by Kevin Beals - January 2009
Now that our collective Obamagasm has faded into that warm afterglow where we stare deeply into each other's eyes and hold back from saying "I love you," I wonder, "Where is this relationship going?" And I don't mean just with this president, specifically. I'm talking more about our repeated pattern of becoming quickly infatuated with a new boyfriend only to later find out he's pretty much the same abusive asshole as all our other boyfriends.
Well, to answer this, we must first ask ourselves the question that seems to be at the root of everything, "Why do we have a President in the first place?" Now, of course, Obama has made many seemingly real promises to change things for the better. Only time will tell if he holds through on any. With even a passing glance, however, it is clear that he will have to use at least some of the dubious new presidential powers expanded by Bush to accomplish even a few. Need I mention a certain quote about a certain absolute something corrupting absolutely.
A benevolent dictator is still a dictator, nonetheless, and this must not be forgotten. If we're truly going to maintain this charade of "democracy," then why would we ever concentrate so much power into the hands of a single person? History has shown us that almost every dictator who has ever risen to power has done so through control of the military-from Suharto, Pinochet and Franco to Mussolini, Ceausescu and Hitler. Even on the basic premise that self-rule should always override expert rule, the whole thing just doesn't add up. Even if the king is a good king, he is still the king. Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't that at least a small part of why we became a nation in the first place? Maybe my memory is failing me in my young age...
Anyway, the point is this: your means become your ends. We can talk all day long about the wonderful, populist decisions that Obama is going to make—but they are still not our decisions. Can't we come up with a system that doesn't perpetually leave us picking between which of the two dictators will fuck us more gently? You know, like the difference between a republic and a democracy?
In order to examine this, we must look back to our very first President. It is no secret that the American Presidency was very much modeled after the British monarchy, with a few important distinctions. Firstly, the Office of the President and the title of "Commander in Chief," were not one and the same, originally. In fact, under Federalist No. 69, the power of "Commander in Chief" was explicitly and only given to the President with an act of Congress. Secondly, Washington relinquished this power in 1783 before becoming President, exemplifying the republican ideal of a citizen leader who rejects power. It was not until the National Security Act of 1947 that regional commander-in-chiefs were realigned under the President.
In this respect, the American office of President departs considerably from the basis of virtually all other republics, often blurring the lines between military and civilian responsibilities. One major, repeated concern amongst many of the founding fathers, was that the President would become a "king by proxy." We need look no farther than our current President for a whole slough of examples. From the Patriot Act, the John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007, NSA surveillance policies and on through to Bush's countless signing statements, he has systematically emphasized the unitary executive theory—one that is neither accountable to law or Congress. I often wonder how Washington would view the Executive Branch forty-two consecutive Presidents later. The blueprint of power Bush is leaving to his successor might be too tempting to pass up.
Our fascination with kings, however, extends far beyond the office of the President. In every aspect of American society, from our churches to our corporations, we still idolize monarchy—even if we don't consciously admit it. Think of the basic structure of most organizations—with few exceptions, almost all rely on a highly hierarchical, pyramid-like structure with one individual at the top. In churches, we have pastors, in corporations we have CEO's, in schools we have principals, in states we have governors, in cities we have mayors and so on. The only thing that has changed is that we no longer call them kings, barons, lords, dukes or otherwise. De facto, however, their power remains relatively unchanged.
Ted Turner is the largest private owner of property in the United States. In a February 7, 2008 interview in the Omaha World-Herald, Turner bragged about his goal of acquiring 2 million acres of land before his death. "You know what 2 million acres is?" said Turner, "If [each acre] was all connected [end-to-end], a mile deep, it would stretch from New York to San Francisco." He's only 40,000 acres short and getting shorter. That sort of incredible power was not even possible in the wildest dreams of entire dynasties of conquest, and yet Turner has accumulated all this wealth in less than 50 years. What has happened?
Given, the way for Turner was paved through generations of cultural genocide, but the question still remains: how can we ever break free from the cycle of monarchy if we tolerate this sort of unbridled, greedy megalomania? Doesn't our current system of property ownership in fact enable people like Turner to get where they are in the first place? Perhaps it is our love of convenience and simplicity, as a monarchy is perhaps one of the simplest forms of government. Perhaps it is that we have known so little else for so long that we don't know any better. Whatever the reason, this much is clear: democracy and monarchy are not even remotely compatible. Even in small mixtures, the one corrupts the other until both are something unrecognizable as either. I believe that history is fully on my side with this one.
The continents are not expanding fast enough to accommodate a growing demand for private land ownership. Our resources, either on land or by sea, are going to be increasingly divided into smaller portions amongst an ever-increasing population. Our landfills are getting larger, our forests are getting smaller. So then why are 90% of the world's resources controlled by 10% of its population? Perhaps Chief Seattle said it best, "We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy - and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his fathers' graves, and his children's birthright is forgotten." He also made another important point: "The Earth does not belong to us. We belong to the Earth."
What I am suggesting is nothing less than an entire re-working of some of our most precious American ideals: the end of land ownership and the Office of the President. They may seem unrelated, but how can we ever expect to have any sort of egalitarian system when all of our resources are controlled by an increasingly concentrated few? We have the technology, we have the capability, but we don't yet have the will. These may seem like unattainable ideals—but our very country was once an unattainable ideal. How can we have a democracy when kings are allowed to accumulate as much as their power will allow? How can we be rid of kings as long as they have kingdoms? How can we have a democracy as long as we allow kings to thrive?