The Presidency Has Turned Into an 'Elective Monarchy'

A conservative legal scholar's surprisingly convincing case against the Constitution.


The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America, by F.H. Buckley, Encounter Books, 2014, 319 pages, $27.99.

Try making sense out of what Americans tell pollsters. According to the Pew Research Center, fewer than one in five of us trusts the federal government. Gallup says that nearly three quarters of us consider it "the biggest threat to the country in the future." Yet by equally overwhelming margins, Gallup shows Americans agreeing that "the United States has a unique character because of its history and Constitution that sets it apart from other nations as the greatest in the world."

Apparently, we're disgusted and frightened by our government as it actually operates. And yet we're convinced that we've got the best system ever devised by the mind of man.

On both counts, no one's more convinced than American conservatives. Few go quite as far toward constitutional idolatry as former House Majority Leader Tom Delay, who earlier this year proclaimed that God "wrote the Constitution." But the superiority of our national charter, with its separation of powers and independently elected national executive, is an article of faith for conservatives.

It's about time for some constitutional impiety on the right, and F.H. Buckley answers the call in his bracing and important new book, The Once and Future King. Buckley, a professor of law at George Mason University and a senior editor at The American Spectator, is unmistakably conservative. But that doesn't stop him from pointing out that America's not so all-fired exceptional—or from arguing that our Constitution has made key contributions to our national decline.

In the conventional narrative, Buckley writes, "our thanks [must] go to the Framers, who gave the country a presidential system that secured the blessings of liberty." A "nice story," he says, but one that "lacks the added advantage of accuracy."

First off, we're hardly "the freest country in the world." As Buckley points out, his native Canada beats the United States handily on most cross-country comparisons of political and economic liberty. In the latest edition of the Cato Institute's Economic Freedom of the World rankings, for example, we're number 17 and we don't try harder. Meanwhile, as Buckley points out, the Economist Intelligence Unit's "Democracy Index" ranks us as the 19th healthiest democracy in the world, "behind a group of mostly parliamentary countries, and not very far ahead of the 'flawed democracies.'"

There's a lesson there, Buckley argues. While "an American is apt to think that his Constitution uniquely protects liberty," the truth "is almost exactly the reverse." In a series of regressions using the Freedom House rankings, Buckley finds that "presidentialism is significantly and strongly correlated with less political freedom."

In this, he builds on the work of the late political scientist Juan Linz, who in a pioneering 1990 article, "The Perils of Presidentialism," argued that presidential systems encourage cults of personality, foster instability, and are especially bad for developing countries. Subsequent studies have bolstered Linz's insights, showing that presidential systems are more prone to corruption than parliamentary systems, more likely to suffer catastrophic breakdowns, and more likely to degenerate into autocracies. Buckley puts it succinctly: "there are a good many more presidents-for-life than prime-ministers-for-life." Maybe what's exceptional about the United States, he suggests, is that for more than 200 years we've "remained free while yet presidential."

Relatively free, that is. The American presidency, with its vast regulatory and national security powers, is, Buckley argues, rapidly degenerating into the "elective monarchy" George Mason warned about at the Philadelphia Convention. Despite their parliamentary systems, our cousins in the Anglosphere also suffer from creeping "Crown Government": "political power has been centralized in the executive branch of government in America, Britain, and Canada, like a virus that attacks different people, with different constitutions, in different countries at the same time."

But we've got it worse, thanks in large part to a system that makes us particularly susceptible to one-man rule. As Buckley sees it, "presidentialism fosters the rise of Crown government" in several distinct ways. Among them: It encourages executive messianism by making the head of government the head of state; it insulates the head of government from legislative accountability; and it makes him far harder to remove. On each of these points, The Once and Future King makes a compelling—and compellingly readable—case.

"The character of the presidency is such," the British journalist Henry Fairlie wrote in 1967, "that the majority of the people can be persuaded to look to it for a kind of leadership which no politician, in my opinion, should be allowed, let alone invited, to give. 'If people want a sense of purpose,' [former British Prime Minister] Harold Macmillan once said to me, 'they should get it from their archbishops.'"

Presidential regimes invite executive dominance by combining the roles of "head of state" and "head of government" in one figure. "As heads of government," Buckley writes, "presidents are the most powerful officials in their countries. As heads of state, they are also their countries' ceremonial leaders," and claim "the loyalty and respect of all patriots." Where parliamentary systems cleave off power from ceremony, presidential ones make the chief executive the living symbol of nationhood: the focal point of national hopes, dreams, fears—and occasionally fantasies. In February 2009, author Judith Warner took to her New York Times blog to confess that "The other night I dreamt of Barack Obama. He was taking a shower right when I needed to get into the bathroom to shave my legs." Warner's email inquiries revealed that "many women—not too surprisingly—were dreaming about sex with the president."

