Something weird is happening on the American Right. Over at Politico Magazine, Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has penned a column titled "America Needs a King."
Had Auslin's strange desire not come on the heels of Pat Buchanan's paean to Vladimir Putin, or an anti-democracy movement being championed by tech libertarians like Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, one might see this as merely an example of an academic being intellectually provocative. In other words, "trolling" us.
But this isn't mere trolling. It's a trend.
Now, there has always been an element of the Catholic Right with monarchical tendencies. But, for a variety of reasons, this fringe idea seems to be gaining some mainstream traction.
Auslin's fundamental proposal is to create a position above the presidency, to which he assigns the rather Orwellian title "our First Citizen." This would be a symbolic post meant to unite Americans around something they have in common, even as public opinion is split over our more partisan political officials. "Let America's presidents be politicians — slinging mud, cutting deals, and knifing others in the back," he writes. "Just don’t let them pretend they represent all of us."
This, of course, assumes that the modern negative political environment is a new phenomenon — so new and pressing as to warrant departing from the Founders' vision of a chief executive. But American politics has always been nasty and divisive; the notion that today's politics is harsher than ever is revisionist history.
Auslin's other presumption — that the presidency is somehow too big for any one man now — has some history and utility. Last year, I chided Ryan Lizza for arguing the presidency had become powerless, a suggestion I viewed as meant to absolve President Obama of his failures.
It is interesting that this argument is popping up now. It was bandied about a lot during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, but retreated under Ronald Reagan.
Consider this excerpt from Time magazine in 1986: "Americans heard for years that the presidency had grown too complex for one person to manage, that the office had been crippled. Reagan seems to slide through a presidential day with ease."
To be sure, confidence in our leaders and institutions has been eroding since Watergate and Vietnam. And while you're never going to make everyone happy, Reagan proved it is possible to restore faith in government without betraying the Founders' vision.
Could it be that weak presidents naturally lead us to believe it is the modern office — not the man who occupies it — that is to blame? Instead of tweaking our political system, maybe we just need to change presidents?
* * *
This monarchical urge can also at least partially be attributed to human nature. Anyone who has seriously contemplated the possibility of a (Jeb) Bush versus (Hillary) Clinton 2016 presidential election is aware of our dynastic tendencies. What is more, during times of gridlock or crisis, there seems to be an even greater desire for a familiar strongman (or strongwoman) who can get things done.
Some conservatives see Putin hunting and practicing karate, and juxtapose those images with Obama riding a bicycle, licking an ice cream cone, or appearing on The View. They yearn for the stronger symbolic leader. This impulse may be dangerous, but we cannot deny that it exists. (Note: Obama has the distinction of being accused of both weakness and of tyranny. As Hot Air's Allahpundit sarcastically noted: "Install a king and before you know it he'll be issuing royal edicts changing the law willy nilly to suit his daily whims.")
But it's not just Putin's style that some prefer to Obama — it's also his politics. While Obama worries about income inequality, Putin has zeroed in on problems plaguing Russia, such as population decline. Desperate conservatives (who see the nation they love slouching toward a secular state they no longer recognize) might well yearn for an American leader willing to champion such an existential cause, and do so as aggressively as Putin has.
As Pat Buchanan recently wrote, "Peoples all over the world, claims Putin, are supporting Russia's 'defense of traditional values' against a 'so-called tolerance' that is 'genderless and infertile.' While his stance as a defender of traditional values has drawn the mockery of Western media and cultural elites, Putin is not wrong in saying that he can speak for much of mankind."
Of course, it's very problematic to overlook Putin's means. And his motives — whether he supports traditional conservative values out of sincere dedication, or out of a Machiavellian manipulation — ought to account for something. But sadly, it's almost as if some conservatives are saying, "Sure, he's a heavy-handed authoritarian — but at least he hates the gays and Pussy Riot!"
Whatever happened to a world where the Right was almost obsessively proud of the Founding Fathers (you know, the revolutionaries who stood up to the British Crown) and hated the Evil Empire so much they could never be seduced by a former KGB agent?
Times change, I guess.
* * *
Joining the Auslins and Buchanans of the world is a new group of techno-libertarians and monarchists who have been making waves online for a couple of years now. The movement seems to have officially kicked off when, in 2009, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, declared, "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible."
This is complex, and opinions vary, so I'll try my best to summarize those who espouse this view without misrepresenting them. Though sometimes referred to as monarchists, "neoreactionary" seems to be the preferred watchword. That's not to say that some in this camp don't really advocate monarchy, but "monarchy-fetishism" might be more appropriate.
