Monday, October 29, 2007

The Social Contract

“Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” So reads the famous opening of Rousseau’s The Social Contract. I’ve been reading a lot of the classics of political philosophy lately, Rousseau, Plato, and Hobbes, pondering the fate of American democracy. What is sovereignty? And why have humans so frequently designated one person to be the holder and wielder of executive power? Why do we create autocracies with one hand, and denounce them as tyrannies with the other? And why is American democracy so fucked-up? And why are our troops still in Iraq? Why do we seem unable to change the course of the war, despite a strong majority opinion that wants to do so? And why are we everywhere in chains?

These reflections are prompted by Rob’s post on the rather unimpressive turnout, in New York City and elsewhere, on the 5th anniversary of the authorization for war for by congress, a vote that will live in infamy along with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse! Thou shouldst be living at this hour; The US hath need of thee; she is a fen of stagnant waters.)

Why is the Iraq anti-war movement so unimpressive, particularly in comparison to the Vietnam anti-war movement, when, five years on, it had forced a sitting president, elected in the greatest landslide in American history, to not seek another term, when it could turn out hundreds of thousands for marches and “mobilizations”

One difference is that LBJ faced a revolt in his own party. Bush, contrary to (for what it is worth) my predictions and expectations, has not. Many hoped it would be the Republicans, under the countervailing pressures of supporting the president and supporting a bitterly unpopular war, would split, and weaken Republican control of congress. This hasn’t happened, and the Republicans have clung to each other for dear life, fully aware of the consequences of any weakness in the ranks. The Democrats haven’t split either, but a stalemate (which is the usual state in Congress, especially with the new requirement, which somehow has been added to the Constitution in the last quarter-century that all important legislation has to receive 60 votes to pass the Senate.) In this state of habitual inaction, all power flows to the presidency. Perhaps on some domestic issues, like social security, popular outrage is enough to scuttle the president, or perhaps it is simply is more difficult for the president to simply rule by fiat domestically.

But on foreign policy, our only real voice is one lever depressed every four years, and sometimes, as in 2000, it really doesn't matter anyway. The Democratic presidential candidates are being as bland and as noncommittal as they can be about Iraq and the looming crisis in Iran, and why not, they want to be elected. As usual all the important decisions will be made after next November, after Americans press the lever or touch the screen, and complete the ritual of legitimating the victor.

The Democrats were scared of a new anti-war movement over Iraq, fearful that, as happened with the Vietnam counter-culture, the war protests would become more unpopular than an unpopular war, and somehow Nixon was elected and re-elected during the midst of the largest mass political protests in the nation’s history.

The Democrats got their wish, the anti-Iraq movement has been small and insignificant. But the movement and the party, if necessarily in tension, at best can work together symbiotically to change the political climate, with the Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside work of the abolitionists and the Republican Party being perhaps the most impressive example of this. In any event we have a weak anti-war movement, a stalemate in Congress, and a surprisingly strong president, who five years into this awful war, continues to have an utterly free hand to do whatever he wishes.

In terms of those political theorists mentioned above, I am afraid that Hobbes is the most relevant. Fear is the era’s primal and basic political emotion, we watch fear and talk fear and sleep fear. As Hobbes shows, fear creates executive power, and near absolute fear, as has reigned in this country since 9/11, has taken us far down the path to absolute power. I wish I had a prescription or a plan for change, but I don’t. But if the abolitionists have any message, it is, stay firm and resolute, and if the cause is right and just, the political system will eventually bend to your will. And sometimes, elections do matter.

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