Buckley notes that "Britons tend not to chat with David Cameron in their dreams," which presumably rules out soapy frolicking as well. Nor do Brits tend to look to the PM for a sense of national purpose or as a cure for spiritual "malaise." Prime ministers are "more likely to be figures of fun…or the butt of slanging matches during Question Period in the House of Commons." Indeed, the parliamentary practice of Prime Minister's Questions, in which the chief executive is regularly and ruthlessly grilled by the opposition, goes a long way toward explaining why there's no such thing as the Cult of the Prime Minister.

Presidents can isolate themselves in a cocoon of sycophants, even putting protesters in "Free-Speech Zones," where their signs can't offend the liege. And his role as head of state "tends to make criticism of a president seem like lese-majeste"—as Justice Samuel Alito learned when he dared mouth the words "not true" while Obama pummelled the Court in his 2010 State of the Union.

"Thin-skinned and grandiose" characters do better in presidential regimes, Buckley writes, whereas "delusions of Gaullist grandeur are fatal for Prime Ministers." In the UK, they have to face the music in person every week. The aforementioned Harold Macmillan, British PM from 1957 to '63, admitted that the very prospect used to make him physically sick.

The PM's Question Time is but one facet of the superior executive accountability offered by parliamentary systems, Buckley argues. Such systems, he maintains, also do a better of restraining executives' proclivity for launching wars.

It's a counterintuitive claim. In the U.K., warmaking is a royal prerogative exercised by the PM, and parliamentary approval is optional. In the U.S., Congress has the power to declare war and the power of the purse, which Jefferson looked to as an "effectual check to the Dog of war."

That's the theory, anyway. In practice, Buckley shows, "the absence of the separation of powers in parliamentary regimes and the government's day-to-day accountability before the House of Commons make it far more difficult for a prime minister to disregard Parliament's wishes." Meanwhile, U.S. congressmen reliably punt on questions of war and peace and hardly ever object to funding wars they never approved.

Buckley over-eggs the pudding a bit when he writes that "if one really wants a militaristic government and imperialism, presidential regimes are the way to go." The British Empire managed well enough, having at one time or another made war on all but 22 countries around the world.

Even so, our countries' respective debates over whether to bomb Syria made for an instructive contrast. Last September, Secretary of State John Kerry kept insisting that "the president has the power" to wage war "no matter what Congress does." When the House of Commons rejected airstrikes, Kerry's counterpart across the pond simply said, "Parliament has spoken."

Finally, parliamentary systems do better on the ultimate question of accountability: They make it easier to "throw the bum out" if all else fails. "Prime ministers may be turfed out at any time by a majority in the House of Commons"; they can also be replaced by their party without bringing down the government. Presidents serve for fixed terms, and since we've never, in 225 years, successfully used the impeachment process to remove one, anyone who's not demonstrably crazy or catatonic gets to ride out his term. We're stuck with the guy, thanks to our peculiar system of separated powers.

That system isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's not even what the Framers wanted, Buckley argues. Madison's Virginia Plan featured an executive chosen by the legislature. The Framers repeatedly rejected the idea of a president elected by the people—that option failed in four separate votes in Philadelphia.

What they envisioned was something much closer to parliamentarianism. As the Convention drew to a close, most of the Framers thought they'd settled on a system where presidential selection would usually be thrown to the House, since, after Washington, they didn't expect "national candidates with countrywide support would emerge." It was only after the Convention that Madison became the "principal apologist" for the emerging system of strong separation of powers.

Buckley is relentless in cataloging that system's defects. It's made the executive the most dangerous branch, he writes, fostering one-man rule when "deadlocks produced by divided government…encourage a power-seeking president to disregard the legislature and rule by decree."

Still, is there anything that separationism is good for? It stands to reason that the lack of separated powers in parliamentary regimes makes it easier to get big, bad things done.

Buckley acknowledges the point, but counters that it's also easier to get them undone, and that with a fiscal apocalypse looming, reversibility is more important. That's a plausible thesis, but I'd have liked to see more actual evidence on how well parliamentary regimes do at repealing bad laws and bad programs.

Buckley also spends comparatively little time on the relationship between regime choice and size of government. He notes that in the '90s, presidential regimes had lower per-capita spending than parliamentary ones, but "since then, the gap has narrowed considerably…and this is before the bill for Obamacare comes due." But the U.S. still spends less on average than other wealthy democracies, including most first-world parliamentary regimes. And as far as "the bill for Obamacare" goes: Without the separation of powers, there's little doubt the U.S. would have had nationalized health care long before 2009. As Yale's Theodore Marmor, a leading scholar on the politics of the welfare state, argued in Social Science & Medicine in 2011, if the U.S. "had a Westminster-style parliamentary system, it is likely that America would have adopted national health insurance over 60 years ago when President Harry Truman proposed it."

