The Political Prosecution of Chelsea Manning

The woman formerly known as Bradley Manning.

The woman formerly known as Bradley Manning.

This past Wednesday transgender U.S. Army whistle-blower Chelsea Manning (formally Bradley Manning) was sentenced to 35 years for leaking classified material. The 25 year old former intelligence analyst has spent the past three years in a military jail awaiting trial, a year of which in solitary confinement under conditions which the UN special rapporteur formally declared as “cruel, inhuman and degrading” after a 14-month investigation. The material that Chelsea Manning led to a wide array of disturbing revelations on U.S. foreign affairs and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These revelations range from unrestrained violence from military contractors, that the US has held more than 150 innocent people in Guantanamo for years due to a lack of proper investigation, and that former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton authorized diplomats to spy on UN leaders in violation of international law. Through Manning’s leaks the world has been granted access to vital information on the motivation and actions of the most powerful military and economic force in the history of mankind.

Despite furious condemnation by government officials and claims that Mannng’s leaks would lead to the deaths of coalition troops and informants, and even speculation in some corners that the leaks could lead to war; none of this has come to pass. Even a prosecution witness who lead the task force in the response to the Manning leaks, Ret. Brig. General Robert Carr, was forced to admit that there is no conclusive evidence that anyone has been harmed as a result of the leaks. Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is on record stating that the descriptions of the leaks have been “significantly overwrought”, and on the leaks themselves, “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest”.

So if the leaks provided by Manning have been so benign to the US, why is she facing the prospect of spending the next 35 years of her life in prison?

Because this prosecution of Manning has nothing to do with the prospect of “harming national security” or “putting the lives of civilians and soldiers” at risk. It has everything to do with the fact that Chelsea Manning has embarrassed powerful people and has threatened the interests of the ever growing national security state. Agencies such as the NSA, the CIA, the DoD; and corporations such as Haliburton and Academi (formerly Xe Services LLC, and before that Blackwater), have repeatedly demonstrated that they do not want the possibility that their officials could be held accountable, even if their actions are blatantly illegal and immoral. This emerging form of an American police state not only does not want it’s actions to remain secret, but it does not even want their to be a public debate on whether their tactics are compatible with a democratic society. The 35 year sentence is a strong message by those operating in positions of authority, and that message is “pay no attention to the men behind the curtain”.

Democrats and other such supposed “moderates” have claimed that Manning deserves her sentence, as in the words of president Obama: “We’re a nation of laws, we don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. He broke the law.” These arguments assert that even if Manning’s decision was morally valid, that her actions are still illegal. The fact is that government employees in military and intelligence agencies have extremely limited recourse to so-called “proper channels” to expose government misconduct. Even worse is what channels do exist are fraught with danger for the whistle-blower. Case in point is former NSA analyst Thomas Drake. After attempting to utilize protections afforded under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Act in regards to a software program he believed was being promoted for political reasons and potentially violated the fourth amendment, the government alleged he “mishandled documents” and was charged under the 1917 Espionage Act. Despite most of the charges being dropped Drake was forced to undergo a paramilitary raid of his home, years of trial and legal fees, and was blacklisted by the federal government. He now is an extremely overqualified wage worker at an Apple store in Oregon.

What is particularly outrageous about Obama’s statement in regards to Manning is that his own administration doesn’t seem to mind foregoing prosecution if their backers on K street or wall street break the law. When the bank HSBC was caught knowingly laundering drug money for violent Mexican drug cartels, who unlike Manning have been linked to innocent (and not-so innocent) people being killed, the justice department under Obama appointed Eric Holder simply declined to prosecute anyone. Apparently we are a nation of laws, unless you’re too big to jail; in which case we’ll let you off the hook and let you keep breaking the same law.

It is still possible for Obama to provide clemency for Chelsea Manning, and there is a petition urging him to do so being put forward by Amnesty International. It is now up to the Obama administration to finally do the right thing, and free Chelsea Manning.

