In his book The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot describes two components of government. The first are the “efficient” components, such as the cabinet, that get on with the actual business of government, making decisions about the nation. The second are the “dignified” components, such as the monarchy, that have little decision making power (either de jure or de facto) but which play a role in serving as a, largely uncontroversial, locus for patriotism and the stability of the nation. England is a key example of a polity where these two components are largely separate; in some countries, largely to their detriment, the components blur. Clearly, this can change through time; at one time the king’s very word was law, now the role of the queen in the day-to-day business of politics is minimal.
I would like to speculate that the US presidency is on its way from becoming an efficient institution to a dignified one. The election of Trump has provided us with a figure whom other components of the government have openly said they will ignore—a military leader, being interviewed about the US nuclear capability, has argued that they would make a considered decision about an order from Trump to make a nuclear strike, despite this being formally an uncomplicated order from a superior officer (commander-in-chief, natch!) to a more junior one. Whilst this has probably been the truth throughout nuclear history—there are reports of various cold-war nuclear command officers deciding to take a “watch and wait” approach when the preconditions for a nuclear strike have already been met—this is probably the first time that this has been discussed so openly. This marks the beginning of the presidency being regarded as a ceremonial, “dignified” institution; I would assume that a command from Queen Elizabeth II would be taken with similar cynicism by the UK military.
So, is this just an aberration? A one-off, to be replaced in 2020 by a return to business-as-usual? This is entirely possible; a nation weary of celebrity posturing could return to the model of the politically experienced leader as the ideal candidate. But, there is hunger from different directions for another celebrity-POTUS. Even if the US tires of isolationist nationalism, there is a decent chance that the Democrats won’t be willing to field another explicitly large-P Political figure against the celebrity of Trump in 2020 (especially as by that point, their store of public-profile figures is running thin; Obama timed out, figures such as Clinton and Kerry tainted by previous unsuccessful runs). Would you really put up a governor of a flyover state when you have an Oprah or Zuckerberg? So, let’s say that Oprah wins in 2020, and serves two successful terms of office, taking us to 2028. Already, we’re reaching a stage where the idea of electing some competent former ambassador seems so boring and 20th century. After four years of President Zuck struggling to control the growing power of the BRICS and some crisis yet to be imagined, we reach a point where a shadow system of efficient institutions is starting to sweep in underneath to take on the substantive job of executive government. By 2032, Will Smith and Ellen DeGeneres are the sort of people who are the serious, establishment candidates, fighting not to be seen as boring establishment figures against the candidacy of Katy Perry. By 2050, the Presidency is a ribbon-cutting, “dignified” institution, as much a sign of faded-celebrity-trying-to-raise-their-profile as I’m a Celebrity… is today. A young turk in the present day would be better studying which institution will rise to take the place of the efficient powers of the President, than plotting a 40-year route to the role itself.
I’d wondered for a while if celebrity would one day take the Presidential role—after all, there is a system of (more-or-less) direct election, both at the primaries and the final vote, that provides a way to circumvent the slog of e.g. UK national politics. But, I always though that this would come about from an independent candidate standing on a largely youth-oriented platform. I had assumed that at some point some cocky chancer like Jay-Z might decide to go for it as a mid-life crisis thing, taking around 15% of the vote as an anti-politics third candidate, Nadering-out a decent Democratic candidate in favour of a Dubya-like Republican due to demographics, earning the ire of mainstream politicians en route. I was blindsided by Trumps’ candididacy—playing a role as an anti-politics candidate whilst remaining within a party structure (thus getting the automatic votes of the always-Republican rump) was a stroke of genius. That canny move may well have re-configured the Presidential role for the next century—Swift 2052 for the win!