September 21, 2022
As millions – perhaps billions – across the globe honor the life of the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II and note the coming coronation of King Charles III, a question comes to mind for Americans: How can a nation with a reigning monarch and a nation like ours both be representative democracies? After all, our country instigated a revolution and fought a war to create a representative government independent from a royal ruler.
This time of royal transition offers a unique opportunity to recognize the multiple civic roles that American presidents play.
In the U.K., the king or queen plays the role of head of state. The functions of the head of state include many ceremonial duties of a national leader – greeting foreign leaders to the country and offering national addresses. Another is to help establish legitimacy among the public for the national government, through actions such as formally appointing the head of government, signing new laws enacted by duly elected lawmakers, and opening legislative sessions. As a general rule, the head of state stays above the political fray and offers a voice of national representation and leadership.
The role of head of government in the U.K., by contrast, is filled by a lawmaker known as a prime minister. The head of government, like its name suggests, is charged with leading the government. The head of government appoints leaders of government agencies, administers the national bureaucracy and taxpayer budget, and implements national laws. The head of government often must dive headlong into political disagreements to do things like enacting and supporting policy decisions.
In the United States, the president is both head of state and head of government. That office has many ceremonial roles (hosting state dinners with foreign officials and giving the State of the Union address) as well as official governing roles (signing or vetoing laws passed by Congress and enforcing current laws).
In many of the ceremonial roles it has traditionally been expected that the president will rise above pure politics or partisan interest. But while serving in official governing roles, the president is regularly acting as the leader of their partisan or political agenda.
In a time of partisan polarization such as today, the charge for the president to adequately fill both roles is a significant challenge. That difficulty is multiplied several times over by the evolution of the president’s role in national elections. As I recently wrote:
In the early years of the nation’s history, “it was practically unheard of for a presidential candidate to actively campaign for office.” This was because many Americans “considered [it] inappropriate [for a presidential candidate] to ask voters directly to vote for them.”
This began to change in the 19th century. Candidates for president began giving public speeches – from the front porch, in the case of William McKinley in 1896 – in an attempt to persuade voters that they were the best candidate. Candidates then began to travel around the country to give such addresses. Franklin D. Roosevelt went on a nationwide train tour campaign in 1932, visiting and giving speeches in 41 states.
The advent and popularity of television throughout the mid- to late 20th century and the internet in the 1990s and early 2000s further incentivized and rewarded presidential candidates for their active campaigning, leading to the modern campaigns we know today.
Sutherland Institute President Rick Larsen shed light on how the evolving roles and powers of the American presidency has complicated the president’s ability to function as both head of state and head of government when he wrote last year:
The enlargement of presidential powers has changed the status of the American president. “Leader of the free world” and “party leader” are both historically recent designations that have shifted the roles of Congress, the judiciary and even states under concepts of federalism. It has contributed to a change in politics and a divisive, winner-take-all mentality. Further, the emergence of the president as “campaigner in chief” virtually eliminates the ability of a president to respond in nonpartisan terms and creates a quadrennial political split in our nation that never seems to heal.
In a time of extreme partisan polarization, can an American president both play a major role in partisan election campaigning on the one hand and remain above the political fray on the other? If America’s political experience under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are representative, the answer to this question may be “no.” If that is the case, then healing the wounds of our civic fabric inflicted by partisanship and polarization may depend upon either (1) Americans electing presidents who are willing to put the common good above partisan interest or (2) political change occurring from the bottom up.
Fortunately, the latter is readily doable – beginning today – even if it feels elusive and small relative to the immensity of the problem. As I recently wrote:
During this polarized and divided time in our nation’s history, the “voters lead, politicians follow” dynamic of American democracy is an empowering fact for those who place principle above party and shared ideals above ideology. We do not have to wait for politicians to lead our community, state or nation out of division. We can (and must) do that ourselves.
We do it every time we discuss with our friends and families the American ideals of human equality or basic rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. We do it when we change how we speak about and treat others in light of those ideals – especially those with whom we disagree. We do that when we use those ideals to help us decide who we will vote for and when we persuade others to use that same lens.
In short, we lead our community, state and nation out of division when we change our thinking, language and actions to defuse division, and when we encourage others to do the same. That power remains in our hands. It begins not in the halls of government, but in our in own hearts, and then expands into our homes and communities – where it reaches a level that begins to influence and change the words and behaviors of elected officials.
So as the headlines honoring the life of Queen Elizabeth continue and as Britain crowns its new king, remember what this royal transition highlights about the reality of the American presidency. More importantly, remember what those lessons say we must do if we are to renew and reclaim American democracy from the claws of partisanship and polarization.
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