What is “reasonableness” and what role should it play in American democracy? A casual description of “reasonableness” is the commitment to gather and balance as much information and evidence as one can about social and political issues as well as challenging and scrutinizing one’s own view as forcefully as one does the views of others. Are Americans reasonable? Certainly some are, but it seems to many are not. For example, the large percentage of Americans who dismiss global warming or who still believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, not to mention the so-called “birthers” who insist that President Obama is not a natural born citizen. What accounts for such unreasonableness? It is almost as if certain segments of the society valorize unreasonableness, assuming that it is somehow beneficial to be unreasonable, feeling no need to respond to charges of unreasonableness in a manner likely to convince those making the charges. What is it about our culture as well as many different groups and individuals who populate this culture that permits us to believe despite the evidence in all sorts of propositions that will eventually be abandoned? It is not at all clear that democracy can thrive without an answer to this question.
Archive for the ‘Republican Democracy’ Category
Americans have been wary of too much government from the Republic’s inception. We fought a revolutionary war against tyranny, twice within the first fifty years of our great nation’s existence, and several times thereafter. And government, our government, was a lot smaller then. But is anyone else getting tired with the inbred American aversion to progressive governmental efficiencies which can bring about the goods and services Americans want and need and which justice requires? After all, we, the people are, in the final analysis, the government. Accordingly, the government should be as capacious as we, the people want it to be. If we want government to be involved in health care, the economy, the financial system, the environment, education, well, then it should be. That’s what a republican democracy is for, to wit: within the confines of constitutional constraints, here the people rule. Unfortunately, this inbred American aversion goes back as far as our first great President and perhaps made special sense then. Consider the following statement of the debate over whether we should have a bicameral legislature. “[A] bicameral legislature slowed down the legislative process. That was a good thing to many of the framers, who worried about excessive government power. When Thomas Jefferson questioned the role of the Senate in the 1790s, George Washington allegedly asked: ‘Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?’ ‘to cool it,’ said Jefferson. ‘Even so,’ replied Washington ‘we pour legislating into the senatorial saucer to cool it.'” Linda R. Monk, The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution (2003). But in cooling it, we risk seeding the ground for killing it. Sure sometimes that’s good. But it’s also good to have a lean self-governing process to which the majority–consistent with preserving minority rights–can have access. Absent such a viable process, well-funded special interests control the destiny of the American Republic. In these circumstances, the corporations rule, not the people. That can’t be good for the majority of Americans, can it? I know, I know, the founders created a Republic, not a Democracy. But is this distinction quite as useful as perhaps it once was, if it ever was?. Most Americans want to live in a self-governing polity where the right to self-government–collective-self-direction–permits us to achieve the benefits of our labor–everyone’s labor–and also the benefits of civilization. Several times in American society the private sector has been given its chance and each time the results were problematic at best at least for most Americans. I know, I know. American capitalism produced more economic growth than any other nation or system and is currently the envy of and the model for the world. But what has it done for us lately. And what do we call “economic growth without fair distribution”? Perhaps, pre-2007 capitalization has huffed and puffed it’s way out. Moreover, privatization only occurs in the context of law and law means government. So the private sector is just one of several forms of government. Those ideologically committed to the government of privatization usually are indifferent to the needs and aspirations of the highly variegated forms of American life. Big government is not the problem. Oppressive government is. And laws protecting the private sector and corporate power while preventing the little guys from effecting change can be as tyrannical as any despotic regime. As Paul Krugman puts it: “[S]ometimes the private sector is the problem, and government is the solution.”
Can’t we try dropping the jejune dichotomy between government and the good guys and see if we can solve our problems fairly and with the common good in mind? Let’s switch to what should have been our ethos all along–democratic capitalism–where the reflective majority will prevails over those whose self-interest prevents them from seeing beyond the narrow corridors of their own insulated hermitages.
