Balkinization  

Friday, March 21, 2008

Dana Perino captures the reality of life in a constitutional dictatorship

Sandy Levinson

I suspect that some of you find me tiresome on the point that we should analyze at least aspects of our current system through the analytic lens of "constitutional dictatorship." But consider the following exchange yesterday between the White House Press Secretary, Dana Perino, and Helen Thomas:

Thomas: "The American people are being asked to die and pay for this. And you're saying they have no say in this war?"

Perino: "No, I didn't say that Helen. But Helen, this president was elected --"

Thomas: "Well, what it amounts to is you saying we have no input at all."

Perino: "You had input. The American people have input every four years, and that's the way our system is set up. . . . "


This captures exactly the theory of constitutional dictatorship. That is, there are indeed elections, and one can plausibly argue (save, perhaps for 2000), that the President has won a popular election. So far, so good. But it turns out, according to Ms. Perino and her White House masters, that that's the last moment of participation by We the People until the next election. Rousseau famously commented that the English were free only once every five years, when they voted for parliament. I am no . . . .


adherent of Athenian "direct democracy," which requires, at the very least, a relatively small polity. That being said, there is no reason in the world to adopt a theory of representative democracy instantiated in Ms. Perino's blithe response. It offers only the opportunity, in this country every four years, to select our dictator. Quite frankly, her comment is a far more shocking damnation of American politics than anything said by Pastor Wright (bit I digress). Will John McCain immediately denounce Ms. Perino and the political theology (see Carl Schmitt) that she is faithfully explicating as a presumptive disciple of Bush and Chaney?

Comments:

Sandy:

C'mon now Sandy. A representative democracy is hardly a dictatorship, constitutional or otherwise.

In a representative democracy, we elect leaders.

The job of leaders is to lead, not to follow polls.

An elected representative who follows ever changing polls will be paralyzed and in turn paralyze the nation which he or she is supposed to help lead.
 

"Leadership" without genuine accountability is precisely what I mean by "dictatorship." There is an "excluded middle" between unaccountable decisionmaking and "follow[ing[ ever changing polls," as I suspect Mr. DePalma would concede in his less polemical moments.

I also wonder, incidentally, if he will be such a fan of his version of "representative democracy" in a Clinton or Obama administration.
 

Sandy, I had the same reaction as you did when I saw Perino's comments . . . albeit without the Carl Schmidt reference. Of course, I am well-steeped in your writings on this.

To see you make the point in print, for me at least, feels like the completion of a thought.
 

But, Sandy, the President does have genuine accountability: He can be impeached, and if Congress has no taste for that, there are all manner of things they can do short of that to make his life miserable, or interfere with his policy preferences. Some of which are not the least bit subject to veto.

What's pissing you off is that Congress doesn't chose to do any of the things within their power to rein the President in. But the powers you're accountable to being loathe to act is NOT the same thing as being unaccountable.

Not a dictatorship. It's not even a decent metaphor.
 

i caught that too and was shocked.

he was elected to rule and by God he will.

this is a strong argument for impeachment on principle.

i think that may be most accurate description of WH thinking on this subject as we are likely to see.
 

Sandy:

Would you care to share the nature of the "middle ground" between an elected leader following polls or following his or her own conscience?

I cannot agree with your contention that following one's own conscience makes an elected leader unaccountable. Every member of the Congress, the President and the Vice President are all held accountable to the voters at regular intervals. When our elected representatives start using force to stay in office like Musharraf, then I might agree with your calling them dictators.

BTW, while I may disagree with most of the decisions of the elected Dem Congress and more than a few of Mr. Bush's decisions, I have no ground to call them dictators. I got what I voted for when I helped elect Mr. Bush and I was outvoted fair and square in 2006 when the American People got tired of the GOP and gave the Dems a shot.
 

