I am forever amazed at the great irony that one of this nation's most bullish proponents of spreading democracy abroad- especially in the Middle East- is one of the greatest opponents of democracy at home. The vice president's antidemocratic streak was on display again this week when his office refused to hand over classified documents to the National Archives. This requirement applies to the executive branch of government, Cheney argued, but not to his office, which is not in fact part of the executive branch. Who knew?
Immediately, questions come to mind. Why is the vice presidency suddenly not part of the executive branch? Which branch of government is his office under, then? Why is this the first vice president to discover this constitutional loophole regarding government oversight of his office, if it is indeed authentic, and appeal to it? More importantly, why is he the first vice president to feel the need to appeal to this loophole in the first place? What does he have to hide?
No explanation has been given as of yet, which only sows greater suspicion among critics. But we all know what Cheney would or will eventually say, which has been his recurring theme through his many attempts to avoid political transparency and accountability: it is for the sake of national security. The war on terror is really most convenient for the executive branch of government. It is the ideal excuse for retaining secrets, curtailing constitutional rights, spying on the citizenry, bullying the press, disposing of trial by jury, etc. In other words, the war on terror is the ideal excuse for limiting the power of the people, and increasing that of the executive branch. This is Cheney's real agenda. The vice president has long been in favor of making a 'more robust' executive office, in his words, capable of greater and swifter action. His attempt to elude the National Archives is a right, I suppose, he would expect to be vested in the president as well.
Now, our founding fathers were very wise: they realized the temptation of political office -especially that of the executive branch- and aimed to delimit it as much as possible. An individual, motivated by the temptations of power and greed, will always find excuses to increase political authority if he is allowed. This is common sense among political theorists, and certainly all those great minds who inspired the founding fathers: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Spinoza. Humans are egocentric by nature- a statement our Capitalist economy, for one, cheerfully and aggressively endorses- and in political officeholders, the task is to rein in that native egocentrism.
Messrs. Bush and Cheney would have us trust them with greater power in order that they might fight this war on terror more effectively. But why should we trust them? Do they and their confidants transcend human nature? And why should war be an appropriate excuse? According to our presidents, we have been in an almost constant state of war since World War I- the Cold War, inspiring all kinds of executive secrecy and unaccountability, occupied 50 of those years, and neatly handed off to the War on Terror. As our presidents would have it, this nation has hardly ever known real freedom.
But our founding fathers crafted the constitution during a time of war in the first place, and for some reason felt no compulsion to expand the powers of the executive branch in order to wage war more effectively. This was precisely their intent: they wanted to limit the president's ability to wage war. War is devastating to a nation, incurring all kinds of financial, social, psychological and, of course, human costs. War is also that occasion, our founding fathers knew well, when civil rights are most likely to be threatened and eroded. Thus, war is a last resort. To preserve a democracy, do not make it easy to wage war.
Madison, Jefferson, Franklin and company were true egalitarians. They saw the occupant of the presidency as a human being like any other, and designed proper safeguards against typical corruptions of human nature. Cheney is no egalitarian- nor is Mr. Rove, or any of the 'neo-conservatives,' none of whom follow the political lineage of the founding fathers. Rather, most of the powerbrokers in the current administration adhere- advertently or inadvertently- to the school of Leo Strauss, the famous political scientist from the University of Chicago. Several of the neo-conservatives are students and professed devotees of Strauss.
Cheney's political behavior betrays the Straussian verdict on democracy: the masses are ignorant, short sighted, selfish, and volatile. Politicians must recognize and beware of this, but can also take advantage of the nature of the masses because, after all, they can easily be duped. In fact, their noxious mixture of traits makes the masses distinctly dangerous, which means that any respectable politician must defy the Jeffersonian model and rescind power from the masses. Cheney's power politics- his perennial appeal to military aggression- attests to his cynicism regarding human nature and the ability of people to peacefully and willfully cohabitate. Such cynicism is the very bedrock of the Straussian political view.
In short, the vice president busies himself obstructing democracy because deep down he does not in fact believe in democracy. He does not, cannot, respect the equal right all Americans share in governing this nation. In his view, ruling is the privilege of a few, a wily elite. And each time he successfully gets away with constitutional transgressions- such as the current one - this only solidifies his cynicism regarding public intelligence and the force of its democratic will. Will he be proven wrong this time?