Banks Are Too Big to Jail, We’re Too Small to Bail

In Highgate Cemetery, Karl Marx is spinning in his grave so vigorously that his corpse could power half of London. It’s not simply that the ruling financial elite have so openly declared themselves beyond the laws and regulations of us peasants and our “democracy” (see citigroup’s Plutonomy Buying Luxury, Explaining Global Imbalances memo). It’s not just the craven corruption of our legislators and politicians. No, I’d imagine what is causing this philosopher’s powerfully pendulous predisposition is how easy it has been for our ruling class to keep us silent. Usually this level of naked exploitation requires more than a few baton swats at anarchists and a presidential election to keep people from demanding justice when a system is so broken.

So US democracy is dying, obviously the only moral course of action is to make a secret memo on how to make money off of this.

So US democracy is dying, obviously the only moral course of action is to make a secret memo on how to make money off of this.

Truly, our reaction to the latest scandal by HBSC was nothing short of pathetic. This major banking institution reached a settlement deal last December of $1.92 billion (a mere 11% of what it made that year) after it was caught laundering money for vicious Mexican drug cartels, among other crimes. This settlement includes no criminal charges for anyone involved, despite being caught red handed for directly funding some of the most violent terrorists in the world. HBSC had already set $1.5 billion aside for settlements such as this, showing not only was the bank fully aware of the crime it was committing, but that this “record breaking” settlement is nothing to the financial giant.

Even President Obama and the Justice Department, who claimed to be blind to the massive fraud of the 2007 housing crisis had to admit that HBSC had flagrantly violated the law. They just wouldn’t do anything about it. The administration simply said that if they prosecuted the bank it could collapse the entire economy, because HBSC could lose it’s banking license. Essentially the message was, “HBSC is too big to jail, and we aren’t going to do anything about making it small enough to not fund terrorism with impunity, sorry”. Yet instead of demonstrations and demands this HBSC scandal became just another short lived headline, now already forgotten by many, if ever known well enough to be forgotten.

Despite this, the penalties for those of us who aren’t running major banks are outrageous. It’s well known that being merely caught possessing drugs is a felony that can result in a jail term of years or even decades. Many communities throughout the US are suffering from needlessly crowded prisons, burdened by unemployment from the black mark of felony convictions, yet apparently the drug war is only worth fighting when the people going to jail aren’t of the financial aristocracy. What more needs to be said about how little the people enforcing the drug war actually care for the stated purpose of their mission when they support such blatant double standards?

It should be obvious to everyone that not only should a bank be too big to fail, it should most certainly not be too big to jail. One would wonder why in a country whose polity are so obsessed with the size of government, so few seem to be concerned with private sector groups so large as to be beyond the law. The HBSC scandal is one of the clearest indications that so much of the concerns of our establishment; such as the wars on drugs and terror, are in fact nothing more than means of creating an aristocracy of finance. Men and women picked more often by virtue of birth than worth, well beyond our laws and protected by a militarized police force and the secret policing agencies of the NSA and CIA.

walruses-arenot-too-big-to-love

Why would you want to regulate Walrus love?

Our generation, as oblivious and pampered as it is, has largely slept through these changes either unwilling or incapable of providing adequate resistance. Occupy was one of the brief flashes of potential all too easily brought low by demonstrators who couldn’t organize and a bloated police force organized to put down demonstrations. I wish I could say how this problem can be challenged, some obvious course or brilliant strategy, but quite frankly I’m pretty much as lost as the rest of us. What I do know is that we won’t find answers from the likes of Obama, the Democrats, or the Republicans. Those who are active politically need to stop getting pulled into the infantile game of American political campaigns. You’re more likely to find better leaders at a horse race and the coverage in the media is about the same. Maybe the first step isn’t a revolution, but just no longer wasting our votes and our time in a system run by those who are not shy about telling us how beneath their notice we are.

