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E Pluribus Duo

Why not have two presidents?

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Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, in uniform, 1903. (Library of Congress)

America wanted diversity—at least its leaders said it did—and now we’re getting it, good and hard. By many accounts, the nation hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War. Thus we are reminded: Diversity isn’t just a matter of adding another letter to the LGTBQ acronym. It’s also a matter of red vs. blue, Republicans vs. Democrats.  

The Italian sociologist Gaetano Mosca wrote of this binary grouping phenomenon in The Ruling Class (1939)“If a certain number of stags are shut up in a park,” he wrote, “they will inevitably divide into two herds, which will always be in conflict with each other.” Mosca continued, “An instinct of very much the same sort seems to make its influence felt among men.” 


So now, how to keep those political footballs from becoming grenades? As I wrote a year ago here at The American Conservative, “The United States has all the preconditions for a civil war today except one: the willingness to actually fight for the sake of disunity.” A year later, it’s still in our interest to avoid actual explosions, even as we must reckon with ever deepening divisions. We might take a lesson from other diverse polities that managed to keep difference from begetting violence. One such polity was the Habsburg domain of Austria-Hungary, a sprawling, polyglot, and rich realm that for a long time finessed its way out of civil war and chaos.   

To be sure, the Habsburgs failed in the end and their empire crumbled. But that’s all the more reason to study them, because the student usually learns better from the sharp stick of failure than from the lollipop of success. As the U.S. wrestles with its internal divisions, let us learn how the Habsburgs succeeded with conservative realism—and how they failed when they veered from that sound path. 

As A.J.P. Taylor wrote in The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809–1918, “The strength of the Habsburgs lay in suppleness and manoeuvre: faced with danger, from the Ottoman Turks to Napoleon, they could ‘give.’ What they could not risk was a life-and-death struggle, with no prospect of a compromise at the end; for, in this struggle, the less sophisticated combatant would survive.”

Yes, Vienna did plenty of fighting, but it favored culture and coalitions over conquest. For instance, after a military defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1866, the Habsburg monarchy fell into crisis. The restive Hungarians, the largest minority in the empire, in the past had made bids for independence and been bloodily crushed. This time, Budapest made a different demand: power-sharing. Showing their suppleness, the Habsburgs agreed. The result was the establishment of the Dual Monarchy in 1867, with Austria and Hungary as theoretical equals within the empire, even if the Habsburg dynasty was still mostly in charge.  

Thus the Austrians achieved the sort of internal compromise for the sake of peace that eluded the Americans around the same time. As we all know, Abraham Lincoln would have gladly accepted a deal to avoid the Civil War. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Alas for America, the needed pragmatism was in short supply. 


Back in Europe, the Doppelmonarchie compromise worked pretty well. Just last year, Patrick Blanchfield wrote in The New Republic that after 1867, “The empire was the second-largest state in continental Europe, its second-biggest in population, and an economic powerhouse, boasting a national health insurance system, mandatory accident insurance, and, by the close of the century, a massive, state-funded postal, telegraph, railway, and electricity infrastructure.” Blanchfield praised the ability of the Habsburgs to manage diversity: “Overwhelmingly Roman Catholic but multireligious, with large populations of Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews, it was multiethnic and multilingual, too, with nine official languages and an official version of its national anthem for each.” 

The Habsburgs knew that they couldn’t make a move without considering the impact on the delicate balance of Austrians and Hungarians, and to a lesser extent Bohemians, Carinthians, Dalmatians, Galicians, Romanians, Ruthenians, Slovenians, and on and on.  

Dealing with this ethnic goulash, the Habsburgs grew cautious, which is to say, conservative. That caution served the Habsburgs well on the matter of colonialism, which became all the rage in Europe when countries were scrambling for overseas possessions. The Habsburgs, with their hands full at home, wanted none of that. Today, of course, in the blowback to imperialism, Austria and Hungary rate as innocent bystanders, not prime movers. 

Of course, there was that time when the Habsburgs lost sight of their Metternichian caution. As blunders go, it was a doozy.

Justifiably outraged over the 1914 assassination of their crown prince, the Habsburgs let themselves get swept up in war fury. While there’s plenty of blame to be spread around for the origins of World War One, the Austrians deserve their share of it.  

