Thursday, January 12, 2006

The elements of tyranny

There has been a lot of talk lately about the Bush regime's new theory of presidential power. The unitary executive, a conception advocated by torture aficionado John Yoo and Supreme Court nominee Alito, is not just a peculiar interpretation of the constitution, its adoption marks a transition in our form of government. Toward what exactly is not yet fully evident in all of its detail, but the X just over the horizon is simply not democracy in any meaningful sense of the word.

In a recent article in Writ, Jennifer Van Bergen details some of the ways in which this theory of executive power is incompatible with democracy.

The unitary executive doctrine arises out of a theory called "departmentalism," or "coordinate construction." ...According to this theory, the president may (and indeed, must) interpret laws, equally as much as the courts...

Bush's recent actions make it clear that he interprets the coordinate construction approach extremely aggressively. In his view, and the view of his Administration, that doctrine gives him license to overrule and bypass Congress or the courts, based on his own interpretations of the Constitution -- even where that violates long-established laws and treaties, counters recent legislation that he has himself signed, or (as shown by recent developments in the Padilla case) involves offering a federal court contradictory justifications for a detention...

If not democracy, then what? It is important to get the details right of course. Bush is not Hitler, and his followers are not Nazis in any literal sense. They are, as Chris Floyd wryly notes, "themselves and bad enough for all that." He goes on,
The particulars of any given political tyranny cannot be replicated in different historical and cultural situations; as Tolstoy says (in a vastly different context), each unhappy family is unhappy in its own special way. But the lineaments of tyranny - its mental framework, its DNA - are remarkably consistent over time and place and cultures, with the same rhetoric, the same justifications, the same tendency toward eliminationism (see Dave Neiwert for more on this), and many of the same policies - such as spying on domestic enemies, evading judicial review, inflicting torture, waging war, etc. - which are the logical, inevitable outgrowths of authoritarian rule.
Some comparisons especially to the early stages of Hitler's Germany therefore remain illuminating. Take for example Floyd's quote from Nazi jurist Dr. Werner Best, "As long as the [Gestapo] ... carries out the will of the leadership, it is acting legally." Substitute virtually any US government agency, any action, for the Gestapo in this quote and it accurately describes the current policy and practice of the Bush regime, under the constitutional disguise of the theory of the unitary executive.

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