Thursday, June 02, 2005

Checks and Balances

Ever since we were in high school and learned that the framers of the Constitution had the foresight to install organic checks and balances within our government—to prevent one part of government from becoming too powerful, over-weaning, and destructive of individual liberties—we have basically sat on our laurels and ignored the erosion of these principles. We have allowed ourselves to become complaisant and lazy. We have forgotten that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

Of course, an occasional civics teacher would tell us that the framers including George Washington were against the formation of political parties in America. They correctly saw that political parties would take on a life of their own and wreak havoc with the separation of powers and checks and balances frameworks of our government. They were right!

Back at the beginning the big issues were the rights of small (less populous) states and the rights of states where slave-holding was key to the local economies. The question of small states was obviated by the organizational principles defining the U.S. Senate and by the rapid expansion westward—the creation of scores of new states with whom the small New England states could find political allies and compromises. Of course the slavery issue was never solved peacefully, and the aftermath of the violent solution is rampant and vicious racism clothed in the faux anguish of "states rights."

The expression of political ideologies in America has been a chaotic, barely rational affair with local emotional issues dominating common sense and principle. In the south the Democratic Party was the "only" possibility because it was the GOP that had visited them with Civil War and Reconstruction. Only when the Democratic Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson decided to rid the nation of racism did the South abandon its emotional and political ties to the Democrats. In other words, American politics, right and left, became a nightmare of worthy principles contending with local and parochial interests bordering on and taking succor from some of the worst aspects of the human imagination and human frailty. American politics is a deadly serious enterprise, though, despite its appearance of being a hodge-podge of incoherent selfishness, ego, and jingoism.

These facts being the case—the precariousness of the separation of powers and the organization of checks and balances in the face of strong, willful political parties, on the one hand, and the substantial irrationality of political parties, on the other hand—leaves us today with an interesting situation in which the prescribed checks and balances are just about useless and completely incapable of functioning. It was never meant to be this way. The government was supposed to be able to respond to abuse of office, to criminality, mendacity, as much out of self-protection as any other reason. But it cannot.

Still, sufficient liberty exists (despite continuous browbeating and major capitulations of the press) that the possibility of bringing radical and irresponsible areas of government to bay still exists. Checks and balances will not accomplish this, though.

If everything were functioning according to the framers' plan, honorable members of the House of Representatives would already have responded to the Downing Street Memorandum (and the Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo human torture evidence, plus much, much more) by drafting articles of impeachment against Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. Matthew Rothschild has written an excellent essay on this in forthcoming July issue of The Progressive, entitled Stripping Rumsfeld and Bush of Impunity. It seems that with the checks and balances within government hopelessly politicized by a radical movement within the majority party, the task of keeping the high crimes, misdemeanors, and treason of the Bush Administration in the public eye will fall to private non-governmental agencies like the ACLU and Amnesty International. The American press, so intimidated by the Administration or so in cahoots with it, will probably not be able to play their expected leading role. The press is still ignoring the Downing Street Memorandum despite the fact that it implicates the President in a huge, ugly lie which has resulted in the wholesale loss of lives and the expenditure of generations worth of federal funds.

Yes, it is humiliating that the American Republic has come to such a state. Serious people across the nation believe that we are and since 9/11 have been losing a fight with anti-democratic forces in America, forces that believe in their heart of hearts that practical democracy leads to a pillaging of our national treasure by the indigent and slothful, but who believe that the righteous engines of society are profit-seeking corporations and that their personal understandings of Jesus Christ are all any of us needs to organize and manage the secular world. These forces have taken over the Executive, are prominent in the Congress, and are trickling into the Judiciary where soon they will have critical mass to effect major changes in Justice in this country.

Another essay, this one by Mark Danner, published in TomDispatch, and given as a speech to the Department of English at the University of California at Berkeley graduation ceremonies recently, entitled "What Are You Going To Do With That?" (referring to a degree in the Liberal Arts) takes up the matter from a slightly different point of view. While Matthew Rothschild points out what American and world organizations can do to fill in while our checks and balances are out of commission, Mark Danner eventually notices that it will ultimately depend on individuals to assure that America does not come to an abrupt and ugly end because of Bush and his party. Danner's piece is a call to young men and women embarking on their public lives. Needless to say, however, the message is appropriate for us all.

The final message is that the federal system is drastically broken. It has been for some time, the requisite situation had not developed before now to make it obvious. The separation of powers is now overwhelmed by radical, disciplined politics and does not function to keep one branch acting independently of the others. Organic checks and balances are overwhelmed by the same radical, anti-democratic forces and do not function. The reason is that political parties were not envisioned when the Constitution was written, yet we have now a political party the central tenets of which are antithetical to fundamental American and Constitutional values. If we survive it will be because individuals act from within and from without to stem the flow of power toward the affected areas.

Senator Voinovich will stand his ground and will convince his fellow moderate Republicans that John Bolton has a screw loose and should not be in the State Department, much less the United Nations. Senator Boxer will stand and be heard when lies are proffered as truths. Some members of the press will regain their composure after months and years of harassment and browbeating, after endless threats by the corporate managers who control salaries and jobs, and they will speak the truth—whatever it may be. But most important, ordinary citizens, people with high school diplomas and college liberal arts degrees, will stand up against cowardice and convenience, against criminality and usurpation of our liberties.

The elections of 2006 are the final exam and we must prepare ourselves to demand nothing but democracy, liberty, and freedom and a restoration of the checks and balances. Life will be precarious from now on, but that's the way it often is when you want freedom and liberty. There are formidable forces now arrayed against our liberties and freedoms and, unimaginably, they are forces from the recesses and niches of America which up to now have been held at bay by their own lack of organization and by the consensus that government must remain responsible to the people and that government has no place in religion and vice versa.

We must fight theocrats, particularly the "dominionists." We must return politics to that set of rules that preserves respect for a differing point of view, and we must route out those who offend these principles.