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His Elective Majesty
Probably, we are mistaken, and the political reality in Beijing or Moscow seems — but only seems — simpler than the situation in Washington, London, or Brussels. But there are some differences in the non-consensual societies (as Jay Nordlinger, quoting Robert Conquest, has taught me to call them) that do promise some simplification — that is the sort of thing that tempts the likes of Thomas Friedman to envy Beijing’s power to act, apparently without interest-group obstruction or self-interested procedural shenanigans, in those “China for a day” fantasies.
In science fiction, there are stereotype planets (single-biome planets like the ice world Hoth in Star Wars and the desert world Arrakis in Dune) and stereotype civilizations (Star Trek’s Vulcans are logical, the Klingons are martial, and the Ferengi are, as Paul B. Sturtevant put it, “stereotyped crypto-Jews” who “look and behave like the Jews in the worst of Nazi or early-20th-century American propaganda”) and it is all too easy to take a similarly flattened view of the real world: The Chinese are relentless Han ethno-nationalists, the Russians are psychologically fixed on their history as the front line of the Christian West against the Muslim East, etc. Oversimplification is a very efficient way to make yourself stupid. But it is the case that concern for individual liberty does not seems to complicate Beijing’s decision-making the way it does Washington’s and that Moscow’s nationalist agenda will steamroll right over any muffled chirping about the rule of law or liberal-democratic norms. There is not much tension between nationalist ambitions and individual liberty in China or Russia because individual liberty is so lowly regarded as to barely enter the conversation, while the rule of law is whatever the national powers need it to be at any given moment.
With that in mind, we should understand the progressive dream of being “China for a day” as a close cousin to the perverse envy that some on the right evince for illiberal regimes such as those of Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán, and a near relation to the Trumpists’ grudging admiration of Xi Jinping: It is rooted in a desire for a simplified politics, one in which we liberate ourselves from the need to work out unsatisfying tradeoffs between competing values by rejecting some of those values. Managerial technocracy under “expert” government offers much the same promise: that we can escape from the messy business of compromise and consensus-building by abandoning the liberal-democratic paradigm for something fresher and more active. You will notice that calls for a “new politics” — whether those are rightist lamentations of the “dead consensus” or Senator Sanders’s demand for a “political revolution” — never point toward a more complex and consensus-driven politics that takes account of a wider array of competing values and discrete interests, but instead push relentlessly toward a simplified, cruder practice, a political equation with fewer variables to take into consideration.
This line of thinking infests both parties, and entices both left-wing activists and right-wing activists in the direction of executive aggrandizement, government by executive order, and presidential unilateralism rather than government by legislation, compromise, and bipartisanship. It is a homogenizing politics of larger lumps: We the People vs. the Swamp or the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent.
Like many of our political problems, this one is old enough to be practically eternal.
We trace our modern democracies to Greek and (to a lesser extent) Roman models, but Western parliamentary forms owe at least as much (and probably much more) to the consensus-oriented politics of the Germanic tribes that left their cultural marks everywhere from Iceland and the British Isles to Lombardy and beyond. It may seem strange to use the word egalitarian to describe societies that practiced slavery and human sacrifice — as in the case of the Vikings mentioned last week — but consider that in the first half of the Viking age, there were no kings as such, and no formal hereditary aristocracy, either. There was social mobility among the three main classes of persons, and the free men of the tribe all enjoyed the right to have their grievances heard and settled under law at a proto-parliamentary assembly, the famous þing, or thing. (The modern English word court, referring simultaneously to a monarch’s retinue, his official venue, and a judicial assembly is a reminder that these were, at one time, essentially one thing, with acting in a judicial capacity being the chief domestic responsibility of a king.) In Norse society, the jarls may have enjoyed rank and title (jarl survives in the modern English earl), but they usually did not enjoy any special formal political power — the power they had came from their followers and from their ability to use their prestige and their wealth to shape public opinion and shove consensus in one direction or another — something not entirely alien to our modern democratic practice.
But as these primitive tribal societies became more complex and sophisticated — and as the scope of political questions became national rather than local — they found that they required new modes of government. Like the Americans living under the Articles of Confederation, they came to believe that they needed a more robust national state and, especially, a more active and permanent executive who could focus sustained attention and effort on long-term national interests, something that could not be achieved through ad hoc alliances of tribal chieftains and regional magnates or other similarly temporary and fragile instruments of cooperation. This meant balancing goods and values that often were in tension: A powerful king might be simultaneously a protector of his countrymen’s rights and interests and an insult to their sense of equality; the desire to act decisively will at some margin always clash with the desire for consensus; the principle (sometimes unarticulated) of majority rule will always be in tension with minority and individual rights and with traditions enshrining such rights; the king’s obligation to provide public goods (beginning with physical security) assumes the state’s access to material resources necessary to creating such goods (soldiers have to be paid, roads and fortresses don’t build themselves) which brings the state into conflict with the property rights of individuals. A great deal of what pretends to be political philosophy is in fact only rhetoric put into the service of pretending that these goods and interests are not in conflict.
Many of those Germanic tribal societies attempted to resolve the tension between their egalitarianism and their desire for a powerful executive with what Henry Jones Ford described as “the oldest political institution of the race, the elective kingship.” (Ford, who served in the Woodrow Wilson administration, knew something about elective kingship.) The formalities and character of these elective kingships varied over time and between peoples: Certain Gallic tribes elected kings for one-year terms, while most other elected kings held office for life. In Venice, the doges were in effect elected monarchs with constitutionally limited powers. Among the egalitarian Swedes, the early kings were elected at an assembly open to all free men with relatively open terms for candidacy, but in later practice both electors and candidates were restricted. In Scandinavia as in the rest of Europe, the limits on elective kingship grew narrower over generations as the superstition of “royal blood” came to dominate political belief. Societies that had developed for generations without any sort of monarchy, much less a hereditary monarchy, eventually came to believe that they could not function without such a thing. When the American colonists decided that they did not need one, George III was sincere in his concern that the new nation might “suffer unduly from its want of a monarchy.”
