When our founders fashioned the Constitution, they sought to safeguard the new republic against two historical ills of the Old World: religious wars and entrenched aristocracies. Religious wars were to be avoided by the separation of church and state. Social revolutions triggered by resentments against entrenched elites were to be deterred by regular elections for office holders and a system of checks and balances among the institutions of this constitutional government.
The requirement of regular elections prescribed by constitutional writ ensured a circulation of elites throughout the system. This was especially true of the presidency. Since he is the only official elected by a national mandate, he was permitted to bring in to Washington his own inner circle through the appointment of thousands of leading positions throughout the bureaucracy. This gave him some capacity to exercise leadership within and across the institutional labyrinth of government. The president, however, was limited by the Constitution to two terms in office (or eight years), thereby ensuring that another president with his own ruling elite would cycle in. Since, typically, the new president came from a different political party, this new elite would reflect a different panoply of interests from that of the previous president. Stability, then, was guaranteed by a set of permanent institutions ruled by transitory elites.
Since the 1980s, challenging presidential candidates against incumbent office holders have made a point of running against Washington, and emphasizing the purity of their outsider credentials. Still, once voted in, the newcomer is put in charge of an institutional system of checks and balances that operates by a set of well-entrenched rules, norms, and practices. Elections throw people out, while the system remains, staunchly, in. People running for office, then, have to walk a fine line. They want to throw the bastard insiders out; while they themselves will have to play by these insider rules, once they arrive in the Babylon of Washington. Put simply, after the traditional honeymoon of 100 days, they become the new insiders.
For presidential aspirants to say, and actually mean, that they are going to overthrow Washington carries the danger, over time, of delegitimizing our constitutional system. Importantly, our system of checks and balances is designed to ensure that no player, whether an insider or an outsider, gains a monopoly of power over the three branches of government. In this constitutional arrangement, insiders and outsiders, ultimately, have to work together to enact anything. The essence of working together, of course, lies in the grand compromises that underwrite the broad coalitions that define a democracy: a government “of, by, and for the people.” These compromises, in turn, draw their lifeblood from shared values of both insiders and outsiders.
What has broken down in Washington is the middle ground on which to fashion these compromises. The polarization between the two major political parties has arisen because the stock of shared values is dissolving. Sadly, this has provoked incoming presidents, who are determined to extract a historical legacy from this system, to become frustrated to the point where they fall prey to the temptation of circumventing the system by resorting to executive orders. These are little different from the royal decrees of the kings of old. They are slipping our constitutional system, stumble by stumble, into a dictatorship. In the upcoming 2016 presidential campaign, we live in the danger of unraveling times.