August 16, 2010

The Perversion of American Democracy: Death by a Thousand Cuts

by Hal Gershowitz

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Our nation is in trouble and it goes far deeper than the current economic crisis of the past few years.  Nor, despite all the rancor and the loud shouting back and forth, is the problem attributable to any single controversial issue . . . albeit the important issues that are dividing us are clearly a symptom of our woes.

Since we are a nation of immigrants, there have always been tensions within our vibrant democracy from divisions along obvious fault lines:  race, religion, class, geography, national origin and even age.  But what has, from the beginning, distinguished our collective ethnic citizenry and made America wonderfully unique among the nations of the world was that, unlike virtually all of the countries from which we came, once we attained citizenship we were accepted, truly accepted, as Americans.   We have overcome many crises because, with the obvious exception of the stain of slavery, our constitutional system of division of power between the states and the federal government and the separation of federal authority among these distinct branches of government, has depended on, indeed even demanded, political compromise to advance policies with any semblance of shared goals.  But over the last two decades the notion of shared goals and the ability to fashion compromises have all but disappeared, widening the fault lines and leaving the nation polarized and government often paralyzed.

There is irony in this increased polarization given our preoccupation, sometimes to the point of absurdity, with political correctness.  Either we have become unbelievably thin-skinned as a people or our preoccupation with political correctness has led to a process of balkanization as each ethnic group sees the “national pie” as a zero sum game:  “we win, you lose.” This comes at the expense of putting America first.  The price has been high.

When our president feels that apologies are necessary to improve our relationships with long- time allies and to reset our relationships with others, including those who have, for many years, been hostile to the United States; when an American ambassador, by his mere presence, implies an American apology for the awful devastation visited upon the victims at Hiroshima, without any acknowledgement by the Japanese government, after more than 60 years, that it was an imperialist Japanese government that was responsible for bringing war to the Pacific with their unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor, we diminish the noble cause for which over one-half million Americans gave their lives. The Japanese are certainly entitled to convene in memory of those who lost their lives at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it is their national day of remembrance. Our presence was neither called for nor appropriate. They and we have gotten past that dark and deadly time.  We are, today close allies and trade partners.  The last war-related joint ceremony in which we participated with the Japanese was in 1945 on the deck of the US Missouri in Tokyo Bay.   We should have left it there.

Now, in place of the heroes of that and other devastating wars, and the citizenry who lived during that era and its immediate aftermath, we have a whole new generation who are not only unaware of, but eschew the concept of American exceptionalism.  This leads to our inability to consider the need for national consensus and the concomitant politicization of almost every political subject.  Instead of invoking the memories of those past heroes, and warning Americans of new threats to our very national existence, our president steadfastly clings to the absurdity of banishing from his Administration’s vocabulary the reality of the greatest danger facing us:  fanatical Islamic terrorism.

The President who, using his bully pulpit to roll back executive compensation he considered excessive, or to squeeze funds from a company like BP beyond its legal responsibility has decided to use that same bully pulpit to support an Islamic organization’s plans to, of all things, build an Islamic center very close to ground zero. His rationale is that one of the pillars of our democracy is religious freedom; as though religious freedom has anything to do with the national exasperation over this ill-advised project. No one is questioning the right or the religious freedom Americans have to build such a facility. This isn’t about rights.  It is about the abysmal judgment and insensitivity of its sponsors to select this spot to build an Islamic cultural center and Mosque so near to the site of the mass murder of nearly 3000 Americans at the hands of Islamic extremists.

Instead of reminding the American people about the sheer decency and compassion of our own country and the sacrifices we have made for the good of the world, the president seems consumed by the need to convince the world that we are a good and decent people.  If the “rest of the world” doesn’t know that by now, his apologies for saving the European continent from despotism three times in the 20th century are totally irrelevant and an insult to the memories of those who sacrificed, and precisely the wrong message to send to today’s generation who think freedom comes without cost.

Similarly, on substantive political issues, the current Administration has virtually ignored the value — indeed the imperative — of finding commonality of purpose, which, in a democracy, requires both compromise and consensus.  The Obama Administration, has confused a large Congressional majority for a license to cram down our collective throats, legislation that a substantial majority of the people do not want . . . and, when the White House can’t get its programs passed notwithstanding their bloated majorities, they have resorted to government by fiat, causing an unprecedented loss of respect for the federal government, and forcing individual states to attempt to enact their own policies on what are assuredly national issues.  This is a prescription for serious trouble and the further fraying of the ties that bind us as a people.

Item:  Senate Majority Leader Reid recently pulled from the floor the Cap and Tax legislation regulating carbon emissions.  He knew there was neither a majority nor even a semblance of consensus, for this bill, which would likely cause a major dislocation of the American economy.  So what did the Administration do?  It used the EPA to issue a finding that carbon emissions threaten human health, and thereby arrogated to an unelected administrative agency, a huge expansion of authority without the kind of democratic consensus necessary to support such a profound change to our economy.

