American presidents have signed executive orders before now: President Obama’s executive order on guns is hardly exceptional. Some of the most memorable incidents in history involved people at risk: Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in states hostile to the Union. Eisenhower ordered the national guard into the south to guarantee court-ordered busing. Our current president has signed the executive order to protect innocents from weapons.
Executive orders often signal that government has failed. With Lincoln and Eisenhower, the southern states were in rebellion. For President Obama, the two houses of Congress and the Supreme Court have refused to act to put sane limitations on the second amendment. In the same way that yelling fire in a theater is an abuse of the right to free speech, gun madness in American is an abuse of the second amendment.
We know from history what happens when government fails to govern. The Roman Senate’s inability to rise above its factions led to its inability to solve Rome’s financial, political corruption and crime problems. Where the Senate failed, the Caesars eventually filled the vacuum through an alliance with the military. When the Caesars and the military too failed, the empire collapsed in the face of barbarian invasions.
We know from movies what happens when government fails to govern. In the Star Wars mythology, the intergalactic senate fails to act militarily, so eventually it grants war powers to the chancellor. The chancellor makes himself emperor, and dismisses the senate. Then comes the time of empire, the betrayal and rebellion, and – of course – the chaos found in Episode Seven.
In our polarized society, some say President Obama was driven to make an executive order to protect us from NRA bought- and-sold politicians. I agree. Some say this order is a move toward the imperial presidency. I agree. However it is sliced, when democracy working through republican institutions can no longer respond to the needs of the people, the result will not be intolerable chaos. No, the initial result will be tyranny. Later will come chaos.
When queried about the shape of government following the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin responded with “A republic, if you can keep it. ” This is what lies in doubt today.
Why do republic’s fail? Because factional infighting prevents representatives from solving problems. From where do these factions arise? From societal divisions that are either foisted on political figures or milked by them for power. The issue is the same: People demand that their needs be met and their agendas fulfilled by politicians, without regard to their neighbor. And how do citizens lose track of their neighbors and become so selfish? They do so by failing to rub shoulders with their neighbors in the routine, mundane ways that citizens must in order to befriend one another and to build social capital with one another.
The great tyrants of history stole first the people’s right to assemble freely in clubs, in churches, and on the streets. Once people who are different from each other become separated from each other, with like only hanging out with like, then the normal sensitivities and sense on which democratic society is based disappears. People are no longer neighbors but competitors. They distrust each other, buy guns to protect themselves from each other, and look to the President to sign executive orders to provide the same protection.
Now we give up the right to assembly freely, even carelessly. By doing so in America, we are paving the way for tyranny. Republics are built upon citizens hanging out together regularly in the public square. Politics and economic activity are then reflections of our shared common life. Right now we divide from each other based on socioeconomic position, religious creed, ideology, and – of course (some things never change) – race. We either can find our way back to clubs, churches, and other social institutions where we can rub shoulders with each other or . . .
When Congress and the Supreme Court fail, we need the Emperor to protect us from each other. The executive order is also a failure in governance. Queue up the Imperial march. And may the force be with you.