Bush Was a Dictator – And the U.S. Government Is a Dictatorship
A dictator is a monarch who is both law-maker and law enforcer, who also acts as final judicial arbiter in cases, and is not legally liable for his actions.
By such a standard, George Bush was a dictator. He claimed the power to ignore the legislature, and to arbitrarily rewrite the law – citing the U.S. Constitution’s appointment of the president as the “Commander in Chief” of the United States Army and U.S. Navy as justification. If the Congress passed a law he didn’t like, he refused to enforce it. If it failed to pass a law he liked, he enacted it anyway. He successfully suppressed the courts’ power of habeas corpus throughout most of his term, effectively wielding the power to seize anyone off the street and to detain them arbitrarily with no review. And, despite his many violations of the law, he never faced any credible threat of legal sanction.
Many of his supporters argue that since George Bush stepped down willingly at the end of his term, he was no dictator. But a what characterizes a dictatorial government is how the leader controls the government, not how he got into power or left it. A Roman appointed to the office of Dictator during the years of the Republic had his term expire after only a year, yet during that year no-one would argue that during that year there was no dictatorship, even though they often stepped down willingly at the end of their term. Nor do they have to come to power through violent means: witness Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Fuhrer by the German Parliament via the Enabling Act, which was all nice and legal and regularly renewed by parliament.
While many people have been outraged by Bush’s arrogation of power, there was been no serious attempt by the judiciary and the legislature to rein him in. The judiciary did, very late in the game, start to protest against his more outlandish legal theories justifying his unilateral actions, but for the most part they deferred to the president. In Congress, a few gadflies started impeachment proceedings, but they never amounted to anything. To the contrary, throughout his presidency the other branches bent over backward to defer to this claim of authority.
Since he has taken office, President Obama has been busy issuing new directives limiting the power that he and his subordinates claim. Many see this as an end to the unitary executive. But, this personal arrogation of power is very similar to the homeowner allowing a friend to crash on the couch. It can be rescinded at any time. In the absence of any movement in the legislature or the judiciary, it merely amounts to the dictator announcing his intention to stay his hand, rather than a permanent abdication of power.
Furthermore, he has continued legislating by fiat, the latest of which is his executive order designed to force improvements in fuel efficiency. Regardless of whether one feels that this is a good or bad idea, one must admit that the power to enact such a major change in government policy, which will likely impose billions of dollars in compliance costs, when on the shoulders of one man, is dictatorial.
In many ways, the U.S. has become the most dangerous kind of dictatorship – a democratic one. While dictators are often quite violent and, well, dictatorial, they sometimes do to take a long view, since they expect to experience the long-term consequences of any misrule. On occasion, dictators can even be pretty decent, recognizing that a hands-off approach will increase their power far more quickly that a hands-on approach. I can think of no better example of this phenomenon in action than that of Singapore.
In the U.S., on the other hand, the rulers can only expect to stay in office for less than a decade. Rather than worrying about long term consequences, they are far more likely to be concerned about how to maximize their use of the office in the short period they hold it. Rather than worrying about the long term health of the nation, under a democratic (the system of government, not the political party) dictatorship of limited duration, we expect to see decisions that are focused on a smaller time scale.
When the Roman Republic collapsed and was replaced by the imperial system, the old forms of the republic were maintained. The senate appointed consuls and voted on legislation. However, for the next few centuries, political power resided in the hands of the Emperor, who was named Dictator by the Senate. While early emperors like Augustus had fairly sound economic policies, the history of the empire is a sad tale of failed economic policies creating new crises, of poorly though out intervention begetting stronger interventions, each multiplying the devastation of the unintended consequences of its predecessor.
The republican system of government is not completely extinguished in the United States, It is, however, all but dead. Absent a dramatic sea-change in the attitude the American people towards their government, we will increasingly be at the mercy of popularly elected dictators, who are not restrained by any significant limitation on their powers.