Jefferson once famously offered that, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants".
I am just enough of a bleeding-heart Pollyanna to hope that there are periods when real reform can be achieved without sacrifice on that scale, and just enough of a realist to know that there are then those other moments in history.
It’s difficult to see which we’re in now, but I suspect we’ll have a pretty good idea within a year or two. Americans are sickened by the policies and the character of their leadership, such as it is. That much is now as clear and free of obstruction as is the space between George Bush’s ears. But what follows from there is far less apparent. Are these same Americans prepared to make even the smallest of sacrifices, let alone give the blood Jefferson thought necessary, for the purposes of restoring the freedom and democracy they read about in their ninth grade civics texts? And with conservatives in ever-expanding numbers now joining the ranks of those disgusted with BushCo, could the country even agree on remedies for the current malaise, even if we can all concur on what we don’t want?
The central insight of the Founders was that woven into human nature, for at least enough people to give the rest of us worry, is an insatiable will to power. Unmitigated, unchallenged, really powerful power. While Western societies may have spent half a century or so lulled into believing that that gene had finally and expensively been excised from human DNA once and for all, we are nowadays daily and sadly reminded of the eternal prescience of Jefferson, Madison and their generation.
They, of course, never met Dick Cheney. But they would recognize him instantly. If the man weren’t so dangerous he would be hilariously laughable. His latest claim justifying his complete secrecy, his complete lack of oversight, and his completely unchecked power is that the vice presidency isn’t actually an executive branch office (except, of course, when it is claiming executive privilege to guarantee secrecy, lack of oversight and unchecked power). I mean, I don’t even know where to start satirizing that one. It’s just such an amazingly absurd assertion. If Cheney claimed that he wasn’t actually a human being, and therefore not subject to the laws of the land, it would be hardly less preposterous. In fact, given the absolute absence of humanity found anywhere in the vicinity of this creature, it would be rather more believable than the insane notion that the vice presidency isn’t part of the executive branch.
Okay. Let’s just get it out there, then. This is the guy for whom the Founders wrote the constitution. This is the man who would be king.
I’m quite sure most Americans have never really given it any thought, but the Constitution is really a pretty bizarre document absent this unspoken premise which provides for its conceptual foundation–that humans are dangerous power-seeking animals. The core attribute of the Constitution is that it spreads power out at every opportunity, from the checking and balancing of separate branches of government, to the power-sharing between the states and Washington embodied in its federalism, to the limitations on governmental power spelled out in the Bill of Rights. It is a governing system designed to produce stasis, out of fear of the pernicious products of action. It sacrifices a plethora of possible achievements in governance in order to prevent the worst of them.
And even so it can fail, especially in time of crisis, real or manufactured. And particularly when under assault by those who, while wrapping themselves in the glory and legitimacy of the Founders at every turn, seek to unravel the very essence of their greatest accomplishment.
Such is our historical moment. American democracy has been in a virtual free fall, and the problems it now faces are myriad. These challenges extend well beyond the current occupants of the White House, though the provenance of many of them can be traced to the same murky swamp from out of which evolutionary biology’s attempt at humor gone freakishly awry, aka Bush and Cheney, once crawled.
It is worth considering some of these sources of our current affliction, each in turn, working our way toward the most fundamental of them. Which, not coincidentally, is also the only place where any genuine hope for redemption lies.
We can begin at the inner-most circle of Hell, with Bush and Cheney and all those like them. Life in America would not necessarily be all sweetness and light were there not a predatory kleptocracy in Washington with control over every scrap of governmental authority it can possibly acquire, but it sure would be less disastrous, and less precipitously catastrophic, were this not the case.
It’s crucial to understand the magnitude of the condition we’re in as a result of just this single factor. America is virtually an occupied country. Does that strike you as hyperbolic, perhaps ridiculously so? It’s easy to forget, and we are massively discouraged from realizing, that just because an individual is president (or vice president, or senator, or Supreme Court justice), that such a person might not have the interests of the country at heart. The current regime can bungle spectacularly, but they are not fundamentally bunglers, and it is therefore easy to mistake them for something other than what they are. In fact, they are ruthlessly efficient at what they care about.
If a government can plunge a country into penury in order to enrich an elite economic class, if it can propagate an immense campaign of deceit in order to launch a prodigiously violent war, if it can usurp the powers of government at every turn–if it can do all these things, what difference does it make if it is foreign or domestic? If we feel any better being exploited by the Kennebunkport mafia than, say, the Kremlin mafia, it is only because we’ve been well trained in nationalist bunk to go along with our civics bunk. The only difference between the Russians invading Washington to imperil our lives, limbs and wealth, and the Cheneys doing the same thing, is that the former would require translators when they’d bark out the command to "Bend over!"
