Tuesday, January 7, 2020

History Has Shown Us the Dangers of a Weak Congress and Where It Leads

by Nomad

When the Democratic-led House of Representatives was attempting to investigate the allegations against President Trump in drawing up articles of impeachment, there was no mistaking contempt the president's and his allies had for Congress.

When Congress called key witnesses to testify, the president ordered them to ignore subpoenas. It was, Trump claimed, a witch hunt. Congress quite rightly pointed out it was simply fulfilling its legitimate, constitutional oversight role.
The House could have issued criminal and civil fines, including jail time. Instead, it allowed the president to block the inquiry with impunity. Wasn't this an unequivocal act of obstruction? No, said the administration, it was an assertion of executive privilege.

As the Washington Post pointed out in November, 
Even when Republicans controlled both chambers, former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon absurdly claimed executive privilege to refuse to answer congressional questions.
No such privilege exists, of course.
The White House’s excuse for total non-cooperation was that the House had not voted to authorize the impeachment inquiry or offered the president certain procedural rights. Neither was required under the Constitution, but the House nevertheless has now voted for impeachment and has provided the president rights like those accorded chief executives during previous impeachment efforts. Not surprisingly, neither action led to better cooperation. Mr. Trump’s defiance is revealed all the more sharply as brazen contempt for the constitutional order.
That conflict was probably inevitable. Republicans since Nixon have considered the executive branch to be above the law. (Except when a Democratic president is in office.)

In an interesting article for The ConversationAristotle Kallis, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Keele University, has reviewed history- particularly from the 1930s - to understand why having a Congress willing to stand firm against a man like Trump is so essential. 

The Autocrat's Guide to Obstructing Oversight

In some ways, an autocrat's contempt for congressional or parliamentary oversight is understandable. Any challenge to his power is seen as an attack on his authority. Other political parties are enemies of his regime. Political dissent amounts to treason. And that useful label "terror" is applied to any challenge to his rule.
Adolf Hitler made no attempt to disguise his disdain for liberalism and his fanatical opposition to the Weimar Republic’s parliamentary system. In 1924, when a coalition of radical right-wing parties decided to take part in the parliamentary elections against his wishes, he confided that he was now ready to “hold his nose” and enter the parliamentary game.
During this early stage, the "game" may continue to be played while power is consolidated. Democracy is nothing more than the train one rides to get to the true destination.
At some point, it will be time to step off.
Compromise is, for the most part, out of the question. Absolute power is the goal and that's obviously not something that can be shared.
Hitler added, however, that “participation has to be seen as one of many methods of combating the present system … [it] should not be ‘positive cooperation’ … but only be through the fiercest opposition and obstructions”.
Hitler was making good use of public skepticism toward liberal parliamentary democracy. In its fourteen years, the Weimar Republic faced numerous problems, including hyperinflation, political extremism as well as growing resentment for signing and accepting the humiliating terms of surrender. For the German people, the Republic and its parliament came to represent all that was wrong with government in general. But especially it came to symbolize weakness.

It was, Prof. Kallis reminds us, "viewed as alien to the traditions of the country or, even worse, imposed against the will of “the people” with the support of shadowy foreign powers."
That is the most common falsehood that fascist regimes tell their people. It's not part of our tradition to respect all religions, all ethnic groups and minority rights. Those are Western concepts.
In contrast, the US has no such excuses to fall back on. 

The Important Bulwark

Today, we can see the same kind of skepticism and suspicion in Russia and in former Soviet Republics where iron-fisted stability of one-man rule receives a lot more public support than "Western" notions of liberal democracy.
Among many Russians, Putin's autocratic tendencies are necessary (or at least, understandable) because Russia is so vast and could easily fracture. Minorities must be suppressed or everything will unravel. In that way, parliaments are seen as obstacles to stability (and progress), not representatives for the people.

After the global economic meltdown of 1929, the German people demanded solutions- even as the leadership drifted further and further from reality. Through the fake news of fascist propaganda, the fierce and widespread opposition to parliamentary democracy was transformed into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
And the only way to make Germany great again, according to Hitler, was to return to an imaginary past, to take pride in German-Aryan supremacy and, most of all, to rid the Jews from Germany. Few questioned the details of what that social program would entail.
The widespread rejection of parliamentary democracy in the 1930s was justified and defended on numerous grounds: that parliaments were slow and ineffective in decision-making; that they promoted national disunity and political polarisation; that they were a foreign custom foisted on societies with very different traditions, and so on.
Regardless of how ineffective or institutionally flawed, parliaments may be, they represent an important bulwark against full-blown autocracy and all that comes with it.
History has demonstrated over and over that supporters of liberal democracy too often think that these constitutional safeguards will protect the nation. "He can't do that. The laws won't allow him to."
They rarely understand- until it is too late- how easily the laws can be swept away.

