The two-headed Leviathan

In my last post I argued against the parliamentary system. If I got my will, the absence of a stable majority in parliament would no longer mean a constitutional crisis. That would make the president’s reserve powers dispensable.

But there are still good reasons to keep a purely ceremonial office around. In fact, this is how we understand the office even now. I think many Germans aren’t even aware the president has reserve powers. His actual function in stable times is to be an identification figure above party politics. He signs laws an treaties but has no part in drafting them. Occasionally he pardons criminals but not without the counter-signature of a minister. And sometimes he’ll give a speech about about something wrong with politics, but then he’s careful not to blame anyone specifically. There is a social expectation of everyone paying him respect, and if fact the penal code still has a section dealing with insults to the president. Essentially, the nation is expected to rally behind him, but the system is constructed so as to avoid that allegiance to have any real political content.

This system can easily seem superfluous or even hypocritical and some people want to abolish the office for that reason. I think that’s a bad idea. Loyalty is essentially personal and the fact of the matter is that every political system has a slightly sacrosanct figure symbolically embodying it. In the United states, which is the most prominent nation not to separate the head of state and the head of government, the president reaps some of that benefit. Of course he isn’t anywhere near as immune from criticism as the German president is, but he is also a lot more symbolic of the nation than our chancellor ever could be. And it shows in things like the rally ’round the flag effect. Quite frankly, I find that a little scary. If we have a figure to project patriotism on, as is unavoidable give human nature, then the best we can do is separating that figure from actual decision making. That’s the service the president provides to us and its well worth the cost.

There are, however, clouds on the horizon. The office has been loosing lots of prestige lately. The last president resigned in shame a month ago. The one before him resigned in ridicule two years earlier. And the one before that one clearly got the office in compensation for stepping down as a state prime minister. The president is elected by a brokered convention (I’ll have a separate post on that)  and the maneuvering before that convention is a visible emblem of the party politics he is supposed to be above of. Everyone learned in school he is a figurehead, but not everyone has the subtlety to distinguish that from him being unimportant. So people increasingly see him as a slightly ridiculous relic and there are occasional calls to abolish the office.  If this goes much further, the office will no longer be able to serve its function. I don’t think there is any legislative solution to that problem. Even a written constitution runs largely by unwritten social conventions and fails where people loose the hang of such conventions.

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