Jon Voigt has joined the Republican distillers of venom and vitriol absent facts, arguments, and reasoning. Consider: “Are we supposed to sitting and waiting, watching for the possibility of a new Holocaust? Who’s going to take the responsibility to keep America, I mean Israel, safe. I’ll tell you why this really scares the hell out of me. Everything Obama has recommended has turned out to be disastrous. . . . It saddens me greatly to think we were the great powerful good in the world. We as Americans knew America to be strong. We were the liberators of the entire world. We are becoming a weak nation. . . . Obama really thinks he is a soft-spoken Julius Caesar. He think he’s going to conquer the world with his soft-spoken sweet talk and really think he’s going to bring all of the enemies of the world into a little playground, where they’ll swing each other back and forth. . . . We and we alone are the right frame of mind to free this nation from this Obama oppression. Let’s give thanks to [Republicans] for not giving up and staying the course to bring an end to this false prophet, Obama.” The utter lack of content in this diatribe and the fact that some people believe it serves as legitimate public dialogue is anathema to everything the Founders of this great nation hoped to achieve by “beginning the world anew.” Yet, Voigt and his cohorts steeped in this visceral American superiority have no idea what a deliberative democracy and its public discourse is supposed to be like. Obama, like any other American leader, should be subject to severe, reason, and insightful criticism. Voigt has got the severity right, but where’s the reason and insight? The inanity of much of what passes for Republican political discourse does a great disservice to republican democracy and the Constitution upon which it is based. I do not believe that thoughtful Republicans would take this even remotely seriously if responsible Republican political leaders and journalists spoke up against its poisonous effect on the future of the nation.
One of the saddest features of the controversy over same-sex marriage, in my estimation, is the African-American community’s overwhelming opposition to legitimizing this practice. Despite the critical constitutional decision in Loving v. Virginia banning laws against miscegenation which in one sense lies at the core of the struggle for civil rights, many African-Americans simply reject the comparison between same-sex marriage and inter-racial marriage. While there are descriptive differences between the two social practices, to be sure, the important question is whether there are significant moral and constitutional differences. Many in the African-American community, as in White America, oppose same sex marriage for religious reasons. The question is whether our social institutions can or should be controlled by a majority’s religious beliefs. In other words, one way to conceptualize this issue is whether republican democracy can permit a majority to control the character of and accessibility to such social institutions as marriage. Recently, and for the first time, the national board of the NAACP has taken an active role in supporting same-sex marriage. Perhaps this indicates a change in the African-American community’s opposition. The important point, it seems to me, is not whether everyone should regard same-sex marriage in the same manner or see no significant difference between same-sex marriage and conventional marriage. Rather, true democrats must be prepared to embrace social institutions and keep them open to the widest number of citizens. Does that preclude constraints on social institutions? No at all. It does preclude, however, placing constraints on social institutions that can only be explicated in terms of idiosyncratic features of particular belief systems, (group-relative beliefs systems) that are not shared with other citizens generally. Group-relative reasons must not trump community-wide reasons, especially when doing so excludes minority access to social institutions and practices. Just what counts as a group-relative reason as opposed to a community-relative reason is not easy to discern. But that’s where the controversy should begin.
Contrary to conventional wisdom our founding document suffers from a myriad of serious, even deadly deficiencies. One such deficiency is clearly the inability to control or even influence a rogue administration intent on imposing its own ideological dogma on on a nation even when sustained popular opinion and congressional elections indicate that the electorate opposes such an ideology. These are precisely the circumstances of constitutional dictatorship that George W. Bush exploited so deftly. A dictatorship because he refused to change course even though the American people clearly desired an alternative direction, one that would not bring the nation, internationally and domestically, close to ruin. Constitutional and constitutional because even though he willfully ignored the people’s voice and constitutional authority, the Constitution provided no practicable means to curtail his nefarious behavior. Thus far, Mr. Bush has escaped accountability, though fortunately his Party was punished for continuing to support what has become the nation’s most deadly internal enemy.
Americans concerned about “socialism,” “spreading the wealth around,” and “class warfare” might do well to check out this piece in CommonDreams.org. Here’s a taste: According to the Republican candidate for U.S. president, John McCain, whose family wealth exceeds $120 million, and who owns eight houses and thirteen cars, Democrat Barack Obama poses a grave threat to our democracy and economy because he will, as he told a voter in Ohio, ‘spread the wealth around.’ . . . Though socialism has been essentially dead for decades, and there is no viable left in the United States, the McCain campaign is resurrecting claims of ‘class warfare’ and calling Obama a radical. On one point, McCain is right: there is class warfare in the United States, and for the past three decades, it has been waged from the top down, by the wealthiest class, the likes of John and Cindy McCain, against the middle- and working-classes of America. ‘ . . . Since the 1970s, middle- and working-class Americans have seen a fairly steady decline in real income, with brief spurts of recovery in the 1990s. Overall, however, the trend has been downward. By the year 2000, average net worth for Americans, adjusted for inflation, was less than it had been in 1983. . . . Subsequently, propelled by tax cuts for America’s wealthiest and deregulation of financial markets and corporations, between 2001 and 2006 the average income of the top tenth of Americans increased about 15 percent a year, to about $250,000, while the average income of the lower 90 percent decreased, the first time since such data was first collected in 1917 that those conditions of increased wealth at the top and decline for everyone else had occurred. More to the point, the average income of the top tenth of wage earners is about 8 times greater than the bottom 90 percent, a wealth gap greater than that under Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression. . . . Since the mid-1970s the top 1 percent of households have doubled their share of national wealth and now have more wealth, 60 percent or more, than the bottom 95 percent. Meantime, in the late 1980s and 1990s, inflation-adjusted net worth for a median household fell, from about $55 to $50 thousand dollars, and about 20 percent of households had zero or negative net worth [more debt than assets]. Those numbers are growing rapidly, especially as home foreclosures reach record heights.” For the entire piece click here.
