Losing our Democracy to the "New Authoritarians"

With today's federal court ruling that Bush's domestic spying program is unconstitutional, here's the first of a two-part commentary from Mark"s new book, Losing Our Democracy: How Bush, the Far Right and Big Business are Betraying Americans for Power and Profit.

"Democracy can come undone. It's not something that's necessarily going to last forever once it's been established."-- Sean Wilentz in The Rise of American Democracy.

Much has been written about Bush's war for democracy abroad, but how much have you read about his war against democracy at home?

Just as the last half of the twentieth century saw a quadrupling of the number of democracies--just as, in Professor John Gaddis's view, "the world came closer than ever before to reaching a consensus that only democracy confers legitimacy."--the greatest democracy ever is being assaulted by a group of "new authoritarians" in Congress, the courts, corporations and the clergy. And leading their war on democracy is a president lauding its virtues.

President Bush does not wake up everyday wondering how to sabotage democracy. But the issue is not his intent but his actions. And connecting the dots of Bush's presidential actions reveals a clear and present danger to our constitutional traditions. While we surely haven't lost our democracy, we are now only another Bush-like presidency, another couple of Tom Coburn's in the Senate, another couple of Justice Scalia's away from losing our democracy. That's not alarmist, only descriptive.

For while there is no Great Depression or 9/11 heralding the disaster, we are moving away from rather than toward the far horizon of a better democracy. Consider five key areas:

What Rule of Law? This government invades a country contrary to the UN charter, condones torture, outs a CIA operative, ignores warrants for wiretaps, selectively leaks classified information for partisan gain, rounds up thousands of American Muslims without evidence, incarcerates hundreds at Guantánamo without charges or lawyers, and asserts the power to ignore hundreds of duly enacted laws because of an unending war on terror--and then Bush urges the world to follow his devotion to "the rule of law."

Bush views the law as largely an extension of politics, a means to an end, a speed bump to be overcome. So when he was asked about the legality of his invasion of Iraq, he sarcastically answered, "Is it legal? Oh my, I'd better call my lawyer." For 200 years after Marbury v. Madison, courts had the final say on interpreting laws and the Constitution. Then Bush aides made up a theory called the "unitary executive"--and the President in effect said that he could veto laws after signing them into law. Why? "We're at war." But a) the constitution makes the president the commander-in-chief of the military, not the country and b) since this is a war without end, the "unitary executive" is euphemism for authoritarianism.

It took the United States Supreme Court--seven of whose nine members were appointed by Republican presidents--to remind Bush that the rule of law is not a means but an end in itself. "A state of war," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "is not a blank check for the president."

A Democracy without Voters.
By the gauge of turnout, America is in the bottom fifth of democracies in the world. Compare our 48 percent average turnout of eligible voters in presidential years to Cambodia's 90 percent, Austria's 85 percent, Western Europe's 77 percent, Eastern Europe's 68 percent. If there were a World Bank category called "democracy poverty," the U.S. would be a candidate for massive international charity.

In most states, cumbersome and antiquated rules suppress the vote. The law requires that hundreds of 18 year-old graduates each find their way from high school to an election board--instead of having one election board representative go to each high school. And shutting the window for registration 30 days before an election, just when voters become aware of a contest, is foolish.

Local operatives often suppress the vote in technical or obviously discriminatory ways. Republican Ohio officials put too few voting machines in low-income Democratic precincts in November 2004, causing hours long lines and voters leaving before voting. Someone put up signs in African-American areas of Cuyahoga County telling Democrats that a) if anyone in their family voted illegally they would lose their children and b) they couldn't vote if they hadn't paid their utility bills. The spirit behind these absurd warnings was openly admitted by Michigan Republican representative John Pappageorge in 2004 when he said, "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election cycle."

One way some Southern states do this under color of law is felony disenfranchisement laws. Even though they've paid their "debt to society," ex-cons can't vote, which means that a third of black men in Alabama are excluded. Felony disenfranchisement laws are essentially another way to spell Jim Crow.

Corporate Sway.
They can foreclose on our homes, decide whether we have life-saving surgery, hire or fire us, effectively shutter small towns, and decisively influence legislation. "They" are not official government, but rather the private governments called corporations.

