Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The End of American Democracy?

We were startled recently to see an editorial in one of our local newspapers, the Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, entitled "Obama must take emergency control now." We have long suspected that it would eventually come to this. Nevertheless it came as a jolt to see someone actually make the case in print.
    The author of the piece, a Mr. Sherman Moreland, is a graduate of Cornell University and a former student of the well-known political science professor there, Clinton Rossiter. Mr. Moreland contends that the Founding Fathers anticipated the need for the exercise of emergency powers by the executive branch, and cited Federalist Paper No. 70, by Alexander Hamilton, in support of his contention.
    Mr. Moreland then lists a number of contemporary crises that he says call for the exercise of emergency power by the president. He mentions the government shutdown, the near default on the national debt, a gridlocked Congress, the influence of PAC money on government, the maldistribution of wealth, and global warming.
Alexander Hamilton
We begin by noting that Alexander Hamilton most emphatically did not advocate letting the president rule by emergency decree. The whole purpose of The Federalist Papers was to urge ratification of the Constitution – as written. Most of the opposition to the Constitution came from people who were afraid that it gave the central government too much power. What Hamilton was arguing for in Federalist Paper No. 70 was a strong executive branch headed by a single individual. Had he openly advocated given the president the right to declare an emergency and rule by decree that Constitution would never have been ratified.

    Although Mr. Moreland's list of crises sounds like a litany of liberal complaints, the fact of the matter is that many of the things he lists really are serious problems, and we could mention several others besides. One cannot escape the impression that we are living under a dysfunctional government with a gridlocked Congress chronically unable to address the governments long-term fiscal crisis. We also note with alarm the growing tendency of successive presidents to legislate by means of signing statements and executive orders. And then there is the growing surveillance by the government of our citizens.
    And that is just what is going on in Washington. When we look at the international scene we see an increasing integrated global economy which will require regulation at the supranational level. And then there is the threat of international terrorism which will call for joint security measures by the world's nations.
    And closer to home we see alarming social and cultural disintegration. There is a growing underclass of the "working poor." The breakdown in public morality has resulted in large numbers of children being born out of wedlock and living in single parent households. We have a dysfunctional public education that defies repeated attempts at reform, a coarsening popular culture, and the receding influence of religion. In short, what we are seeing is a recipe for revolution.
    Ironically, the Tea Party movement, which prides itself on its patriotism, has taken us one step closer to dictatorship. While we sympathize with many of the Tea Party's goals and aims, we deplore its tactics. A democratic government is supposed to reflect the will of the people. But this requires negotiation and compromise on the part of our legislators. It requires respect for the opinions of all of our fellow citizens. Our elected officials must lead by peaceful persuasion. But when we sign "no new tax" pledges and threaten default on the national debt in order to get our way we are undermining the very basis for democracy. It is nothing less than fascism.

    And then there is the massive defense establishment, or as President Eisenhower called it, the military-industrial complex. The Founding Fathers viewed with alarm a large standing army in times of peace as a threat to liberty and democracy. Part of the reason that gun rights are protected by the Second Amendment is to enable the people to defend themselves from a potentially tyrannical government. The memory of England under Cromwell was still fresh in mend. But when we harbor imperial ambitions, and maintain a large military establishment to project our might around the globe, we have let the gorilla out of his cage, and he may return to haunt us.
    It does not take too much imagination to see a sharp financial crisis leading to riots in the street leading to the imposition of martial law. And in all likelihood it will be a Republican president that will sign the declaration of emergency; it is unlikely that a Democrat could get the necessary support from the Pentagon. Like Caesar of old and Hitler in more recent times, the pretense of constitutional government will be maintained. But the proverbial man on the white horse is just around the corner.
    And now Mr. Moreland has actually made the suggestion.

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