Wednesday, June 30, 2004

"Martin and Me"?

Ok, as promised, a quick assessment of the Moore film. I liked it, quite a bit; there were some points that were a little overstated and alarmist (like the Saudi oil connections), but even they were still immensely interesting and generally "on". Much ofthe film was actually quite haunting, the "blank" 9-11 scene and the scenes with the soldier's mother brilliantly so. There wasn't a dry eye in the house when the mother read her dead son's letter of outrage at the Bush administration, and the structure of the opening part of the film detailing Bush's weak early presidency was a cogent reminder that prior to 9/11, he was already an embarrassment.

What truly struck me was that Moore proved the vital importance of documentaries. Crimes and mistakes that I had read and intellectually understood were far more powerful when brought to the the big screen, and Moore did an excellent job of looking backwards and showing us what led us to this point. Considering that the biggest asset that the Bush administration has had is its ability to brazen its way through controversy with the confidence that all old scandals will be forgotten, this role of dredging up the past has become vital, and Moore has ably played that role. Even the opening invocation of the 2000 Supreme Court decision and disenfranchisement of black Floridians is vital to understanding just how bad the situation truly is, and I don't think the movie would have been so effective had Moore's opening of "was it all just a dream" not raised the question of whether Florida stuck us a living nightmare. (And when I say "us", I mean the planet, not just the American people.) It also sets the stage for Moore's most important achievement with this movie, which is framing and coloring the historical assessment of the Bush administration before it even ends. No future examination of Bush will be able to avoid Fahrenheit 9/11. Even disputing it acknowledges its importance.

Everybody who hasn't gone to see it should. Everybody who has gone to see it should think about what it means. Everybody who gets fixated on whether or not Moore was an "objective documentarian" doesn't know what a documentary is, and is missing the more important question of whether Moore's subjectivity is closer to the mark than you have let yourself believe.

As for the Canadian election, the most able analysis I heard was encapsulated in a simple sentence: "Ontario got to the polls, looked down, said 'Prime Minister Stephen Harper?' and said no". This was a massive win for the left, oddly enough, with center-left to far-left candidates receiving over 70% of the vote- left-wing parties now serve as the "balance of power" in Canada. Conservatives in Canada just had a very bad night; they're actually worse off than if they had been facing another Liberal majority. The last time there was a Liberal party leader that needed NDP support to pass bills, the (currently sacrosanct) public health insurance system was born. Who knows what will appear in the next few years or so.

Friday, June 25, 2004

The True North, Strong and Divided

Yes, I haven't been posting again, which is not usually how things go when one's humble home becomes a focus of attention for someone like the always-enlightening Digby. So it goes. To be honest, I've been distracted from American politics recently (although I do intend on seeing Moore's new film tonight), due to the fascinating events going on up in Canada. To make up for the lack of updating, a somewhat longer-than-typical entry follows.

As most of you know, Canada's going through an election. If you didn't know, then you should perhaps pay attention, because it's going to be interesting. See, up until very recently, the Canadian political system had been pretty much a one-party system, with the Liberals absolutely dominating by taking political positions roughly analoguous with the population and facing a weak, divided, and ideologically suspect opposition on its right and a "not ready for prime time" party to its left. It was poised to assume power unparalleled in the western democratic world, as everybody was expecting the new (and popular) former finance minister, Paul Martin, to crush all opponents. He was seen as all things to all people.

Then the so-called "sponsorship scandal" issue came up, the Liberal's soft underbelly of corruption was exposed and everything changed. The "scandal", such as it is, isn't really that bad; Canada's Auditor General, Sheila Frasier, has repeatedly stated that it's not that money was stolen, but that insufficient information has been given as to what it was actually USED for. Compared to what the Bush administration has been up to, it's mild, but this doesn't matter. Canadians are ticked, especially in Quebec, and Canadians are entirely unlike Americans in their political predelictions- they have a tendency towards massive lurches from one party to another.

So, who's the alternative? Well, The right has united under a bland-but-extremist economist on the far right named Stephen Harper, after the western-based "Reform" party finally achieved its goal of absorbing the old "Conservatives" (after having gone through numerous faux-"alliances" to do it) and are if anything more united than the squabbling Liberals. Thanks to the weakness of the Liberals, they're actually in a position to win it all, even though their platform is weak and their political positions very much out of step with most of mainstream Canada.

