The Role of the Executive

MIKSE: It’s a presidential election year and I think some people are unclear as to exactly what role a president is supposed to play in a democracy. What powers does the president hold, constitutionally speaking, and how has it changed in recent years?


CHOMSKY: The question is, are you talking about a truly functioning democracy or the United States? Because they are very different notions. The United States has some of the characteristics of democracy in principle. If you go back to the Constitution, the president is basically an executive responsible for decisions about foreign policy and some other things, but primarily he is supposed to be an administrator. The constitutional system places power mainly in the Senate. The Senate, remember, was not elected but picked by legislators, who were assumed to be in the hands of the wealthy. James Madison, the main framer, was very explicit about this. He said the power should be in the hands of the wealthy, the people who respect property and its rights. Of course, property has no rights. He meant property owners and their rights. And one of the leading goals of government is to protect the opulent minority  against the majority.


One of the main problems with democracy, recognized in political theory, is that if you have a real democracy in which popular opinion significantly influences policy—then the great majority of the poor will use their voting power to take privileges away from the wealthy and obviously you can’t allow that, so there has to be some method to prevent that from happening. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but it’s kind of interesting to compare Madison’s conclusion with Aristotle’s concerning the same problem.


The first major political science study, if you like, was Aristotle’s Politics where he runs through various forms of political organization. He doesn’t like any of them, but decides that democracy is probably the best. But then he points out exactly this problem—the majority of the poor. He was talking about Athens. Remember, in Athens, democracy meant democracy for free men, which is not so different from what Madison was talking about. Women were pretty much out of it. In fact, if you look at American law up until almost the 1970s, women were basically the property of their fathers and husbands. Well, not exactly, but sort of like that. Women weren’t even guaranteed the right to serve on federal juries until 1975.


In Madison’s time, they were not part of the system. Slaves were obviously not. Indigenous populations were obviously not. So it was free men with a certain degree of privilege because you couldn’t really participate until you passed various barriers. In that respect, it’s not that different from Aristotle’s society.


So how do you deal with that problem? Madison and Aristotle noticed the same problems as many others did and they picked opposite solutions. Aristotle’s solution was to reduce inequality, to make everyone middle class. The methods he proposed were what we would call welfare state measures. This was a city, after all, so he was talking about systems that would lessen inequality in that context. Madison’s conclusion was to reduce democracy and that’s the way the system was set up. So power was in the hands of the wealthy with a Senate quite removed from the population. Until a century ago, if you look at the system, it insulates the Senate from public influence.


The executive, to get back to your question, was basically the administrative entity. The colonies were like the European Union. They were different states. The states were real in those days. The term “United States” was actually plural until the civil war when it became singular. But the states were united and there had to be some sort of policy on international affairs—do you go to war with England or put an embargo on France? The executive was supposed to be in the lead with congressional authority. It was Congress, not the executive, that could declare war. Over the years, it changed in all kinds of ways.


After the civil war, in theory, personhood extended to former slaves, but only in theory because black life was pretty quickly criminalized. Black men were in jail like today, but at least theoretically they had the right the vote, although it didn’t become real until the 1960s. As far as women were concerned it wasn’t until the 1920s when they got the right to vote. Things like the poll tax were reduced in various ways so it went beyond affluent free men over time.


At the same time the role of the executive was enhanced. By the 1960s, it was called “the imperial presidency”—Arthur Schlesinger’s term. By then the executive could do all kinds of things that had nothing to do with the constitutional system. These were extended under Bush and extended further under Obama. Currently, the president can put many of us in military detention if he wants, claiming we’re threats to the country. Obama can certainly do it for foreigners. He can also assassinate us if he feels like it because the president has claimed the authority—and this has now been accepted and cheered—that he can assassinate anyone he wants, including American citizens. If you look at the reporting after the Awlaki assassination, the New York Times had a headline saying the country celebrates the death of a radical cleric—meaning the assassination of an American citizen.


There was once something called the Magna Carta, which in 1215, in principle, established the conception of presumption of innocence—you’re innocent until proven guilty in a fair trial with a jury of peers. Now that’s largely gone. It was supposed to be the glory of Anglo-American law, a legal tradition. It’s still described that way in professional journals and so on.


Probably the worst and, in my view, most severe violation of basic civil liberties under the Obama administration isn’t discussed very much. There’s a case that was brought to the Supreme Court by the Administration, argued by Elena Kagan, the recent Supreme Court selection. In this case, the Supreme Court accepted the government’s position, which extended the concept of material assistance to terrorism.


There were already laws that say it’s criminal to give guns to al-Qaida, but this was extended to speech. So, for example, if you meet someone the government has arbitrarily determined is a terrorist—it could have been Nelson Mandela until two years ago—then you’re giving material assistance. For example, if you’re giving advice, like in the specific case in question—the Humanitarian Law Project giving legal advice to the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish resistance group, even if you try to lead them to turn to nonviolence, that’s material assistance and the court is pretty explicit about it. It was used right away. Within weeks the FBI was raiding apartments in Chicago and Minneapolis and arresting people accused of connections with the PFLP—Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine.


In fact, the terrorist list is unchallenged in American discourse, but in a democratic system it couldn’t exist. The terrorist list is assertion by the state executive that these people are terrorists. There’s no review, no appeal, and it’s highly idiosyncratic.


