Government by Executive Order

Government by Executive Order

President Obama announced yesterday that he is exploring executive action to place restrictions on guns. While his intentions are certainly sincere, it is also pretty clear that whatever he decides to do will be minimalist, ineffective, largely symbolic, and serve only to energize more hysterical anger on the right. I am not saying he should not take action, but only that this will be the outcome.

More important than the (in)efficacy of any restrictions the president enacts in the twilight months of his second term, are the broader implications for the political future of the county. This latest rule by executive order (fiat) underscores yet again the impotence of the system; how all pretense to democratic process is being abandoned, admittedly out of necessity, due to the complete breakdown of negotiation and compromise in congress, and likely the erosion of any shared vision of the nation across the country. If there is a shared national vision or set of shared values that underlay the “democratic system” it is well concealed.

I am using the term democratic system just for convenience here, since I view democracy as an ideal rather than a system; an ideal whose attainment has been ever elusive in US history. But the overall effects of governing by executive order will constitute a total abandonment – over time – of any remaining faith in the representative system, as well as the belief in popular sovereignty as the legitimate basis of governing authority- an 18th century article of faith centered on the primacy of reason as the defining human characteristic, and in the individual reasoning subject/citizen as the repository of rights and duties. These assumptions formed the rationale of modern representative systems and  came to be established in practice gradually over the modern period, first in the west and then globalized by imperialism.

We are living in a “post-democratic age” and it is not clear what will follow. But the huge issues society and the world face – such as climate change and its catastrophic effects, non-state terrorism, mass immigration flows, easy access to guns amid rising violence – it is clear- cannot be left to the whims of party politics and public opinion, which are so easily manipulated, corrupted and, in the case of the public opinion particularly, woefully uninformed; a sad irony in an age of universal access to information. Those with power are going to continue to contend and act – for good or ill, and always with unintended consequences beyond their control – as they see they must, or can, sidestepping any kind of systemic constraints on power, eroding those over time in the process. Brave new world.

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