America’s Oldest Political InsultBreaking News
Of course Pres. Barack Obama is “an unaccountable monarch.” Of course he's “an emperor.” It’s not that Ted Cruz and John Boehner, respectively, are right about the president’s immigration order—it’s that the presidency itself is built to attract just these kinds of criticisms. If Obama were the first president to be painted as a king, we’d have good reason to reach for the nearest pitchfork; but when presidents of all parties have been “kings” for more than two centuries, it’s a sign that something deeper is at work. The permanent fight over the presidency’s limits is as much a fixture of our constitutional order as biannual elections or freedom of speech. For better or worse, the American founders started this fight for a reason.
The presidency looks like monarchy because it’s the direct descendant of monarchy. When the founders encountered separation-of-powers theory, they engaged with a tradition of thought that carved out a powerful role for kings. Their single most-read, most-cited author was the French philosopher Montesquieu, who was especially famous for a chapter on the separation of powers under the British system of constitutional monarchy. For Montesquieu, the governments that best protect liberty are those with a conflict at their heart, including a struggle between the legislative and executive powers. But “the executive power ought to be in the hands of a monarch.” This was, in its context, an unremarkable thought; and the qualities Montesquieu associated with his monarch, such as efficiency and “dispatch,” were the same ones the founders associated with the presidency.
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