Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Anti-Democrats

Democracy, as almost all thinkers about democracy have argued, is about more than a concrete set of procedures such as universal suffrage. Voting, after all, is not simply an activity randomly chosen from among other things we could do in politics, such as throw all political opponents onto the pyre. It is justified by a deeper set of norms, which are themselves the product of trial-and-error reforms, historically cumulative wisdom, rational argumentation, and evolving sentiments about human relationships. But it is a mistake also to think of democracy as equivalent to suffrage. It's not. Saddam Hussein's Iraq voted. Our own current US administration has no interest in a fair outcome to a vote, perhaps especially now given their radical unpopularity. They are only interested in maintaining the public illusion of protecting the thing they actually want to destroy in their own favor.

Further, however, equating democracy with static institutions such as the vote is a way of saying that democracy is something that can arrive at completion. You get the vote, you're done. Now you're a democracy. Tally ho.

The problem is that democracy is by its very nature an idea that embodies social and political dynamism and evolution. This goes not only for the outcomes of its procedures but also those procedures themselves. John Dewey, the great philosopher of democracy, went so far as to say that democracy as a political entity is best seen as the very best we can do now. But we should never think that it is final answer to human organization - we would already be a fair piece down the road to becoming anti-democrats by doing so. The grounding for this general political form over other political forms is that the world is such that things evolve, change, require new ideas and new actions. Regardless of how far human beings can go in understanding the nature of the world through science, social science, and so on, we will never be in complete knowledge of who we ought to be and can only speak to others' desires about who they want to be to the extent that their desires do not cause harm to others or general social harm.

Democracy is therefore born out of radical uncertainty and contingency and the use of experimental intelligence in attempting to find the right socio-political configurations for the time-being in response to particular, historically contingent problems. As we construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct the idea of democracy and its concrete institutions, we then require a number of key features to democracy if we are to maintain an intelligent and decent democracy. These features include transparency, accountability, relatively accurate information, and some level of equal participation by those who would be affected by democratic procedural outcomes. Those who have a particular interest in corroding any of these elements of democracy, even if they genuinely believe they are doing so in the public interest, are anti-democrats. We now see how it is possible to have a popular vote and yet be non-democratic. In fact, most tyrants have excused their intentional erosion of democratic institutions and qualities through appeal to some form of the claim that "these are dangerous times" and we thus don't have time for such fluffy notions as democracy. Not only is this disdainful of the citizenry, it is an assault on the basics of democracy itself.

And thus we come to today's lesson. We know about Cheney's outlandish claim that his office is outside of the Executive branch. We know about his and Bush's ongoing secrecy and deceit. But let's now read the excerpts below through the lens of the democracy discussion above.

NY Times editorial
(via Norwegianity):
Since the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Bush has tried to excuse his administration’s obsession with secrecy by saying that dangerous times require greater discretion. He rammed the Patriot Act through Congress with a promise that national security agencies would make sure the new powers were not abused...
Washington Post:
Stealth is among Cheney's most effective tools. Man-size Mosler safes, used elsewhere in government for classified secrets, store the workaday business of the office of the vice president. Even talking points for reporters are sometimes stamped "Treated As: Top Secret/SCI." Experts in and out of government said Cheney's office appears to have invented that designation, which alludes to "sensitive compartmented information," the most closely guarded category of government secrets. By adding the words "treated as," they said, Cheney seeks to protect unclassified work as though its disclosure would cause "exceptionally grave damage to national security."...

Across the board, the vice president's office goes to unusual lengths to avoid transparency. Cheney declines to disclose the names or even the size of his staff, generally releases no public calendar and ordered the Secret Service to destroy his visitor logs. His general counsel has asserted that "the vice presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch," and is therefore exempt from rules governing either. Cheney is refusing to observe an executive order on the handling of national security secrets, and he proposed to abolish a federal office that insisted on auditing his compliance.

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