War, said James Madison, is "the true nurse of executive aggrandizement." Randolph Bourne, the radical essayist killed by the influenza unleashed by World War I, warned, "War is the health of the state."
Both sides agree - war inflates executive power. But is that a good thing? Progressives think so. A strong executive can boldly re-engineer society. It doesn't matter weather or not society wants to be re-engineered, or if we have to trim personal liberty in the process: this is the essence of progressivism.
The armed services' ethos, although noble, is not a template for civilian society, unless the aspiration is to extinguish politics. People marching in serried ranks, fused into a solid mass by the heat of martial ardor, proceeding in lockstep, shoulder to shoulder, obedient to orders from a commanding officer — this is a recurring dream of progressives eager to dispense with tiresome persuasion and untidy dissension in a free, tumultuous society.
While there may be a justification for unilateral executive power in the form of a military officer commanding troops, there is no justification for it in a civilian government. It endangers the very freedom which the government is supposed to protect.
Progressive presidents use martial language as a way of encouraging Americans to confuse civilian politics with military exertions, thereby circumventing an impediment to progressive aspirations — the Constitution, and the patience it demands. As a young professor, Woodrow Wilson had lamented that America’s political parties “are like armies without officers.” The most theoretically inclined of progressive politicians, Wilson was the first president to criticize America’s founding. This he did thoroughly, rejecting the Madisonian system of checks and balances — the separation of powers, a crucial component of limited government — because it makes a government that can not be wielded efficiently by a strong executive.
Woodrow Wilson, and other progressives, don't want to wait for the legislative process, and believe that their plans for society are so important, and so correct, that they can't risk diluting them with compromise.
Franklin Roosevelt agreed. He complained about "the three-horse team of the American system": "If one horse lies down in the traces or plunges off in another direction, the field will not be plowed." And progressive plowing takes precedence over constitutional equipoise among the three branches of government. Hence FDR’s attempt to break the Supreme Court to his will by enlarging it.
Franklin Roosevelt learned from Woodrow Wilson. There could be no debate, and no compromise, for his plans. But the mistake Roosevelt and Wilson made was in failing to see that personal liberty is the core value of our constitutional system. Nothing justifies compromising individual freedom. But FDR and Wilson believed that nothing, not even respect for freedom, justified compromising their attempt to re-design societies or economies.
In his first inaugural address, FDR demanded "broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe." He said Americans must "move as a trained and loyal army" with "a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife." The next day, addressing the American Legion, Roosevelt said it was "a mistake to assume that the virtues of war differ essentially from the virtues of peace." In such a time, dissent is disloyalty.
To the ears of someone who understands the American notion of liberty, Roosevelt's words are shocking. A carefully designed separation of powers was put into place to prevent suddenly unilateral action: FDR would cheerfully brush it all aside and gather dictatorial power to himself. In fact, the word 'dictator' was seen as something rather good by the progressives: among people like Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and FDR in 1932,
Yearnings for a command society were common and respectable then.
The media of that era echoed this desire for dictatorship:
Walter Lippmann, then America’s pre-eminent columnist, said: "A mild species of dictatorship will help us over the roughest spots in the road ahead." The New York Daily News, then the nation's largest-circulation newspaper, cheerfully editorialized: "A lot of us have been asking for a dictator. Now we have one. ... It is Roosevelt. ... Dictatorship in crises was ancient Rome’s best era." The New York Herald Tribune titled an editorial "For Dictatorship if Necessary."
The demand for dictator-like powers
expresses progressivism's impatience with our constitutional system of concurrent majorities. To enact and execute federal laws under Madison’s institutional architecture requires three, and sometimes more, such majorities. There must be majorities in the House and Senate, each body having distinctive constituencies and electoral rhythms. The law must be affirmed by the president, who has a distinctive electoral base and election schedule. Supermajorities in both houses of Congress are required to override presidential vetoes. And a Supreme Court majority is required to sustain laws against constitutional challenges.
One route which progressives use when circumventing constitutional systems is the perception that there is a current crisis requiring immediate action. Whether or not there is a crisis, the perception will justify the executive grasping the powers which properly belong to the other two branches of government so that he can deal decisively with the perceived danger. This was famously summed up by Rahm Emanuel:
You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that: it's an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do otherwise.
From the Roman Republic to twentieth century Europe to twenty-first century America, this has been a political strategy - "this is a crisis - give me the power to rule absolutely so that I can get things back in order." Narratives beginning with phrases like these rarely have happy endings.