The Neo-Revolution, Part 1.: Creating Democracy in the USA
In the May, 2004 number of Harpers magazine, Richard Rosenfeld argues a rather elegant proposal for governmental reform in the essay, "What Democracy? The case for abolishing the United States Senate." In an opening paragraph, he makes the following assessment:
The United States of America is not, strictly speaking, a democracy; indeed, the U.S. Constitution was deliberately designed to prevent the unfettered expression of the people's will. Yet the Founders were not, as some imagine, of one mind concerning the proper shape of the new American union, and their disputes are instructive. The political dysfunction that some imagine to be a product of recent cultural decadence has been with us from the beginning. In fact, the document that was meant to prevent democracy in America has bequeathed the American people a politics of minority rule in which our leaders must necessarily pursue their unpopular aims by means of increasingly desperate stratagems of deceit and persuasion.Rosenfeld's analysis is at once scholarly, thorough, and terribly disappointing. Although he chases his quarry relentlessly through the well-charted forest of property rights, checks and balances, and equality of representation, as he reaches the open field with a clear, killing shot at the beast, he draws up inexplicably, takes careful aim, but is satisfied to remove but a few hairs from the monster's escaping ass. With marksmen like this, the Left is going to need a veritable host of snipers.
If anything "good" is to emerge from our present circumstances it will be an unflinching examination of our national foundation, in turn forcing us to consider and facilitate fundamental constitutional change. It is our responsibility - a truly patriotic one at that - to catalyze a Jeffersonian Revolution. The very life of the nation, and quite possibly the lives of all citizens, demands it. We are hurtling toward a great cliff - we need a full-force application of the brakes and a new map.
Jefferson saw our Constitution as a fluid construct, rather than as a Rosetta Stone, requiring review and revision on a constant basis. At the same time, Benjamin Franklin was predicting that a corruptive malaise would take hold and produce a disabling myopia. Never has there been such a wealth of evidence that both were wise and prescient.
Jefferson thought the framework of our government should change every twenty years or so. Amendments notwithstanding, the original document has sat for two hundred and twenty five years, its assumptions unchallenged. When Secretary Rumsfeld derided certain nations for being "the Olde Europe," he was arrogantly blind to the reality that we in so many ways are citizens of "the Olde United States."
We must begin our revolutionary journey by rejecting the notion that the presidency of George W. Bush is an aberration. I maintain that it is the inevitable result of the symbiotic evolution of a capitalist republican system over two centuries. We had it coming - 9/11, the USA PATRIOT Act, the death of the free press, the selling-off of public lands, public health, scientific integrity, and the military, and the failure of a multi-party political framework - all unavoidable. We got what we deserved, because we bought the myth of "American Democracy" and failed to see it as a myth until now.
As it stands, our constitution does not provide for democracy. Democracy - self-government by the people - terrified the likes of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Although their original scheme of electing presidents has been modified somewhat, for the most part the constitution has always assured that a professional ruling class conducts the business of government. As the evolution of capitalism has resulted in the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer coffers, political power has accumulated in those same coffers. As Howard Dean cried to us, "You have the power," he was hopeful, but sadly incorrect. It was not his "scream" in Iowa that sunk him - it was the silent stream of funds moving through cyberspace to his opposition. It was as if Madison and Hamilton had walked into Terry McAuliffe's office, muskets loaded, and reminded him who was supposed to have the power. McAuliffe got the point and the Kerry candidacy was suddenly viable.
We must not mistake "freedom" and "civil rights" for democracy. The Bush regime claims it is "exporting democracy" to Iraq, but it certainly has no intention of doing so and the Iraqis know it.
We must not confuse "checked-and-balanced" tripartite government or a bicameral legislature for democracy, either. The checks and balances have collapsed and neither the legislature nor the executive is "freely" elected (since elections that can't be bought are apparently stolen).
Here's the crux: our constitution was designed to protect us from tyrannical monarchy. Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and Kennedy (had he lived) notwithstanding, it seems to have fulfilled its purpose. But we know now that we have paid the price by accepting a cancerous oligarchy. The rights and freedoms added as a postscript to the original document were a mere palliative to mute the popular thirst for a more essential democratic system. And every time the "people" have demanded a bigger stake in our own government, the rulers have resisted with force (Shay's Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Confederacy, the major labor strikes in the railroads and in the coal mines, Kent State) or with grudging concessions (the public works projects of the Great Depression).
But now we face the Tyranny of the Oligarchy and as a nation we are suffocating. For our ruling class is nothing more than a rapacious dung beetle which, having systematically rolled up an enormous amount of shit, has lost control of it near the top of the hill. It is rolling toward . . . us.
