Respecting the President and ‘The Ideology of Kingship’

In reporting on the second presidential debate, Charles Blow writes:

There is a fine line between feistiness and testiness. Romney has never negotiated that line well in debates and last night he fell over it again. At one point he scolded the president — the president of the United States! — “you’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.”

Regardless of how it may have felt in the hall and how his base may have received his abrasive behavior, to most others watching it was déclassé and indecorous. When you’re challenging a sitting president for his job, you have to respect the office, even if you don’t respect the man.

So Blow feels the need to remind us, in a tone of reverential, devotional awe: ‘the president of the united states!’  Is he hoping to make us fall on our knees? This is the president, the unitary executive, the person put in place to ensure a republic which would otherwise do just fine with a legislative branch also possesses an entity capable of making snap decisions. Why, then, the need for such excessive deference?

Blow is not alone in these constant provisions of reminders to respect and be suitably awed by the president and his office. The White House, the presidential galas, the gun salutes; these are archaic expressions of monarchical times gone by. But the president is a political leader; he has arisen from conflict; he presides over conflict. It’s acceptable to be in conflict with him and his office. The president can be disagreed with, he can be debated; he needs to explain himself and his actions like anyone else.  Disagreements with the president need not be confined to print, they can be verbal too. And when they are verbal, they can sound edgy (like most disagreements between adults are). ‘Déclassé and indecorous’? Dunno. Politics isn’t really the space for decorum.

This semester the readings for my Political Philosophy class–centered on the French, American and Haitian revolutions–include Michael Walzer‘s Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI. Walzer’s introductory essay includes a section on ‘The Ideology of Kingship.’ More than one student has noticed the parallels between the components of that view of kings and the powers claimed by our modern executive branch of government. They have then gone on to draw uncomfortable parallels between the ‘inviolability’ of the king that arises from such an ideology and the legal immunity claimed by modern-day presidents. (They have noticed too, that a central revolutionary claim was equality before the law, one that seems to have been forgotten in the rush to forgive and forget the war criminals of the previous administration.) The inviolability of the king spoken of in Walzer’s essay might narrowly be interpreted as a a legal one but it easily becomes one of deference too: do not disagree with the king; do not talk back; speak only when spoken to; do not interrupt the king.

Among the other revolutionary documents we have read is Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense, which includes the following line:

The nearer any government approaches to a republic, the less business there is for a king.

‘Nuff said.

4 comments on “Respecting the President and ‘The Ideology of Kingship’

  1. […] a nation, we’ve gotten quite comfortable questioning whether our first Black president’s role was quite as democratic as we would like …, but shouldn’t we extend the same analysis to his White challenger? Does Romney view his […]

  2. I would recommend reading: Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Lawrence Lessig. Its on the importance of practicing the Republic, from an economic and political standpoint, to encourage the Democracy in the states instead of relying in corruption that further pushes the monarchical ideology.

  3. […] Mitt Romney for speaking ‘rudely’ to Barack Obama during a presidential debate–I made note here of how we seemed to have become excessively reverential of the presidency, and by association, of […]

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