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Monday, June 06, 2005

The Republican Assault on Democracy

Guest post by John McGowan

The official Bush Administration line in foreign policy is the promotion of democracy.  Yet the Republicans have launched a full-scale assault upon democracy at home.  Setting aside (for the moment) the simple fact that this assault is about grabbing and using power, it also reflects an impoverished view of democracy, basically one that limits democracy to free elections.  In this view, the people ratify a set of leaders—a government—in an election, and, in so doing, gives those leaders a blank check.  If the government uses the power given to it unwisely, the people can vote it out next time around.  Power rests solely in the hands of the people and in its delegated agent, the government.

This understanding of democracy tends toward the plebiscite—and toward the establishment of a strong leader, usually one who promises to sweep aside the complexities, compromises, frustrations, and inefficiencies introduced by parliamentary janglings and an independent judiciary.  From Napoleon III and Bismarck in the 19th century to the Governator in the late 20th century, the plebiscite has almost always favored right wing leaders impatient with legal and institutional impediments to forceful action.  In other words, the plebiscite is perfect for establishing the tyranny of the majority that Tocqueville and Mill feared.  By emphasizing a direct (even cult-like) relationship between “the leader” and the people, democracy by popular ballot bypasses intermediary associations (either voluntary or constitutional), precisely the kinds of associations that Tocqueville counted on to temper democracy’s possible tyranny.  The Progressives who established the plebiscite provisions in various states in the early 20th century aimed, of course, to circumvent corrupt legislatures, but their efforts were almost certainly fated to aid, rather than hamper, right-wing interests. 

Why?  Not because the right wing almost always does better in direct appeals to the people than the left, although historically such is the case.  (Opponents of democracy in the 19th century assumed, as did Marx, that the people, once given power, would insist on distributing wealth downwards—i.e. to themselves.  But that has never happened; the most the people have ever tried to do in a leftward direction is to improve working conditions and to make the playing field a little more fair by securing the workers’ right to organize.  Sorry for the gross oversimplification here.  The history—and theory—of plebiscites is fascinating and important.  For one thing, liberalism must rely on direct democracy to establish a constitution in the first place.  It cannot avoid the kind of plebiscite to which the EU constitution has just been submitted.)

It is not the results of actual plebiscites that are the issue, however.  More crucial is that plebiscites consolidate power.  From Montesquieu through the American Founding Fathers (particularly Madison) to Tocqueville, liberals have insisted that tyranny can only be combated by the multiplication and fragmentation of power.  A free society is one in which there are various centers of power, various positions from which people have the ability to influence decisions.  That’s the whole point behind creating three branches of government, the vaunted “separation of powers.”

It’s easy to say that the Republicans’ drive to consolidate power—a drive manifested in their attempt to create a disciplined party whose legislative wing serves its White House leader smoothly and which captures the judiciary through placing party faithful on the bench—is just what any party will “naturally” try to do.  After all, FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court.  So we should expect that parties will strive to overcome the “checks” that the constitution tries to establish.  Hence my colleague Tyler Curtain’s response to my post on the Amnesty Report.  “Of course, the Bush Administration will try to ignore a Supreme Court decision that it doesn’t like.  What else would you expect?” (I should hasten to add that Tyler attributed such shrug-of-the-shoulders cynicism to what he deemed a post-Watergate loss of any faith in our government being upright.) Or, as one commentator put it, the Bush response is “how many divisions does the Supreme Court have?”

My point is that liberalism, first and foremost, is a set of expedients (mostly institutional and legal) for minimizing tyranny by setting limits to government power. It also tries to prevent the consolidation of power by fostering the multiplication of power.  Democracy, in my view, is not worth a damn if it is not partnered with liberalism.  Democracy and liberalism are a squabbling pair; they each locate power in a different place—democracy in the people, liberalism in the law—and they aim for different goods: democracy (in its most ideal form) for something like the “general will,” liberalism for a modus vivendi in a world characterized by intractable conflicts among people with different beliefs, goals, ambitions, and values.  Neither one trumps the other; both, in my view, are essential ingredients of a legitimate polity.

