It's a familiar and cynical cliche that the masses "crave a strong leader." This commonplace endures because it is so often demonstrably true. The priesthood of today's prevailing order, mainstream media punditry, occasionally demonstrates this with the unintentional comedy of paeans extolling, say, the masculine vigor of a particular favored politician (think of of Chris Matthews' serial man-crushes), revealing a desire, even, or especially, among this parasitical elite for a stern leader as impatient as they are with limits on authority.
In our mature democracy the mandarins and their flatterers sometimes betray a longing for the uncomplicated efficacy of dictatorial rule more readily than the people, whom they often see as the problem for which a unifying despot is the answer. There is even a distinctly modern American, pop-celebrity "liberal" version, envisioning a benign leader who will unite us in defiance of our most elemental divisions by sheer power of personality or demographic circumstance; their acolytes sometimes use the familiar totalitarian method of deifying and sentimentalizing the chosen by the use of the familiar forename (such as Hillary, but not Barak, which doesn't carry the musical open-ended vowel structure of Obama or the soft consonant ending of, say, Saddam). Andrew Sullivan's boundless faith in the transcendent power of Barak Obama's racially blended visage is one genre of the art; Chris Matthews' more subliminal homoeroticism another.
This natural enemy of republican government didn't escape the attention of the founding fathers, and many of those arguing for the necessity of an "energetic" chief executive (themselves not entirely immune) reassured us that the office created by the Constitution was not and would not become the overbearing, imperial presidency we have made of it. No doubt among their expectations was that legislators' jealousy of their own power would naturally create resistance to executive overreach, rescuing us from a precarious dependence on mere ethical discipline. Alas.
The co-equal division of powers was to be our guarantee against the vanity of a despotic executive. The two party system, which would seem to support this, has somehow managed to erode it. Political partisanship hasn't ensured a vigorous minority opposition, but, remarkably, has created a supine legislature that is the inferior part of a disastrously unitary government.
Congress has abnegated all authority over war, first by passing an open authorization for the president to invade at will a nation halfway around the world and powerless to threaten us, then by surrendering the power of the purse and funding the ensuing imperial occupation at each turn--long after its pretext was revealed as deliberately falsified. Any consequences for that crime have been thwarted, through this perverse state of comity between executive and legislature.
The power we've vested in the presidency compounds itself; one party wields this power while the other covets it. The spectacle of the Democratic majority in Congress powerless to oppose an unpopular war is a direct result of their presidential aspirations. Through it all a distinct faction and particular worldview at odds with the valid interests of the nation have carried the day with remarkable efficiency. Corrupt though it may be, our government cannot be said to be either divided or lacking in vigor. The divisions are between popular and elite will, between the law and government action, between legitimate, morally defensible interest and current foreign policy.
Of the two defining initiatives of the Bush administration, the war and immigration reform, the government has from start to finish showed a unity that authoritarian regimes acting in camera sometimes struggle to achieve. Most remarkably perhaps is that on both of these issues, this united government acts in defiance of popular will. In the case of the war a bizarre pattern of official subterfuge giving way to exposure and failure giving way yet again to another subterfuge has unfolded (false pretext gains public support for war; pretext is exposed and the war goes badly, turning the public against the war; consequences of the failure of the war become the pretext for remaining in the war; the "surge" and attendant ethnic cleansing create a plausible success, quieting public opposition; no one notices or cares that this success bears no relation to the original purposes given for the war); this absurdity renders us as a people complicit through a lack of diligence in the criminal behavior of our government. Nonetheless, in each phase the people have either been misled or defied.
Regarding the other grand initiative of this administration and its allies on both sides of the aisle, immigration reform, the concerted efforts at disinformation haven't been so dramatic and criminal but merely standard political faire; the media needs no prompting to comply with it and regards the issue with a sort of willful and sentimental ignorance that dismisses majority opinion as callow bigotry. Rather there has been a combination of rhetorical evasion and outright defiance, only checked by the sort of public outcry and resistance that happens once in a generation. The public has been broadly opposed from the start to immigration reform as the political parties, the government, and their lobbyist overlords envision it. Despite a campaign of dissembling and browbeating nearly as energetic and concerted as that which brought us the war, the more informed and engaged the public becomes regarding the issue, the more steadfast is their opposition. And still, one gets the feeling that the government will prevail ultimately through some combination of subterfuge and incrementalism, and that they will do it with the sort of vengeance characteristic of a privileged elite angered at being denied and embarrassed.
The common feature through all of this has been a remarkable level of unity among the two political parties, lobbyists and private interests, notwithstanding the belated and stillborn Democratic opposition to the war that was the public's paltry payout for returning them to power. "Bipartisanship", that hoary cliche lamented by politicians whenever they lack political cover or imagination, has never been more in evidence, never more disastrous to the health of the nation.
Remarkably, viewing this wreckage, a group of mostly retired politicians has decided that the problem is a lack of cooperation within the government, demanding their erstwhile colleagues present them with their plan to forge a "government of national unity", and threatening a to challenge them for power if they don't with their very own Augustus consecrated with the holiest validation of our time, massive wealth: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
One might conclude from Bloomberg's putsch that he opposes the policies of President Bush. He does not, and has been one of the war's most enthusiastic supporters. This isn't merely political opportunism or post 9/11 hysteria that might presage a coversion to realism, either. The Mayor has been among the more vociferous supporters of a foreign policy that views Israel's security as inseparable from America's (see Glenn Greenwald for a summary of the Mayor's fervor), and it is by the pathway of staunch support for Israel and its attendant charges of anti-Semitism and speech suppression that the neocons and their agenda will transition into the next administration, like a parasite in a host body, maintaining a Middle East policy centered on a pointless state of cold war with Iran and Syria, regardless of how the Iraq war and its public perception proceed.
On the issue of immigration Bloomberg is characteristically dismissive of public opposition, once angrily stating that the only problem with the system is that it doesn't supply enough cheap, unskilled labor for New York's businesses. His enthusiasm for illegal immigration does not still his natural authoritarian tendencies however: the Mayor does support the institution of "a DNA or fingerprint database to track and verify all legal U.S. workers." Any possible erosions of liberty ensuing from immigration enforcement do not trouble the Mayor, while any actual control of immigration does, suggesting he merely approves of the widening surveillance state in general.
Revealed in the enthusiasm of supposed statesmen for such a figure is a system that rewards cowardice and complicity, punishing courage and independence. Pushing for "unity" under a strong leader is making deliberate, and a redoubling of, that process. This revealed defect in our political system (as opposed to the system of government it tramples) already causes power to flow upward and into the executive office; if the current President is any indication, the increase in power may be inversely proportionate to the character of the individual occupying the office. The intellectual and moral inadequacy of President Bush, thus empowered, has been disastrous. The Bloomberg campaign suggests that our elites do not see the power of the Presidency as a problem that needs any remedy other than the installation of a more capable sovereign.
Watching this last gasp of a group flailing against the irrelevance of their impending dotage I'm reminded of nothing so much as the the old guard of the Soviet Union dying off; first an infirm Brezhnev passing, then Yuri Andropov's brief turn, giving way to an exhausted Constantin Chernyenko (who barely made it through the eulogy he gave at the funeral of his predecessor) making it no farther, and ending finally with communism's unwitting gravedigger, Mikhail Gorbachev, taking up his spade. Are we auditioning Gorbachevs?
What the elite laments is not divided government, but a government limited in its powers. In effect, they lament democracy. It's a remarkable thing, but apparently the longer one serves in a republic the more he comes to disdain it.