Thursday, June 22, 2006
the imperial presidency
andrew sullivan links to youtube to bring to the forefront a brilliantly analytical piece by pbs' 'frontline' entitled "the dark side". anyone who purports to understand the state and trend of american government and politics will find it perhaps repetitive as an overview though enlightening in detail.
this writer is struck, however, by the nearly inevitable conclusion, which frontline adeptly leaves for the viewer but surely begins to understand. in describing the machinations of vice president dick cheney and secretary of defense rumsfeld in reaction to september 11, they outline what is in no uncertain terms the endgame of a coup d'etat within the american government.
the episode outlines how cheney, elected to a post that is at best sleepy by definition, used september 11 as a means of transmogrifying the executive branch under the listless and distracted nose of an incompetent boy emperor. in less than a year, he had installed cronies and loyalists tied to rumsfeld and himself throughout the high structure of the executive. they are organized and controlled from the office of the vice president -- and their first objective was the destruction of the central intelligence agency in order to shift the apparatus of intelligence gathering to their own province, the department of defense.
the timeline of american dictatorship thus marked another milestone. the process, from groundwork laid by presidents theodore roosevelt and woodrow wilson, burst to full animation in the crisis of the great depression. franklin delano roosevelt capitalized on the trauma of the nation to attack and neuter first the most conservative and independent force protecting the republic in 1937, the supreme court. by threatening to pack the court --- a plan sometimes misguidedly called a failure -- he initiated a war against the institution which forced it to back down on his aggressive expansion of the federal government into a nascent absolutist state modeled on fascist/socialist lines. as roosevelt blithely ignored precedent to stand for third and fourth terms, capitalizing on crisis with brilliant propaganda at every turn, he outlasted key aged members of the court to eventually appoint what was known as "the roosevelt court", a revolutionary guard that gutted the body that was envisioned as the high protector of constitutional rights against the whim of politics. the depth and vibrancy of the public debate is evident from political cartoons of the era.
congress had in many respects become an openly corrupted political body by the end of the 19th century, but managed to retain its intended authority over the presidency until fdr. the final authority over the gun and the purse had long laid with the legislative body, offering defenses against tyrannical executives -- if that power was abused by mob sentiment (as in the spanish-american war) or self-interest, it was at least a deliberative body within which scandal could be exposed by rivalry. and it offered an essential check of the executive, as was demonstrated in the teapot dome scandal.
but teapot dome contributed to the final collapse of upper middle class hegemony over american politics and republican party domination stretching back to the civil war, and with that much of the established constitutional tradition of the republic. roosevelt's populist ascendancy in the depths of the depression meant that much of the democratic congress was indebted to him for their position and continued popularity, and this gave the president near-absolute power over legislation which he exercized with revolutionary force. this was the heyday of party politics, in which party allegiance and patronage dominated all else, including lawful duty, and the power of the purse was parsed out to the executive as congressmen became increasingly servile operators on behalf of the monarch. in 1934, congress ceded authority over american currency to the executive, who then outlawed the possession of specie and issued from the executive-controlled federal reserve bank what would later become more obviously unbacked paper fiat currency.
roosevelt also took the precedent of wilson to continue the entanglement of the united states in european affairs as they devolved throughout his term. subject to the same philosophical and intellectual forces as led europe to every-more authoritarian and absolutist governments, roosevelt clearly spied an opportunity to use the newfound economic power of the american nation to rise up on the world stage and join in the pursuit of empire. with lend-lease in 1940, roosevelt began to conduct surreptitious warfare in europe and the pacific. with the advent of open war in 1941, the entire country was subsequently so thoroughly militarized along hierarchical lines that all cumulated in the president that, by 1950, his inheritor harry truman saw no need to even seek congressional approval for the employment of the armed forces in korea. congress was by this time so well isolated that it did not even challenge the new imperial presidency for fear of openly demolishing the illusion of power.
with the judicial and legislative branches effectively sidelined, the era of the imperial presidency began in earnest. the global anglophone empire that was the true prize of american victory in the european wars of 1914-45 required an imperial standing army to police it and imperial institutions of law and commerce with global reach. these were delivered, with the united states for the first time fielding vast peacetime armies under the rubric of a perpetual "cold" war on the frontiers of empire and founding the united nations, the world bank, and the bretton-woods agreement under which the global economy would operate on american terms of trade. american interaction with and control over all these institutions was through and from the executive. dwight eisenhower's farewell address marked the rise of the industrial-military complex which drove empire and the executive forward.
