Daron Acemoglu writes: America’s weakest point when it comes to resisting personal rule may lie in the executive’s unique relationship with the institution that makes up the very heart of government: the bureaucracy itself. In many other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, where most of the bureaucracy and high-level positions in the judiciary are non-partisan civil servants, state institutions can go about the business of governing while remaining mostly immune to executive attempts to establish personal rule. Not so much in the United States, where Trump is appointing his people to oversee 4,000 high-level posts in the civil service and the judiciary, essentially shaping a bureaucracy ready to do his personal bidding. This is the sort of power that the likes Chavez, Putin, and Erdogan had to acquire more slowly. (Erdogan, for example, is still locked in an epic struggle to change the Turkish Constitution to officially assume the powers of an executive presidency, even if he has already acquired many of those powers in practice.)
Why is the United States so defenseless in the face of the Trump threat? Because, to a large extent, the Founding Fathers wanted it this way. As Woody Holton recounts in Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, despite the emphasis on the separation of power in the Federalist Papers, the main struggle that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington were engaged in was to build a strong federal government and reduce the excessive powers granted to the states in the Articles of Confederation, which had left the country in close to complete chaos. The separation of powers was meant only as a counterbalance to this strong presidency.
In this, they succeeded, but only partially. The U.S. president is indeed hugely powerful in the extent to which he can shape not only foreign but also domestic policy, especially if he can get Congress behind him. However, his hands are tied when it comes to the states’ rights, a concession that the framers had to give to powerful state representatives to garner enough support for the Constitution. This is the reason why some of the strongest resistance shaping up to Trump’s policies is already coming from states like New York and California, where governors have pledged to stand against his immigration policies.
But over time, the federal government has grown, as it has accrued, by necessity and choice, ever more responsibility in domestic and international politics. States, by contrast, have far less power than they did at the end of the 18th century. Massachusetts and Vermont can resist federal policies, creating, perhaps, little liberal policy bubbles. They can have very little impact, however, on the personalization of the country’s most powerful levers of government, including the federal judiciary, dozens of major agencies, trade and fiscal policy, and foreign affairs. Nor can they do much to influence the perception of the new direction of U.S. politics in the minds of Americans and the world.
This leaves us with the one true defense we have, which Hamilton, Madison, and Washington neither designed nor much approved of: civil society’s vigilance and protest. [Continue reading…]