“Slaves need leaders. Free people stand up and claim their rights.” I have never forgotten these words from a prominent Virginian in the civil rights movement who did not want to be identified as “a black leader” by the media.
Sadly, many Americans today seem to have a servile mindset. They want a strong leader to tell them what to think about national and international issues and they are happy that the leader’s whim is the only determining factor in what these policies should be. This trend has been evident for some time and is not confined to a single political party.
We have seen a glaring example of the spread of this rot in the action of the Republican National Convention. For the first time since the Whigs called for “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” in their 1840 agreement, there was no platform committee to weigh the pros and cons of a position on this or that. question, no draft of their findings. submitted to delegates for approval or amendment.
Instead, delegates pledged to support President Donald Trump in whatever he may decide to say or do. Alexander Lukashenko, Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping would expect no less from their party congress, but it is shocking that Americans are following their model.
The drafters of the Constitution were aware of the danger of entrusting too much to a single national leader. George Mason of Virginia, for example, said: “If strong and extensive powers are vested in the Executive, and this Executive is made up of one person, the government will of course degenerate into a monarchy.”
Reading article II of the Constitution, I am surprised at how little independent authority they granted to the executive. He is “Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army and Navy and of the Militia of several States, when called up to present United States service.”
He has the power to grant pardon for misdemeanors, except in cases of indictment, and “he will receive ambassadors and other public ministers.” It can recommend to Congress for consideration “such measures as it deems necessary and appropriate”.
By identifying “enemies” and fomenting proxy wars, successive Democratic and Republican administrations have used “national security,” a term that can mean anything and nothing, to increase the authority of the commander-in-chief.
With the current administration, National Security allows for inroads into immigration and naturalization, trade with foreign nations, appropriation of funds, and a host of other areas constitutionally assigned to Congress. A congress lying on its back seems content to allow the executive to repeal treaties, impose tariffs and import duties, often for frivolous reasons or to favor a particular American company.
There is a clear and present danger in giving unlimited power to a president of either party, left, right or centrist. In the face of a global pandemic, a global climate crisis, a global economic stalemate, it makes no sense to allow an ill-informed leader to set policy based on quack medical theories, climate denial and petty grudges.
When President and Congress united in 1798 to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, restricting the freedom of foreign-born residents and restricting freedom of speech and of the press, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson proposed a remedy. in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions. They proposed state intervention to suspend the legislation. If ever this were a remedy, its adoption by segregationists to thwart school integration and the rights of African-American citizens has permanently erased this possibility.
How to respond to a national party which offers itself as a buffer to the presidential whim and to an accomplice Congress which looks elsewhere? I think it’s obvious.
We must elect members of Congress and senators who will stand alone and claim their constitutional rights. We need representatives who are committed to the interests of their constituents, not waiting to be told what to think and do when they arrive in Washington. We need representatives who reflect the diversity of ideas in our vast country and who are ready to debate it.
Richard MacMaster, retired history professor, lives in Gainesville.
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