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.