King George was not alone in this. Alexander Hamilton was a calculating nationalist before he was a Broadway sensation, and his political orientation was very much informed by monarchists such as Jacques Necker (finance minister to Louis XVI) and by his own view that the English system of government was the best the world had to offer. While the great statesmen at the constitutional convention were debating the relative merits of the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, Hamilton saw serious deficiencies in both and proposed instead a model of government that was in its main points the English model adopted to American circumstances: a popularly elected commons, an indirectly elected senate with untitled lords serving lifetime terms, and — most radical to the modern American mind — an elected king. He didn’t call the king a king but a “governor,” one with far-reaching political powers and a lifetime appointment as long as he remained in “good behavior.”
Hamilton’s elected king was in many ways similar to the presidency that eventually took shape: He was to serve as commander in chief of the armed forces and chief national representative in foreign affairs, and would have held veto power over the national legislature. Exactly no one rallied to Hamilton’s banner — in fact, after his five-hour disquisition on his proposal for national government, his ideas never even came up for discussion at the convention, but the echo of them can be heard throughout the Founding era, for example in John Adams’s much-ridiculed proposition that the American president should be styled quasi-monarchically: “His Elective Majesty.” That the president would in any case be a kind of king was plain to Hamilton, as reported in The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, which says of Hamilton’s president-for-life:
It will be objected probably, that such an Executive will be an elective Monarch, and will give birth to the tumults which characterise that form of Govt. He wd. reply that Monarch is an indefinite term. It marks not either the degree or duration of power. If this Executive Magistrate wd. be a monarch for life — the other propd. by the Report from the Committee of the whole, wd. be a monarch for seven years.
There is an echo of that old pre-monarchy Norse practice in the earliest days of the American republic, which was open but more democratic in rhetoric than in practice, in which a genuinely egalitarian ethos coexisted with a system of government in which local magnates and chieftains exercised an outsized influence, putting some considerable distance between equality under the law and equality in fact. (There were monstrous similarities, too, notably slavery-based agriculture.) And, in spite of Alexander Hamilton’s ambitions and John Adams’s anxieties, the president did not behave very much like an elected king, at least for a generation: George Washington, being a demigod, would not condescend to kingship; John Adams was too conservative and too unprepossessing to act the king; Thomas Jefferson was an aristocrat who gave his heart to the French Revolution; James Madison wanted a bank, not a crown; James Monroe, the empire-builder, might have made a king under different circumstances, but republican norms held him in check; John Quincy Adams was too much his father’s son to be dipped in purple.
Henry Jones Ford, mentioned above, made his observation about Americans’ resurrecting elective kingship in relation to Andrew Jackson, whose ascent to power (and to an excellent if less-successful musical than Hamilton’s) ushered in a new kind of presidency that was a lot like an old kind of kingship: king as all-father, king as embodiment of the people. As Ford wrote: “The truth is that in the presidential office, as it has been constituted since Jackson’s time, American democracy has revived the oldest political institution of the race, the elective kingship.” But this is a kingship that rises up from the people rather than being handed down from heaven: “The greatness of the Presidency,” Ford wrote, “is the work of the people breaking through the constitutional form.”
But it is not kingship, of course, that has distinguished American political life: It is the constitutional form — or it was, until about five minutes ago.
In Other News . . .
I should probably note that Thomas Friedman’s “China for a Day” bit often has been willfully misrepresented and unfairly maligned. Thomas Friedman has a lot of bad ideas, but single-party police-state brutality is not among them. “I don’t want to be China for a second,” he said during the now-infamous exchange. “I want my democracy to work with the same authority, focus, and stick-to-it-iveness. But right now we have a system that can only produce suboptimal solutions.”
Friedman’s problem is not that he is a closet Maoist — it is that he does not seem to understand that the optimal is the enemy of the good, and that the real choice faced by every free society is between competing suboptimal solutions, some of which are better than others.
Words About Words
There is a Polish proverb I love that is more and more useful every day: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” This is especially useful if you are a conservative who watches Fox News from time to time or if you are following the Senate race in Ohio.
The word monkey is one of those words that are just funny, and it seems to be as funny in Polish as it is in English. Some words are funny because they sound like they should be dirty (dongle, poop-deck, haboob) or because they are foreign-language words that look absurd in English (humuhumunukunukuapua’a), but, sometimes, it’s just the phoneme, in this case, –nk, which is part of a lot of funny words: monkey, funky, honkey, tinkle, spank, spelunk, conk, stank, stunk, zonk, wank, etc. Why is –nk funny? No one knows. It just is, and groups of –nk words, rhyming or not, are funnier still: funky monkey, spank the monkey, junk in the trunk, rinky-dink, drunk as a skunk, yank the crank, etc.
You can take that to the bank.
Speaking of kings, elected or hereditary, they are not coronated — they are crowned at a coronation. Coronate is an adjective describing something that has the shape of a crown, as in “coronate flowers.”
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I have mentioned it before, but, because it is relevant to this week’s discussion, Michael Novak’s Choosing Our King is a truly excellent book and very enjoyable.
“The rest is history,” she said. “That pig really has established our brand, made it near and dear to so many hearts.”
And lower backs, apparently. Simpson Bush recounts the time at an expo in the Twin Cities that two women approached her, lowering their pants just enough to display matching flying pig tattoos.
“Un maiale che non vola è solo un maiale.”
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