02/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Rise of American Czarism

The San Francisco Chronicle asked me to write a piece for its pre-inauguration Sunday Insight section, and I decided to examine the trend towards authoritarianism that seems to be overtaking our politics in these troubled times. You can read the piece here.

American Czarism, as I call it, is nothing new in the modern era. Despite the Founders' efforts to prevent the centralization of power in the executive branch, our contemporary governing ideology is one that worships the president of the United States as a singular all-powerful deity. In the past, that's been a product of presidentialism -- i.e. our celebrity-obsessed culture and our desire for a superhero-like savior to rescue us from imminent emergencies. But now, the push for American Czarism has an added boost - the desire to compete with foreign autocratic forces by emulating autocracy.

So, for example, our government empowers all-powerful czars for homeland security, intelligence and counter-terrorism so as to make sure the normal democratic processes (hearings, deliberations, etc.) do not slow-down our efforts to fight terrorists, who aren't inhibited by such processes. We hand over $700 billion to one man -- the Treasury Secretary -- so that he can help America economically compete with actors like China, Saudi Arabia and transnational corporations who don't have to engage in any kind of democracy before moving money across the globe. And now, the incoming Obama administration is considering empowering one of Wall Street's most vicious corporate raiders as the so-called "car czar" -- a Gordon Gekko-style appointment that could be fantastic for wealthy auto execs, but could be a nightmare for rank-and-file autoworkers.

The problem, of course, is the effects on our country. The United States' draws its fundamental power from being a vibrant democracy. All those democratic processes that seem annoying -- hearings, votes, deliberations, elections -- are what ensures that laws and policies are ratified with some modicum of public consent. When we suppress democracy in the name of competing with autocracy, we weaken our country.

Clearly, the Bush administration has been the single most autocratic in modern history, having consolidated power inside the White House far faster and more intensely than almost any president beforehand. Barack Obama, who was a constitutional law professor, will most likely be more interested in respecting democracy. But as Dick Cheney recently said, the Obama administration "is not likely to cede authority back to the Congress."

I don't usually agree with Cheney on anything, but his statement is a truism: presidents rarely, if ever, give back authority. I'd go even further, actually -- presidents almost always usurp power. And while Obama will hopefully usurp it less, the move towards American Czarism will no doubt continue to imperil our democracy.

Some may say that process doesn't matter -- that ends justify means. I completely disagree. Call me an idealist, but I do believe what the Founders believed: that the more vibrant our democracy, the stronger a country we are.

This is why, for instance, I'm glad that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (for all his faults) is letting the Obama administration know he doesn't work for them. It's why I'm happy to see House Speaker Nancy Pelosi standing up to the incoming administration on taxes, and to see Senate Democrats stake out juxtapositional stances against Obama on the stimulus bill. And it's why I'm glad to see that there may be a constitutional challenge to the Wall Street bailout on the grounds that Congress simply cannot legally delegate its power of the purse to the executive branch. Indeed, defending democracy and separation of powers seems like a particularly promising fight in which progressives can make a strong -- and dare I say, "pragmatic" -- common cause with conservatives.

I'm sure some will bemoan these developments as "gridlock" -- but remember, "gridlock" is very often the Establishment's euphemism to berate democracy. Likewise, I'm sure some will claim I'm somehow hoping Congress obstructs Obama's largely progressive agenda. Absolutely not. But there's a difference between the normal -- and often grinding -- processes of democracy and obstructionism. We can have the former without having the latter -- and we trample the former at our peril.

As czarism undoubtedly continues in the coming months and years, the question is where our loyalties lie: Are we loyal to one individual (Obama) or to an agenda? In the specific case of czarism, are we Democrats or are we democrats?

For my part, I consider myself a democrat before I'm a Democrat -- but I certainly think we can be both, especially considering our constitutional lawyer president. We are now just completing an 8-year lesson in the pitfalls of czarism and the pitfalls of a Congress not stopping such czarism. And when I say czarism, I don't mean Republican czarism or Democratic czarism, but the concept of czarism itself.

As we tackle all the challenges facing our country, we will be more successful the more we respect -- and strengthen -- our democracy in the process.