Monarchy and the American ConstitutionBy John Médaille for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Reprinted from The Remnant Newspaper. The third of a three-part series.
No matter how good a system is “on paper,” it must arise from a people’s own experience and tradition. We do not preserve the idea of tradition by destroying it—no matter how flawed it might be—and imposing an alien system. On the other hand, tradition is neither something fixed for all time, nor an all-powerful and irresistible force, like Hegel’s history. Rather, it is always an encounter of the old with new forces, and hence always growing. It is directed by freely chosen actions, actions which may be guided by passion or by intelligence, or more likely, by some combination of the two. So it remains for us to marry our passion to our reason to see what actions might improve the American polity.
When we search the world for traditions that provide us with a suitable model, we find something very remarkable. Namely, the American Constitution, as it was originally written and understood, is the most monarchical-democratic document in the modern world. Some might think that this honor should go to the British Constitution, since they have both a queen and a parliament. Now, I am no expert on the British Constitution, but if the British government is a true reflection of that constitution, then it is merely a pure democracy with a vestigial monarchy. Parliamentary supremacy is near total. My English friends will insist that the queen retains some real powers, but since their constitution can be changed by a simple act of Parliament, the actual exercise of any royal power is always subject, in practice, to the approval of Parliament, which means that any acts of the “sovereign” are really acts of Parliament, or at least acts to which Parliament chooses to raise no objection.
If it seems strange that the American Constitution is the leading candidate for a monarchical-democratic reform, it should be remembered that the founders, whatever faults they might have had, were men of a classical education. They were familiar with the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition of a mixed constitution, and they really did try to combine the best features of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. And to some degree they succeeded. It must be remembered that at the time, there were no working models of this system; it was a theoretical idea only. The mixed constitution of the United States has provided a relatively stable regime for 229 years. Although America is considered a young country, it is actually the oldest regime in the world. Some might think that honor goes to Britain, but the many constitutional “reforms,” notably the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884, have changed that government from a mixed constitution to a nearly pure democracy.
Not that there haven’t been changes to the American Constitution, and not always for the better. It started with the Bill of Rights, rights which are admirable enough in themselves, but perhaps the Constitution was not the right place for them. These are matters of common and statute law, and placing them in the governing document has reduced constitutional law to an endless search for “rights,” a search which the Supreme Court has been willing to pursue as a full-time job. As The Wit hath said, “So many rights…So little time.” The first ten amendments would have been better used spelling out more precisely the relationship between the federal government and the states. Alas, that question, central to a federal republic, was reduced to the much-ignored Tenth Amendment.
Other amendments that damaged the constitution were the Sixteenth and the Seventeenth, both passed in 1913. That was a particularly bad year for the Republic, since it also saw the establishment of the Federal Reserve System. The Sixteenth Amendment established the income tax, which made the federal government the largest funding source. It is not an exaggeration to say that federalism died with this amendment, since power will always flow to the money. Cities and states were all too happy to kick problems upstairs to Washington, since the feds had the funds. When Joe Biden ran for Vice-President, he boasted that he had put “11,000 cops on the beat.” His claim is likely true, but it is odd for a senator to boast that he had done the job of a city councilman.
The Problem of the Aristocracy
But it might be the Seventeenth Amendment which really changed the nature of the government because it provided for the popular election of senators, who heretofore had been appointed by the state legislatures. The Senate was designed by the founders to fulfill the “aristocratic” function, but it never actually functioned that way. The founders were not the only ones baffled by the problem. Both Aristotle and Aquinas had recognized the value of an aristocracy, so long as it was based on virtue. But more usually, it was based on birth or wealth, or both. And in such cases, which is nearly all cases, the aristocracy degenerates into an oligarchy, a relatively small group of men who run the government for their own purposes.
The founders thought they had solved the problem by making the Senate an appointive office, isolating it from the pressure of electoral politics. But it didn’t quite work out, since legislative appointment still made it a political choice, just at one remove; it was an indirect election. Nevertheless, I believe that a solution to the problem of the aristocracy is available with a federal system. Two steps, I believe, would tackle the problem that vexed the ancients and make the Senate an institution where an aristocratic virtue could flourish. These two steps are to make the appointment of senators a personal privilege of the governors, and take away the Senate’s legislative powers.
To start with the second point first, we don’t need a bicameral legislature; one camera is quite enough. The drudges in the House are quite enough to pass the laws; the Senate should have more important tasks. As a legislature even its most endearing feature, the necessity of doing everything by 60 votes (which is customary, not constitutional) becomes corrupt. It means the last senator to commit to a piece of legislation can extract huge concessions, often to the detriment of the bill, the nation, or the public purse.
My thesis here is that by taking away its power you will increase its authority, and the nation needs an authoritative source of commentary. The very fact that they have no laws to pass, no legislative favors to grant, no largess to disperse will make them all the more authoritative. The Senate’s chief job should concern justice and the smooth running of government. So what would they do? I propose the following list of powers:
- Audit the accounts of the United States and set accounting standards
- Appoint an inspector general and inspectors for each government department
- Be the sole investigative authority for crimes alleged against congressmen or the king’s ministers
- Have exclusive subpoena powers over the ministers of the king or president
- Be the sole authority for the qualifications for judges, and have sole impeachment power over them
- Have the power to vacate orders of the Supreme Court for cases referred to it by the king or the president
- Control the monetary policy, the job that now resides in that servant of the banks, the Federal Reserve System
- Have a veto power, by a super-majority, over acts of Congress
- Investigate and report, from time to time, on problems and challenges facing the nation, and make suggestions for their resolution.