Oligarchy has predictably gotten us in this fix. Nothing short of true democracy will get us out of it. Since the Constitution of the United States of America does not protect us from the current tyranny, it must be overhauled.
The established party system will resist, perhaps even suppress, such a movement. Although the nascent "progressive" factions (some truly progressive, others only disingenuously nominal) within the so-called Democratic Party are making the right sounds, they won't get the job done. The "progressive" tag has already been co-opted by moderate democrats and neoliberals; conservatives and neoconservatives seem incapable of intelligent dialogue.
Since the American cultural synapses seem to respond only to something "catchy", I propose a cross party, cross-cultural, classless movement of "neorevolutionaries", committed to fundamental constitutional revisions that will put the government in the hands (and hearts) of the people.
Basic Issues, Critical Solutions
In summary, I have argued so far that the preservation of the Republic is dependent upon the institution of Democracy; that the very limited implementations of Democracy are gravely threatened; and that we face an increasing threat of Tyranny from within against which the Tyranny of the 17th and 18th centuries will surely pale. I humbly, but fervently, offer the following:
- The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution "proper," some would say, almost as an afterthought. If we indeed believe that those rights are "inalienable" and universal, those rights must be codified, not as amendments, but as the first and fundamental articles of the document. They must serve as the very foundation upon which our system of government is built. It has become too easy to find exceptional circumstances under which these rights are suspended. Many citizens feel that the current government has abrogated several of these amendments and may soon abandon them all.
In present times, a large segment of our citizens have justified the invasion of two countries and advocated the potential for other future "preemptive" wars on the grounds that such actions are necessary to preserve our continued freedoms. Many of these citizens in the same breath call for the limitation or deletion of these same freedoms. This, in a word, is nonsense, if not the very definition thereof.
- To many of us, the freedom from religious tyranny, codified in the principle of the separation of church and state, and assuming a steadfast resistance to the establishment of a state religion, is dearly held. At the founding of our republic, this surely meant that each citizen was guaranteed the unfettered practice of some form of Christianity - but note well that this was not a stated limitation. Although I happen to agree with many of the specific moral and cultural complaints of the Christian Right, and steadfastly defend its freedom to believe in all its creeds save one (that one must not believe otherwise), I cannot - will not - accept the prospect of zealots dictating their narrow morality or theosophy.
This brings me to a brief digression . . . one of terminology. I find that the term "fundamentalism" to be thoroughly grating as it is commonly used. I maintain that the application of the term "fundamentalist" to most of the Christian Right simply incorrect, in the same way I decry the similar application of "fundamentalist Muslim" to Al Qaeda extremists. Many citizens adhering to a Christian Right philosophy are extremists - which are very different from fundamentalists - as are a growing number of Muslims. I happen to find the recorded words of Christ and Mohammed both deeply spiritual and affirmative. Neither religion at its most fundamental advocates the eradication of other religions.
At present, then, an extremist faction of our society, controlling the three branches of our government, is at war with extremist factions of another religion. Without doubt, we must find effective ways to protect our nation and its citizens from violence perpetrated by groups from without . . . but we must with equal vigilance fend off extremist attacks from within.
It is informative that the same interests in our country that have opposed the full franchise of African immigrants and women now lead the opposition to tolerance and equal rights for homosexuals and non-Christians.
In fact, however, what has been truly fundamental in our country has been our ability to understand, tolerate, and reconcile differences of opinion. This attribute, I think, is what may separate us from countries like North Korea.
My point here, of course, is that there are many essential beliefs in which the various religions and "non-religious" interests represented in our nation concur. Interestingly enough, that commonality proscribes the deprivation of an individual that which she holds "inalienably." Our constitution must codify that inexorably. Our goal must never be to abolish any religion or denigrate a creed, except where that creed is intolerant of another. Our goal is simply to equalize the power of every creed.
- We must reconsider and modify the power of the Executive branch. If any function of our government is subject to the corruption of power, it is that one. In the event that the President commands his/her majority party in both legislative chambers and enjoys a politically sympathetic federal court system, a de facto Tyranny exists.
Although for most of my life I have considered Franklin Roosevelt our greatest president, I have seriously reconsidered. His nearly sixteen years in power indeed was characterized by many exceptional policies, perhaps saving the country from disaster in many ways. In retrospect, however, his reign may have caused more damage than good. For he and his policies, both real and imagined, have served as the focal point for the rise of a virulent reactionary movement, intent on not only dismantling the network of social programs engendered by the New Deal, but also on recreating the Executive function as merely a way station which launders tax money into private corporate profit.
