Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I gotta say, I'm having a bit of an allergic reaction to the pomp, circumstance, fawning, gushing, and self-congratulation. My cynicism modules are revving up.

But only a bit. On the whole, it's a great day and I wish the new President a lot of luck. He's going to need it.

I guess I will attempt to turn my cynicism into detachment. Observe the civic ritual, how it sacralizes power, how it operates to the People's Romance as a marriage ceremony does to a more conventional romance, how it acts as a Schelling point for the coordination of sentiment. One can be a bit suspicious of this process while still joining in the celebration. That is the methodology of the anthropologist, the participant-observer.


Michael said...

Lord Hailsham observed in 1963 that the United States of America are an elective monarchy, in which the monarch rules but does not reign. Britain, by contrast, is a republic with an hereditary life president who reigns but does not rule.

I had to reflect on this as I watched this morning's inaugural ceremony, and heard that its price is in excess of $150 million. The voices that decried the extravagance of Bush's 2004 inauguration (which, comparatively speaking, was a bargain-basement event) are curiously silent about L'Incoronazione di Obama. The British taxpayer is fortunate that his country last had to mount such theatricals 55 years ago, while its actual leadership changes regularly with much less extravagance. We Americans, on the other hand, have to foot the bill every four years.

mtraven said...

Bush's 2004 inauguration (which, comparatively speaking, was a bargain-basement event)...
The story about Obama's inaugural being hugely expensive compared to earlier ones is wingnut crap, throughly debunked here.

The British Royal family costs quite a bit to maintain. I suppose they generate some tourist revenue to compensate; other than that, the material value obtained is difficult to see.

But given that the one of the primary functions of presidents (and the only function of kings) is ceremonial, the costliness of maintaining them is probably vital. Signals of commitment have to be difficult to fake; one way to do that is to make them costly.

Michael said...

A good test of your sincerity might be - would you be making these comments about how vital these costly ceremonials are if McCain had won?

My view is that the American presidency is becoming increasingly ceremonial and decreasingly capable of exerting actual power at about a proportionate pace. When the history of the last century is written a century hence - if it is still permitted then to tell the truth - I believe it will say that the apogee of presidential power took place under the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. It has been downhill since then. Day-to-day authority in today's America is the purview of practically autonomous bureaucracies, and the hard questions are punted to judges whose lifetime appointments insulate them from the consequences of unpopularity. Congress exists for the receipt and disbursement of perquisites and economic rents, while (apart from a real but waning power as commander-in-chief over the armed forces) the president is more and more a figurehead. In a couple more generations, s/he'll be a cutter of ribbons and a christener of ships, and will probably get in trouble with the media (as Prince Philip sometimes does in today's Britain) if s/he has the temerity to express a candid opinion.

mtraven said...

A good test of your sincerity might be - would you be making these comments about how vital these costly ceremonials are if McCain had won?

I don't think you get what I'm saying. It's "vital" in the sense that it is an important part of the political culture; the point is independent of who is being elevated or what his party is.

As for the office being largely ceremonial, I think that's ludicrous. Back in 2000 I was not excited by Al Gore and thought there was not much difference between him and Bush; the years since have proven that to be very wrong. The president has enormous power to set the values and agenda of government, for good or ill.

On the other hand, nobody gets to be president who hasn't already signed on to most of the values of the national security state. So while I am confident that Obama will be much more competent and sane than the previous administration, I expect no radical changes.

Michael said...

So you ARE saying that the ceremonials are important regardless of who is being installed. Thank you! I concede your sincerity on this point.

I didn't say the presidency was entirely ceremonial, only that it was becoming more and more so, in proportion to the erosion of its actual power. I suppose that a U.S. president today has about the same degree of actual authority as, let us say, George IV or William IV did - but very far from that exercised by Elizabeth I, or even the early Stuarts. Given time and the continuation of present trends that authority will be attenuated to the point the British monarchy was after Victoria's death.

A good example of the attenuation of Presidential power is seen in the treatment of the illegal combatants held at Guantanamo. In World War II when the German saboteurs of Operation Pastorius were apprehended, Franklin Roosevelt convened a secret military tribunal that swiftly tried and condemned them to death. FDR told his attorney-general Francis Biddle that he would countenance no interference or delay in their dispatch. The Supreme Court deferred to his authority as commander in chief in Ex parte Quirin (317 U.S. 1 (1942). Six of the eight conspiurators were promptly electrocuted, while FDR commuted the sentences of two who had testified against their fellows.

We may contrast this with the inability of George W. Bush even to complete the trials of leading 9/11 terrorists, much less have them punished. Roosevelt would have emptied Gitmo into the prison lime pit, and that in jig-time. Obama now appears ready to turn its inmates over to the civil courts, and probably couldn't do otherwise even if he wished.

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