This last job may be the most important; the Senate would serve as the National Nanny, admonishing both king and commons to eat their vegetables and clean their rooms. If the public is convinced that the Senate is acting with integrity and that they have nothing to gain by their recommendations, they could have enormous influence. The dream of Aristotle and the Scholastics to have an element of government whose only task was virtue could be realized, as much as such a project could be realized by fallen men and their governments. Paradoxically, their power would derive from their manifest lack of power. And that same lack of power would make the office less attractive to men whose only motive was political ambition or personal gain.
Appointment by the governors would isolate the office from the grubbier aspects of electoral politics. And the governors would be free to send their states’ best men and women. The Constitution currently sets the minimum age for this office at 30, but it should be raised to 40 or 45; these should be persons of some significant prior accomplishments, not just in government, but in business, law, science, unions, religion, academia, arts; in other words, they should be precisely the kind of people most politicians don’t want to talk to anyway.
The Problem of the Congress
The number of congressmen was fixed by law in 1911 at 435. This was at a time when the population was 92 million, or less than one-third of what it is today. Each congressman purports to represent the wishes of 713,000 of his countrymen. That’s an awful lot of wishes. It’s also an awful lot of money; districts that large in an electoral system require huge campaign funds. The average winning campaign in 2008 cost $1.4 million. This means that a congressman who wishes to keep his job must raise $1,900 for every one of the 730 days he is in office. Sundays, Christmas, Easter and holidays included; there is no rest from fund-raising. But there is a lot of help. The sources for that kind of money are limited, but they are extremely eager to lend a hand, and all they ask in return is, well, a decent return on their money. Who can blame them? Under such circumstances, the “people’s house” must exclude the people; it is not that the congressman isn’t willing to listen to all, but he must listen to the people who have paid for the privilege.
The simplest campaign finance reform would be to double or even triple the number of congressmen. The smaller the district, the cheaper the campaign. On a personal note, I was elected to office five times in a district of 160,000, and I never spent more than $10,000, and usually a lot less. Such small districts are more democratic, which is, after all, the point of a democracy. Would such a large legislature work? Well, the English Parliament has 650 members for a population of 52 million, or about one representative for every 80,000 persons. But if one wanted to maintain a smaller legislature, it would be best to have indirect elections, with electors chosen for every 5 or 10,000 people, who would then meet in an assembly to choose the congressman for their district.
The Problem of the Presidency
Perhaps the office which needs the least reform to be more monarchical is the presidency; love the idea of monarchy or hate it, we already have an imperial presidency. It is now routine for a president to declare, in signing statements, which laws he will enforce and which he will ignore, to have enormous rule-making authority through the bloated bureaucracy, to go to wars, covert and overt, on his own authority, and to be surrounded by such trappings of power as would embarrass the Sun King. The office is already a pseudo-monarchy, but more in the sense of regalism than true monarchy. I believe there are two reforms which could make the presidency less regal and more monarchical.
The first reform is a devolution of authority back to the states. The states, and not the federal government ,should be the main source of law, with the national authority (following the principle of subsidiarity) intervening only when necessary and only for as long as necessary. But for this to be a meaningful devolution, funding will have to flow back to the states. In the practical affairs of men, things exist to the degree they are funded, and power follows the money. Even if, for reasons of convenience and efficiency, taxes are collected at the national level, they should speedily be disbursed back to the states, with only such funds remaining with the federal government which are absolutely necessary for its essential operations.
The second reform is essential to a monarchy, and concerns the stability of the monarchical function: double the term of office. This will strike most people as problematic at best, since we all have at least one president in mind whose presence we feel we could not bear for another eight minutes, never mind another eight years. Nevertheless, the great problem of the presidency is that it is a job of a full-time campaigning and part-time governance; no matter what a president may wish to do, the needs of his party dominate every other year and his own survival every fourth year. In such circumstances, the political needs of the moment will dominate every consideration of justice and prudence. Furthermore, four years is not enough time for most policies to have their full impact. Thus presidents often get the credit for acts of their predecessors, or get blamed for problems they merely inherited. For example, the Great Depression formally ended in March, 1933, the month Roosevelt was inaugurated, which means the turnaround was due to the policies of Hoover, which Roosevelt largely continued. Yet Hoover has gone down in history as the villain, and Roosevelt the hero.
Democracy, Monarchy, and Traditionalism
I said at the beginning of this series that I am a monarchist because I am a democrat (small “d”); that is, I believe governance is by consent of the governed. But this consent cannot be reduced to the fashionable passions of the moment; rather it must respect both the past and the future, and this respect is best expressed in proper aristocratic and monarchical institutions. And I believe that it is only in traditionalism that one can apply the wisdom of the past, flawed as it might be, to the problems of the present to produce a more just future. For traditionalism is not, as our critics allege, about living in the past, but about understanding the gifts of the past and applying them to a sober evaluation of the present. I believe that we are coming to the end of empire, and we face dark days ahead. But I also believe that it is only the traditionalist who has the tools to bring light into the coming darkness.
The suggestions I have made are not fixed in stone; I offer them only as examples of traditionalist analysis. Readers of this journal in particular can certainly improve these suggestions, or come up with better ones. My only point in making these suggestions is that we have within our traditions the tools to confront our problems. And it is, perhaps, only the traditionalist who can appreciate the tools at hand.
One final word. Last year, Archduke Henri of Luxembourg vetoed a bill to allow euthanasia. It was the last kingly act in Europe, since he was stripped by the legislature of his veto powers, and now joins his kingly colleagues as a mere robed figurehead. But a constitution which can be changed by a simple act of parliament is no constitution at all, or at best a constitution at parliamentary sufferance. In such a radical democracy, even Magna Carta is not safe while Parliament is in session. Americans, at least, have a more stable Constitution (ignoring, of course, the Supreme Court), one capable of providing a more stable and just order.