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The Unitary Executive Theory and the Destruction of Democracy

January 29th, 2006 | by Ken Grandlund |

In the late 18th century, citizens of the American colonies rebelled against the autocratic rule of England’s King George III and established a country that was to be ruled by a representative government subject to the rule of law. In what became the first democratic experiment since the ancient Greeks and Romans, the United States of America was born and the concept of autocracy was discarded by our forefathers.

Autocracy is defined as government by a single person having unlimited power. While it is not unheard of for autocratic rule to be somewhat benign, often the head of an autocratic government creates a cult of personality, turning the state of governmental affairs into a state of despotism. Under an autocracy, the average citizen has no say in the rules of the land, no recourse against injustice, and no chance to change the course of social or political life. Citizens under the thumb of an autocratic ruler are subject to the whims of the head of state, which creates an environment of uncertainty, suspicion, and fear. Occasionally, an autocratic ruler perpetuates an aura of fairness by establishing a group of citizen legislators who ostensibly have some say in the course of government, but in reality have little or no power to affect the decisions of the autocrat. The Roman government reverted to this form under Julius Caesar and continued in this manner until its downfall.

Democracy, on the other hand, embraces the concept of citizen rule and through its adherence to established laws, created in concert with the will and ideals of the citizenry, offers the average citizen an opportunity for recourse against governmental excesses. True democracy recognizes the need not only for compromise in creating public policy, but also establishes that no single person has a consolidated grip on the reins of power. In a democracy, there is no lifelong ruler, but a temporary head of state whose main task is to ensure that the laws of the land are upheld and that the ship of state maintains a course in tune with the will of the citizens. Unlike an autocracy, the democratically elected ruler must work with all the other elected legislators to ensure that social and political policies are benefiting the whole of the citizenry, regardless of their own personal preferences for particular courses of action. Whereas in an autocracy the ruler is subject to no laws or penalties at all, in a democracy the nominal head is bound by the same laws as all other citizens and subject to the same penalties if those laws are broken.

Autocracies are maintained by force of will, force of power, and a blind acceptance of the people that there is no other way available. Democracies are perpetuated by the acceptance of all people, including the elected leaders, that to revert to autocratic rule is harmful to everyone. Above all things, democracy is a state of mind, backed by the rule of law that endures so long as the people remain involved through the selection of their leaders and through vigilance that those leaders are held responsible to the laws of the land.

American democracy incorporates a third element to maintain our democracy, and that is the independent judiciary. Because the founding fathers of this country understood that power to rule others has a corrupting influence on human nature, they built in to our system of governing a system of courts that was independent of the legislative body so that those charged with creating the laws would be mindful of the penalties of breaking those laws. The courts of America were designed to be outside the legislative functions of government so that they could impartially decide when a law was broken, or had gone to far from the protections guaranteed in the Constitution. The courts were the tool that held the legislators in check.

In all aspects, the American democratic experiment is not a perfect way to govern, but it has been the fairest devised by humanity to date. Our tri-partite form of government has endured civil strife and foreign aggression for over 230 years without collapse not just because of the independence bred into the hearts and minds of the citizens, but also because of the acceptance of our elected leaders and appointed judges to adhere to the rule of law as it applies to all people. We have outlasted internal attacks on the system by rogue politicians because the majority of politicians and judges have ruled with reason and respect of the foundations of our government- foundations that place the well being and will of the people above that of those who sit in the chair of power. We have understood, almost inherently, that the average man will continue to thrive long after those temporarily in power have come and gone, and that the ideals of American freedom are greater than the whims of any ruler.

All that we hold dear and righteous regarding the rule of law and the limits of governmental power has come under assault with the advent and advancement of the Unitary Executive Theory.

Originally a concept for business structure, the Unitary Executive Theory holds that a single person has total authority over the course of action that will be followed. Any policy decisions are directed by that one person, as well as the right to interpret what a rule means or does not mean. Under Unitary Executive Theory, there are no checks to the power wielded by the one at the top of the ladder, no recourse for those underneath the executive, no decision that cannot be overridden or discarded or ignored. In short, the Unitary Executive is an autocrat in their domain. Any lesser policymakers, while given authority by the executive to create rules for people under them to abide by, can not force the executive towards any particular course of action. While this may be acceptable, and sometimes even necessary for the success of a business or corporation, it is antithetical to the democratic form of government. Yet it is being embraced by our president today, and upheld by acquiescence by the ruling majority party in Congress. And while the minority party and the citizens themselves deride such an abuse of power, the Unitary Executive Theory is embraced by several of the justices of the highest court of the land and a push is on to increase their numbers in an effort to solidify this usurpation of democracy.

Through an unprecedented use of so-called signing statements where the president interprets the laws of congress any way he sees fit, the rule of law is being subverted by an executive who seeks to consolidate power for himself and his potential successors. What results is an autocracy by default. It is an attempt to recreate an autocratic form of government where the head of state can choose which laws apply to him and which do not. It is ironic that the last autocrat to rule this country was also named George.

On the plus side, this attempt to destroy the ideals of democracy has not been firmly implanted just yet. But the time is coming when it may be too late to revert course without major internal upheaval. When a majority party controls both branches of legislation and is pushing the balance of the judiciary towards their side ideologically, and that ideology is to consolidate power under a Unitary Executive Theory, the American experiment is in grave danger of taking a turn back in time. The table is being set before us and an apathetical citizenry is being served a sour meal. But we can still reject this course of action.

In the coming election year, we have the power to change the face of the Congress and rebalance the state of our political class. We have the duty to revoke the power that is currently consolidated by a single party. It is up to you and me to make sure that America does not become an autocracy in democratic clothing.

(cross posted at Common Sense)

  1. 3 Responses to “The Unitary Executive Theory and the Destruction of Democracy”

  2. By icoman on Jan 29, 2006 | Reply

    True, the U.S. is still an experiment in Democracy.  That experiment is in serious jeopardy if we don’t succeed in retiring those who are ravaging our Treasury for their wealthy friends and seeking dictatorial powers.  As the Colonists sought to establish a Democracy, Professor Alexander Tyler, a 1700 British Economist, had this to say about Democracy:


    “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasure. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s great civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through the following sequence:

    from bondage to spiritual faith,

    from spiritual faith to great courage,

    from great courage to liberty,

    from liberty to abundance,

    from abundance to selfishness,

    from selfishness to complacency,

    from complacency to apathy,

    from apathy to dependence,

    from dependence back to bondage.”


    Where do you see the United States today?

  3. By ken grandlund on Jan 30, 2006 | Reply


    It seems to me that we are somewhere between selfishness and apathy, heavily leaning towards apathy. And at this rate, we’ll skip the “dependence” stage and go right into “bondage” if we don’t make a change in leadership with the balls to stop the assault on true democracy.


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