Frank Buckley was kind enough to send me a copy of his new book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America, and now seems like an appropriate time to post my review.
Buckley argues persuasively — and surprisingly — that the Founders intended to establish a semi-parliamentary form of government in Philadelphia in 1787. But the rise of democracy, especially the popular election of the president, empowered the executive and led by the 1830s to a new form of government: separation-of-powers presidentialism. Most political scientists still perceive the U.S. system as one of extreme checks and balances, but Buckley argues that we have now progressed to yet another constitutional order, marked by executive dominance, the “elective monarchy” that the Founders feared so much. The impetus for this change has been the rise of a vast regulatory apparatus: “Modernity, in the form of the regulatory state, is the enemy of the separation of powers and diffuse power, and insists on one-man rule” (p. 6).
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, they first dealt with a “Virginia Plan” that had the president elected by Congress, the Senate chosen by the House from states’ nominees, and no executive veto. The plan was clearly parliamentary. The changes that occurred, to an electoral college process for the President, to an executive veto, and to state legislative selection of the Senate, were largely the product of compromises between states’-rights and nationalist factions at the Convention. The Framers did not anticipate direct popular election of the President, and in fact they thought that in most presidential election years, no candidate would win a majority, throwing the choice to states’ House of Representatives delegations. Some delegates claimed that a directly elected President would be a dangerous seed of demagogic monarchy.In the 19th century, the progress of democracy caused the British and Canadian constitutions to cross paths with the American one. In the U.S., the electoral college became toothless, and Presidents were effectively directly elected by the people. In Britain and Canada, the monarch and the upper house lost legitimacy as nondemocratic bodies, and electoral reform in the U.K.’s House of Commons gave it democratic legitimacy and the upper hand in any battles among the branches. By the time Canada adopted its institutions under the British North America Act of 1867, they were consciously copying a fused legislative-executive, parliamentary system that had emerged in Great Britain, what Walter Bagehot referred to as “the efficient secret” of the British constitution. While the U.S. now featured strong separation of powers, Britain and Canada concentrated power in the Prime Minister.
Today, political scientists still teach that presidents are less powerful than prime ministers, because their legislative role is weak. The U.S. system has more veto players, and as a result policy change is slower.
Buckley acknowledges the logic of the traditional political science approach, but his story doesn’t end there. (more…)