They would argue that democracy is a form of government where citizens employ coercion. As the oft-repeated aphorism goes, they believe that “a democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury." (Interestingly, they lump democracy in with communism, arguing that both are flawed, inasmuch as they "rule in the name of the people.")
There is some logic (if tortured) to this. "Under monarchy," Hans-Hermann Hoppe, author of Democracy: The God That Failed," explained, "the distinction between rulers and ruled is clear. I know, for instance, that I will never become king, and because of that I will tend to resist the king's attempts to raise taxes. Under democracy, the distinction between rulers and ruled becomes blurred. The illusion can arise 'that we all rule ourselves,' and the resistance against increased taxation is accordingly diminished. I might end up on the receiving end: as a tax recipient rather than a taxpayer, and thus view taxation more favorably."
Consider this from the neoreactionary glossary: "Monarchies are relatively libertarian by current standards, in the sense that the government generally consumes 2 to 5 percent of GDP, unlike modern social democracies which consume 40 to 80 percent of GDP. Legally speaking, monarchies tend to have fewer laws, but enforce them more strictly, following Tacitus's dictum: 'The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.'"
There may be an issue of semantics here. It's not as if these people want to be serfs answering to an authoritarian (though that might be an unintended consequence in the unlikely event they have their way). Many of these techno-libertarians call it monarchy, but what they are really envisioning is something dubbed a "neocameralist state" — essentially, a system where states consist of voting markets and a sort of shareholder republic model where monarchs might compete for citizens (who are free to come and go as they please.) "These libertarians — or perhaps post-libertarians — are simply introducing the ideas of entrepreneurialism and competition to government," says Jordan Bloom, a colleague who has closely followed the movement.
Consider this from a prominent neoreactionary blogger who writes under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug:
In my ideal neocameralist state, there is no political freedom because there is no politics. Perhaps the government has a comment box where you can express your opinion. Perhaps it does customer surveys and even polls. But there is no organization and no reason to organize, because no combination of residents can influence government policy by coercion.
And precisely because of this stability, you can think, say, or write whatever you want. Because the state has no reason to care. Your freedom of thought, speech, and expression is no longer a political freedom. It is only a personal freedom. [Mencius Moldbug]
So why has this idea gained some cachet amongst tech libertarians? "If I could take a stab at a theory, it would be this," explains Bloom: "For the last 500 years or so, history has mostly been a matter of polities consolidating. Fewer, bigger countries and empires. We're on the cusp of things starting to move in the opposite direction, to the point that it's reasonable to predict that secession will be the most important political idea of the 21st century."
* * *
Now, these monarch-curious folks are still a tiny minority of the American Right. And as I noted, these movements aren't directly related (tech libertarians, for example, probably hate Putin, who — in any event — isn't a "monarch.")
Still, they all have some things in common. First, they are boldly venturing outside the bounds of what would have been considered acceptable shared political opinion just a few years ago. This is, perhaps, indicative of the low level of confidence we have in our system and our leaders, of the atomization and feeling of alienation that is plaguing our nation, and also of the way technology can empower people whose opinions are outside the mainstream to spread what unconventional ideas.
But the other things these movements have in common is that they occur during a time when America looks weak.
Additionally, these movements tacitly accept that conservatism as a political force is utterly incapable of slowing the leftward march of liberalism. By definition, conservatives, who want to conserve the good things about the past, are always playing defense. When you consider that many of my conservative views aren't terribly different from John F. Kennedy's views in 1960, this becomes self-evident.
Some on the Right have given up the belief that they can fix our country by working within the current paradigm. And for a country that got its start by breaking the yoke of monarchy, what these conservatives are proposing is really quite radical.
"No conservative in Europe (outside Switzerland and maybe Venice) can be whole-heartedly anti-monarchical, just as no conservative in America can realistically be a monarchist," says John Zmirak, author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Catechism. "You conserve what is best in your own tradition; you don't indulge in utopian fantasies of replacing it with something alien and untried."
I guess that means Lorde is right. We'll never be royals.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The mystery behind China's aggressive push into space
- Yes, Republicans can impeach President Obama
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- What religious traditionalists can teach us about sex
- Why Texas' abortion rates aren't falling as quickly as everyone expected
- The 5 best and worst states for a well-lived life
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- The 6 best low-cost smartphones
- 7 ideas from ancient thinkers that will improve your modern life
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
Subscribe to the Week