The middle ground is filled with thousands of passages of laws signing statements "purport" to reject without a legitimate bluepencil. e.g.,section 841 of the Defense spending bill: the president signed the bill but denied congress had the right to require he nominate anyone to the overseas defense contracting oversight body which the Webb-McCaskill amendment formed; i.e., congress controls the pursestrings except when the president does away with the untidiness of having a congressional middle ground to legislate into existence feedback loops to inform taxpayers what their bricks of $100. bills go to pay in overseas adventures.
 

I cannot agree with your contention that following one's own conscience makes an elected leader unaccountable.

When they break the law (some "conscience", eh?) in doing so, they are.

Cheers,
 

"Bart" DePalma:

I got what I voted for when I helped elect Mr. Bush ...

You voted for 4000 dead soldiers, a quagmire in Iraq, another $3 trillion in debt, an economy down the sh*tter, and raping the environment?!?!? Or were your goals ... ummm ... more "pedestrian"....

Cheers,
 

Whether or not President Bush is being held accountable is almost besides the point. The sophistry needed to justify his lawless presidency only leads to the same conclusion as Sandy's but for different reasons.

The right believes it is OK to break the law when you invoke words like "national security" or "terrorism." Perhaps you feel in these times such a person is needed. But such a person is not a president. Such a person is a dictator.

I've heard this argument before over-and-over. And what the right keeps arguing is needed, and the actions that have been taken, are the acts of a dictatorial power. Not a president.

You can't have it both ways. But of course the right always wants to...
 

L.S.,

This is very unsettling...
I find myself in complete agreement with Bart DePalma. I guess there has to be a first time for everything.

Seriously, though, the Volokh Conspiracy is full of Ilya Somin Posts about Rational Voter Ignorance, as evidenced most recently by the fact that a majority of voters polled in France did not know the European Parliament, which they get to vote for every four years, is directly elected. Our system of representative democracy (or maybe just our system here, of parliamentary democracy) strikes the best possible balance between the individual's right of self-determination, which includes the requirement that government be based on the consent of the governed, and voter ignorance.
 

John/Arne:

Let's get back on subject.

The issue raised by Mr. Cheney was whether a President should decide whether to fight a war based on polls:

ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz is traveling with Vice President Dick Cheney in Iraq:

CHENEY: On the security front, I think there's a general consensus that we've made major progress, that the surge has worked. That's been a major success.

RADDATZ: Two-third of Americans say it's not worth fighting.

CHENEY: So?

RADDATZ So? You don't care what the American people think?

CHENEY: No. I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls.


Mr. Cheney may not have been politic, but he is absolutely right that a President fighting a war cannot be guided by whether the war is popular because wars are rarely popular.

The snide implication by the reporter was that the President should surrender in Iraq as soon as a majority of the population in a poll does not think the war was worth fighting.

In that case, Washington should have surrendered from the outset during the Revolution, Lincoln should have surrendered to the South in 1864 and FDR should have surrendered to the Axis in 1944. Each one of these wars was exponentially more costly in lives and as a percentage of GDP than the Iraq War.

Once again, we hire Presidents to lead, not to follow. Part of presidential leadership is to rally the citizenry in the face of adversity, not to follow citizenry and give up when the citizenry gets discouraged and feels like giving up. It is just such leadership in the face of adversity which is the hallmark of great Presidents like Lincoln and FDR.

In Mr. Bush's case, he has the will to stick it out, but he could do a far better job at rallying the country.
 

Would you care to share the nature of the "middle ground" between an elected leader following polls or following his or her own conscience?

How about following the law. Bush, Cheney, Addington and Yoo have long made it clear that they do not consider the President bound by any laws on the issue of national security. That is what I would call an elective dictatorship.
 

enlightened layperson said...

BD: Would you care to share the nature of the "middle ground" between an elected leader following polls or following his or her own conscience?

How about following the law. Bush, Cheney, Addington and Yoo have long made it clear that they do not consider the President bound by any laws on the issue of national security. That is what I would call an elective dictatorship.


Putting aside the argument over whether Congress or the President was violating the Constitution in their various balance of power battles, the fact that a President violates the law does not make him or her unaccountable. That is what impeachment is for.
 