Not only the Republicans, but the American nation as a whole, seem to have lost any sense whatsoever of what liberalism means and what it strives to insure.  Even at the best of times, the liberal check upon power is a tenuous bulwark that fights against the odds.  There is nothing that underwrites the rule of law except the continued practice of upholding it.  The law must be reaffirmed anew each and every time it is enunciated and enforced.  And the temptation to circumvent the law, to rewrite it to accommodate one’s current beliefs and practices, is also ever present.  To pay the law heed is to accept that one’s own virtue is doubtful—or that one’s own beliefs are, in every sense of that word, “partial.” It is their assurance in their own virtue that renders the Republicans most dangerous, most prone to set the law aside when it gets in the way of doing when they know in their hearts is right.  Impatience with the law is endemic—and it is the harbinger of extreme politics of either the right or the left.  (It is here, of course, that the leftist will leap.  But why should we think leftist self-righteousness any more attractive or less dangerous than the rightist variety?)

I will continue on this line of thought in my next post.  Here I just want to end by noting how “unnatural” liberalism seems.  It involves self-abnegation, accepting the frustration of my will.  It involves, as I will detail in my next post, compromise in almost every instance, and thus can seem akin to having no strong convictions, no principles.  Yet its benefits are enormous; it provides, I am convinced, the only possible way humans can live in peace together in a pluralistic world.  Given how distasteful liberal expedients are in experience, it is a miracle that they ever get established and maintained.  But the benefits of that miracle are multiple—and we, as a nation, will sorely regret it if we trash our liberal edifice out of impatience, frustration, or, even worse, sheer forgetfulness of why that edifice was put in place, how it works, and what it accomplishes.

Posted by John McGowan on 06/06 at 02:00 PM
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Friday, June 03, 2005

The Mess in Iraq

To respond to one of the comments directly: yes, I do have a blog sort of my own.  It’s called Public Intelligence and I share it with my lively siblings, one of whom has just posted an interesting riposte to my comments about Iraq a few posts back.  Her objections echo many expressed by respondents here—and compel me to revisit the issue.  (I invite you to go over and read for yourself. )

Pat’s post (I’m assuming it is from Pat; I think I recognize the voice) also suggests a solution. The dilemma, as I phrased it, is how can we withdraw from Iraq without causing even more harm than the harm we are doing by being there. Various people object to understanding our situation in that way and I very much agree that one result of such an understanding is that you can end up prolonging a conflict because you don’t want the earlier deaths to be “in vain.” To use a very crude, but apt, analogy, it’s like throwing good money after bad. (Also, just to be clear, “harm” here is being understood in the grossest utilitarian terms. More harm = more deaths.)

So Pat suggests that we place the decision in the hands of the Iraqi people.  Schedule periodic (say once every six months) plebiscites on whether the US should go or stay. (She considers various objections and drawbacks in her post.) I think the idea is promising.  Oddly enough, I’ve been planning to write against plebiscites (with the Governator as prime instance) in my upcoming posts on the Republican assault on democracy.  And I am worried that Pat’s notion could just be a way of covering the US’s ass. It might be more of a public relations gimmick--giving us a way to leave with honor (to recall an odious Vietnam-era phrase)--than a way to minimize bloodshed. But--and this is a very big but--the insane dynamics of war are so insane precisely because they rarely offer any way to back down short of defeat. And the refusal to cry “uncle” can lead to thousands and thousands of pointless deaths. (Which is not to say that the first deaths in this war were not equally pointless.) So even if it is just a gimmick, any port in a storm. It can still have great overall consequences. In short, a hesitant endorsement of the idea. At the very least, it’s thinking creatively in the absence of any other good options.

Two further thoughts on Iraq. The first is that I do believe that, eventually, we are going to cut and run. The US can’t outlast the “insurgency” and it can’t stabilize the situation. We will do what we did in Vietnam. Make a show of having trained a legitimate, indigenous army and then leave before that army is even close to strong enough to control the situation. There will be a civil war from which some strong-armed authoritarian regime will emerge (Saddam Hussein-lite if Iraq is lucky). I don’t see any reason at all to expect any better than that. Even if the army we leave behind “wins” the war, it will do so by becoming authoritarian. So the only real question for US policy is whether we do any more harm withdrawing tomorrow as opposed to three years from now. But, of course, the question can’t be posed that way in public--or in the government’s foreign policy decision-making. The first casualty in war is the truth.