But this kleptocracy is not, of course, the only injurious political condition now debilitating American democracy. In fact, it is exacerbated by, and arguably even impossible without, the coincident presence of the others. But this criminal conspiracy is nevertheless currently at the heart of the ruination now being visited upon the country, and the first order of business is to remove it. By which I mean not just the Bush presidency, but the entirety of the regressive project.
Surely a second cause of our political woes has been Congress, specifically the GOP members who controlled it for most of the Bush years. They’ve proved repeatedly that institutional bulwarks against tyranny are only as good the people who occupy the institutions. The very same people who love to laugh at the naivete of liberals and mock the utility of their beloved treaties abroad ‘prove’ the point by abdicating their responsibilities at home and turning the Constitution into just so much faded parchment. One might think that even Republican members of Congress would have a certain interest in defending the institutional prerogatives of their branch of government, but I can hardly remember any time they showed such wisdom. Rather, they backed Bush even as he mocked them and gutted their powers at every opportunity. If the United States Congress insists on being run over repeatedly by an executive freight train gone off the tracks, it should not be surprised to find itself about as consequential as was the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies. Eh, comrades? Nor should it be chagrined. We’ll handle that part.
Then there’s the matter of the opposition party. Who, you’re wondering? Yeah, exactly. Probably the only thing that keeps the alleged leadership of the Democratic Party alive is that somebody wired around their embarrassment circuits. Otherwise I expect they’d all be hurling themselves into the Potomac from the highest bridge in the District. I know I would be if I had their record. But then I wouldn’t have their record. Even with all the trappings of office, I’d rather be a good ditch digger than a lousy Speaker of the House. I expect I’d struggle harder to dig a nice straight ditch than Pelosi or Reid have to save lives in Iraq. All this matters because the public expects and needs leadership in articulating an alternative vision to that of the reigning government, especially when that regime is evil, lusting for power at every turn, and not the least bit dissuaded from using every nefarious technique and every deceit large or small in order to get what it wants. There should be a serious limit to this dependency on leaders, but let’s face it, most citizens don’t have the time, resources and information access that members of Congress have. It’s not impossible for the public to understand the intricacies of Bush’s Medicare Part D scam, for instance, or the alternatives to that policy. It’s just harder in the absence of a loyal opposition doing its job in leading the way.
A fourth source of our current dismal political condition is a media which has gone native so badly it makes obsequiousness look like a virtue. For someone who came of political age in the Watergate era, the last few years have been a jaw-dropping astonishment. Today’s mainstream media is virtually unrecognizable from just a generation earlier, and it often wasn’t so very great back then. Two anecdotal stories say all that needs to be said on this subject. The first is the near complete absence of coverage in the mainstream media of the Downing Street Memos when they emerged, a bombshell which I have argued is almost without question the second biggest news story since the Berlin Wall came down (9/11 being number one, and there is much to suggest that that one has also been treated to somewhat less than sufficient investigative attention). The New York Times actually did better than other outlets, just by virtue of mentioning it at all. They covered these leaked memos from the angle of the British election of the time, however. Confronted by an angry blogosphere about why these documents that reveal the lies of the Iraq war weren’t translated into screaming four-inch headlines on the front page, their editors mumbled something about how the foreign desk and the national desk never quite connected with each other. Uh-huh. Sure, I believe that. As I said, this was one of the better bits of coverage. Elsewhere it was never mentioned at all.
Then there was more or less the entirety of ‘news’ ‘coverage’ leading up to the war, and during most of it. The stories of media failures to question assumptions about the administration’s propaganda are already legion. What is becoming increasingly apparent is the degree to which the media was complicit in creating the ‘news’–and not just Fox or the Washington Times, either. I heard Josh Rushing, former Marine Corps media liaison officer, on the radio this week discussing his new book. He described how ‘war correspondents’ would come to him during ‘briefings’, and quite literally ask, "What points do you want us to get across today?" (And apparently he names names in the book.) Could there be a bigger sell-out than that, a bigger abdication of fundamental responsibility? Even in the absence of the other factors enumerated here, it is difficult to imagine anything approaching a robust democracy in any polity where the conduits of information are owned and maintained by supplicants rather than scrutinizers. Heads-up news media hacks: Thomas Jefferson has plans for your blood.
