I have been noticing how much public trouble is rooted in what seems to be the general human proclivity for kings. George Bush and Silvio Berlusconi are in the headlines now for wanting to be emperors, but it isn’t as if they are aberrations. It seems we love to have a single figure whose image we invest with all our hopes or all our fears. Something appeals to us in having the buck stop with a larger-than-life individual, so much so that we have been willing to give that individual enormous scope to express his (or occasionally her) personality quirks and weaknesses on the world stage, so long as it is done with an air of command.
You can read about it in the Bible. I imagine the story was already old when it was redacted there. In Samuel 1, Chapter 8, the Israelites come to the prophet to say they don’t wish to be ruled by his sons, who have lost touch with the source that sustained their father’s justice.
And they said unto him: “Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways; now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
Samuel confers with God, who tells him to warn the people of the excesses of kings:
And he said: “This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them unto him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots.
And he will appoint them unto him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots.
And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.
And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.
And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.
And he will take your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.
He will take the tenth of your flocks; and ye shall be his servants.
And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king whom ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
Back in the day (i.e., the Sixties, which lasted well into the Seventies), I took it as an article of faith that the main instrument of democracy should be decentralization: decisions should be made as close to the ground as possible, directly involving the people affected by them. This is the opposite of the rule of kings.
I still believe this. When I allow this principle to shape my social imaginings, I see a very different society, vibrant with active citizenship. In my own neighborhood, I imagine a wonderfully responsive city council devolving important discussions to neighborhood councils, all maintained by enthusiastic citizens, helping to sustain the life of the community…
Anyone who has dealt with actually existing local government and voluntary councils knows that reality can be very different from my imaginings: enlightened democracy exists in some places, but grinding bureaucracy, petty self-dealing, or mere indifference are more the norm. In real life, for instance, my own neighborhood council has a lot of trouble getting people even to vote, let alone run for one of the seats, and the meetings are so hemmed about with protocols and imposed agendas, only the hardiest can last till adjournment.
So how can we change what seems to be true at both the top and bottom of the ladder of American democracy, a choice between overweening ego and overwhelming indifference? Grounded in two principles–pursuing the greatest reduction of harm first, and acknowledging that a fish rots from the head–I offer a modest proposal for reconceiving the presidency.
Let’s elect a troika! I propose that in any presidential election, the top three vote-getters be elected to the office, with the first two serving as co-presidents and the third as vice president.
This would have several advantages:
- No single individual could indulge whims through executive orders without approval from at least one other (do you think John Kerry and George Bush would have agreed on warantless wiretapping?). This would cut down on executive orders, which seems like an altogether good thing.
- No more speeches from presidents boasting that they have “earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style.” (That’s from our current president on 4 November 2004.)
- An instant reduction in presidential ability to distort or manipulate policy for partisan political advantage.
- The benefit of bringing two minds, two hearts and two teams of advisors to the important issues facing our nation. Three when the vice president weighs in.
- Most likely, it would also have a diversifying affect, as I imagine there would be enough votes for a candidate or color or a woman in the second slot.
It would also have disadvantages. I tend to be suspicious of the structural solutions favored by policy wonks. They risk changing the container without altering the contents. On a grand scale, they tend to be like the mother who kept her son from war toys so as to avoid inclining him toward violence, until she saw him running through the back yard pointing a large carrot at his sister, shouting “Pow! Gotcha!” as he went. They sound good on paper, but as they are implemented by human beings, well, Immanuel Kant said it best more than two centuries ago: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be carved.”
- This idea wouldn’t eliminate petty politicization. There would still be scope for two or three parallel displays of party pettiness, if the co-presidents were so inclined.
- Someone will doubtless say an idea like this would dilute emergency powers: what if two or three presidents had to agree on how to respond to a crisis? My own view is that they would come up with something better than our recent solo presidents have done, but let me just stipulate that emergency protocols could easily be established.
- Indeed, if people were so attached to the old idea of a figurehead, they might do their best to turn this into dueling figureheads, but I like to think that game would be called on account of heavy absurdity.
There is no perfect solution, yet we need to devise a model of national leadership that honors complexity and difference better than our current one. A troika would be a big change, acknowledging that even at the top, dialogue and negotiation will produce better results than dictates. What do you think?