Yet what’s undeniable is that during the Great War, the Habsburg instinct toward suppleness and maneuver soon reasserted itself. Count Czernin, foreign minister during the middle part of the conflict, was desperately reaching for a negotiated settlement. In Czernin’s words, “the aged and peace-loving Emperor Francis Joseph” knew that “a victory peace was out of the question; we are therefore compelled to effect a peace with sacrifice.” Peace with sacrifice. Not much moral clarity there, just a desire to stop the shooting. Yet even as it was losing the war, Berlin still controlled its junior partner, and so Czernin’s chain was jerked. Wrote the frustrated diplomat, “My efforts in this connection [seeking peace] were interrupted by my dismissal.”

The Habsburg trace survives today. The country of Czechoslovakia was created in 1918 out of former Habsburg territory. Its predominant peoples, the Czechs and the Slovaks, were never entirely happy in their relationship. In fact, for a long time, the country’s name was rendered with a hyphen, Czecho-Slovakia, to underscore its federated status. Then, in 1992, not long after the withdrawal of the Red Army, Czechoslovakia split peacefully into two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia—the so-called “velvet divorce.”  

Here we can take note of the Habsburg trace. Czechs and Slovaks had been part of the Habsburg realm for four or more centuries prior to 1918, and while they hadn’t grown to love each other during that time, they had at least gotten used to each other. Both ethnicities had long had medieval-type rights under Austrian rule, and in 1848 they were able to set up their own parliaments, giving them plenty of practice in non-violent statecraft. Now, thirty years after their separation, the two countries are still close. Polls show that Slovakia is the Czech Republic’s favorite neighbor and vice versa. The two countries sometimes even speak for each other in diplomatic settings.

By contrast, Yugoslavia was made up substantially of territory that had never been part of the Habsburg realm; the dominant nation, Serbia, was an historic enemy of the Austrians. That may be a big reason why Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia met such different fates. 

Now to the not-so-United States, this supersized mongrel nation of 335 million, speaking some 350 tongues. Some may yearn to make a multicultural nation unicultural—good luck with that. What’s more likely to work is taking Americans as they are: nudge them enough so that they don’t kill their neighbors, but don’t nudge so much that they want to kill you.  

Fortunately, perhaps even providentially, we have a system in place that allows us to celebrate diversity without letting it destroy us: federalism. Good old states’ rights, which allow different people, in different states, to choose different paths.  

Some say that states’ rights—the fervent belief of Jefferson, Madison, and, on a good day, Hamilton—were plowed under by the Civil War. Not really. Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase wrote in 1869, “The Constitution in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible states.” Others say that states’ rights—the fervent belief of Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats, formally known as States’ Rights Democrats—were finally plowed under by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet to this day, states’ rights aren’t dead. Far from it.

Recently, the states have experimented variously on matters ranging from gambling to marijuana (ultra-experimental Oregon has decriminalized hard drugs) to drag queens to the death penalty.  Climate rules, sanctuary cities, welfare reform—just about everything is the subject of a state experiment. Already people can go to one state for their abortions and their green-energy subsidies, to another for their tax cuts and their AR-15s. Where will it end up? Free heroin in a blue state?  Liberated ivermectin in a red state? Am I lacking imagination?

In the meantime, we can observe that this back-and-forth is energizing. In science, whenever things change their state—from, say, solid to liquid, or liquid to gas—there’s often a release of energy. We can see this same phenomenon in human affairs. In history, land reform that turns serfs into yeoman farmers unleashes economic (and political) energy. The Thirteen Colonies were more dynamic as the United States. In 1911, when John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was broken up by the trust-busters, the resulting thirty-four corporate fragments doubled in total value.  

By this reckoning, the competition inherent in constitutional federalism also makes the states into laboratories of prosperity. Which state will do better next? Will California gain by financing green energy development, or will Texas do better by expanding oil drilling? One shouldn’t necessarily bet against California: Since 2015, it has moved up four notches, now boasting the fourth-largest economy in the world, and if the fusion energy pioneered at the state’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory works out, it could soar even higher.

Yet in Mosca-like manner, the fifty states have a way of congealing into two opposing blocs. Here in the U.S., that polarization is reinforced by our winner-take-all, first-past-the-post electoral system. 

From 2017 to 2021, blue states were up in arms against the dreaded Trump. For instance, then California attorney general Xavier Becerra sued the Trump administration more than 100 times. Since 2021, the situation has been reversed. It’s red states, most notably, Florida, suing the Biden administration. Indeed, Governor Ron DeSantis isn’t just suing, he is actively investigating the federal government for possible illegal behavior in regard to the Covid vaccine. The idea that a U.S. state would investigate the federal government is, to put it mildly, extraordinary. Yet what’s also extraordinary is that there’s been so little pushback from the establishment. Maybe that’s because the center isn’t holding—because there’s no center there.  Today, instead of a center, there are just two polarities. 