Some scholars have found that presidential systems' apparent advantage on government expenditures vanish under close scrutiny. But even if the tradeoff is higher government spending in exchange for somewhat greater freedom and a more restrained and accountable chief executive, it's not a trade we have the power to make. "All of this is irreversible," Buckley warns the reader in the book's very first chapter. In the last chapter, he notes that it's "a bit late in the day to adopt the parliamentary form of government the Framers had wanted," before half-heartedly outlining a few reforms he admits won't solve the fundamental problem.

Nobody likes hearing that sort of thing. But personally, I value an accurate diagnosis even if it doesn't come with a magic cure-all pill. F.H. Buckley's Once and Future King makes a powerful case that we're even worse off than we thought.

Below, F.H. Buckley speaks with Reason TV.

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  1. Maybe name the next book, “Showers with my father”. Dream of taking a shower with Obama? I’m gonna puke.

  2. Perhaps if our so-called educational system did not portray the President as having been elevated to the status of deity by popular acclaim, it might be easier to constrain him.

    1. You wish the education system that has a vested interest in centralizing power would criticize centralized power? Good luck with that.

  3. New Zealand in the 80s an example of parliament undoing bad laws?

  4. Apparently, we’re disgusted and frightened by our government as it actually operates. And yet we’re convinced that we’ve got the best system ever devised by the mind of man.

    Those statements are not mutually exclusive.

    As for the Delay quote, I’m not a fan of the man his religion, but it seems pretty obvious he was suggesting that our Constitution merely enshrined God-given rights in political guarantees. If you’re given to believing in a creator, it’s not a terribly distant leap that in some sense God authored the rights men later chartered.

    It’s a mistake to believe these people are dumb or superstitious louts rather than conniving, avaricious, and amoral.

  5. Subsequent studies have bolstered Linz’s insights, showing that presidential systems are more prone to corruption than parliamentary systems, more likely to suffer catastrophic breakdowns, and more likely to degenerate into autocracies.

    This sort of thing had been relatively rare in our history because the Presidents who followed Washington cleaved to his example and essentially retired from public life after holding the office, and tended to respect the checks and balances system in place. There’s exceptions to this, like Jackson and T.R., but they prove the rule.

    It really wasn’t until the megalomaniac FDR took office that the concept of a Presidency morphed into something resembling our modern imperialist model. Not only did that piece of shit refuse to step aside after his eight years were up, but his court-packing scheme showed that he had no respect for the checks and balances system designed to keep the President from becoming a tyrant. Like a lot of 20th century demagogues, he exploited rabble-rousing and social envy at the expense of constitutional principle. Every President that’s bitched about Congress not passing the things they want to have done is rooted in FDR’s grandiose sense of self-importance.

    1. Of course, this doesn’t degrade Buckley’s main point–that a constitutional republic with a presidential model is prone to being exploited by manipulative rabble-rousers. It takes a particular culture that views the voluntary handover of power as a virtue to be emulated rather than a weakness to be disdained, and that kind of culture has been under steady erosion in this country ever since the early 20th century.

      1. No, what degrades his point is a significant lack of any good parliamentary counterexamples.

        I mean, it’s a total joke to pretend that the British are running the same system now that they were prior to the Parliament Act 1911 and Representation of the People Act 1918. A popularly-elected Commons holding complete power of the state is approximately the same age now that the Jacksonian popularly-elected presidential model was when FDR was first elected.

        Where else shall we look? Yeah, Western Europe has a whole bunch of post-WW2 parliamentary systems that didn’t collapse like Latin American presidential systems. They also had developed economies and were occupied by American troops. Yeah, there was a real possibility of a populist strongman seizing power in 1970s West Germany if only it had a presidential system, I’m sure the US Army wouldn’t have had anything to say. (Oh, by the way, how long did the French manage to have a purely parliamentary system last before a popular hero made it semi-presidential?)

        Hey, how did the parliamentary systems in Pakistan and India work out? Nice, stable, consistently democratic? Yeah.

  6. For as long as I can remember I would listen to the horseshit that presidential candidates would shovel at the public and complain “The president can’t do any of that.” . I have been challenged on that many times by gullible people who thought that the president was a king. I always challenged them back to find in the constitution where the president has any power other than to sign bills into law and be the commander in chief of the armed forces.

