Monday, May 01, 2006

What's at stake in the next election

Over at Unclaimed Territory, Glenn Greenwald has written a post about the Boston Globe's latest story about the extent to which the President has claimed for himself the authority to violate laws at his own discretion. Greenwald emphasizes that for the NSA surveillance scandal to matter, "Americans have to really be persuaded that there is serious and deliberate wrongdoing in order to demand that meaningful action be taken."

I agree, and would add that in order to be persuaded, Americans need to be reminded of their democratic institutions and traditions.

The Globe article begins

President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.

I would note that the first grievance listed against King George III in the Declaration of Independence is that "He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good." The DoI goes on to enumerate the ways in which the colonies have been mistreated by the King, but the overarching theme is that King will not submit himself to the Rule of Law in his relations to the colonies.

So at a very basic level, this nation was founded as a direct answer to a leader who believed himself to have the authority to make laws the subject of his own fiat. That the President believes the Consitution grants him the authority to do precisely what was one of the primary reasons for the founding of the nation in the first place reflects the poverty of his understanding of the way in which the American system of democracy functions. In a citizen, such a belief would be lamentable error, but in the President, it is an unforgivable vice, as it represents a threat to the democratic system itself.

As the colonists were under the rule of a monarchy, they had no recourse but to fight a war in order to win their independence from an unjust ruler. Having done so, they crafted, through the Constitution, a system that would allow future Americans "to throw off such Government" without resorting to revolution and violence.

The first line of defense was to be the system of checks and balances created via the seperation of powers between branches of government that was supposed to prevent the usurpation and abuse of power. But this only works if the branches of government guard jealously against encroachments by the other branches.

Here we have a problem. Congress is not guarding jealously against enchroachments of power. No, instead, we have a majority party in Congress which acts as if its primary allegiance is to the President rather than the republic, and a minority party that acts as if it is scared of being perceived as a party that actually opposes what the other party is doing. As such, the end result is that we can not expect Congress to hold the President accountable for his actions.

This is why the next election is so significant. The tool given to the public by the founders in order to protect a citizen's right to choose his government was his vote. Each election is a chance to vote out of office a government that citizens no longer approve of.

If we fail to vote our dissaproval of a government which no longer submits to the Rule of Law, then we have voted against the founding principles of this nation and taken a step towards ending democracy as it has existed in this country for the last two hundred plus years.

Obviously, there are problems symptomatic of the rot of our democratic institutions that we must also address. The media doesn't do its job. Districts have been gerry-mandered. Dollars have more influence in our electoral system than votes. A two party duopoly induces a narrowed and restricted range of political options.

The next election is an opportunity to begin working towards fixing these problems. It is past due time to send a message to both parties that the public will not be satisfied to watch as Democracy dies a slow death of attrition.

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