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The State of the Union

I

…When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men
   say,
“These are their reasons: they are
   natural.”
For, I believe, they are portentous
   things….
Julius Caesar, I, iii

Over the past fifteen years the American public consciousness has been witness to a succession of political prodigies: to assassinations, civil insurrections, imperial war, the shame of military defeat, and the brief tyranny of the Nixon regime. Yet the mood of the present moment, when the administration of Jimmy Carter has just completed its first year, is not one of relief but one of foreboding. And this despite the fact that Carter has committed no moral or legal offenses remotely comparable to those of Johnson and Nixon; and that for all of his mistakes he will never match Gerald Ford’s talent for blunder. Nonetheless it seems as though American society at large, and not merely the representatives of powerful interest groups, has silently refused its support and left the president virtually powerless.

This widespread anxiety among a citizenry which had grudgingly given the president only the barest claim to electoral legitimacy may reflect some deeper trouble than doubts about the competence of Jimmy Carter. It may indicate a disorder that has been gathering around the nation’s highest office for the past half century.

During the past fifteen years this society has been locked into a ritual of political excess, of misrule from both sides, of imperial presidents overreaching and contributing to the corruption of the citizenry, while the society has responded by indiscriminately destroying its leaders. The first intimation came with the murder of John Kennedy; then in the death and near death of presidential prototypes, such as Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and George Wallace; then in the forced retirement of Lyndon Johnson; then in the expulsion of Richard Nixon, preceded by the disgrace of his natural successor, Spiro Agnew; and, finally, in the temporary presidency of Gerald Ford who was distinguished by two qualities: he was unelected and he turned out to be the first incumbent since Hoover to have failed in the effort to succeed himself.

Taken along with the sense of collapse that surrounds the current president, these events signify that an unnatural rite has become incorporated into the anthropology of American political life: the ritual destruction of the president. In a relatively brief period the nation has consumed four presidents, terminating them all unnaturally, and now we are watching a fifth struggling to retain a semblance of authority. The significance of the ritual lies not only in what it portends for that office, but for what it signifies for the historical relationship between the president and the American people. In the twentieth century, especially, that relationship has been a critical element in America’s self-conception, in its collective identity as a democracy. The ultimate victim of the ritual described above may be the sovereign people.

II

How much of a crisis? It will be—I am thinking in terms of—the point is, everything is a crisis. (expletive deleted) it is a terrible lousy thing—it will remain a crisis among the upper intellectual types, the soft heads, our own, too—Republicans—and the Democrats and the rest. Average people won’t think it is much of a crisis unless it affects them. (unintelligible)

—Richard Nixon1

Even with the expletives deleted, whenever post-Watergate conversation turns to “crisis,” a certain (unintelligibility) creeps in. During the 1960s there was much worried discussion about our national political institutions, most of it centered around the question of why the arrangements didn’t seem to work.

Regardless of the institution under scrutiny, the basic approach has remained unvarying for forty years: it begins by positing a hermetic world of Washington politics and administration and then it proceeds to ask how current practices can be rendered more rational or, what comes to the same thing, more efficient. Rarely, if ever, have there been official investigations into the relationship between Washington institutions and the society in which those institutions are supposed to be grounded. The reason for the silence is the same as the clue to the current crisis: the relationship is, at best, tenuous. The crisis has to do with the grounding of our major political institutions: with their power, legitimacy, and, above all, their constitution. The fundamental stake in the crisis involves our political identity, a matter which has been contested from the time that our Constitution was first proposed.

Political identity concerns who and what we are together; how we define ourselves as a collectivity. Historically, some societies have defined themselves as “monarchies,” others as “aristocracies,” and, more recently, as “people’s republics.” These names do not stand for “mere” legal forms or outer shells. They indicate what a particular society conceives itself to be and to be about. A political form is expressive of collective identity, of how a particular collectivity defines its being in a world of other distinctive collectivities and, by that definition, announces to the world how it wishes to be perceived.