Item:  The president and his acolytes in Congress used deception and political bribery to pass health care legislation, which a majority of the American people opposed, and which will bring about the most profound and expensive change to the delivery of health care in America since Medicare.  Moreover this massive piece of legislation is grounded in an unprecedented expansive interpretation of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which is now being challenged in the courts by the attorneys general of 20 states.

Item:  Notwithstanding that BP might well have deserved it, the President, without even a scintilla of legal authority, strong-armed BP to create a $20 billion escrow fund, even though existing law (wrongly) sets a much lower liability limit. There is little doubt in our minds that BP would have, more than likely, agreed to such a request or that such an escrow requirement could have sailed through Congress, but the President made a show in his oval-office speech of demanding the $20 billion escrow fund hours before the meeting with BP.  We certainly have no tears to shed for BP, but nor do we have any cheers for this oval office theater.

Item:  In the bailout of General Motors, the Administration used raw federal power to subordinate the priority rights of bondholders (those who loaned money to GM) in order to give a huge equity stake to the United Auto Workers.  “Greedy bondholders” the president called them.  What this might portend for the capital markets and the trust they have in making investments in our economy is not yet known, but it is hard to distinguish this confiscatory action from those taken by the likes of the governments of Venezuela and Argentina.  We carry no brief to bail out creditors who made loans to a failing enterprise since that was the risk they voluntarily took, but those creditors were uniformly denied their priority rights in what amounted to a total corruption of the nation’s bankruptcy laws. Perhaps many feel that the ends justified the means, but we either are, or are not, a nation of laws.

To be sure, when the Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress, they did, essentially, nothing to promote compromise and consensus.

It is time to consider the obvious:  democratic government is more than mere number counting.  Often, when it involves transformative policies, it requires more than a simple majority, something more akin to a national consensus is called for.  This requires honest and open debate and the practice of persuasion, not legislative bullying, trickery, deceit and backroom deals.  A president needs to be in touch with the feelings of the people if he is to govern effectively.  He needs more than intelligence, charm and a gift of gab.  He needs to be intuitive, to have a fingertip feel for the sentiments of the body politic; kind of like political Braille.

We are witnessing a usurpation of power, an unlawful exercise of power, by the executive branch, of those powers clearly delegated by the Constitution to Congress or the states.  This, over time, can become the proverbial death of a thousand cuts to the Federalism created by the founders. How different in result is this from the heavy handed actions of the thugocracies we deplore when democratic values are sliced away like salami to the point where the will of the people is reduced to irrelevance.  As the November elections approach, early indications are that the American public is in revolt (thankfully peacefully) at the excessive intrusion by government in our lives. There is a fear that a Pied Piper is leading us into financial extremis, and a general, but ever-growing concern that the current Administration is abdicating its most important job, keeping us safe so they can “reset” relations with those who wish us ill. Tyranny or authoritarianism doesn’t necessarily have to arrive by violent Soviet-style revolution  or mimic Mubarak’s Egypt, Castro’s Cuba or Chavez’s Venezuela.  At the end of the day, if democracy is eroded away does it matter whether we lose it through a coup or the accumulation of self inflicted wounds?

We will not be wriiting our weekly essay the next 2 weeks and will return on September 7.

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3 responses to “The Perversion of American Democracy: Death by a Thousand Cuts”

  1. stuart w. fine, md says:

    your concise and excellent articulation of the threat to our democratic way of life will help me refine my discussions with those who think that this current administration is representing the majority of americans. thanks for including me on your e-mail list. Hal, enjoy your cruise to Alaska and i suggest you pack long underwear. Give our best to Diane. stuart

  2. Gene Wingerter says:

    Over the 40 years of our friendship, I have admired you gift of written expression of your views and values. This treatise of the infectious destruction of the checks and balances of our triad of government is one of your best. Thanks for sharing it so clearly. I am sending this weeks edition to many friends.

  3. Dan L says:

    Hal; as your friend…like ‘Gene,’ I – too, admire your ability to express complex and important issues in such a profound and insightful manner.

    Someone has said, ‘tolerance is the virtue of a man without convictions.’ It goes without saying that tolerance – as open mindedness – is beneficial, but when people make tolerance – and its 1st cousin, ‘political correctness’ – supreme, the resultant lack of conviction adds grease to the slippery slope away from embracing fundamental liberty, personal responsibility, and policy by referendum – to accepting ‘central command and control.’ As Thomas Paine said, ” if one expects to enjoy the blessings of liberty, one must first undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” Dan in KC

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