the excesses of the imperial presidency of the 1960s -- with john kennedy taking even the trappings of royalty with some popular approval -- finally cumulated in the johnson and nixon administrations. open abuse of unimaginable power became the defining characteristic of an age which saw a small imperial war in southeast asia grow grotesque in mismanagement and expense, elections repeatedly manipulated and discredited and inflationary economic policy spiral out of control. excess fostered backlash, and the old engines of congressional authority were made to soullessly revolve in the watergate investigation -- but they never could be said to have sparked to life, for the interests of too many were tied up in seeing them maintained only for the perpetuation of the illusion of a concerted government, to be laid over the hard and real framework of a unified and dictatorial one which many parties hoped to dominate.
the political lives of rumsfeld and cheney were forged in this cauldron where the dying fire of law took a final stand against the growing dark power of unchecked ambition and ultimately lost, impressing upon them as they worked within the embattled executive the potential threat of law to the desires of the powerful -- and they, like roosevelt and truman and johnson and nixon before them, undertook to render law null before power.
the election of ronald reagan marked the end of the listless period in which an executive set back on its heels left a vacuum which neither of the erstwhile centers of theoretical authority -- congress or the courts -- could fill, buried as they were under forty years of dust. by the end of his tenure, the last remaining external impediment to world conquest -- the russian empire of the soviet union -- collapsed from within and was cast aside. the field was clear for the final stage of american empire building, and political and economic forays into eastern europe and asia, deprived of their previous moderation under the impending counterweight of mutually assured destruction, began in earnest.
the advance of american empire unchecked into these last redoubts of independent determination sparked a populist backlash, however, in those parts of the world in which an extant, vigorous civilization still remained -- the islamic. the onslaught of the western upon the eastern gave birth to a new chivalry which, after many decades of frontier skirmishes and provocations dating back to the british occupation of egypt and the end of the ottoman empire, finally struck at the heart of the empire on september 11.
what emerges is a belated awareness of a long-extant political division in american politics. most american citizens are blithely unaware that long-established party politics are in decline -- the recent campaigns of ross perot, howard dean and others are making it clear that the institutional mechanisms of party patronage, while still helpful, no longer have an exclusive franchise on the road to power. moreover, even within the institutions, ambition and wealth (even if only by alliance) is now enough -- the ancient function of party caucus in vetting responsible candidates has passed away, as can easily be seen by the election of george w. bush.
the more important dividing line of the last century in american politics has been between not the republican and the democrat, the conservative and the liberal, the wealthy and the poor -- but between the lawful and the ambitious.
what frontline documents, then, is a period in american government where the final consolidation of absolute power under dictatorial control by ambitious executive functionaries is taking place under the false guise of lawful efficiency-minded reform. just as functions of diplomacy have been moved from the department of state to the department of defense, so now are the agencies of intelligence -- secret armies operating beyond the bounds of law, with the power to make and unmake presidential policy by managing the flow of information. it is clear as well that the ambition is truly global in scope, with the agents of this cabal centered on cheney having also taken residence at the united nations and world bank -- events this writer wrongly conceived of as victories for their opposition.
as has been noted, the congress has largely been reduced to rubber-stamp status and the high courts completely co-opted to the service of an emperor who is supposedly the voice of the people incarnate -- occasional fits of the lawful notwithstanding, the course of american government has been determined by ambition. and the american public, ill-informed and debauched of the bread and circuses that are part and parcel to any empire, has proven itself over the last century completely ineffective in the age of mass politics to serve as the final enforcer of law, having gullibly confused prosperity for liberty.
with no real obstacle domestic remaining to absolute presidential authority, the united states can be called nothing except a tyranny. what former vice president al gore called a "grave danger" to the constitution is but an aftershock of a war that has been fought and lost in stages over the last 73 years. frontline expertly marks out the mechanics of the final battle -- an documentary episode that few will watch, fewer still will understand and will in the end be of far greater use to a future plutarch than to any of us.
The guy is out of control!
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equally unsurprising is how few americans know anything about it. our citizenry is proving why democracy leads inevitably and swiftly to dictatorship -- since the franchise began to expand in the mid-19th c, the rule of law has steadily decayed.
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