I would certainly also add to the list of what ails American politics both an educational system and a political culture that consistently fail to build an army of the sort of keepers-of-the-flame necessary to anything which is meant to remotely resemble rule by the people. I don’t know if there was conspiratorial project to dumb down the American educational system to the point where its products are incapable of thinking critically about politics (after all, arrogant and insular Americans have long been notorious for their ignorance of history, other cultures, and even geography), but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was. Certainly that has happened, and intentionally, in the public sphere, where one corrosively inane idea after another has been successfully marketed by the vast right-wing conspiracy upon a gullible public. It’s hard to know where to start, but two of the most sinister and malefic of these are the laughably absurd notion of a liberal-biased media (you know, the ones covering the Iraq war), and the even more damaging Reagan mantra that "Government is not the solution. Government is the problem."
Of course, lurking behind many of the items on this laundry list is one in particular, the endlessly voracious gluttony of the crapulent class, the pathological pursuit of superfluous wealth by elites already drowning in shamefully obscene piles of lucre. What massive insecurities can drive those already owning two yachts to favor killing a school lunches program in order to buy a third? What can push them even to the point of destroying the infrastructural goose laying the golden eggs, to save a couple of nickels on taxes? Will they be able to buy enough air conditioners to mollify their children who inherit from them not only great riches, but a one-and-only planet careering toward inhabitability? Better hope the kids aren’t quite as selfish as Mom and Dad, or the latter might have to use that small army of Blackwater pinkertons to protect them from more than just the surly hoi polloi assembled beyond the walls of the estate. Of course, being the Me Children of the Me Generation (these things escalate geometrically), more likely is that the kids will be even more poorly disposed than the parents, who may find themselves one day personally mourning the loss of the munificent state they dismantled in the name of short-term greed. Good luck putting that large, egg-like creature back together.
So, if the question is "What’s eating American politics"?, the answer is manifold. Is it possible to have cancer of the heart? It would seem so, given the predators now running American government. Their mission, of course, is simply to bleed the state dry of every valuable they can get their hands on and deliver those items to their rightful owners, the already fantastically privileged. They have coopted everything and nearly everyone who might serve as a barrier to their plundering, including the media, the political opposition, the educational system, the institutions of government and the very culture itself. The cards have been dramatically stacked in their favor, but we haven’t even gotten yet to the single factor most responsible for our predicament.
A garden left untended will grow weeds. A child left to his or her own devices will become the human equivalent. What ever possessed Americans to allow themselves to believe a political system is any different? Not only is public indifference to politics the single most consequential factor of all of those which ail this political system, its inverse is probably the only possible remedy. Sure, it would be nice to have a Congress, or a Democratic Party, or a media that singularly or collectively decided to actually do their job. But the likelihood of that happening is remote in the absence of an engaged public. Moreover, the likelihood of it mattering under such conditions is also quite slim. There’s just no avoiding it. Public participation in politics is the sine qua non of democracy and good governance, the requisite that both trumps and enables all the other significant factors.
But we’re pretty far from that today. The American people are essentially phoning it in. The signs are everywhere, and they are grim. It’s not just that we barely vote at the fifty percent turnout level for presidential election years (and more like one-third for mid-term congressional elections). That’s a depressing measure of participation for any democracy, to be sure, but what is most troubling is the degree to which the public simply pays less than minimal attention to politics and government. Even those who are bothering to vote are often doing so with a level of engagement that could subject them to a lawsuit for negligence in other contexts. This is drive-thru politics. Pay at the first window, get your cheeseburger at the second, move on down the road.
It’s not that we’re intellectually incapable, either. Americans keep exhaustive amounts of data in their heads about sports, celebrities, frighteningly banal television shows and all manner of other distractions. There’s plenty of storage capacity on their human hard drives, though a purge of all that useless information wouldn’t hurt, nor would running a subsequent defrag to unclutter all that messy space be such a bad idea. But the point is that we could all become quite expert and sophisticated consumers of political information if we chose to.
But, of course, that is the worst nightmare of the political class, especially the rabid right, whose level of support is altogether inversely related to the degree of information and sophistication a voter possesses. If you’re dumb, a phrase like "We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here" sounds plausible. If you don’t pay attention, you wouldn’t realize that there are different kinds of Muslims (and they don’t necessarily all get along), and thus that attacking just any old Middle East country in response to 9/11 isn’t necessarily a great idea. If you’re all wrapped up in baseball box scores instead of knowing a bit about public policy, you’ll believe that the pathetic little tax cut George Bush threw in your direction to buy you off was a good thing for both you and the country. If you’re devoting a lot of time to following Paris Hilton’s travails, you’ll be uneducated enough to believe that global warming is a fraud.
