King’s Britain. “The Constitution,” Wilson wrote, “was not made to fit us like a straitjacket. In its elasticity lies its chief greatness.”

The primary objection to unified government in a mature republic such as the United States is not that it will necessarily lead to tyranny — although it can – but that it will lead to a system in which a government will become what Lord Hailsham termed an “elective dictatorship,” and thus that the party that wins full control of government will be able to implement its agenda without being checked. Sure, the people can remove that government after the fact. But they can’t prevent it from going too far before it has done so. And this is a problem. As I noted:

Having watched the radical transformation of the British system during the 17th and 18th centuries — and studied undulations of the classical world, for good measure — most of the Founders were strikingly well versed in political theory. The introduction of limiting tools such as the rule of law, term restrictions, a codified constitution, a bill of rights, and divided government were intended to dispense with the presumption, famously termed “elective dictatorship” by Lord Hailsham, that the man who is voted in as leader every four or so years should have carte blanche to get things done. In other words, the Founders sought to block precisely what Yglesias and his cohorts covet.

What Yglesias and his cohorts covet, openly, is the growth of government. And they are smart enough to know that, once entrenched, government programs and mechanisms of control are difficult to get rid of whether they work or not. The big problem for progressives in America is not so much defending what has already been done, but getting those programs in place in the first instance. By design, the system prevents most of the radical changes they want from ever taking effect, so the system must change.

I wondered if I’d overstated the case. But apparently, if anything, I underplayed it. Today, in a piece called, “The shutdown is the Constitution’s fault,” Matthews doesn’t just argue this in the abstract, but he happily takes the instinct to its worrying conclusion:

Max Weber, in conversation with Gen. Erich Ludendorff, advanced my personal favorite theory of democracy: “In a democracy the people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, ‘Now shut up and obey me.’ ” People and party are then no longer free to interfere in his business. …Later the people can sit in judgment. If the leader has made mistakes — to the gallows with him!”

Hanging leaders rather than failing to reelect them seems a mite harsh, but the overall idea here is exactly right. For a government to be truly accountable to the people, it needs to actually control the circumstances over which the people will judge it. And in developed countries, the people judge it in large part based on the state of the economy.

In other words, Matthew’s “personal favorite theory of democracy” is that Americans should elect a King for a few years, and then get rid of him if he doesn’t use his expansive powers to do what they wanted. No thanks, Dylan. But I’ll give you marks for your honesty.


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