Charles Lindblom's observation in Politics and Markets in 1971 has even more relevance today, when Wal-Mart alone has more employees than Wyoming has residents: "The large corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed, it does not fit."

Not since the Gilded Age when wealthy businessmen essentially appointed U.S. Senators (before direct elections) has big business held such sway in America and Washington. An ocean of corporate lobbyists has overwhelmed the levees of power in Congress and drowned consumers and workers below sea level who couldn't flee. Nearly every proposal or law of Bush 43--from cutting job training programs, eroding the minimum wage, reversing ergonomic standards, cutting taxes on the rich and social programs for the poor--contribute to the tilt from labor to capital. And recall Phil Cooney, who came from the American Petroleum Institute to the White House where he dictated the policy that global warming was unproven, before returning to ExxonMobil.

As a result, George Bush is redistributing the wealth far more than George McGovern ever dreamed of, except up rather than down. There may be no exact point when the concentration of income and wealth becomes so extreme as to be undemocratic, but it's certainly odd when the head of ExxonMobil earned $368 million in a year, or more per hour than his workers earned per year.

Congressional Tyranny.
The legislature of the world's greatest democracy is not democratic. Not even close.

First, since money rather than merit so often determines elections--and since political redistricting means few competitive elections in any event--Congressional incumbents predictably listen more to donors than to voters.

Second, the rules of this Republican Congress have essentially eliminated Democrats from our democracy. "For my purposes," said an aide to the Republican leadership, "they're irrelevant." In the House, Speaker Hastert will only schedule a bill for a vote if it has a "majority of the majority" and will hold a vote open for as many hours as necessary to secure--or importune or bribe--his way to a majority.

Third, Congress is failing its checks-and-balances function by essentially becoming a West Wing of the White House. Its "oversight" function has become literal, as Executive Branch blunders and scandals go unexamined. Hence, there are no serious hearings into a) how Bush administration incompetence pre-9/11 allowed that attack to occur, b) the willful misuse of intelligence pre-9/11, c) how the employment of so many National Guard troops have compromised homeland security, d) the level of torture in Iraq, e) the cost of the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Congress was not always such a puppy-dog: during WWII and the Vietnam war, Senators Truman and Fulbright respectively held hearings critical of these war efforts.

Religious McCarthyism. The founding fathers understood that the "establishment clause" in the very first amendment both protected government from religious intolerance and religion from government interference. That is, pluralism is patriotic, allowing all to practice their religion free from the kind of interference the original American settlers fled.

This is something today's far religious (f)right profoundly misunderstands. From radicals like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell outside of government to Tom Coburn within--his office said he'd like to impeach and imprison the judges who ruled against Terry Schiavo's parents--these people seek an American theocracy where democratic dissent is deemed sacrilegious. We're not talking about a few kooks but religious power houses who can speed-dial White House decision-makers. Indeed, when Gary Bauer was asked who the head of the Religious Right was in America, he answered, "President Bush."

The results of this marriage are both profound and pathetic: stem cell research is thwarted, and the National Parks Service issues brochures at the Grand Canyon challenging the scientific consensus about the age of the canyon in favor of a "young earth" great-flood interpretation.

Extremism posturing as democracy may be shocking, but it's not surprising, not if one thinks about Bush's philosophy, experience, and base. He himself comes out of hierarchical CEO background where Ayn Rand heroes pronounce policy from Olympus, damn the consequences and shareholders. Half his base are radical Religious Rightists, who are accustomed to demanding fealty to divine or priestly pronouncements, parishioners and the poor be damned. Such business and religious leaders are accustomed to governing by catechism not collaboration, by standards far closer to autocracy than democracy. When Bush said "I am the decider" in response to a question about Rumsfeld and Iraq, he was betraying his true view of the democratic conversation.

One more ingredient added to this stew makes it unusually toxic. Bush uses the catastrophe of 9/11 as a license to engage in all kinds of illegal or unprecedented behavior. But awful as that day was, 9/11 is not more important than the U.S. Constitution and over two hundred years of democratic progress. We can't allow that horror to license a group of phony patriots to trample on the values of our flag far more than a few fools who annually burn it.

It can happen here.