Monday, February 26, 2007

Democracy beyond the Bush regime

More and more American commentators are beginning to question whether the American political system can survive the Bush regime. Joe Conason, a columnist for the New York Observer and Salon, is blunt. In It Can Happen Here (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007), Conason says: "For the first time since the resignation of Richard M. Nixon more than three decades ago, Americans have had reason to doubt the future of democracy and the rule of law in our own country. Today we live in a state of tension between the enjoyment of traditional freedoms, including the protections afforded to speech and person by the Bill of Rights, and the disturbing realisation that those freedoms have been undermined and may be abrogated at any moment." Conason explains how Bush claims an authority that transcends the separation and balancing of power among the branches of government. His book cites evidence of widespread disenchantment and fear amongst the electorate, which led to the defeat for the Republicans in last autumn’s mid-term Congressional elections. Voters are fed up with what Conason describes as the lies, corruption and cronyism of the Bush administration seen from Iraq to the handling of Hurricane Katrina.

Conason writes: "The most obvious symptoms can be observed in the regime's style, which features an almost casual contempt for democratic and lawful norms; an expanding appetite for executive control at the expense of constitutional balances; a reckless impulse to corrupt national institutions with partisan ideology; and an ugly tendency to smear dissent as disloyalty. The most troubling effects are matters of substance, including the suspension of traditional legal rights for certain citizens; the imposition of secrecy and the inhibition of the free flow of information; the extension of domestic spying without legal sanction or warrant; the promotion of torture and other barbaric practices, in defiance of American and international law; and the collusion of government and party with corporate interests and religious fundamentalists."

The title of Conason’s book is drawn deliberately from the title of the novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, which was published 1935. Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, envisaged the USA in thrall to a fascist dictator. Buzz Windrip, a plainspoken, folksy Southern politician had risen to power during a period of profound unrest in America. Lewis, who had been expelled from Nazi Germany, had written: ""When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Conason sees striking resemblance between the demagogic villain of Lewis’s book, and the present White House incumbent. Yet the authoritarian regime in Washington is, as Conason acknowledges, not fascist. The American people are not cowed or defeated by the Bush regime. But it remains true that in many countries, including Britain, the political system that evolved in tandem with capitalism, with its democratic side the result of generational struggles, is indeed in profound crisis. Globalisation of the world economy, leading to the transfer of powers and decision-making out of the hands of national governments, has tied capitalist democratic structures to corporate power in a much more direct way. In 1992, the arch-conservative political theorist Francis Fukuyama, claimed that the end of the Soviet Union marked the ultimate triumph for the Western democracies, which were themselves the last word in history as far as political systems were concerned. How hollow and stupid his words sound today! Yet relying on liberal sentiment to resuscitate the façade of bourgeois democracy would be a major mistake and could lead to the outright fascist dictatorship that Conason and others fear. Bush enjoys as much power as he does partly as the result of the supine nature of Senate Democrats. Surely the next word in history has to be the extension of democratic principles and ideals in new ways and into new areas like the workplace, colleges and communities, replacing corporate power with a genuine people’s power.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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