So Are We Screwed Or What?

I don’t think you need to accept all of the premises of John Quiggin’s argument to feel profoundly unsettled by the conclusion. So while I’m agnostic on President Obama’s reelection chances (two years is a long time and his poll numbers aren’t terrible right now), and profoundly skeptical that America will ever see a President Palin (because of, god, just take your pick), I do think this part is hard to argue with if you take out “Palin” and swap in whatever political flavor of the month strikes your fancy:

Starting with the worst case, how bad would a Palin Administration be ? In policy terms, it would obviously be terrible, but I’m more concerned about the prospect of Palin inheriting the monarchical powers amassed for the Presidency by the Bush and Obama Administrations. These include:

  • Powers conferred by legislation under the PATRIOT Act, Military Commissions Act and so on. These would surely be greatly strengthened by a Republican Congress under Palin
  • Powers claimed by Bush and Obama (for example, the power to direct the assassination of any person deemed to be a supporter of terrorism) with no specific legislative capacity
  • The power, with no legal basis, to pressure corporations into taking actions against real or putative enemies of the state (wiretapping, withdrawing services from Wikileaks)
  • The Bush-Obama precedent under which admittedly criminal actions taken by the President (such as ordering torture) do not give rise to any prosecution or right of redress

The main saving grace under Bush and Obama has been the fact that most of these powers have been used fairly sparingly, and never (AFAIK) against ‘mainstream’ political opponents of the Administration. I can’t see Palin accepting any such constraint. Given the starting position, four years of unfettered power for Palin would be enough to move the US a long way in the direction taken by Russia under Putin, with a compliant media, an oligarchical ruling class subject to rapid reprisals for any display of political independence, and dissidents are subject to all kinds of harassment up to and including assassination.

Look, we already have reason to suspect that these powers have already been wielded against mainstream political opponents. You could certainly make the case that the leaking of Valerie Plame’s identity fits into that pattern, though that wasn’t so much an abuse of formally granted power as the leveraging of privileged information for political gain. Similarly, in 2006 a credible mainstream journalist claimed that he was the target of NSA wiretapping. And while Julian Assange is not a mainstream journalist by any measure, prosecuting him under the Espionage Act as it currently exists would set a damn troubling precedent.

Realistically, I don’t think these powers are going away. Neither major political party even pays lip service to civil liberties anymore, and even if one of them did, the legislature’s ability to keep the executive in check is basically shot to shit. The Senate has hobbled itself to the point where the executive branch might assume even more of the legislature’s traditional roles through various agencies simply because that’s the only way anything will get done.

The creeping normalization of abuse of power has been going on for awhile now, but if I had to hazard a particularly dour guess, I’d say that it’s going to reach a watershed moment in the next decade or so. Look at the horrendous overreaction to Wikileaks. Think about what could happen if the economy stagnates for a few more years, and unemployment stays at insane levels. Combine that with America’s declining international influence and the global instability we could see once climate change starts to affect everyone’s access to basic resources. In a world like that, whoever the president is at the time could see knuckling down as his or her only option.

And who’s to stop it? We’ve been fine with the trend for awhile now, as long as the effects were more or less invisible to those who hold most of this country’s political and economic power. It turns out that one of the things that makes liberal democracy so fragile is that many, many voters will still cling to freakily illiberal views. When you get down to it, the democratic spirit is a psychological aberration. Nothing erodes it faster than the most basic human instincts.

Alright, enough with the doom, gloom, the rambling, and the grandiose pronouncements. I realize I’m young enough that I don’t have the historical perspective to make a true judgment call on this. America has seen greater abuses of power than the ones we’re looking at right now — way greater. Jim Crow laws are dead and gone. The Sedition Act is barely a memory. There are reasons to not be cynical.

Still, the sunniest thing I can say right now is that Quiggin’s prediction strikes me as a genuine possibility. We’re in a fragile position here. I think most of the time we take great efforts to ignore how fragile. And of course, genuine crises like the kind Quiggin describes are always inconceivable, until we decide, with the great wisdom of hindsight, that they were inevitable.


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