Thing is, thanks to the Canadian system, neither is likely to actually be running the show. In the American experience, a close election doesn't mean that much, because somebody is still going to win. Canada, however, has four major political parties (one, a Quebec seperatist party named the "Bloc Quebecois", is poised to be the third-largest thanks to the Liberal collapse in Quebec) and no single party is going to win a majority of the seats. In the past, that has usually meant coalitions between two of the parties, like the Liberals and the NDP, and that particular possibility is actually quite popular among most small "l" liberals in Canada, who have seen the supposed "Liberal" party drift rightward over the years. The problem is the Bloc Quebecois, who is going to be so large that even the Liberals and NDP together couldn't form a coalition that forms a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. The logical solution would be for the Liberals or Conservatives to create a coalition with the Bloc, but the Bloc's agenda of seperatism and social democracy makes them anathema to both the Liberals (who built their identity on Canadian unity and compete with them in Quebec) and the Conservatives (who love social democrats about as much as Grover Norquist does). Whoever creates a coalition with the Bloc would get punished in a coming election.

Making this even more divisive is the fact that Canada is a Westminster-style democracy, which means that there are no fixed elections and a single failed "confidence vote" (vote on confidence in the government) will bring down the government. This wouldn't necessarily be an issue, but in Canada almost every vote is a confidence vote, because every vote that involves the budget is a question of confidence as a matter of course. So the government must win almost every vote, but it can't create a coalition in order to do it, because the only party that will be big enough is political anathema.

To top it all off, the party that wins the most seats won't necessarily form the government. The Governor General (the representative of the Queen in Canada) customarily asks the leader of the last governing party to try to form a government first. This is usually a simple formality, but the Liberals could seize the opportunity and try to create a government in the face of a larger Conservative presence in Parliament. Paul Martin has said he wouldn't, but times change, and we're looking at the prospect of a difference of only a few seats.

(As a bonus, this is going to be the first time in a LONG time that an election in Canada will live and die by the local efforts. They say that the local candidate's actions affect about 10% of his vote totals, but that 10% will be critical. Every smart politician in Canada should be gearing up for the biggest "Get out the Vote" drive in Canadian history, because that razor-thin margin WILL be decided by the turnout. Also, there's a question of vote-splitting between the NDP and Liberals, although the polls that discuss the likely seat totals will have taken that into account and the NDP has been REALLY focused on key winnable ridings this time around).

Two things are sure to happen after Monday, however, in the both the short and long term. In the short term, Canada's government is going to be a very strange beast, operating like the coalitions found in Proportional Representation-based systems without the underlying electoral system that provokes them. (The aforementioned Governor General's poorly-understood powers to bring the government together will be exercised for the first time in generations). In the long run, however, it's now inevitable that Canada will move to some sort of mixed PR system. The left isn't going to unite-- the NDP and Bloc are simply too different from the Liberals-- and they're going to have realized that Canada can't stick with its current system. The Liberals won't like that, but I can guarantee that they'll like the alternative less. After all, when the leader of your chief rival calls the leader of YOUR party a pedophile, you'll do whatever it takes to keep them out of power.

Yes, this really did happen.

You can see, then, why I've been watching Canada's election with such keen interest. Compared to that drama, the United States' election seems almost... serene. Yet, there's an important American aspect to this. The United States appears to be moving to the left; the neo-cons are discredited, and this week's Economist revealed that there's a growing religious left aiming to counter the influence of the religious right. Without those two groups, there's little bedrock left for American conservatism to build on. If the extremely pro-American Conservatives win in Canada, however, it's likely that Canada will be dragged to the right. The upshot is that in a possible Kerry/Harper future, the "Fire and Ice" differences will calm; the fire will cool and the ice melt. Considering how American liberals point north and Canadian conservatives point south, it's possible that the ultra-long term result would be an increased likelihood of some sort of union between the two countries. This is the wildest speculation, of course; most Canadians are quite proud of not being Americans, and most Americans probably don't really want them that badly. (This is fine; the countries work better as complements, rather than twins.) Still, it's a possibility.