One terribly destructive distinction, propagated by both the left and the right, but more by the right, is a contrast between government and the people. While it is fashionable to say America’s choice, given the impossibilityy of dislodging the two-party system, is between “big government” and “really big government,” when republican democracy works as it is supposed to, the “government” is the people. Whether the people’s government should engage in lavish spending for the rich or for the poor, it is the people’s representatives who decide to do so. When the people’s government decides to curtail spending, again, it’s the people’s representatives who decide that that is the preferred course. If, in American republican democracy, the people can’t control its representatives, then that’s a systemic problem that the people can alter, with the will to do so, even if that requires, as it certainly will, engaging in greater participation in the nation’s politics than most American are willing to do. If the people choose not to alter this defect in American constitutionalism, then perhaps it’s because the people like things the way they are. But then let’s abandon the notion that “government is the problem, not the solution” because ultimately that only means the people are the problem, not the solution. Our entrenched political vocabulary conceals the people’s ultimate role in self-government and forces political culture to chase shadows. Americans can take the reins of self-determination, if they so choose. Though it does take imaginative leadership to remind us of our constitutional power to do so.
The theory of regime politics maintains that elected governmental coalitions or elites embrace judicial supremacy. This suggests that Alexander Bickel’s “countermajoritarian difficulty” is no difficulty at all. The courts serve the interests of the regime in power. While regime politics theory is more complex than presented here, its basic contribution to constitutional theory is that an ostensibly “deviant institution” in American democracy can contribute to the democratic bona fides of American constitutionalism despite itself not being democratic in design. When the Court speaks, it provides cover for the reigning coalitions without incurring the wrath of their constituencies. Consequently, the Court’s decisions do not constitute a deviant practice in American democracy. Instead, the politicalization of the Court is grounded in electoral politics. However, even if this picture is true, it fails to explain what it is about the courts that make them a desirable substitute for the elected branches? The answer is that when the Court speaks, it removes a particular issue from electoral politics and secures at least provisional closure on an issue of public concern. In other words, two questions must be distinguished: (1) Is the Court grounded in politics? and (2) Does the specific design of the judiciary provide a conspicuously appropriate means of removing an issue from electoral politics? (1) does not entail (2). And (2) presents an accountability problem, which underlies Bickel’s complaint. Why don’t the majority elites turn to some other government institution to entrench constitutional meaning? The answer is no other governmental branch is designed to provisionally entrench constitutional meaning in the daily operations of the government. Life tenure for federal judges and the absence of any institutional device, such as a congressional override, render the courts, due to their institutional design, just the sort of institution that protects both the courts and majority coalitions from the right sort of accountability. A court system in which judicial decisions could be effectively altered at the time of the decision would be inadequate for regime politics to operate. Hence, rather than a refutation to the countermajoritarian difficulty, regime politics theory confirms that the Court is a deviant institution in American society. It freezes political and constitutional issues from dislodging by minority governmental officials and by the people. Only the Court can defend a current regime from changes by ordinary politics. Just as long as the Court can achieve provisional closure on an issue, the electoral branches are shut out, even though a current majority in those branches wants to be shut out. But what happens when the current governing coalition wants to alter the Court’s contemporary conception of constitutional meaning? It then must take on the Court which is just as powerful in defending against the current regime as it was in protecting it.
Check out the following commentary on Ireland’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. . . . “The Irish No provides Europe with an opportunity to rethink its approach to referendums. Ever since Napoleon initiated the modern practice two centuries ago, referendums have been one-shot affairs — the people going to the polls to say Yes or No without taking preliminary steps to deliberate together on the choices facing the nation. . . . This populist method is unworthy of a modern democracy. If an issue is important enough to warrant decision by the people as a whole, it is important enough to require a more deliberate approach to decision-making. If the Irish return to the polls next year to rethink their vote, they should be encouraged to engage in a more deliberative exercise. Two weeks before the next referendum, Ireland should hold a special national day of deliberation at which ordinary citizens discuss the key issues at community centres throughout the country. . . . Suppose, for example, that deliberation day begins with a familiar sort of televised debate between the leading spokesman for the Yes and No sides. After the television show, local citizens take charge as they engage in the main issues in small discussion groups of 15 and larger plenary assemblies. The small groups begin where the televised debate leaves off. Each group spends an hour defining questions that the national spokesmen left unanswered. Everybody then proceeds to a plenary assembly to hear their questions answered by local representatives of the Yes and No sides.” Continue reading here.
