9/19/2013

The betrayal of Trust in America

When our great nation was started, Americans had a high degree of trust in their government. They felt that it genuinely represented the interests of the people.

Government policy in developed countries is relatively stable and predictable, and, for the most part (at least relative to less developed countries), promises made are promises kept. Governments keep their promises despite the fact that policymakers face a well-known time-consistency problem. That is, it is seldom in the short-run best interest of a government to keep capital taxes low, honor its debt obligations, or inflate the currency only by the expected amount. Much of the theory on credible government policy concerns itself precisely with accounting for this ability of governments to make and keep promises. In these good scenarios, households trust the government and the government does not betray this trust because a deviation by the government causes a reversion to a worse equilibrium.

Depending on your point of view, the last few weeks and months have sounded either a very loud wake-up call for the death knell of democracy in the United States, at least for the foreseeable future. For the first time in generations, American citizens have been betrayed, and indeed, attacked, not merely by one over-reaching branch of government, but by all three. The actions of President Obama and the Congress as revealed in the the Snowden Affair, and the revelations of the NSA's activities it has brought to light, and now the governments handling of the Syrian fiasco, show conclusively that Americans today can no longer trust their government to protect their most fundamental rights, either in principle or against the abuse by one or more arms of the state.

Every American child learns about the unique set of "checks and balances" laid out in the US Constitution, which established a tripartite division of power between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government. This balance of power, whose history returns (in a much simpler form) to ancient Greece and Rome, was established precisely because the "Founding Fathers" held a deep distrust of the ability of those with political power to use it fairly and according to law, and not arrogate it or otherwise abuse it for their own individual or corporate benefit.

The separation of power and the checks and balances between the three branches of government it established ensured that the functions of making, executing and interpreting the law remained the provenance of the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches respectively. Each branch have always had, as a core responsibility, checking any over-reach by one or both of the other two. At the same time, by placing supreme power at the Federal level, the Constitution (as laid out in Article VI), ensured that individual states could not act to ignore, undermine or violate Federal laws by enacting their own laws that either superseded or contravened them.

State power

The Civil War was fought in good measure over whether the Supremacy Clause, as laid out in Article VI of the Constitution, or the 10th Amendment, which declared that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people," was the ultimate authority in the land.

The US experienced a strong and activist Federal government in the middle two thirds of the 20th century, roughly from FDR's New Deal till the Reagan Presidency. In the last two generations, and particularly under the Bush II presidencies, Republicans have acted both to restrict the power of Congress and the Courts in favour of a reinvigorated "states' rights," and to assert an unprecedented power of a "unitary executive." The focus on states rights was ostensibly intended to "return power to the people" by reining in the "morally zealous and apparently unconstitutional" actions of the Federal government.

In practice, however, states rights has meant the weakening of rights and protections of citizens in favor of religiously conservative social and economically corporate-dominated agendas. Ironically, back in the 1980s, when the great rightward shift in American politics was first solidified, it was the judiciary that was considered by Republicans the most overly zealous branch of government. Today, after nearly two dozen years of broad Republican control over the appointment of Federal and Supreme Court judges (through their broad control over the Congress), the Judicial Branch is no longer the main problem.

The theory of the unitary executive, pushed by Bush administration officials and their neoconservative allies in the midst of the War on Terror, argued that the President has authority not merely to execute laws passed by Congress, but also to interpret the law, particularly when it comes to actions taken by the Executive Branch. As far back as 1803, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall argued that only the Judicial Branch has the authority to interpret and declare "what the law is."

Not that the Supreme Court is, on crucial issues, firmly in conservative hands, but the Executive Branch is in the hands of a Democrat who on crucial issues related to the most fundamental power of government is following the path laid by his Republican predecessors.

A Perfect storm of disempowerment

What exists now in the US is a perfect storm of disempowerment of Americans by all three branches of their government when it comes to the most basic rights citizens can possess. For three presidential terms the Executive Branch has been firmly in the hands of presidents and officials who believe that the government can contravene the most basic rights of any person - citizen or foreigners - as long as they can justify such actions in the guise of "protecting the American people" and other raisons d'Etat.