    Presidents get away with the shit they get away with because we let them. Obumbles should have been impeached, tried and imprisoned ten times over already.

  7. The president isn’t a king or becoming one. Kings are constrained by tradition, generally try not to fuck their countries up because they want to leave an inheritance to their heirs and experience various degrees of tension with people they rule.

    US president are becoming emperors of the Roman variety, not Kings.

  8. Try making sense out of what Americans tell pollsters. According to the Pew Research Center, fewer than one in five of us trusts the federal government. Gallup says that nearly three quarters of us consider it “the biggest threat to the country in the future.” Yet by equally overwhelming margins, Gallup shows Americans agreeing that “the United States has a unique character because of its history and Constitution that sets it apart from other nations as the greatest in the world.”

    There is no contradiction in those positions unless you think that The US = The Federal government; which is a strange premise for a libertarian to accept.

  9. The better argument than the one used by Buckley, rankings on specious indexes, is this:

    “But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.” I’d replace the final word with be worshiped

    But the point is eloquently made that the constitution isn’t all that great unless you like the current state of the government.

  10. Part of the solution for the country to this dilemma is the repeal of the 17th Amendment which resulted in the direct election of state senators. We must go back to state senators being appointed by their respective legislatures so that the states get true representation as intended by the Founders and that the current ‘tyranny of the majority’ can be quelled.

    The original design for the country was 50 sovereign states running things with one central government to work as the voice to the world for them all. Power was to be held by the states with very limited powers for the federal government and the president. This has been abused as the federal government has drawn all of the power to itself at the expense of the states and the people. The only solution left if the federal government won’t give up power may be either revolution or secession – neither of which will be pretty, and will come with much hardship, but may be for the best in the long term…

  11. “As Buckley points out, his native Canada beats the United States handily on most cross-country comparisons of political and economic liberty.” Yes, today, in 2014, but how about in past years and decades? Instead of a single snapshot 225 years after the US Constitution was ratified, we need a longitudinal study. It is nice that some cherry-picked parliamentary countries have gained in freedom, but why has the US lost ground? Can you really blame that on the fundamental structure of the US Constitution, and not on the three holes torn in it?

    Besides the three constitutional holes, there are just a few primary root causes, a la the Pareto Principle. A recent ACLU study found that 62% of SWAT raids were about drugs. The Drug War is the biggest single root cause of America’s ills; ending it should be our #1 priority.

  12. Meanwhile, as Buckley points out, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Democracy Index” ranks us as the 19th healthiest democracy in the world, “behind a group of mostly parliamentary countries, and not very far ahead of the ‘flawed democracies.'”

    Norway and Sweden are the top countries on that index. Hardly bastions of Libertarianism regardless of “democratic” they are.

  13. Better than either presidential or parliamentary is get rid of a chief executive altogether. Legislatures should hire the military commander-in-chief for just that job, hire administrators for all the agencies they establish, and hire other administrators as they see fit.

    Even if there were to be an elected chief executive whose job was limited to a veto as a last gasp constitutional check, that of course would give him a power to trade against desired legislation — I won’t veto your crap legislation if you pass my crap legislation.

    Just dump the chief executive altogether and hire administrators as needed.

    1. This would be a Swiss-style executive council. It would be far superior to what we have now.

  14. The thing that kept the FedGov in check was not the Constitution, but rather the Frontier. The ability to say “go jump in the lake” and head outside the jurisdiction of the Eastern Politicians kept us relatively free. Once the Frontier closed, it was pretty much straight line increases in FedGov power.

  15. The presidency didn’t have “vast regulatory powers” when the country was founded because the federal government itself didn’t. The presidency only got it’s unbalanced power as powers were transferred from states to the federal governmentb and as the federal income tax was created separately from state tax powers

  16. …”Apparently, we’re disgusted…our national decline.”…

    If Mr. Healy was going to pretend to advance a serious argument that the constitution or anything resulting from it is the cause of our national decline, he could first show the fact it is being obeyed is the cause of any our national decline.

    This article was a waste of time, I hope it profits him nothing.

  17. A better questions may be, what editor thought this was worthy of being in a magazine named Reason, there’s no trace of thought in it.

  18. DRINK!

  19. I don’t believe that there are 22 countries the Brits haven’t invaded. It’s surely a lot less than that. I read that we hadn’t gone to war with Sweden or Outer Mongolia. That’s only two. I count the Swedes as part of the Viking invasions. And the East Anglian royal house had links with Sweden. So that counts Sweden out. I’m sure the Mongolians are insulted by the idea that the Brits, out of every country in the world, hadn’t been to war with Mongolia. So, on behalf of Britons everywhere – Mongolia, we’re sorry.

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