Authority Not Stolen, But Forfeited

Such ill will towards the institutions of parliamentary democracy betrayed a much deeper and stronger preference for strong, unaccountable government, particularly in the face of a “crisis”. A perceived or manufactured situation of emergency, be that economic, social or national, polarised public opinion.
In Germany, it was burning of the Reichstag (parliament) building in Berlin, on the night of February 27, 1933,  that solidified the Nazi's hold on power. As the September 11 attacks showed, one significant terror attack is enough for Congress to hand over its oversight powers indefinitely to the executive branch. Often, it is more of a case of a leader using weaknesses and loopholes in the system to seize power he was never given by the Constitution.

For example, 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), was intended to provide limited authority to then-President Bush to use military force against those responsible for the attacks, namely al-Qaeda, as well as against those who had harbored them, namely the Afghan Taliban. It was not intended to give the president absolute power to declare war.
The same authorization has now been invoked as authority for a broad range of military operations in at least 14 countries and against more than half a dozen organizations over the course of nearly two decades. 

The problem began long before 2001. Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution says "Congress shall have power to ... declare War." Yet, since 1942 when Congress declared war on Japan, every American president has used military force without a declaration of war. It should be no surprise, therefore, that President Trump has told the press that he didn’t need authorization from Congress to go to war with Iran. And sadly, he is, constitutionally wrong but technically right.

Today it goes beyond that. An Iranian threat of a response to an illegal and unnecessary political assassination has wiped all talk in the media of presidential impeachment. If Iran- through its proxies- attacks one of Trump's properties anywhere in the world, will this enough of a suitable pretext for declaring war? Will taxpayers be asked to pay for military security at every Trump hotel?

Tears Were Shed

Looking back to our grandparent's time, we see how the first step to the disaster of World War was a fascist autocrat's obvious contempt for Parliamentary oversight.
In the years leading up to World War II, a rapidly growing band of fascist and authoritarian dictators first discredited and then moved to suppress parliamentary institutions as their principal obstacle to power.
Not many – and definitely not enough – tears were shed for the demise of parliamentary democracy then. The unloved liberal parliament vanished from large parts of the world, crushed by the fiction of strong, unimpeded government and of the direct expression of the will of “the people” through its leadership without supposed intermediaries.
In his Republican nomination speech, Trump pulled out all stops to show this billionaire businessman was a man of the people.
I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.
I have embraced crying mothers who have lost their children because our politicians put their personal agendas before the national good. I have no patience for injustice, no tolerance for government incompetence, no sympathy for leaders who fail their citizens.
After three years in office, he has left little doubt that he has no sympathy for crying mothers. The working class must make sacrifices while the super-rich are given tax breaks.
We have seen how deep his sense of justice goes and how much tolerance he has when it comes to his own administration's incompetence. Most importantly, we have seen what happens to the nation when Congress is ignored or refuses to do its job.
Parliaments were then, as they are now, reflections of the plurality of views in a modern society. And this plurality cannot be easily distilled into a single voice on behalf of an indivisible “people”.
In other words, beware of any leader that claims to be the voice of the people. The triumph of liberal democracy is its representation of all voices, not a leader speaking for millions. 
Parliaments were and remain institutions of hard, often frustrating negotiation and very often unpalatable compromise. They also represent an imperfect but still significant hurdle along the path that leads to abuse of power.
Professor Kallis concludes with:
To even consider today, after seven decades of surprisingly stable parliamentary rule and broad consensus politics, that the threat of an authoritarian regression is exaggerated and overplayed is to forget how fragile all these copiously constructed and sustained, if essentially “boring”, checks and balances to executive power are.
Checks and balances might be a bore to a public addicted to shocking sensational news and the drama of Reality TV. Impeachment testimonies might not be stimulating enough for Fo News viewers.
Yet, as history has demonstrated, the alternative is the "excitement" of the total destruction of World War. It is Hiroshima and Dresden. It is strangers huddled in London subways tunnels during night-time bombing raids and the hidden meaning of the smoke of Auschwitz.