Congress, in theory, should be checking such untrammeled Executive Power, most recently revealed by Edward Snowden's leaking of NSA and other Executive Branch surveillance and spying policies. But what the Snowden affair reaffirms instead is the reality that Congress has little will to oppose such policies and indeed by and large supports the military-industrial-intelligence behemoth that so threatens the rights of all. Given the corporate control of the Congress and the political process more broadly, there is little incentive for legislators to draft and/or support any kind of legislation that would protect and enhance the rights of individual citizens at the expense of state power or its corporate sponsors.

The question remains as to what Americans will do in response to this tripartite aggression against them by their government. Almost 36 months ago the tactics and bravery of the early Arab uprisings helped inspire the Occupy movement globally, and particularly in the US. But however powerful the initial outburst, the movement has lost virtually all of its political and cultural momentum. Today protests sweeping across countries as diverse as Turkey and Brazil serve as another reminder of the power, and at times, obligation, of "the people" to take to the streets in order to force their governments take their core needs and concerns into consideration as part of the normal practice of governance.

With no where to turn politically, and an economic system that despite all the scandals and damage of the last half decade still remains firmly in the grips of the hyper-corporate forces that led the country into the "Great Recession," Americans have no one but themselves to rely on to reassert control over a political system that was designed precisely to ensure this kind of stacking of the deck against citizens by their government wouldn't happen. Occupying public or virtual spaces will not solve our problems unless it is done on a far greater scale and level of intensity and perseverance than were exhibited by the first incarnation of the Occupy movement. Shutting down the government over the debt limit and Obamacare defunding is probably never going to happen - and if it did, the repercussions would most likely hurt the perpetrators more than any other group.

It's hard to know how Americans can actually "take back their government," as Republicans and Democrats routinely urge them without a hint of irony, utilizing any of the political and cultural tools presently available to them. But at least with the events of the last few weeks they can no longer say they didn't understand the full spectrum of forces arrayed against them. If that doesn't generate enough urgency to produce the kind of conversations and grass roots practices that can lead to new political models emerging, then the death knell of democracy as most Americans have for generations understood it has most definitely sounded.

This government is hardly in any position to lament someone else’s betrayal of trust. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has emerged as a beacon of civil liberties in this troubling time. I support Sen. Paul’s effort to mobilize as many as 10 million Americans to protest the government’s spying on us. He plans a class-action lawsuit, as well as legislation enforcing our Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable and warrantless searches.
Paul calls the domestic spying "an astounding assault on the Constitution." He’s right. And, noting that all that spying didn’t prevent the Boston Marathon bombing, he says burying national security officials in a billion calls a day, not to mention emails and Internet records, is "just bad police work" - and it is extremely costly.

Paul says "this much power is too much power to give any government, as he reminds us that all that intelligence on us is currently in the hands of "a government that appears to target people based on their political beliefs. I don’t want my phone records being given to an administration that I can’t trust."

Paul sounds very much like a former Senate colleague of his who, in the mid-2000s, bitterly decried domestic spying under President George W. Bush, saying his administration acted like "violating civil liberties is a way to enhance our security. It is not. There are no shortcuts to protecting America." That senator was Barack Obama – who, back then, warned against "undermining our Constitution and our freedom."

Obama also once said:
• "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."
• "No more illegal wiretapping of American citizens."
• "No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime."
• "We need to find a way forward to make sure that we can stop terrorists while protecting the privacy and liberty of innocent Americans."

Congratulations, Mr. President. After the Boston bombing,the NSA scandal and Syria, we can truthfully say you’ve done neither. You've only served to increase the betrayal of trust in America.

Sources: Al Jazeera: http://goo.gl/hsSM2y , Subrealism: http://goo.gl/vngSX8, Promoting Good Governmance: http://goo.gl/huVGX7