Professor William H. Dutton
Senior Fellow, Advisory Board Member
Bill Dutton was the OII’s Founding Director, a Fellow of Balliol College and the first Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford University.
One of the classic works on the governance of England is Walter Bagehot’s (1867) The English Constitution. He observed that through the evolution of its unwritten Constitution entailed two critical but separate components, the ‘dignified’ and the ‘efficient’. The former exercised symbolic power and was represented by the monarch, who did not have effective power but could capture the imagination and support of the public. The efficient component was represented by Parliament and the Prime Minister, who had the power to effect change. The modern Prime Minister of Britain in the 21st century retains this role in getting the work of government done, but has also become more ‘presidential’ in the American sense, but embodying more of the symbolic roles of the state. Nevertheless, despite contention, a far more educated public, and access to information about anything everywhere, Queen Elizabeth remains the major symbolic head of state, helping to maintain the legitimacy of the government.
In the US, the founders had combined these dignified and effective components in the Office of the President. The US President represents the state in formal international ceremonies, such as in laying wreaths with the Queen or her representative, as well as being the chief executive and Commander of Chief on the nation’s military.
For decades, the preservation of the dignified role of the President as head of state has been a matter of debate. Television news was said to reveal so much about the President that it was impossible to maintain any myths about a President’s leadership (Meyrowitz 1985). Every foible, stumble, illness of a President is in the news for all to know. This transparency has a very positive role, such as undermining the potential for a president to become too powerful if shielded from the public accountability. However, it may also undermine the ability of the government to maintain the support and trust in the government that was delivered by the symbolic Chief of State.
It is obvious where I am going with this rendition of Bagehot’s perspective on the components of governance. Whomever you support for President, there must be some concern over whether the institution of the Presidency will be reduced dramatically by the revelations of the 2016 primaries and presidential campaigns. Will we, or have we, lost the dignified role of the Presidency? Maybe this is good and appropriate in a modern democratic state, but these trends are likely to generate far more discussion in the wake of the 2016 elections, whomever is elected. In whom will we entrust the dignified role of the Presidency? Perhaps this dignified role has been antiquated by modern forms of democratic governance, but the lack of trust in government, and the candidates for office, are likely to keep this debate alive.
Bagehot, W. (1867), The English Constitution.
Meyrowitz, J. (1985), No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Oxford University Press.