Hopefully the red–blue split here in America will stay peaceful. In the spirt of Czechia and Slovakia, perhaps we could call it “Redia” and “Blueia.”

With that in mind, we might usefully learn from our own history, in particular from John C. Calhoun, the fire-eating South Carolinian. Because of his views on slavery, Calhoun is in ill odor today, and yet because of his views on minority rights, he is an unacknowledged legislator of the world. Today, whoever talks about minority rights as being of a mystical, even sacred, nature, and thus being unalienable, is taking a page, knowingly or not, from Calhoun.  

Calhoun was all in favor of states’ rights, and yet at the same time, as a student of power, he was shrewd enough to understand that a single state couldn’t fend for itself. As he wrote in his posthumously published Disquisition on Government, “the dominant majority…would have the same tendency to oppression and abuse of power.” To which, Calhoun continued, “[p]ower can only be resisted by power.” To be powerful, the states would have to arrange themselves into blocs or, er, confederacies. 

In that spirit, Calhoun put forth a sort of republican version of the Habsburg dual monarchy: a dual presidency. “Indeed, it may be doubted,” he wrote, “whether the framers of the constitution did not commit a great mistake, in constituting a single, instead of a plural executive.” He recalled that “the two most distinguished constitutional governments of antiquity, both in respect to permanence and power, had a dual executive. I refer to those of Sparta and of Rome. The former had two hereditary, and the latter two elective chief magistrates.” 

For Calhoun, this doppel-presidency idea was no throwaway. He meant it, and so he elaborated: “It is objected that a plural executive necessarily leads to intrigue and discord among its members; and that it is inconsistent with prompt and efficient action.” Such slowness was a good thing, as it would force checks-and-balances deliberation. The two presidents would negotiate with each other. The pairing “would become the means of restoring harmony and concord to the country and the government. It would make the Union a union in truth—a bond of mutual affection and brotherhood—and not a mere connection used by the stronger as the instrument of dominion and aggrandizement.”

Some will insist that all of this was just a cover for the defense of slavery. If so, that’s moot now, because nobody’s a slave, and nobody misses the peculiar institution. Today, what should endure is the way that Calhoun thought about the resolution of irresolvable differences. As legal scholar Joerg Knipprath writes, “Calhoun’s approach to consent of the governed, as expressed through concurrent majorities of the whole and of its affected constituent minorities, presents a relevant model for peaceful resolution of fundamental political questions that well preserves both ‘Liberty and Union’ in a large, diverse, and divided country.”

Ah, diversity, how much ink has been spilled in thy name! One prominent diversitarian was Lani Guinier, named by President Bill Clinton to be his assistant attorney general for civil rights (but not confirmed by a Democratic Senate—back then, mandated diversity was controversial among Democrats). Guinier’s 1994 book, The Tyranny of the Majority, is a standard text for left-minoritarians, and while the author doesn’t mention Calhoun, her colleague at Yale Law, Stephen L. Carter, recalled the éminence grise in his foreword to her book. Carter noted that one critic of Guinier’s ill-starred appointment had called her a Calhounian, “better qualified for the Bosnian desk at State than civil rights at Justice.” Ding! Ding! There we go again with mention of a former province of Austria-Hungary. Carefully delineated ethnic spoilsmanship—not necessarily equal, but always careful—is exactly what the Habsburgs practiced. And it’s what the left celebrates today, whether or not the Habsburgs, let alone Calhoun, get any credit. 

Must American conservatives, too, celebrate diversity? Not necessarily, but if we wish to be effective in a diverse country, we need to be mindful of the realities of political power in a diverse polity. Red states will likely wish to form a bloc against Biden and the blues. In many ways, they already have. One Republican operative said of Ron DeSantis to Politico, “He’s really the governor of red-state America.” It does seem that there’s an emerging red-state way, as well as a blue-state way, and it’s only a matter of time before dual institutions are created on either side of the divide, akin to the old Austria-Hungary or to the duality that Calhoun had in mind.  

As President John F. Kennedy declared in 1963, “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” And since we cannot end our differences, we must make our country safe for duality.


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