Our Prussian Emperor and His Very Prussian Court

For as long as I can remember (I am 40), Republicans have been committed to presidential authority or even presidential dictatorship. They have championed executive power over and above that of the legislature (and they like courts only so far as the courts do the bidding of the executive) and have looked askance at any attempt to make the president “accountable” beyond the quadrennial presidential elections.

Part of this comes from a conservative suspicion of politics and a belief that there is a “right” or “optimal” answer to matters of governance. It is more likely, given how many legislators can be elected at any one time, that a chief executive will reflect that view than will a legislature, which will actually engage in the give and take of interest group politics. Republicans are also a great deal more likely to be nationalists — that is, believe that only “interest group” in the United States that matters is the entire nation, and the only person who can embody that is the president. It is much easier to elect a president than gain a workable or meaningful majority in the legislature.

I also think most Republicans truly believe in presidential dictatorship. They believe that unfettered executive power is more efficient, make sure the man on top is truly in control, truly unified and truly representative of the executive. I think this is due to the fact that the model of leadership for so many Republicans — whether they have served or not — is a very idealized version of the military. (Hollywood’s idea, but that is a matter for another time.)

One-man rule does not work that way. As Koppel Pinson notes about Wilhemine Germany, in which the constitution gave all effective power to the Kaiser:

German foreign policy under Wilhelm [II] was not only full of contradictions but it was also never quite clear who really determined foreign policy. It is a mistaken notion that authoritarianism and absolute government necessarily means unfiied and efficient control and administration. While William II was the absolute ruler and constitutionally the sole arbiter of both military and foreign policy, he was subject to various and conflicting influences and pressures [in the form of his advisors and his personal character]. (p.302-303)

Final decisions in the realm of foreign affairs rested entirely in the hands of the emperor. There was no parliamentary control, except as it pertained to the budget; the general press was rigorously controlled on matters of foreign policy and there was very little critical discussion. As a result there was no check on any of the forces operating around the emperor by the cross-play of discussion and informed public opinion. Public opinion played no role in the shaping of German foreign policy and in the making of vital decisions. … The supremacy of the soldier, the peculiar attitude toward war and peace and the Hegelian view of the state as the “power” rather than “welfare” all contributed to form a climate which, as [Sir Edward] Grey said, if not ready to take initiative toward war was willing to follow once the warriors made it. (p.307-308)

Again, I am amazed. This is as much the United States of America of today — run by Republicans and Democrats — as it was Imperial Germany of more than a century ago.