Stepping Off the Tram: Turkey, America, and Presidential Power

Back when he was mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, once famously quipped that democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you get to your destination, then you step off. Well, after Sunday’s constitutional referendum, democracy has exited the station, and Turkey is standing on the platform awaiting whatever comes next.

While Christians worldwide celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, Turkey, a NATO-ally of the United States, crucified its current form of government. Amid claims of election fraud, President Erdoğan scored a major victory as voters approved a measure to abolish their parliamentary system in favor of an autocratic executive presidency that concentrates almost all power in the office of Mr. Erdoğan. But, the victory was narrow—a mere 51% showing for the “Yes” campaign—and is being bitterly contested. International election observers proclaimed Monday that the referendum was held on “an unlevel playing field” due to dubious campaign conditions. For instance, in the wake of last July’s attempted coup the government has jailed opposition party leaders and many journalists among the thousands of others accused of being part of a terrorist organization, intimidating potential “No” voters.

Also, after polls closed on Sunday, the Supreme Election Commission decided to accept unstamped, unofficial ballots as valid in direct contradiction of the written legal code. As a result, opposition parties are contesting anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million ballots. A host of other voting irregularities are alleged. Mr. Erdoğan, for his part, is keeping his usual style post-referendum: stirring up his base with promises of reinstating the death penalty, making antagonistic comments toward journalists and the West, and making grandiose proclamations of victory for democracy and the national will.

Due to the claims of election fraud and the unequal weights and measures allegedly deployed in this campaign, a cloud of suspicion hangs over the results, which will likely be contested in court. However, annulling the results will be difficult for the “No” side. First, the allegations are hard to prove, especially if unofficial ballots were stamped after the fact. Second, the president’s party controls the courts, and the post-coup purge has removed most dissent from within the judiciary.

This is where American Christians must pay attention. First, we must pray for our brothers and sisters in Turkey. These are tense and fragile times in their country. May they persevere with joy, and may God bless them with a fair and just government. But we should also look at and be wary of our own powerful presidency and massive administrative state. United States presidents since Teddy Roosevelt at least have routinely grabbed power that doesn’t belong to their office. In recent decades, the problem has only swollen. Bill Clinton created federal agencies with the stroke of a pen, George W. Bush selectively enforced laws, and Barack Obama ruled via executive order, most famously to refuse to enforce immigration laws and mandate transgender policies in schools. Most recently, President Trump’s Syria strike without congressional approval provided another example of our imperial presidency. Ivanka Trump was “heartbroken and outraged” and that apparently exerted major influence upon the president, who just decided to act, the historical consequences of our Middle East meddling be damned. The IRS’s political targeting of conservative groups during the Obama administration is just another example of the potency—and threat—of the administrative state. Add to this a massive federal code, tangled and suffocating regulations, and a still-to-this-date undrained bureaucratic swamp, and a grim picture of our pervasive white-collar tyranny emerges.

Christians should be leading advocates for decentralized government because we are the ones who understand why power concentrated in one man is bad business for any country. As usual, C.S. Lewis made the point well when he noted that he favors democracy precisely because he believes in the fall of man. Democracy is not preferable because mankind is so good and wise that we all deserve a share of the power. Rather,

“The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” (Lewis 2002, 17).

Because we believe men’s souls are corrupted by sin, we insist on a decentralized government that limits the powers of the president regardless of his party affiliation. Far too often Christians only lament the unconstitutional wielding of excessive executive authority when the other side does it. This, too, is unequal weights and measures.

So total depravity is the foundational doctrine for decentralized and limited government. Because men are scoundrels, our politicians often are, too. Since we ought to keep a close eye on scoundrels, especially the ones we give authority and tax dollars to, we should keep as much of our politics as local as we can. Or, as Chesterton is reported to have said, we should keep our politicians close enough to kick them.

Instead, what Turkey did officially in its Easter referendum—gave broad, sweeping powers to its president and the administrative state at his disposal—we have done unofficially over the course of decades. At least Mr. Erdoğan gave the Turkish citizenry the courtesy of putting their liberty to a vote. We’ve ceded ours with little contest. Some Turks claim that President Erdoğan sees himself as a new Ottoman sultan. Our presidents fancy themselves as King George.

C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns (Orlando: Harvest Books, 2002), 17.

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