The second thought is on the insurgents. As Pat notes, there is some reason to believe their violence is much more about killing Americans and those Iraqis who collaborate with Americans than about gaining political power. The evidence? The minute the violence subsided in the immediate aftermath of the January elections, talk of American withdrawal began. The obvious strategy for an insurgency that actually wanted to win a civil war would be to unilaterally stop its attacks for six to twelve months and bide its time. After the Americans leave, it could overwhelm the new Iraqi government.

Of course, it took a long time for the Vietnamese communists to devise that strategy. But here, I think, analogies to Vietnam are completely misleading. It’s being called the “insurgency” for lack of a better name. But notice that there has been next to no information about who these insurgents are or any sense of what they want as a prelude to some sort of negotiated settlement. Partly that’s because we’re in such firm good guy/bad guy mode; no deals with the devil. Partly it’s because, from all accounts, our intelligence on the ground in Iraq is absolutely abysmal. (Our idea of combating the insurgents is to make sweeping arrests, with little idea of who the dragnet is pulling in.) But I think (from what I can glean and guess from, admittedly, a galaxy far, far away) it is also because there is not one insurgency, with some set of articulated aims, but instead thousands of very angry and pretty much independent armed groups who are bound and determined to resist America and all it stands for. And if that is the case, then withdrawal might very well make things better.

Posted by John McGowan on 06/03 at 04:26 PM
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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Amnesty International Hits A Nerve

A hit, a palpable hit.  The President, Vice-President, Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all responded this week to Amnesty International’s latest Human Rights Report.  Bush called Amnesty’s concerns “absurd” and Rumsfeld, while acknowledging that “some abuses” had occurred, objected most strongly to the terms “gulag” and “concentration camps” being used to describe the US detention centers.

The gents protest too much.  We can argue about the name; we can even argue about the relation of the Nazi “concentration camps,” the Soviet “gulags,” and the American “detention centers” to the law, since the Nazi and Soviet regimes did, in some cases, actually tie detention to (rigged) legal procedures and proceedings.  Our government officials keep trying, with their talk of a few bad apples in the lower ranks or of outrage that a force for “freedom” like the US could be compared to the great criminals of the 20th century, to obscure from view that the US is forcibly detaining people against their will outside of any legal process. To “admit” and “punish” abuses in this schema actually serves the larger policy because once you agree to use the word “abuses” about some of the behavior, you are granting the legitimacy of the day-to-day operations.

Recall that the Supreme Court has ruled that the detainees at Guantanamo must have hearings.  How many have gotten their Court-mandated hearings so far?  I’m having a Brad DeLong—“why can’t we have a better media?”—moment on that question.  An hour reading the news stories on Guantanamo failed to yield an answer.  The Court ruling came on January 31, but I can’t find any updates on what has been done in way of compliance.  And nobody raises the question—no less answers it—in the current spate of stories about the Amnesty Report. Except, of course, it is right there in the Amnesty Report.  Will the answer shock you?  None.  Nada.

Rule that the Geneva Conventions are quaint.  Ignore a ruling from the US Supreme Court.  But jump all over the “excessive” language of “gulag” and “concentration camp.” How many times can these guys—and Condi—pull off this trick?

Hannah Arendt was very clear that evils done to humans in the modern world—which is organized politically around the form of the nation-state—begin by rendering people “stateless,” by moving them outside of any legal structure in which they are recognized as citizens with certain rights or have access to a legal system in which to contest their treatment.  The US has headed down that path, not on the scale of 20th century evils, but making use of the same forms. (Of course, I didn’t have to look long to find a conservative blog that is full of scorn for legal protections for obviously wicked people.) In that respect, Amnesty’s terms are apt—and, if sensationalist, reflect a desperate attempt to get somebody’s, anybody’s, attention. 

Keep the pressure on.  We’ve got this brief swinging of the media’s attention to our detention centers once again.  We have an administration placed once again on the defensive—and reacting by swinging out wildly at its accusers. Maybe even someone in the mainstream media will read the Amnesty report and remember the Supreme Court decision. 

Posted by John McGowan on 06/02 at 09:52 AM
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