Outrage Over Hagel’s Nomination Highlights U.S. Foreign and Domestic Policy Failures

President Obama’s appointment of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel is the latest in the bizarre kabuki theater of modern U.S. politics. Virtually every media outlet in the nation has highlighted arguments in defense of, and opposition to, Hagel’s nomination (including Central Florida Future’s Ana Eskamani). Despite the outcry from LGBT groups and the hardline Israeli lobby (the latter for not being sufficiently humble to Israel’s influence within Washington), the appointment of Chuck Hagel doesn’t really mean much. As a senator Hagel faithfully supported increases to an already unsustainable defense budget, supported the Patriot Act (and it’s reauthorization in 2006), and generally acted within the acceptable bounds of a mainstream American politic whose views on it’s military are thoroughly warped. In short, Hagel was a largely average American senator who will likely do little to change American defense policy or our relationship with other countries.

The problem with the outrage over Hagel’s nomination is that it is thoroughly misplaced. As Obama nominates Hagel for Defense secretary, he has also nominated the current Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and former Bush official John Brennan. Brennan was considered for the same post last year, but withdrew his name from consideration after public pressure due to his support for the Bush administration’s policies of torture and extraordinary rendition. In his current position Brennan has been involved in some of the most odious policies of the Obama administration abroad including “signature strikes” (killing unknown targets because they might be associated with forces engaged with the U.S.), indiscriminate use of drones on civilian populations (including mourners at funerals and rescue workers), and the power to assassinate anyone, at anytime, anywhere in absolute secrecy.

This time around there has been a much more muted reaction to Brennan being considered for the powerful post of CIA director, apparently overshadowed by the overwrought condemnation of a thoroughly average former senator. In addition there has been a deafening silence from liberals and members of the Democratic party. These once staunch opponents of executive overreach and loyal supporters of American civil liberties seem to have lost their nerve on these issues now that the White House is occupied by an erudite liberal instead of a cartoonish caricature of Texan conservationism. It is galling hypocrisy on the part of the Democratic party and Obama supporters that they are unwilling to oppose policies they would have launched rightful indignation toward simply because they now are the ones implementing them. Imagine the outrage of liberals had it been revealed that George W. Bush and Karl Rove (instead of David Axelrod, Obama’s Rove who attends the meetings to decide who to assassinate) had secretly decided to assassinate an American citizen without trial or even charges of a criminal act. The backlash would have been so powerful it could have been felt from the moon.

The leadership this country desperately needs on issues of defense and national security will not come from the likes of Hagel and Brennan. Both nominees seem unwilling to accept that the U.S. attempt to actively inject its military throughout the globe is suffering from the same kind of overreach encountered by previous empires such as Great Britain and Spain. The policies spawned by the likes of Brennan are not only immoral, but ultimately inflame anti-American sentiment world-wide. Furthermore, the aforementioned policies and the secrecy surrounding them are a severe danger to American democracy and our basic legal rights.

Sick Days, Neurotic Nights: Capitalism, Democracy, and the Orange County Commission

How to screw over your constituents for your corporate friend’s profit

OR

A citizen’s briefing on Orange County’s Earned Sick Time Struggle

Background

As some of our readership may be aware, there has been something of a kerfuffle in regards to a citizen led initiative to push for earned sick time in Orange county, Florida. To those who are NOT aware, an assortment of local residents and the activist powerhouse that is Organize Now have been attempting to place a provision on the ballot which, if passed would require businesses in Orange county to provide a measure of paid sick time for their employees should they so require it. As it stands workers in the county, particularly those in the oft miserly and inhospitable tourism and hospitality industry, are at the whim of their employment overlords least they contract the sick. Given that most people think that businesses who can afford to pay for their hard working employees when they happen to contract an illness, should do that and not be total dicks, the citizen activists of central Florida managed to quickly collect the requisite 50,000 petition signatures needed to place the provision on this year’s ballot.