Among modern peoples, Americans were virtually the first to attempt a deliberate act of collective self-definition. There were two moments to that “act,” revolution then constitution, both premeditated and preceded by months, even years, of public discussion and controversy. The first statement of American collective identity was in the Declaration of Independence. It announced that the colonies were about to create a new collective existence, “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them….” Within that context, the famous reference of the Declaration to “self-evident truths” must be interpreted literally if one is to appreciate the aim of the revolutionary action. It was to ground collective existence in ultimate reality, “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” and thereby to define its being. The “self-evident truths” were about human equality, inalienable rights, and the new basis of legitimacy, “the consent of the governed.”

The success of this first attempt at collective self-definition was evident a decade later in the words chosen to begin the Preamble to the new constitution, “We the People….” Convinced that they were a people, the revolutionists could proceed to constitute their common being by means of a decision to live together in a certain way, “to form a more perfect Union….” Earlier the Declaration had set out a conception of collectivity that can be fairly described as democratic. It attempted to ground public authority in the specific capacity of the people to constitute their own political identity:

…whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying the foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Although the original constitution clearly bears the imprint of the dominant elites and of their concern to frustrate the potential power of the lower classes, it is important to recall that the Preamble to the Constitution not only preserved the democratic conception of collectivity expressed in the Declaration but even conceded the most crucial element in it, the idea of a corporate people who could act politically. The language of the Preamble was unequivocal on that score; the repetition of active verbs, such as “form,” “establish,” “insure,” “provide,” and, above all, “ordain” is evidence of a conception of the “people” as an entity which could develop and express its collective will.

We, the People of the United States, in order to form a More Perfect Union, establish Justice, insure Domestic Tranquility, provide for the Common Defense, promote the General Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity, do Ordain and Establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The democratic understanding was that the authority of officeholders derived from the power which had produced the Constitution. In this view, government is not so much “based upon” the Constitution as grounded in the people. The distinction is important for preserving what was the truly unique claim that underlay the whole idea of a people constituting themselves. What was distinctive about democracy was not what it is sometimes said to be, the demand that public officeholders ought to be accountable to a mass electorate at periodic intervals, or the demand that all citizens should enjoy equal political rights. These requirements were considered important and precious, but not the fundamental point of this type of collective being. Rather the uniqueness of democracy was its boast that it was the only political constitution which was owned collectively, by the “people” who had given it existence. Democracy signified the form of political life that belonged to the people.

As everyone knows, the democratic conception of collectivity was a matter of controversy virtually from the time that the Revolution ended. An alternative view was embodied within the new constitution and elaborated during the great debates over ratification. That view accepted the need for democratic legitimacy, but argued that once the political order is established, the people, as a corporate, volitional body, is dangerous and has to be deactivated and kept at a distance.

The Founding Fathers made no secret of their intention to neutralize collective power. During the debates over ratification they spared no effort to explain how this would be done constitutionally, by the separation of powers, checks-and-balances, dividing power between the states and the central government, and the indirect elections of the senators and the president.

At the same time, the Founders appealed to certain economic groups in an effort to develop a social basis for the new political arrangements, an alternative ground to “the people.” The basis was to be property: landed, commercial, manufacturing, and financial. The strategy went beyond merely soliciting the support of the propertied groups. It envisioned, as Madison noted at the time, the organization of these interests and their involvement “in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.” The boldness of the idea was, partly, in the attempt at legitimating partisanship within the political arrangements and, partly, in inventing a new type of political actor. Organized interests, according to Madison, were “united and actuated by some common impulse.” This recognition, that interests were cohesive political forces, is all the more revealing if it is remembered that while Madison was busy legitimating this form of concerted will, he was also occupied in demonstrating how the new Constitution would frustrate action by popular majorities. With a fine impartiality Madison’s Constitution offered its hospitality to both the fragmented majority and the “united” minorities.

The destruction of the political conception of the people was carried further in the twentieth century when “pluralism” became the unofficial ideology of the Republic and the main dogma of academic political science. Pluralism perpetuated the Madisonian concern to have organized interest groups, rather than the “people,” recognized as the authoritative actors in politics.

  1. 1

    The White House Transcripts (Bantam edition, 1974), p. 115.

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