Democracy can come undone. It’s not something that’s necessarily going to last forever once it’s been established. –Sean Wilentz , The Rise of American Democracy
Now that the Democrats’ “100 hours agenda” has at least passed the House–and as Bush & Co. head toward retirement–the hard work of restoring our democracy must begin. For while the President frequently talks about exporting democracy, he has systematically undermined it here at home.
Not that this democracy was perfect before Bush had his way with it. If democracy means majority rule, minority rights and the rule of law, then the Constitution contained language that was far from democratic. Only men with property could vote. Blacks counted as three-fifths of a person. The Senate was not elected, and states of varying sizes had the same representation.
Yet despite this flawed start, our system evolved into a stronger democracy. Senators became popularly elected in 1913; women won the vote in 1920 and African-Americans forty-five years later. In the 1930s, ’60s and ’90s, Democratic administrations showed that a democracy could expand public healthcare, provide for old-age insurance, make products safer and clean the air.
This two-century advance has recently been reversed. A powerful group of new authoritarians in the executive branch, Congress, the clergy and corporations have expressed enormous contempt for the conversation of democracy. Trampling on the values represented by the flag far more than the couple of fools a year who actually burn one, these leaders pose a clear and present danger to our constitutional traditions. This quiet crisis of democracy–lacking the vivid imagery of a Hindenburg, a 9/11 or soldiers being shot in Iraq–has attracted very little attention. But a better democracy requires better policies. With the Democrats finally back on the offensive, it’s time to repair the broken machinery of government.
The Democracy Protection Act–developed by the New Democracy Project, the Brennan Center for Justice, Demos and The Nation–can help us recover from Bush’s assaults as well as fix structural flaws that have long diminished our democracy and frustrated majority support for progressive reforms. It identifies five key areas calling out for popular reform.
Taking liberties with the law.
Apparently, when Bush swore to “faithfully execute the laws,” he took that oath literally. In just six years, his Administration has, in violation of the UN Charter, invaded a country, condoned torture, refused to seek warrants for wiretaps, leaked classified information for partisan gain, rounded up thousands of American Muslims without evidence, incarcerated hundreds at Guantánamo without charges, restricted habeas corpus and asserted the power to ignore hundreds of duly enacted laws–all because of an open-ended “war on terror.”
For 200 years after Marbury v. Madison, courts had the final say on interpreting laws and the Constitution. Then Bush aides forwarded the “unitary executive” theory, according to which the President may nullify laws after signing them. He has produced 800 “signing statements” so far, asserting that if he thinks a law unwise, he simply won’t enforce it–Marbury be damned.