Orlando Weekly cover showing Organize Now pushing for earned sick timeExcept that is exactly what will NOT happen. Apparently there are members of the “business community” (read: lobbyists for Darden restaurants, Disney, and the creatures from the Chamber of Commerce) who think that providing earned sick leave to their employees would EXPLODEZ TEH ECONOMY. These fine, upstanding assholes were ready to fight tooth and nail to ensure that the rabble quit their unseemly protest and immediately return to the theme park mines and eateries regardless of whether they were about to collapse from fever or pass a kidney stone on space mountain. They were ready for the worst, but as luck would have it their buddies on the board of the Orange County Commission were willing and able to handle all the dirty work for them.

When presented with the petitions the Commission were bound by their charter to place the provision on the ballot. However, there was a bit of an issue, namely the Commission really didn’t want to do that. The hearing on the earned sick time provision, by the lovely coincidences of life, came to pass on September 11th with 70 people coming out to urge the commission to do the right thing and place the provision on the ballot like they were supposed to. A few members of the “business community” were there too. When it came time to speak these be-suited defenders of Capitalism declared, to a man, that despite the fact that their businesses were struggling they managed to charitably provide earned sick time for their employees. However, despite that they could do this despite the economic downturn IF the county forced larger businesses to provide earned sick time it would create a magical cloud of uncertainty and keep their Orange county businesses out of Orange county just like the previous raise in the minimum wage did.

However before I ramble on any further, what exactly was in this provision to be voted on by the people of Orange County? Essentially the measure would have potentially provided 1 hour of paid sick leave for every 37 hours worked, with a maximum of 56 hours available per year (if the business already pays more, they won’t be forced to pay less). The worker would be required to provide documentation from a health care professional if they need to miss 3 or more consecutive days of work. The worker could use that sick leave to assist family members who were sick or injured and needed assistance. Also, and perhaps most importantly for the sake of argument, the ordinance would only apply to businesses with more than 15 employees. So despite what the lobbyists for Darden and Disney would have you believe, this measure was not in any way going to harm all those cute little mom and pop businesses that the creatures from the Chamber of Commerce love so much (which is not at all). You can find the full text of the proposed ordinance on the very petitions used to place the measure on the ballot here.

Residents of Orange County preparing to stand up to their Commissioners.

During the meeting on September 11th, the commissioners stated that the measure was confusing and that voters did not know what they were voting for. This is despite the fact that Vice Mayor Jennifer Thompson quickly wrote up a sloppy counter amendment to be placed on the ballot that would require that the Orange County commission be barred from regulating “employee-employer relations”. For some reason, this proposal was not held to the same standard that the earned sick time proposal was. After a marathon session, four of the seven commissioners (Fred “Old Man” Brummer, Jennifer Thompson, John “Daddy’s Boy” Martinez, and Scott Boyd) voted to delay the measure so that it would be unable to be placed on the 2012 ballot, despite what 50,000 Orange county residents may want and the OCC charter demands.

The Case for Earned Sick Time

Let’s be clear on one thing, the people whom are labelled as “job creators”, those assorted CEO’s and upper-level management, do not create jobs. Ever. Those described with this Orwellian title are more aptly described as gatekeepers to jobs, often restricting useful production for the sake of personal profit. The people who create jobs are the people who actually do them. One of the most fundamental problems with our capitalist system is that those who do not labor are given dictatorial control over those who actually do labor, and as such decide what we produce, and what policies we take as a nation (such as not providing earned sick leave).

The reason that the campaign is called the “Earned Sick Time” campaign, is because workers are the ones who earned the right to rest when injured or sick because they are the engine of our economy. Also despite what commissioners may think, they also have the right to take care of injured or sick family members without having to worry about being fired or going hungry. While Mayor Jacobs with her $100,000+ salary might not have to worry about such things, a minimum wage worker for Disney does. Earned sick time is a small step towards a more rational and just economic system where labor is controlled in a democratic fashion for the benefit of all.

