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The Idea of a Patriot President

November 3rd, 2004 (07:29 pm)



In Britain in the 1730s, the politician Lord Bolingbroke circulated in manuscript a pamphlet called The Idea of a Patriot King. His idea was that good government could only be ensured by a king at the apex of the government machine. This king would be non-partisan, would be able to see beyond the interests of his ministers, and would rule through public virtue alone. The paper was widely read among opponents of the government of Sir Robert Walpole, and, after Walpole's fall, the opposition to Henry Pelham's government in the 1740s also looked to it. The book probably influenced the education of King George III. Much as I like George III in many ways (he'd probably have had an LJ) he didn't have the experience to be the patriot king he tried to be in the early years of his reign; and his success as king in the second half of his reign demonstrated the realistic limitations of his position.

George III is associated with the American War of Independence, as the attempts of successive ministries in the 1760s and 1770s to bring the British colonies in America more fully under the control of the British parliament and executive were undertaken in his name and with his participation. When the colonies won their independence, they at first tried to avoid a strong executive, as they saw in that executive the seed of the tyranny they thought they had just escaped. However, government by Congress alone led to disagreement. Thus, the patriot king was resurrected; except this time as an elected president. At one stage of thinking of the post, the president was to rule for life, but this was later cut back to four years. The creators of the post wanted there to be as little dispute about who should exercise the role as possible, thus an electoral college was devised which was intended to limit the possibility of deadlock between candidates.

In practice this has meant that for most of the history of the United States presidency there have been only two serious contenders for the post; and since, in the idealistic revolutionary spirit of democracy, the choosing of the members of the electoral college had been thrown open to a mass electorate, there has been a polarisation of opinion with little opportunity for nuanced voting as, for example, there might be in continental European parliamentary systems where proportional representation and multi-party systems are the order of the day. Tuesday night's result was the inevitable result of this; a right-wing president elected by stoking a climate of fear, with the help of an extreme right who want to dictate morality in a manner not thought possible (though it was probably dreamed of or alternatively just taken for granted) by the founders of the United States. The liberal part of the population seems to be in shock, as hundreds of thousands of evangelicals turned up to limit the extension of personal freedom. The moderates leading the Democratic Party had selected someone they could present as a good compromise candidate between their own radical wing and the security conscious, patriotic, war-friendly centre-right. It almost worked; but something about America has changed, and I'm not sure what.

The problem with the presidency is that it is based on the patriot king model, and this encourages impossible aspirations. George W. Bush, with his faith-based leadership, seems to play up to these by seeming to transcend practicalities. The rest of the world doesn't think war in Iraq is a good idea? The president looks into his heart and goes to war anyway, and wins - sort of. (The number of members of the American public interviewed by the BBC who thought the war in Iraq was good because it had attracted terrorists to Iraq and so kept them out of the United States was chilling.) Tax cuts can be made without reference to the balancing of the budget. It's a miracle! The problem is that Bush (America's own George III - Washington, Bush Sr, and now W.) has only postponed the problems, not dealt with them. There are bridges to be built with the international community, an insoluble Iraq problem, and a financial deficit. Perhaps Bush is lucky in that he isn't allowed to stand for a third time; but the realities of his political situation might stretch the Republican coalition to breaking point.

EDIT I've just read jane_somebody's far more sensitive post about the election, which is recommended, for the benefit of those on her flist. With this in mind, I'd like to point out that though I might be criticizing the US constitution here, it's worked fairly well so far, and I am not blind to the faults of the constitutional arrangements in the United Kingdom either.