I will give the American public some credit. They now loathe George W. Bush, and that is crucial. Which is why it pains me so much that it took them six years to figure out what was transparently obvious all along. More importantly, though, I am quite convinced that they despise Bush for–if not the wrong reasons–then at least not the most significant reasons one should. That is, they seem to have him figured for a bungler, a village idiot, and somebody who is less than truthful on minor issues like war, civil liberties and the Constitution. The depravity of the Bush administration runs far deeper, however. It is essentially an invading force which twice seized office illegally, has arrogated to itself monarchical authorities while in power, and uses all these for the purpose of bilking the public of its possessions. I doubt that many Americans–even among the seventy percent who think he’s a lousy president–fully understand this.
I think it also needs to be said that, at some level, there is much that is off-putting about politics, particularly the way it has come to be practiced in America in recent decades. Who can blame the public for thinking that politicians are a sleazy bunch in general? They are! Who can blame people for thinking that far too many politicians are more interested in advancing their careers or lining their pockets than in being good stewards of the American polity during their tenure? Who can blame them for tuning out insipid thirty-second television ads that fairly scream out their disdain for anyone dumb enough to listen to them? And who could blame the public for wondering whether there’s any substantial difference between the party of Tweedledee and the party of Tweedledum?
But which of these are the chicken, and which the egg? Would any of this occur if the titular owners of American government were more vigilant about maintaining their property? I doubt it. The last thing a politician facing a discriminating voting public would want would be to demean them with insultingly insipid campaign tactics. It’s a worn-out maxim but nevertheless true: People get the government they deserve. If we require more and better political discourse, no politician could afford to deliver anything less and hope to be successful.
People ask all the time, "What can we do?" At the risk of offering a too vague response, the simple answer–I would say fundamentally the only viable answer–is for us to be more responsible owners of our government, to actively encourage everyone we know to do the same, and to seek to establish such behavior as a moral norm in the society. Any parent who allowed their child to play in a busy street would be subjected to the worst kind of opprobrium (not to mention probably losing custody of the child)–and rightly so. Why then should we be allowed to let our government to play in the street? Especially if the reason for doing so is our simple laziness. Awful things will happen. Awful things are already happening.
The great irony of this is that the cost of not paying attention is almost always infinitely higher than it would be to do the thing the right way in the first place. Too much for comfort, we’re like the child who in fighting to avoid doing his homework expends ten times more energy than the homework itself would require. If Americans had any idea of the costs the Bush administration has saddled upon them, for the worst of reasons, they’d go ballistic. They’d be enraged at a thief stealing their money, and yet he’s done just that while they were sitting on the couch. They’d flip out at someone wrecking their living space, and yet Bush had done precisely that while they were watching that Seinfeld rerun for the fourth time–you know, the one about masturbation. They’d get red in the face at somebody wrecking their reputation, and yet Bush shredded theirs before halftime was even over.
The truth is that we are essentially political adolescents in America. It’s not entirely clear that giving us our participatory driver’s licenses is such a good idea. We really don’t seem very responsible, and it’s not like the ship of state we’re driving is some national moped that wouldn’t do much damage to anyone besides the rider and the odd pedestrian in the wrong place at the wrong time. The United States is the QEII of vehicular metaphors. It’s the Saturn V, man. It’s the freakin’ Death Star. It’s capable of enormous damage if piloted by a bunch of "Party on, Garth!" teenagers with an attention span barely suited for playing Doom II, and all the gravitas of a Cheech and Chong movie. This is not a theoretical proposition. Probably a million completely innocent Iraqi civilians are dead now, while the tweener called the American public was busy rocking out to Korn instead of watching the road.
Americans have, I fear, grown intellectually lazy and fearful (which itself can often be another form of lazy). Just like we want a bunch of illegal immigrants to wash our car or bus our restaurant tables, so we want a government on the cheap and easy (which will also sometimes make lots of silly noises about illegal immigrants). We wouldn’t dream of having somebody else choose our dinner for us, and yet we have delegated our futures–often our very lives–to some of the lowliest critters walking the planet, without much more than the slightest oversight. In fact, we don’t even seem to care much when the folks we’ve hired to do the oversight don’t bother to do that.