Blogging will remain light, unfortunately. I'll probably post a reaction to Moore's movie when I can. One thing I can say right now, though; it may well end up being the most important movie of the year, and quite possibly the most popular. We may end the year with Moore being one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. I can already see Ann Coulter's head exploding.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

"L'etat, c'est moi"

Yeah, I haven't updated for a while. As is usually the case with me and other bloggers, it's simply that I've been busy with other things, and there are a number of other excellent bloggers doing great work. One of those, consistently, is Josh Marshall, who wrote an excellent commentary about a Wall Street Journal article that reveals a confidential memo detailing how the president should "issue a "presidential directive or other writing" that could serve as evidence, since authority to set aside the laws is 'inherent in the president.'" Josh's response is pretty much identical to mine:

So the right to set aside law is "inherent in the president". That claim alone should stop everyone in their tracks and prompt a serious consideration of the safety of the American republic under this president. It is the very definition of a constitutional monarchy, let alone a constitutional republic, that the law is superior to the executive, not the other way around. This is the essence of what the rule of law means -- a government of laws, not men, and all that.
He allows that no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson argued that there are cases where the president must act out of necessity, but that these were extreme cases where the president must thereafter "throw himself on the mercy of the public". All this is true.

What he didn't seem to notice, however, is that the dangers of extra-constitutionalism that he is concerned about are as old as American-style republics.

As I've mentioned in the past, there is a fundamental danger in an American presidential republic, which is that the head of government and the head of state are the same person. This invests the head of government with a lot of power; the symbolic power of the head of state can be used by the president to influence (or even dominate) domestic politics. This power waxes and wanes, of course, but in situations of perceived crisis it can be overwhelming, thanks to the natural need of nations and societies to have some person to rally around. This is why the Royals in England were so important in keeping spirits up during the Blitz, and why American presidents tend to enjoy so much lattitude.

When crises arise, then, there is both the opportunity and, lets face it, a clear desire for the head of state to "take charge and lead the people". If the problems of politics get in the way, then the president has a nearly irresistable opportunity to sweep those "problems" away, which usually means "emergency powers" of some sort. Once gained, these powers are very rarely given up, as there are always new "crises" to exploit to retain them.

(This can be done with the best of intentions; democratic politics can be maddeningly slow. A president that seizes power isn't necessarily evil or power-mad; he could be a good man that honestly believes that this is necessary.)

A king or queen can't really do this, because their role as embodiment of the people doesn't stem from popular acclaim but their membership in a particular family. People's commitment to popular rule is too strong nowadays for family ties to be seen as justification for conferring absolute power. A king couldn't dissolve the legislature by claiming that it's the "will of the people"; he'd get quickly contradicted by his (elected) prime minister as head of government. Every president, however, can at least partially claim legitimacy as the embodiment of the popular will. It is that will from which his legitimacy stems, but it is also that will from which modern cults of personality are born.

These sorts of events are incredibly common. In fact, they're so common that the fact that the United States has never had this happen has baffled political scientists since the phenomenon was noticed. There are a number of theories as to why, but my own favorite stems from an American military tradition, which is that soldiers swear loyalty to the Constitution, not the president, despite being their "commander in chief". One of the most treasured aspects of the American system is its balance of power between judiciary, executive and legislature; while its effectiveness can sometimes be questioned, it's important in that it enshrines the idea that the United States is a country where the laws stand above the president; that the symbolic power of a head of state will never confer absolute power upon him. "L'etat c'est moi" does not apply. It is, perhaps, the only way in which one can have a powerful president without having the system fly apart in the face of crisis.

Josh and the WSJ, however, has shown that the United States may be moving in the direction of countries like Argentina and Chile. The line of argument made in the memo isn't new, but very, very old... it's the first stage in a possible process where the powers of the laws is eroded and the powers of the executive rise in their place. Arguing that the president has the right to "set aside the laws" is an argument for absolute executive power, because the supremacy of "the laws" is the only real power that the legislature and judiciary have. Without this legal supremacy, the United States becomes like every other fragile republic in the Americas.

We know what will happen. We've seen it dozens of times before, and we'll see it dozens of times in the future. Republics are always haunted by the spectre of their "commanders-in-chief" becoming simply "commanders". The Latin word for commander is "imperator", more popularly known as "emperor". America may yet have its Napoleon; its Octavian. That it hasn't happened yet does not mean it won't.

This memo and the ideas that underlie it does not make empire inevitable; it is, however, the first necessary step in journeying down that road.

Edit: Digby also provides some good commentary on this issue.