Imagine a president with the authority to indefinitely detain you without due process, indiscriminately bomb countries without congressional authorization, possess the launch codes to 5,113 nuclear warheads, snoop on your Internet activities without the need of a warrant, and command the world’s largest, internationally expansive, and most expensive military in the history the world.
Now, imagine this position will be potentially occupied by one of the two current presidential front-runners. If you are favoring one more than the other, imagine what happens when your “greater of two evils” is potentially elected.
If this mental exercise makes you anxious, nervous, or frightened, that was my intention.
Furthermore, this isn’t some pitch for some dystopian novel; this is our reality now.
Why do we seem so concerned about the risk of the “wrong person” being elected president? Furthermore, why do we often settle for the “not-as-wrong person” as a viable alternative? Perhaps if the authority of the executive branch was scaled back to its original constitutional limitations, each presidential election cycle wouldn’t be such a nightmarish spectacle.
How we perceive the executive branch is drastically different from the other two. Though originally designed to be a careful balance between the three branches, the executive is placed on a higher pedestal in public opinion.
Justice Robert Jackson, former attorney general and Supreme Court justice, wrote over 60 year ago:
“Executive power has the advantage of concentration in a single head in whose choice the whole Nation has a part, making him the focus of public hopes and expectations. In drama, magnitude and finality his decisions so far overshadow any others than almost alone he fills the public eye and ear. No other personality in public life can begin to compete with him in access to the public mind through modern methods of communications.”
Even at its lowest points, public trust in executive authority has remained ubiquitous. In the last 40 years, confidence in the branch was lowest, understandably, during the administrations of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Respectively, polls found 40 and 47 percent of voters trusted the branch, drops that could be attributed to the Watergate scandal and the unpopular Iraq invasion.
Considering the heinous nature of both of these administrations, it’s surprising that the figures weren’t lower. Misappropriating federal resources to spy on political opponents is one thing, but sending troops to the slaughter based on a fabricated premise is a whole other level of abuse of power. Such depravity deserves more robust scorn and scrutiny by the American public.
Perhaps Nixon was right when he stated the following during his infamous interview with David Frost: “Well, when the president does it that means it is not illegal.” Though we may scrutinize our leaders, are we too quick to forgive their sins out of respect for their leadership? Even now, Bush is experiencing a revival in popularity, including his first-ever net favorability rating since 2005.
Even our most popular administrations have skeletons in their closets. Frightening precedents have been set by many honored and sacrosanct American leaders: Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans, Reagan’s provision of arms and funding to repressive theocrats and Latin American anti-communists, etc.
Though well documented, these ethically-bankrupt and legally-dubious presidential actions are minimized by a collective reverence for the office. Each abuse of power that is treated with public indifference creates a precedent in history books for future leaders to allude to and use as justification for their own executive overreach. The more popular the past president, the more easily it is to sell future injustices.
Considering the size and scope of the federal government, the possibilities for future abuse seem endless. Presiding over countless agencies that regulate everything — the air we breathe, the food we eat, the information we gather at our fingertips — every aspect our livelihoods is at the whim of one branch of government.
Also, the word “countless” is used quite literally in this context, considering that they cannot even accurately account for the quantity of agencies. The Administrative Conference of the United States lists 115 different federal agencies. However, it hedges that figure in its very own publication:
"[T]here is no authoritative list of government agencies. For example, FOIA.gov lists 78 independent executive agencies and 174 components of the executive departments as units that comply with the Freedom of Information Act requirements imposed on every federal agency. This appears to be on the conservative end of the range of possible agency definitions. The United States Government Manual lists 96 independent executive units and 220 components of the executive departments. An even more inclusive listing comes from USA.gov, which lists 137 independent executive agencies and 268 units in the Cabinet."
But what can be counted is the manpower that backs the executive branch. Including the armed forces (approximately 1.3 million people), the executive branch employs approximately 4 million people. Keep that number in mind when you only get to vote for two of those people.
Jeffery Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education once offered an unsettling forecast about the self-perpetuation of executive authority. He writes, “Power once created will be used.” To add onto Tucker’s ominous warning, once that power is in place, it seems increasingly unlikely that those who use it will willingly give it up.
Though the task of scaling back executive authority seems daunting, there are demands that we can make as voters: repeal the Patriot Act, stop all warrantless spying, support more transparency of agencies through audits and the FOIA, and insist that all foreign interventions pass through Congress first.
This means finding candidates with principles and gumption not often found in the District of Columbia. If you look closely enough, you will find them.
Or, we can sit back, wait another four years, and get bent out of shape over the next “wrong person” who might become president.