Jonathan Chait has written an important article documenting another one of the most important reasons — perhaps the most important one — for opposing Bush this November. In Power from the People, Chait writes:
Bush and his allies have been described as partisan or bare-knuckled, but the problem is more fundamental than that. They have routinely violated norms of political conduct, smothered information necessary for informed public debate, and illegitimately exploited government power to perpetuate their rule. These habits are not just mean and nasty. They’re undemocratic. [...]
The proper indictment of the Bush administration is … not that he’s abandoning American democracy, but that he’s weakening it.
Chait assembles a list of examples (a number of which have been mentioned on this site): the case of suppressing the true cost of the Medicare bill; using public money to trumpet Bush’s role in tax cuts or the Medicare bill; how Congressional debate is squelched* under DeLay and rendered moot by House-Senate conference committee end-runs; the Texas redistricting saga and the attendant abuses of power via DeLay pressure on the FAA and AMICC. He might have mentioned others like the RAGA fundraising scam or the Westar payments for a “seat at the table” for the Bush energy bill.
Chait is willing to put some of the blame on the very constitutional structure of the nation: the disproportionate impact of small states on the electoral process, the winner-take-all structure of American elections. While I happen to consider the electoral college a justifiable concept per se**, Chait is persuasive that right now it’s part of a kind of ‘perfect storm’ against American democracy, arguing that given the pro small state (i.e. Western state) bias, the Presidency and the Senate are inherently anti-majoritarian — and that the House is paradoxically more so by dint of ever more sophisticated, computer-assisted gerrymandering of state congressional districts. Individually, any one of these vulnerabilities might be acceptable. But together, in the hands of a disciplined, radical faction, the upshot is ominous:
At the beginning of 2001, the conventional wisdom held that Republicans would court a backlash if they exceeded their limited mandate. The common metaphor is a pendulum that, if tilted off center, inevitably swings back. The more apt (and less comforting) metaphor, however, may be a feedback loop. Facing a lack of public support, Bush and his allies circumscribe normal democratic procedures to enact their agenda. The Republican Congress, in turn, spares Bush from paying a price for his anti-democratic endeavors, and this protection only encourages further abuses by the White House.
The results over the last few years have been plain:
Bush is the first president since James Garfield not to veto a single bill. Whereas the Democratic Congress held hearings about Whitewater, it’s simply impossible to imagine today’s GOP Congress investigating Bush’s past business dealings. Even Republicans confess that their party has essentially abandoned its duty to oversee the executive branch. “Our party controls the levers of government,” GOP Representative Ray LaHood told Congressional Quarterly. “We’re not about to go out and look beneath a bunch of rocks to try to cause heartburn.”
(There’s a statement that’s nearly as shameless in its own way as a grinning thumbs-up in front of naked prisoners.) Chait continues:
And so, where the Republicans have broken rules–say, using the Treasury department to disseminate political advertising, or employing conference committees to write laws from scratch–the enforcement mechanisms are essentially controlled by the perpetrators themselves. If Republicans stand together, there will be no investigations. (Or, at least, no serious investigations.) If there are no investigations, there is no process for the media to cover. If there’s no media coverage, there’s no public outrage to constrain the GOP. After the GAO ruled that the administration broke the law with its Medicare videos, Democrats in Congress demanded that the money spent on the ads be refunded. But Republicans simply ignored them, and the story disappeared.
In a civics class discussion, one might look to the news media on the one hand and an alert citizenry on the other as a last line of defense against undemocratic developments like these. But as Bob Somerby documents over and over again on his web site, The Daily Howler, the American news media essentially aspire to become part of the political and economic class they purport to “cover.” Instead of doing their jobs as their supposed clients — their readers, viewers, or listeners — understand it, by reporting the news with energy and without favor, celebrity journalists all too often register their fealty to their betters and eachother with pat, consensus story lines about the issues of the hour.
Meanwhile, the American people are now in some part more concerned with outside threats to their safety than with internal threats to their political system and liberties. The definitive abuse of this concern was in the ever shifting set of reasons advanced for attacking Iraq — some of which, for the record, I agreed with, and some of which I did not. As Chait put it,
During the run-up to the war, a large majority of Americans implicated Iraq in the September 11 attacks. Even if you supported the Iraq war (as I did), this fact must be considered a serious problem for American democracy. Bush did not obtain, or even seek, the rational, informed consent of the public.
The emphasis on security — any security, lots of it, as quick as possible — can lead to a ”he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” principle, applied to domestic politics instead of foreign affairs, or it can help lead supporters to develop a nearly cultlike devotion to their supposed protectors (despite derelictions of duty from Tora Bora to looted uranium in Iraq to Abu Ghraib).
Such developments may be understandable, if not admirable, in the wake of 9/11 and the consensus that more attacks like it are inevitable. But in the long run, if the country is to function, its citizens need a ship of state with a rudder that isn’t stuck on a starboard course.
* See particularly the Michael Crowley article “Oppressed Minority“ in the linked post.
**Without the electoral college, presidential campaigns could completely ignore “flyover” America in favor of the coastal megalopolises. With it, they’re forced (or tempted, depending how you look at it) to fight for combinations of relatively cheap, small state wins. However, I think the electoral college is badly designed — I think states should get electoral votes in direct proportion to their populations, rather than the “representatives plus Senators” formula agreed to in an exhausted compromise over two hundred years ago.
EDIT, 7/26: Last sentence changed from “But in the long run, if the country is to function, they also rely on a self-correcting ship of state — one that may now have its rudder stuck on a starboard course.”