So we fund our schools through lotteries ’cause that lowers our tax bill. And we commit our children’s future earnings by borrowing to spend today, again to avoid paying our share in taxes. And we give the president a blank check for fighting whatever war he wants ’cause thinking about whether an invasion is justified takes time and energy. And we drive Hummers ’cause … well, I don’t actually know why any fool would drive a Hummer. But surely it’s not because he’s carefully thought through the implications of environmental destruction.
I’m quite sure that the same Americans who would assure you of what solid patriots they are were just like George Bush in not knowing on the eve of the Iraq invasion, that, for instance, there are Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and that there is no shortage of historical tension between them. How can you put a magnetic ribbon on the back of your car, but not take the slightest bit of time to learn some basic facts about the living and dying hell to which your tax dollars and your votes are committing American troops? Bush’s case for the war, even based on what we knew then, fell apart with the slightest application of knowledge and thought. But people don’t want to learn and they don’t want to think, because it can be difficult. It’s far easier to be anesthetized by yet another episode of Desperate Housewives.
The solution to all this begins with accountability. So much of what passes for politics in America today is only possible because of the style of our discourse, and because of the absence of sustained questioning of members of our political class. George W. Bush had to avoid at all costs any meeting with Cindy Sheehan, let alone a public one, for the simple reason that he knew she would not be deterred from asking the difficult, probing and sustained questions that would immediately expose the lies surrounding his Iraq adventure. The media is equally capable of asking these questions, but refuses any sort of serious grilling of presidents or members of Congress (unless, of course, they’re Democrats). We need to reinvent the rituals of American politics so that candidates and officeholders will not get our votes unless they can defend their ideas against prolonged critical inquiry, and we need to demand with our remote controls that our media provide us with that.
I’m more hopeful than I have been for a generation that young people get this. The New York Times is reporting this week that younger Americans are thinking about politics in ways we haven’t seen for a very long time. Fifty-eight percent of that cohort said they are paying attention to the presidential race today, more than a year before election day. In the 2004 cycle–an election of pretty intense engagement relative to those which preceded it–only thirty-five percent were following the presidential race at the equivalent time in the campaign. That is a huge difference, the likes of which you don’t often see in polling on any question or attitude. And what is more, not surprisingly, these 18 to 29 year-olds have more progressive views than their elders on a raft of issues, as well as very negative views of the Republican Party, which has probably lost them for life. I say this is not surprising–not because it vindicates my own personal politics–but because of the relationship between information and ideology discussed above. Time and again, regressive politics simply fall apart under any sort of thoughtful examination. The more engaged you are, the less Republican, as these young folks are proving.
There are other reasons to be hopeful as well. Who could not be excited by the group of high school Presidential Scholars–including, I’m proud to say, the daughter of two of my colleagues–who hand-delivered a letter to George Bush demanding that he stop torturing in their name, and in doing so thereby demonstrated a wisdom, patriotism and courage most Americans twice or three times their age would envy if they were smart enough to recognize it for the wonderful act it was?
All in all, it has in fact been the public these last years that has been the (unhurried) vanguard when it comes to confronting the atrocities of Bush and his band of regressives, while the institutional actors in the system have repeatedly failed in just about everything but drawing their paychecks (thank goodness for direct deposit, eh?). They continue to do so today. The only reason a do-nothing new Congress could have come to be so despised by so many Americans in so short a time is because of their failure to be responsive on the major issue of our day–Iraq. The public already gets it, and has done so without much help from a fully coopted media, either. They look at Congress and wonder what the heck those folks do all day long up there on that hill, anyhow.
But, notwithstanding these clear signs of life in the comatose patient, far more needs to be done. Far more. Especially if we are to make the institutional changes to the foundations of our political culture that are necessary to avoid returning to this dark, dank place we’ve haunted of late.
It may sound ridiculously platitudinous, but the fact is that there is really no substitute for our hands-on engagement in the governing of our society and our world. It all comes back to that–Congress, the Democrats, the media–all of it. The genius of democracy is in its responsiveness to the public will, and unfortunately that is precisely what American democracy is doing right now–responding to our collective indifference. But until Dick Cheney cuts to the chase already and anoints himself emperor, there’s just enough democracy left in America to bring this thing around. It will require considerable effort, though. We have to tend to our garden. We have to support the seedlings and purge the weeds.
We cannot, fundamentally, delegate this one. We cannot hire someone to do our thinking for us. Not, at least, if we expect to be happy with the results. Not if we want to grow roses instead of weeds.
(Oh, now I get it. That’s what the W stands for!)
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.