Rosenfeld (above) makes a convincing case for abolishing the Senate. Every one of his findings and arguments can be applied to the Executive, so I cannot avoid advocating the abolition of that branch as well. To believe that the Executive "executes the will of the majority" is sheer folly, even when its political agenda is well tempered by a "loyal opposition" in Congress and a Supreme Court less polarized than is the current one. It has always, in every case, consisted of a group of opportunistic men intent on advancing a narrow, self-serving agenda. I challenge you to prove otherwise.
The constitutionality of the legislature's cowardly abandonment of much of its responsibility is in significant doubt, but for the most part remains definitively unchallenged. This is perhaps our greatest tragedy. It is one thing for an overwhelmed citizenry to limit their political activity to hiring professional politicians to do their job - it is quite another for these politicians to duck, cover, and pass their constitutional responsibilities to another branch that they are supposed to "check and balance." It becomes unconscionable when the legislative majority is not of the President's party.
This Legislature, whose responsibility it is to declare war, has not done so since 1941. To me it is simply sickening that this country has waged many major and minor wars since then, while Congress and the Executive have played a scoundrel's game of semantics and avoidance. Some would call this "politics," but it is not really. It is nothing less than perfidy. To put even one individual in harm's way through deception and expediency is criminal. That we have normalized this practice is an abomination. Presidents, it seems, have a tendency to love wars, having learned that wars keep them in office. The people's habit of following their ruler's pointing finger into the jaws of hell, feeding their daughters and sons to the rapacious furnace, is a testament not to courage and patriotism but to insanity. That Congress now repeatedly sidesteps its responsibility and stands aside is unfathomable.
I'm sure I could make a more detailed, systematic argument for abolishing the Senate and fully subjugating the executive function to the House of Representatives - but I believe the case is already made by the present events and circumstances.
- The most critical issue, of course, is that of the power of wealth. Elections are not won or lost on the merits of a candidate's ideas or record or experience - they are bought. The authors of our constitution feared the prospect of a "tyranny of the mob" simply because they thought the great unwashed, uneducated, and unsophisticated would take away their land and other property. The revolution was about freedom only to the extent that it applied to unreasonable taxes and tariffs. The country should damn well be owned by the propertied white men who claimed it, fought for it, and farmed or built on it. Although the smartest of the ruling class did show a spontaneous appreciation for the contribution of the "common man," it was mostly because it was in their own self-interest to do so. Property rights have always trumped human rights. Since the rich make the laws, the rich are happy to take their share first. Concessions to their subjects are resisted, circumvented, ignored, or given grudgingly. Lately, the government simply lies, enacting laws that they refuse to fund or for which they make false claims.
Multinational conglomerates now hold the wealth and power. National laws and borders decreasingly restrain their practices. Many of them field their own armies and many of these armies are supported by tax dollars sucked from the same people these corporations would suppress. It is a shell game, always win-win for the wealthy: they pay little or no taxes, offer us fewer jobs at lower pay and less protective and supportive services, then use our money to isolate and protect themselves against us.
In short, we probably can't do anything about the march of capitalism. It must run its course. I am not convinced either that Marx was wrong or that communism is forever buried. I really just don't know. But I am convinced that we must divorce capitalism from state.
We can make great strides by forbidding private funding in elections and by prohibiting any employee of the government - elected, appointed, or of any other status - from receiving any compensation whatsoever other than a paycheck from the people. Who would be willing to serve under those constraints? Don't be stupid.
In researching for this piece, I Googled "constitutional reform." Scrolling through the first two hundred sites, I found only one dedicated to that subject at our national level. There are one or two which focus on specific states in our republic; the rest had to do with other countries. Draw your own conclusions.
If George W. Bush continues in power, we will have no chance of pulling this off. A Kerry administration may allow us a slim opportunity. But I tell you this with certainty: the Democracy we have imagined never existed and the Republic as it has been is in grave danger.
I certainly support movements for women's rights to completely control their own bodies, for persons of every sexual orientation to form fully legalized relationships of their choosing, for offensive military actions to be illegal, for all cultures and religions to be truly equalized and valued . . . the whole spectrum of so-called "progressive" movements. But I submit that at present to focus on these individual campaigns is wasted energy and that we must attack the core problem: an anti-democratic constitution.
If there is one target that will engage the citizens of this nation in grasping self-government, it may well be this.
© 2004, ddjango