Nelson Mandela is an interesting case. He was on the terrorist list up until two to three years ago, meaning he couldn’t come to the United States without special authorization. The reason was because the ANC (African National Congress) was declared to be one of the more notorious terrorist groups in the world. This was 1988 and it was a justification of Reagan’s support for South African apartheid, by then in violation even of congressional sanctions. It was part of the war on terror. You have to defend apartheid in South Africa from one of the most “notorious terrorist groups in the world.”


Sometimes it’s surreal. In 1982 the Reagan administration decided that they wanted to aid Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran, but he was on the terrorist list so Saddam had to be removed from the list so that Donald Rumsfeld could go and give the famous handshake a year later. And they continued to support him. There was a gap on the terrorist list when Saddam was removed and they filled it with Cuba, probably the target of more terrorism than the rest of the world combined. Around that time, there was a sharp increase of U.S.-based terror against Cuba—the downing of a commercial airliner killing 70 people, the bombing of embassies, and all sorts of things. Try to find some discussion of the validity of the terrorist list.


Going to war by now is an executive privilege. Congress didn’t declare war when John F. Kennedy invaded South Vietnam 50 years ago. What he did we’d call an invasion if anyone else did it. So the power of the executive has been enormously enhanced in ways that strike very deeply at the foundations of, not only American law, but legal traditions going back to the Magna Carta.


Some other things have happened. For example, it’s always been true that concentrated economic power has overwhelming effects on political decisions, elections, and so on. But in the last 30 years it’s changed. The cost of elections went up radically, which forces the political parties or what remains of them to become supplicants of corporate headquarters, increasingly financialized—Republicans reflexively and Democrats not that far behind. It’s even reached the point that influential positions in Congress, like chairing committees, which used to be on the basis of seniority or service, are now basically bought. You have to pay the Party to be considered for them, which drives everyone into the same pockets. Citizens United gave it another step forward. All that significantly shreds the remnants of democracy. The population knows it, but doesn’t think they can do anything about it.


Passing a healthcare reform bill is considered one of the accomplishments of the Obama administration. How much of an improvement is the PPACA [Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] bill over the healthcare that is already available to Americans?


It’s some kind of improvement. If PPACA is passed, it will extend benefits that weren’t there before. It’s partly a benefit to insurance companies and pharmaceutical corporations. They welcomed it—though the insurance companies, in particular, want even more. For the public, it’s better than what existed before, but you could debate whether it’s the best that could have been done. Obama had substantial popular support, almost 2 to 1, for at least including a public option, but he didn’t even try. Remember the president can mobilize public opinion. We’ve seen that over and over, but he didn’t want to try.


A real peculiarity in American law, I suppose it’s unique, is that the government is barred from negotiating drug prices. Accordingly, drug prices are 2 to 3 times higher than elsewhere and he gave that away—85 percent of the population opposed it, but it’s barely discussed.


In his State of the Union address in 2011, Obama spoke against the Supreme Court’s decision to pass Citizens United. If the Obama administration was actually dedicated to reversing that decision, what actions could it take?


The president’s famous “bully pulpit” could have been used to mobilize public opinion to press for legislation, maybe even as far as a constitutional amendment, to reverse a series of Court decisions over the years—of which Citizens United is only one—that severely undermine functioning democracy. Not like pushing a button, but there may well have been options.


Although disappointed in his term so far, some Obama supporters believe that the president has no power to bring about change without the support of Congress and that a Republican Congress is to blame for the shortcomings of Obama’s administration. Do you agree with this?


The Republican political organization—no longer a parliamentary party in the traditional sense—is by now shamelessly dedicated to service to extreme wealth and corporate power. Of course, it’s impossible to gain votes that way, so they have quite naturally moved to mobilize sectors of the population that were always there, but were rarely organized as the popular base for a political organization: the religious right (a huge sector in the U.S.), nativists consumed by rage and fear (exacerbated by the recognition that whites will be a minority not too far ahead), and others like them.


In Congress, they have basically only one policy: block anything that Obama is trying to do. That imposes barriers for executive action, but not insuperable ones if there had been the will to introduce the kinds of changes that the population and the society desperately need.


What power does a movement such as Occupy have to bring about change in an election? Is it primarily to bring issues to the forefront that would otherwise not be discussed?


Even in the months of its existence from September 2011, the Occupy movement has brought crucial issues to the fore. By December, polls found a sharp increase in public concern over inequality and recognition of class conflict. The NY Times reported that one factor was “the Occupy Wall Street movement, which put the issue of undeserved wealth and fairness in American society at the top of the news throughout most of the fall.” The imagery of 1%-99% quickly became common coin. That’s only one illustration of the ways in which popular movements can achieve such effects. As for impact on elections, that depends on how powerful the movement becomes and on judgments about the relative importance of influencing elections and a wide range of activist initiatives.


What are your recommendations to voters in this election? Where can voters in the United States have the most impact on election day?


Voters can have most impact on election day, or any day, by dedicating themselves to efforts that will mobilize popular forces to achieve important ends. That means education, organizing, and other actions appropriate to circumstances.


As for voting, my feeling is that the Republican organization today is extremely dangerous, not just to this country, but to the world. It’s worth expending some effort to prevent their rise to power, without sowing illusions about the democratic alternatives. 


Ollie Mikse is a graduate student at Penn State and a freelance writer.