The Founding Fathers' One Big Mistake

The Founding Fathers were so determined to avoid having anything that looked like a king that they overlooked the one useful function kings had--still have: they served as a symbol of the nation.
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There are people who disagree with almost all of Bush's policies, yet still support him--a fact that puzzles many folks on the left. Neocon-men will argue that it's all about "moral values" (i.e., celibacy and bigotry), but something more fundamental is at work. Why are some patriotic Americans supporting a president who seems so bent on destroying America--America's constitution, America's democracy, America's good name, America's credibility, America's land, air, and water, America's solvency, America's educational system, America's security, America's children, and America's future?

The answer lies not in the present but in decisions made 219 years ago at the Constitutional Convention. The Founding Fathers were so determined to avoid having anything that looked like a king in our land that they overlooked the one useful function kings and queens had--still have today in some countries: they served as a symbol of the nation.

Most viable countries in the world today make a separation between the symbolic head of the nation (king, queen, president) and its political leader (prime minister, premier). The former generally has little power but great prestige--he or she represents the nation as a whole and has major ritual functions. The latter actually gets his or her hands dirty running the country.

The United States is virtually alone among major nations in failing to make this separation. As a result, any mediocrity--any two-bit hack or puerile frat boy--can become the living symbol of our entire nation merely by declaring war on someone. Which, for the small-minded and power-hungry, naturally increases the temptation to do just that.

Europeans--indeed people in most other nations--have always made a clear distinction between Americans (they like us) and our government's often belligerent and anti-democratic foreign policy (they hate it). Even when fleeing the death squads of U.S.-backed military dictators, foreigners seek refuge here, recognizing the enormous divide between our people and the policies of a particular administration. Yet Americans themselves often seem unable to make this distnction, and the lack of a symbolic leadership post may be why.

It may also account for the obsession we Americans have with our flag--an obsession unmatched around the world. It's the only symbol we have that can be detached from everyday political disputes. Yet because it's not a living symbol any cheap politician can wrap himself in it to make points. And since it's usually the least honest politicians who have to resort to this tactic, the flag itself then becomes tainted as a symbol, and is subject to attack.

We need desperately to make the same division in our society that other nations do--to create a position of symbolic leadership so that our President doesn't get clothed in the flag whenever he decides to play soldier. A position that would reflect some sort of national achievement--for an individual who stands above the political infighting, someone admired for public services rendered, and trusted by Americans across a wide political spectrum. It could be someone from the arts, from the business world, from philanthropy, from the sciences, from the media. General George C. Marshall could have served as America's symbol in the 1950s, for example, and there was a time when Walter Cronkite could have filled this role. It's difficult to imagine anyone (except maybe Morgan Freeman) who inspires that kind of widespread trust today, our nation is so bitterly divided. Perhaps the very absence of such a position is part of the reason why.

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