Water Man Spouts

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

November 7, 2006 is Frederick Douglass Day

"The need for change, we believe, is compelling and urgent. In foreign policy, with an agonizing war in Iraq joining serious problems in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, the need is clear for some broad consensus on America’s role in the world, or at least for an understanding that these issues cannot be shoved aside in a kind of War of the Roses between the parties and the branches. In domestic affairs, unsustainable deficits looming in the next decade without a redirection of taxing and spending policies, along with unsolved problems in areas like pensions and health care, require a return to serious deliberation and measured bipartisanship. The country and its enduring constitutional pact should not, and cannot, endure a broken branch for long." – The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track; Thomas Mann & Norman Ornstein; Oxford; 2006; page 13.
One of the more interesting books that I am reading now is by two political scientists who came to Washington in the late 1960s. They are openly "both hardcore partisans – institutional partisans." Their book focuses on the "first branch" of the federal government: the Congress.
They note that the U.S. Constitution places the Congress in its first article. Article 1 is twice as long as Article 2 (the executive branch), and four times as long as Article 3 (the judiciary). In the separation of powers, the Congress is given the special powers which allow it to: (a) override a presidential veto; (b) change the size and/or jurisdiction of the courts; and © impeach and remove from office members of the executive and judicial branches.
With these great powers come great responsibilities. The House of Representatives and the Senate are supposed to represent the citizens of the United States at all times, but especially so in times of great struggle. Members of Congress are, in theory, men and women who can rise above "hardcore partisan" interests, and demonstrate what these authors call an "institutional patriotism."
Yet there is no question that the Congress is almost incapable of that institutional patriotism, and instead has reached historic lows in its ability to serve the citizens of the United States. Certainly it is true that there have been other eras where the Congress was dysfunctional, and where the lowest of human passions infected its ability to reach the promise of that Constitution. But Mann and Ornstein make clear that we are at an all-time low in both the House and Senate.
Two things stand out to me: first, that politicians are in a constant quest to win re-election, which means that most are going to do the bidding of the interests that donate the most; and second, that large numbers of citizens are absolutely unrepresented by any politician in the most meaningful ways. With a broken Congress, there are two groups in particular who are no more likely to be "counted" in the halls of Congress than their vote is likely to be counted in parts of Florida or Ohio. These groups are the poor, and those who are "progressives," including many democrats, along with others on the political left.
And so, while I am excited about the 2006 elections, and am confident that democrats are going to win control of both the House and Senate, I recognize that it is really just the first step in the right direction. I am reminded of 1852, when a black man named Frederick Bailey, who had changed his last name to Douglass, was invited to speak in Rochester, NY on the occasion of Independence Day. Douglass began by speaking of the great accomplishments of the Founding Fathers. However, midway through his speech, he went in another direction. It is one that those who are not represented today might ask as well.
"Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? …. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. …Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for republicans?" – The American Reader; Diane Ravitch; Harper Collins; 1990; pages 115-118.
Today we see the result of a broken Congress: the executive office is allowed to go unchallenged along the way to becoming the Imperial Presidency that historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr had warned of three decades ago. We see President Bush moving in a direction that denies the essence of the United States’ Constitution to an extent that threatens the very foundation of our democracy.
Mann and Ornstein begin their book with the example of the improper actions the republican leadership in the House took to force through their bill on prescription drug benefits under Medicare. They compare it with a 1987 budget bill forced through by Speaker Jim Wright, and quote Wyoming Representative Dick Cheney’s calling Wright a "son-of-a-bitch," and calling his action "the most arrogant, heavy-handed abuse of power I’ve ever seen in the ten years I’ve been here." (page 5)
The Bush-Cheney administration’s arrogant, heavy-handed abuses of power are so numerous that it has taken a dozen good books to document the most obscene of them. One of the best was David Corn’s "The Lies of George W. Bush" (Three Rivers Press; 2003). Another wonderful book on the abuses of the republican party is Joe Conason’s "Big Lies" (Thomas Dunne Books; revised and updated version 2003).
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney do not believe in democracy. They are not invested in the Bill of Rights. Quite the opposite – they are the party of Jack Abramoff, Ken Lay, Tom DeLay Newt Gingrich, and Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Their ability to damage the democratic foundation of this country is in exact proportion to their ability to disenfranchise and marginalize segments of the population.
The healthiest movement in our country today is the grass-roots level organizing by progressives. In the November elections, progressive-minded activists will have the greatest chance of success by supporting democratic candidates for both the House and Senate. But that is just the beginning of a larger, vital struggle for democracy. The Constitution demands that citizens do more than simply vote for politicians to do for them those things they need to do for themselves. And the Bill of Rights provides us with the tools we need to rebuild that broken Congress.
It’s a tough struggle, but we are beginning to see progress. I’m reminded of Frederick Douglass’s August 3, 1857 speechabout emancipation at Canandaigua, NY, which have become his most famous words:
"Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must be this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
"This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress." – Two Speeches by Frederick Douglass; Frederick Douglass; Rochester; 1857.
Next Tuesday, we have the opportunity to make a democratic statement. Be sure to call your family and friends, and be sure to get as many people to the voting booths as possible. This is one of the most important elections in our nation’s history. Take pride in being a progressive participant in the democratic process.


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