Let’s say there are two political parties in a country. The Evil Party and the Stupid Party. When the Evil Party’s candidate is elected president, he abuses his power and rules by diktat, like an all-powerful king. That’s why he’s evil. Not everyone likes this, however. Some don’t like his diktats, and some don’t like kings. The latter complain that this is contrary to the country’s constitution, but in fact no one is going to stop the Evil president from abusing his power while he’s in office.
One of the Evil president’s chief goals is to ensure that the Stupid Party never wins a presidential election. But now let’s suppose (hey, it’s just a hypothetical) that the Stupid Party wins a presidential election one year. At this point the Party has a choice. The Stupid president can either assume the broad king-like powers of an Evil president, or he can rule more modestly in what he thinks is the country’s constitutional tradition.
If he rules as a monarch, the Stupid president can reverse all the diktats of the Evil president, and that has to be very tempting. If, on the other hand, the Stupid president rules more modestly in what he thinks is a constitutional manner, the Evil diktats stay in place. That would make the Stupid president look like a patsy, and turn the country’s rule-by-presidential-decree into a one-way ratchet. Evil presidents proclaim bad laws, and they never get reversed.
Amongst the country’s pundits, some harken for a return to an older constitutional tradition, and urge the Stupid Party to adopt the patsy strategy. If we play nice, they say, surely the Evil Party will learn to follow our benign example. That way we’ll return to our good old constitution.
Once in power, we’ll approach the Evil Party and say, “Look, we’re not going to abuse the power of the presidency. All we ask you to do is promise that you won’t go back to your evil old ways when you win next time.” And, having said that, the Evil Party will promise to be good. Laughing up its sleeve.
There’s only one problem with this. The other guys are called the Evil Party for a reason.
After all, what’s to prevent them from welshing on their promise? Political parties exist in what Thomas Hobbes called the “state of nature,” where no superior court can ensure that promises are enforced. In that case, said Hobbes, “he that performeth first has no assurance the other will perform after, because the bonds of words are too weak to bridle men’s ambition, avarice, anger, and other passions, without the fear of some coercive power… and therefore he which performeth first does but betray himself to his enemy.”
We never lack for trusting patsies, however. Thirty years ago they told us that if we unilaterally disarmed, we could trust the Soviet Union to reciprocate. Today they tell us to trust the Iranians when they tell us they won’t build a nuclear bomb. Or to govern constitutionally against the Evil Party’s promise to do likewise in the future.
It doesn’t work like that, however. The grim logic of the game demands that one party’s defection from the constitution be answered by a like defection by the other party, tit-for-tat. When one party’s president rules as a king, so too must the other party’s president.
Is that how the game ends, in a monarchy? Just possibly, like the competing rulers during Thomas Hobbes’ seventeenth century Britain. But possibly not. It’s at least more likely that we’ll return to a more modest constitutional regime when both parties abuse the power of the presidency than when the Stupid Party plays the patsy strategy. Let the Evil Party think twice before its president issues his diktats. When it brings a gun to a fight, let the Stupid Party bring a gun as well. Not a banana. It’s only the threat of payback that can bring us back to a republican form of government where presidential power is limited.
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