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Does America need a monarch? Ever since, according to legend, George Washington turned down the chance of becoming the new country’s king, America’s identity as a republican nation of citizen rulers has been rock solid. Indeed, nothing can stir patriotic anger more than the suggestion that the U.S. president is acting like unelected royalty. Yet even before independence, John Adams argued in favor of a “republican monarchy” of laws, lamenting, “We have so many Men of Wealth, of ambitious Spirits, of Intrigue … that incessant Factions will disturb our Peace.”
Looking at the United States, today, Adams was prescient, with the country almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, special interests dominant, and poisonous partisan gridlock destroying Washington, D.C. While Adams favored a republican monarch with absolute veto powers, today we need a person who can sit above politics and help strengthen our commitment to republican values. We need a king, or something like one.
As the only nationally elected official, the president has become a symbol of the country. Such symbols, whether in a democracy, monarchy, or authoritarian state, must serve a purpose above politics, both at home and abroad. Yet that is impossible for a U.S. president who is head of his own government, putative head of his political party and invariably a competitive, partisan politician. For example of just how awkward this can be, hours after a mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington last September, President Obama unleashed a blisteringly critical speech on the budget, accusing the Tea Party faction in Congress of promising “economic chaos” and questioning whether Republicans were “willing to hurt people just to score political points.”
In parliamentary systems around the globe, the head of state is separate from the head of government. In some countries, like Russia and France, the president (as head of state) is more powerful than the prime minister (who is head of government). In others, like Israel, the president serves simply as a symbol of the nation, while the prime minister runs the country. Europe’s constitutional monarchies limit their heads of royal houses to symbolic functions, while reserving that role to one family. Having a national, unifying position ostensibly standing outside the daily muck of politics provides a rallying point for all citizens and a safety valve to redirecting national passions in a non-partisan way.
We have no such safety valve in the United States. Our experiment in self-government has progressed to the point where the differences in our increasingly complex country are now the salient feature of public life. They are certainly not as fundamental as the questions of slavery or civil rights, but they are deep and growing deeper nonetheless. The role and size of government, individual rights to privacy, immigration, the definition of marriage and the like are all driving polarization, not just in Washington, but in Peoria and Albuquerque and Manchester. The result is a country that is becoming shriller, more willing to demonize opponents and less united. This deep corrosion of political life is directly responsible for Americans’ growing sense of alienation.
There is, for many Americans, nowhere to turn to find a sense of common meaning. Not politics: Nine out of 10 polls followed by Real Clear Politics in December 2013 recorded that 60 percent or more of respondents feel the country is on the wrong track, with some polls reaching as high as 66 percent. Politicians are despised as a class, with congressional approval at an astonishingly low 6 percent, according to a year-end Economist/YouGov poll. Not the courts: The Supreme Court is now viewed unfavorably by nearly half the country, being seen as increasingly partisan after its controversial 2000 election ruling and 2012 Obamacare decision. Not religion: It’s increasingly a private affair, and has become a source of growing contention between believers and often-secular elites. Only American popular culture substitutes for a sense of community, with sports and film stars looked up to as exemplars despite their often lurid and sensational antics and unreachable wealth.
The presidency used to unite the country, at least in theory, which was just as important as the practice. Children were taught to respect the office, despite the politics of the day, and schoolrooms throughout the United States hosted portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Those quaint days seem long lost. It is often said that the president has nothing but the trust placed in him by the American people. Yet thanks to Richard Nixon’s Watergate, Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern, George Bush’s Iraq WMD assertions and Barack Obama’s “if you like your health insurance, you can keep it” proclamation, our recent presidents themselves have tarnished the office and diminished its symbolic power.
But there is something more corrupting in today’s America. We have come to the point where if you don’t support the current president, then you don’t believe he represents you as an American. Untold numbers of liberals literally hated George W. Bush, believing him to be an illegitimate president fraudulently elected, a canard repeated as recently as June 2013 by sitting Vice President Joe Biden. To them, he simply never could be a symbol of America. His launching of the war in Iraq was the last straw, enraging them to the point of regularly comparing him to Adolf Hitler. So it is with Barack Obama and the right, where he is held in disdain by many who see him as an unaccomplished, underachieving media darling who never would have made it past his first primary if properly vetted by the press. They don’t believe he shares their love of country and fear that his policies are pushing America toward European-style social democracy.
Politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley famously instructed, but today’s relentless animosity is different from previous periods in American history. Presidents and prominent politicians have always been targets of character assassination. Witness the doggerel about Grover Cleveland’s supposed bastard child or Richard Nixon’s painting of his California senatorial opponent in 1950 as a communist, while she implied he was a Nazi-style brown shirt. And in America’s first really contested election, between President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson in 1800, the sitting president was accused of being a monarchist, based perhaps on his earlier writings.
Now, though, the invective is endless and entire groups are labeled. Democrats accused citizens attending Tea Party rallies of being racists, without a shred of evidence. President Obama has repeatedly referred to his Republican congressional opponents as hostage takers, while supposedly serious commentators call them “political terrorists,” a vicious label in a country fighting a decade-plus-long war on terrorism. The advent of 24/7 cable news has driven political debate to hitherto unimagined depths, with political operatives and ideologues from both sides shouting epithets at each other. Liberals regularly assert that Republicans hate minorities and the poor, while right-wingers question Obama’s citizenship and claim that progressives are socialists.
In short, among today’s politically active, there are no longer simply policy differences, but rather unalterably opposed beliefs and a blanket refusal to believe the other side is acting in good will or for the benefit of the country. Personal beliefs are held to be evil or immoral and unpatriotic motive is ascribed to everyone on the other side. Those not politically active, moreover, are disgusted by the spectacle and increasingly withdraw from political activity.
To save what is left of our common fellow feeling as Americans, we need to create a position above the presidency. As republicans, of course, even a constitutional monarch won’t do. Since we already have a constitutionally mandated chief executive, let’s call the new national symbol our First Citizen.
What would the First Citizen actually do? Unlike his Roman namesake or a constitutional monarch, he or she would be prohibited from any form of governing. He would be enjoined from commenting on any current or pending legislation, policy or action by the government. Advocating political positions while in office would be grounds for dismissal.
The First Citizen would serve one 15-year term, thus ensuring that he would have to deal with at least two presidents. The First Citizen, along with his or her spouse, would represent America at all social and ceremonial meetings with foreign heads of state and would perform civic activities for all national holidays. Instead of the president, the First Citizen would pardon turkeys, welcome Super Bowl champions, open Olympics, lay wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, light the national Christmas Tree and the like. He or she would also commemorate important national anniversaries, such as major battles, and would be the chief mourner at national tragedies or memorial services.
Who would be eligible? No current or past politician could be chosen as First Citizen, nor could anyone having a leadership role in any party. No one having served in the position could later be eligible to run for elected office. People who have publicly taken prominent roles in advocating any policy or political position would be ineligible. No one convicted of a felony or publicly known for embarrassing behavior or an unsavory personal past will be considered. Someone evidencing a deep knowledge of American history, its guiding principles and its evolution would be a preferred selection. To help ensure the gravitas of the office, no one under 55 could be chosen.
How would they be selected? This is probably the most difficult part of the process. The First Citizen can’t be elected, or that would simply impart partisanship to the position; no one can run for it or use their celebrity to angle for it. Rather, it must be a position that is selected on a bipartisan basis, nominated by the serving First Citizen himself, approved unanimously by the speaker and minority leader of the House and the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and ratified by a unanimous Supreme Court. While such unanimity seems impossible today, the acceptance of the nonpartisan nature of the First Citizen will soon ensure that this is the one position on which Americans will expect bipartisan agreement for the benefit of the country.
No one can pretend that creating the position of First Citizen will solve all the country’s problems. Queen Elizabeth’s 60-year reign has seen public riots and political partisanship. Israel’s last president was forced to resign and later convicted of rape while in office. America’s president and congressmen will always be partisan figures, ruled by special interests, wasting our money and failing to meet our challenges.
But Americans remain, deep down, an optimistic people. They are hungering for a national symbol that can truly unite the country. Whether liberal or conservative, they no longer want an expedient or superficial offering of sympathy or understanding by a president who will denigrate half the country at his next fundraiser. They want someone to look up to who honorably represents them whether he is talking in Utah or Uganda, and lets them forget about the morass of Capitol Hill and the White House. They need to believe that our country is more than the sum of its differences and that there is a set of American values beyond Republican or Democratic interests.
Let America’s presidents be politicians-slinging mud, cutting deals and knifing others in the back. Just don’t let them pretend they represent all of us. Long live the First Citizen!
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