Should democracy be understood as a system of government based on populist, direct, and majoritarian self-rule? Or instead should it be understood as deliberative democracy or republican democracy? Should self-government consist of merely counting heads or should it consist of counting thoughtful heads?
Pundits often insist that the Iraq War rages because Bush-Cheney has cynically asked the average American to sacrifice nothing in the war effort. There’s no draft; no higher taxes. Perhaps that’s right, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Bush-Cheney perpetuates a stealth redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich in the military attempt to control of oil. Consequently, the Iraq war hurts ordinary Americans, though most cannot quite detect how. Watch the video below for a vivid portrayal of the stealth taxing scheme that misappropriates American tax dollars which should be spent on improving the infrastructure, education, health care, fighting environmental degradation, and so forth.
In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned Americans about the military-industrial complex’ potentiality for changing the essential nature of the American republic. Perhaps his warning was too late, or perhaps we failed to take heed. But President Eisenhower was precisely right. What’s more, an unconstrained corporate structure defining electoral politics and controlling the military is transforming our republic from one where the electorate can occasionally influence the governing elites to one in which corporate governance–of the United States, that is–has free reign to do what it wants domestically and internationally just so long as it doesn’t interfere with conspicuous consumption, the Super Bowl, and other opiates of the electorates. American democracy exists in name only.
Last month IPS reported that Bush again used signing statements to trash the Constitution. According to the report, “When George W. Bush signed the 2008 National Defence Authorisation Act into law last week, he again thumbed his nose at Congress by taking a second now-familiar step: he issued a ‘signing statement’ — a declaration that effectively asserts his authority to ignore parts of the law he disagrees with. . . . His action brought harsh criticism from dozens of legal scholars and advocacy groups who point out that U.S. presidents have the authority under the Constitution to veto or approve acts of Congress — but not to modify them. . . . Bush’s latest signing statement declares his right to ignore sections of the law establishing a commission to investigate U.S. contractor fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan, expanding whistleblower protections, requiring that U.S. intelligence agencies respond to congressional requests for documents, banning funding for permanent bases in Iraq, and prohibiting funding of any actions that exercise U.S. control over Iraq’s oil revenues.” For the entire story click here.
By using signing statements in this fashion, Mr. Bush effectively rewrote legislation to suit his purposes. The problem, of course, is that it’s Congress’ constitutional responsibility to enact legislation which the president can sign or veto. In short, Mr. Bush’s use of signing statements is clearly unconstitutional violating one of the pivotal structural features of the Constitution, namely, the doctrine of separation of powers. Consider Senator Byrd’s evaluation of Mr. Bush’s abuse of this practice:
¬†The White House cannot pick and choose which laws it follows and which it ignores. When a president signs a bill into law, the president signs the entire bill. The Administration cannot be in the business of cherry picking the laws it likes and the laws it doesn’t. This GAO opinion underscores the fact that the Bush White House is constantly grabbing for more power, seeking to drive the people’s branch of government to the sidelines. . . . We must continue to demand accountability and openness from this White House to counter this power grab.
We must demand accountability to be sure. But just who will demand accountability in the name of the people. Our republican democracy is quickly losing both its republican character (rights) as well as its democratic character (consent). The Bush-Cheney debacle is secretively transforming our republican democracy into a soft dictatorship. Currently, the people still have the capacity to reverse this process. But we must act now.
Signing statements may only be a slender thread in the fabric of deconstitutionalizing American government. They probably can be used effectively enabling a president, as head of the executive branch, to direct administrative agencies on how they should apply the law. In principle, this may be a useful mechanism. After all, the fact, however, it is easily abused, though not until the Bush-Cheney regime has it been used to enable tyranny. According to the Bush-Cheney attempt to garner more executive power than the Constitution allows, the president can simply erase a provision of a law of which he disapproves. To date, due to his signing statements, federal agencies have ignored 30 percent of the bills Mr. Bush signed into law. In short, a piece of legislation forged in the politics of democracy and signed by the president. Where are the checks to reign in a lawless president who is intent on distorting and abusing the United States Constitution? president is entitled to provide his or her understanding of the constitutionality of the policies the law creates. In
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