In the post-World War II period, America was seen by many as the "City on the Hill," an imperfect yet nonetheless shining beacon of government of, by, and for the people. Yet President George W. Bush's harsh criticisms of the New York Times and other media outlets over their reportage of covert and potentially illegal spying programs underscores once again the degree to which a major crack has appeared in America's democratic edifice.
The Bush administration's reasoning is founded on a twisted form of Catch-22 logic. The rules of that logic go something like this:
1. This war on terrorism is our new Cold War...it will last a generation or two. 2. Because we are at war it is necessary to engage in certain behaviors -- renditions, torture, domestic surveillance, secret prisons. 3. We cannot tell you what we are doing because it will compromise national security during a time of war.
4. The courts cannot review what we are doing because it will compromise national security during a time of war. 5. Any newspaper reporter or news outlet that reports a leak of these programs can be put under oath and forced to reveal sources, under threat of going to jail for contempt. 6. Only select members of Congress can know. But they cannot tell anyone because it will compromise national security. 7. When Congress passes laws, the president has the right to ignore them if he believes they infringe upon his war powers or his role as Commander in Chief. 8. The courts cannot review the president's decision in Rule no. 7 because it would compromise national security.
Taken in their totality, these eight rules amount to an end run around the United States Constitution. By the time one reaches the final rule, you realize how fragile American democracy has become. President George W. Bush has yet to exercise a single veto, the only president in modern history never to do so, because he doesn't need to -- he simply ignores any congressional laws he doesn't like.
It leaves Congress as mostly an advisory body to the president. It leaves the courts as a peripheral institution without its historical oversight role. And it leaves civil liberties -- and Americans who are used to enjoying them -- in a very precarious position.
America used to call this by another name -- autocracy.
American history has been marked by periodic political struggles, with deep philosophical roots, about the nature of U.S. democracy and the role of government. On one side of this struggle have been those who see representative democracy as a vehicle for self-government and popular endowment, a strong current in the American stream propelled forward by the likes of Jefferson, Madison, Susan B. Anthony, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King.
On the other side are those who believe in an elite democracy that requires only occasional popular input and ratification. President Richard Nixon crudely expressed this attitude when, oddly enough, he wiretapped himself in the Oval Office saying "blacks, whites, Mexicans and the rest shouldn't have anything to say about government mainly because they don't have the brains to know."
But Nixon's attitude is the 200-years-later version of the one stated by first Chief Justice of the United States John Jay and other founders when Jay said that the upper classes "were the better kind of people" and that "the people who own the country ought to govern it." Truth be told, many of the founders were suspicious of "we the people."
As tempting as may be the vision of a democracy that runs on aristocratic autopilot, the reality is that an elite, trickle-down political system eventually dead-ends in arrogance, secretiveness, and abuse of power. History is filled with examples of this bitter lesson, from the Roman Republic's prototype democracy imploding into Caesar's dictatorship, to Germany's Weimar Republic transmogrifying into the brutality of Hitler's Third Reich.
What will be the fate of the American Republic? The final pages of this chapter are being written with each passing week.
The United States use to stand for something around the world, but now most of the world is shaking its head. Any respect given to the U.S. is more out of fear of our military weapons than respect for core American values and principles. But with the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, unable to achieve victory there, even our military seems not so mighty anymore. The loss of America's global leadership role is just one of the many casualties of current administrative policies.
The new motto of this form of Catch-22 democracy is "trust us, we know what we are doing." But as Ronald Reagan used to say, "Trust, but verify," because Reagan knew that secrecy is the modus operandi of autocratic government.
Steven Hill is author of the recently published "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy" (www.10 Steps.net) and director of the New America Foundation's political reform program.