December 9, 2015

Drifting towards dictatorship

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2011

For quite a few years, I’ve written from time to time about the end of the First American Republic. As I put it on one occasion:

“We are clearly in a post-constitutional era. Depending on what day it is, we think of its replacement variously – ranging from an adhocracy to proto-fascism. But one does not need to know the end of the story to know that we headed at a rapid pace away from the extraordinary principles of American democracy towards the dark hole of power with impunity. . . to the sort of world in which, as Rudolph Giuliani has calmly asserted, ‘freedom is about authority.'”

Some probably thought I was exaggerating a bit, but the number who did so probably also declined with the advent of the Patriot Act, CIA renditions, mass wiretapping and so forth. Still I have to admit that even I was surprised by today’s comments by two prominent political figures openly calling for moves towards dictatorship:

– “I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won’t hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover. I really hope that someone can agree with me on that. You want people who don’t worry about the next election.” – NC Governor Bev Perdue

– “To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.”. – Former Obama budget director Peter Orszag

The typical way the corporate media deals with such comments is to treat them like a rainy day, or, at worst, a thunderstorm. For example, Ezra Klein of the Wahington Post defended Orszag like this:

“’We need less democracy’ is a good headline, but if you read the piece closely, that’s not actually what Orszag is arguing. Rather, he’s arguing that we need less Congress. And that’s a bit different.”

Less Congress is a bit different? And what about automatic policies and depoliticized commissions? Is Klein aware of what the British went through to get a Parliament at all? Or the struggle we fought to win a Congress for ourselves? Or that a depoliticized commission is sometimes also called a “junta?” Or that the Congress was meant to be a partner with the White House and not just another presidential town hall meeting?

With the help of the media, which finds the White House so much easier to cover than 535 independent minds on the Hill, Congress has, over the past few decades, slowly faded in power, a fact now so calmly accepted that various end runs like the Simpson-Bowles commission or the bipartisan congressional committee to tell us what to do – which would have been an anathema a half century ago – are now just accepted as normal.

We are taught to believe that political evil comes by revolution and riot by tedious incremental steps. Nothing is further form the truth, as a German professor tried to explain about the Nazis:

“What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believe that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. . . . The crises and reforms (real reforms too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. . . . To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted.’ . . . Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow. . . . Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing) . . . You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.”

Which is why the comments of Bev Perdue and Peter Orszag should worry us deeply.


Anonymous said...

Less Congress is a bit different? And what about automatic policies and depoliticized commissions?

Imagine a law that says anyone who, acting in their capacity as a law- or rule-maker, proposes or votes for a law or rule that violates the Constitution, or acting in their executive or judicial capacity, attempts to enforce or support such a law or rule, must be suspended from office immediately by action of their peers, and if said peers fail to act within some short time TBD, they are automatically suspended and replaced in their jobs by action of the next group in line of succession. And this continues to cascade until someone takes action.

Alan Nasser said...

Can someone, perhaps Sam, identify the German professor quoted above?

Sam Smith said...

The quote - I believe the professor's name was not given - was from Milton Mayer's remarkable book on Nazism: They Thought They Were Free. Mayor concludes: "Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany ~ It was what most Germans wanted -- or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusions. I felt -- and feel -- that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I."