The Disappearance of Informed Democracy
This week on the op-ed page of the Washington Post three senators debated the how best to detain “terrorists.” The current annual defense authorization bill contains language introduced by Senators Carl Levin and John McCain that would codify the executive branch’s current practice of indefinitely detaining suspected terrorists. It would also renew the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force and permit the executive, though not require it, to indefinitely detain a U.S. citizen caught on U.S. soil who “substantially supports” Al Qaeda, the Taliban or “associated forces.”
An amendment to strip this language from the bill proposed by Senator Mark Udall was voted down 38-60. Of course what’s really shameful is that even Udall’s amendment was proposed not on the grounds that the Levin/McCain section codifies and further legitimizes the federal government’s gross attack on civil liberties, but rather because,
“[T]hese provisions disrupt the executive branch’s capacity to enforce the law and impose unwise and unwarranted restrictions on our ability to aggressively combat international terrorism.”
Congress isn’t debating the actual merits of permitting the executive branch to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens accused of being, assisting, supporting, or associating with terrorists. Instead, the Senate (with a few exceptions) are simply debating with which branch of government these unconstitutional powers should lie. Congress declaring that only it has the authority to grant the President these powers is certainly better than bipartisan support of the unitary executive. But even that still comes egregiously short of the more forceful prohibitions of these practices proscribed by the Constitution.
As Glen Greenwald notes, even without this Congressional codification, the executive branch already claims these powers and more, to the point of killing U.S. citizens abroad without due process and without a public scrutiny. So while passage of this bill will certainly further validate the federal government’s near complete power to propagate “the war against terrorism,” both at home and abroad, simply defeating this bill in Congress would hardly change things, though it would be a first step.
Instead, what’s more alarming is how often the public is kept silent, ignorant, or perniciously disinterested in problems of the highest import and how they might be solved. It’s not just war, where the argument that our civilian commander-in-chief should defer to his generals is constantly repeated but never defended. It’s also banking, where rich, powerful, and most important of all, well connected people, get the help they need because, for reasons the average American is just to dumb to understand, bailing out the banks that created the bubble is more important than helping those people who are underwater on their mortgages, student loans, or medical expenses and who feel the effects of financial collapse most potently.
Elites in economics and finance decided behind closed doors what was best, and then assured the public that this was the only way to prevent further collapse. Never mind that all these guys are their friends and colleagues. This isn’t personal, it’s not even business. It’s to save the economy. Not until later is it revealed just how much was given out and to whom, even while those in the unemployment line are long forgotten about.
Now Europe is facing a similar lending crisis, and elites on the continent are doing their best to shut the public out as much as possible. It doesn’t matter that, as Shawn Gude writes, “The elites recognize their means are inimical to democracy. They simply don’t care.”
As usual, there’s no time for public deliberation, participation, or greater awareness. Those in charge and in the know don’t have the patience or respect to explain to or negotiate with the people their policies will affect.
Again and again, elites have written the rules, and then proceed to implement them, with little outside scrutiny. In some cases this is because openness is literally a punishable sin. Even Tony Blair has come out urging greater openness with regard to the Obama administration’s drone strike procedures, which are currently under the oversight of the CIA and still considered covert, despite the multitude of overt civilian deaths that result from them every year.
What all these things have in common, accusation, conviction and detention by military personnel, economic and financial elites making decisions with far reaching consequences in secret or without the time to debate with anyone else, and CIA operatives commanding death from the sky for hundreds of suspected terrorists and innocent men, women and children alike, is that in each case unaccountable people make decisions without public input and without oversight.
And that is precisely what it means to operate as an informed democracy. It means not only to be adequately educated, but to also have access to the relevant information to be able to voice agreement or dissent on the relevant topics. What has happened is that elites, especially in the executive branches of both the federal government and private management, have shielded themselves and their decisions from view. Either such decisions are off the record or highly secretive, like those of the Fed and the military. Or they are hidden in plain view by virtue of the volume of other competing news and information. How can one gauge support for a policy when it’s not in the public conciousness, or when its existence isn’t even known.
In both instances the MSM bears much of the responsibility. Whether it’s the op-ed pages of the Washington Post, which on neither day ran a dissenting editorial that virulently disagreed with the Levin/McCain consensus, and which has its own history of authority smitten journalists. Or the New York Times, the reporting for which is at times so hawkish, and at times so centrist, as to print such journalistic gems as this:
“The civilian toll of the C.I.A.’s drone campaign, which is widely credited with disrupting Al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan’s tribal area, has been in bitter dispute since the strikes were accelerated in 2008. Accounts of strike after strike from official and unofficial sources are so at odds that they often seem to describe different events.”
The text of which sits right below an image of Pakistani villagers carrying a coffin of a person “who was said to have been killed by an American drone attack near the Afghan border.” Because honestly, who knows whose drone it was.
Of course, who has time to read about political cronyism, civilian deaths, or Congress’ move to further cement into law the executive’s attack on civil liberties, when the bulk of political journalistic output is focused on horserace politics and side show distractions. And so while we’re all happily and uselessly pontificating about Newt Gingrich’s actual electoral viability, the Senate is scheduled to vote later today on the current defense authorization bill, which unlike the ridiculous gridlock over authorizing already-authorized-spending we saw earlier this summer, will likely pass Congress with uncanny bipartisan support.