"Bart" DePalma:

Mr. Cheney may not have been politic, but he is absolutely right that a President fighting a war cannot be guided by whether the war is popular because wars are rarely popular.

Oh, BS. Not only is this not true on a general level, but certainly not true in this specific instance. It was quite "popular" at first, but once people started seeing the incmpetence, the carnage, and the lies, the popularity dropped like a rock.

But spoken like a good RWA, "Bart". Do you go along with the Straussian view that the elites have to make the decisions and the lumpen proles need to be lied to,
'cause they're too stoopid to decide if their kid should be dying?

Cheers,
 

"Bart":

In that case, Washington should have surrendered from the outset during the Revolution, Lincoln should have surrendered to the South in 1864 and FDR should have surrendered to the Axis in 1944.

Please. Stop making sh*te up.

Thanks in advance.

Cheers,
 

Arne, I don't know where he got surrendering to the Axis in 1944 from, but it would be fair to say that by Helen Thomas's logic we shouldn't have given destroyers to the British prior to Pearl Harbor. That was unpopular and illegal. I have to agree with Bart. In 2000, the people elected a President whose foreign policy staff was full of people who were widely known to have designs on Iraq. In 2004, the people re-elected a President who invaded Iraq and left intact a Congress that approved that invasion. In 2006, they elected a Congress that wasn't crazy about the war in Iraq but was unwilling to cut off funding for the war or force Bush to withdraw troops. Now in 2008, it seems likely - though far from certain - that they'll finally elect a candidate who promises to get troops out of Iraq. Knowing that, maybe it behooves Bush to move in a more moderate direction, but I can't call his refusing to do so the act of a constitutional dictator, or see a comparison between what he's doing and what Carl Schmitt (who, by the way, I think is being unfairly maligned here) might prescribe.
 

tray:

Arne, I don't know where he got surrendering to the Axis in 1944 from, but it would be fair to say that by Helen Thomas's logic we shouldn't have given destroyers to the British prior to Pearl Harbor. That was unpopular and illegal....

Possibly, but make your argument. Assertion just don't cut it. However, it's irrelevant to "Bart"'s histrionics.

... I have to agree with Bart. In 2000, the people elected a President whose foreign policy staff was full of people who were widely known to have designs on Iraq....

I really don't think that's a fair assessment of Gore and his staff;in fact, it's kind of insulting. ;-)

But, foreseeing your 'objection' here, I'd say that Dubya hardly ran as the "All war, all the time" candidate either. In fact, he pretended to be someone that didn't want foreign entanglements, much less war.... Or were you simply not paying attention?

... In 2004, the people re-elected a President who invaded Iraq and left intact a Congress that approved that invasion....

It takes a while for the sheen of a newly minted war to wear off. Early conventional wisdom in 2004 was that the Democratic candidate would be a sacrificial lamb, going against the "9/11" preznit while a war was ongoing. Dubya's approval ratings had reached almost 90%, and that's not surprising in times of trouble and strife, where people tend to pull together behind their "leader" come what may. It takes quite a bit to overcome that, but Dubya's a man of many talents, and his 2004 victory (if that it was) was one of the narrowest in history, andif you look at it, the absolute narrowest for any president in the midst of a war.

... In 2006, they elected a Congress that wasn't crazy about the war in Iraq but was unwilling to cut off funding for the war or force Bush to withdraw troops....

Huh? They tried. Dubya vetoed it. Are you seriously claiming the 2006 Congress is pro-war?!?!?

... Now in 2008, it seems likely - though far from certain - that they'll finally elect a candidate who promises to get troops out of Iraq. Knowing that, maybe it behooves Bush to move in a more moderate direction, but I can't call his refusing to do so the act of a constitutional dictator, or see a comparison between what he's doing and what Carl Schmitt (who, by the way, I think is being unfairly maligned here) might prescribe.

I was maligning Strauss.

Cheers,
 

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