This fight is also a fine example of how our ruling class will use capitalist concerns to trump the democratic will of the people. One of the major arguments that Mayor Jacobs, the commission, and the chamber have made is that if earned sick time passes, employers might be dissuaded from coming to Orange county. This shouldn’t be a concern, instead this should be welcomed! Do we really want to set up our public policy towards miserly plutocrats who cannot be bothered to consider the health of the people who make them their profits? Scaring off these rogues just means more opportunity for more just businesses to expand at their expense.

The day that Democracy died in Orange County.

What Now?

The commissioners who voted to stall the measure past the required deadline did so for blatantly political reasons. They realize that the measure is popular amongst an electorate with a high percentage slaving under lousy paying jobs with little protection under the auspices of the Mouse and other large service industries. Furthermore, the highest turnout is almost inevitably during presidential elections and if earned sick time were on the ballot, us proles would certainly vote for it. HOWEVER, if the measure was moved to a midterm or special election where the turnout is more skewed towards older, more affluent voters there is less chance that this ballot would pass. It would also give the commission more time to fight alongside their chamber of commerce allies to ensure that the bill is opposed with the full weight of the corporate class and hopefully, hopefully, people would lose interest.

Given that the deadline for printing provisional ballots has passed there is virtually no chance that the measure will be on the 2012 ballot. Yet if the creatures from the Chamber of Commerce think that this will die a quiet death, they appear to have been mistaken. Organize Now members and their community allies have been keeping media pressure on the commission by being a constant presence at Orange County Commission meetings and by pushing for information that has led to what this publication shall refer to as “textgate” (because all political scandals post-Nixion must have the “gate” suffix appended to them, it’s the law). However, this is tough work and needs the support of the majority of Orange county that wants to hold businesses accountable to basic standards of decency.

What can you do, well you can…

The Neglected Question: Should We Have a President?

In Noam Chonsky’s 1998 book “The Common Good” he noted that the U.S. ruling class allows for a very vigorous debate on social, political, and economic topics, but only within a narrow window of what is to be taken seriously by the news media and opinion shapers.  This creates an illusion of healthy and spirited debate on the topics of the day, while in reality not only shepherding the political consciousness of the masses, but allowing for a means of partisan venting which allows for excess anger to be safely expelled from the system.  While the ingress of the age of Occupation has done much to till the soil that is our collective political consciousness, it has still stumbled in an attempt to convey higher progressive concepts and derive a coherent course of action from them.

It is my belief that the main impetus of the failure in this transition is attributable to the practice outlined above.  The great machine that is our modern political system is in essence running overheated, and the heated dialog (and more importantly the material conditions wrought by the recession!) cultivated is outpacing the rate at which it may be properly vented.  However, the intentionally narrow scope of “acceptable” political discourse has left many of us carrying an ill-formed and oft illogical political conception.  The result of these factors is angry populist movements such as the tea party and the occupy movement, which can often correctly identify general problems in the system (to varying extents), but struggles with suggesting feasible solutions that are outside the mainstream or have been implemented under past conditions.

Obviously there are key differences in the Tea Party and Occupy movements.  The former resembles more of a traditional political party, and its conservative bent keeps it in-line with previously established policy and social idioms.  Within this movement particularly, old ideas (typically those advanced on or near 1787) are venerated and thus its political consciousness is mired in the state of an idealized past.  The Occupy movement takes a radically different approach, finding its solutions not in an idealized depiction of the past, but rather in the varied utopian movements of American history (such as the New Harmony community, the “back to the land” communes of the 1960’s and 70’s, etc.).

The key similarity between these two nascent movements is that their ideas, while often outside the “acceptable” current of the U.S. political mainstream are often (or in the case of much of the tea party, always) based mostly on past policy or political thought.  This can be seen in some of the key appeals of both movements; a return to the gold standard, the reinstatement of the Glass-Stegall act, and the alike.  While new ideas are expressed, particularly within the Occupy movement, they are often confused or overly idealistic.  As any participant in even a moderately sized General Assembly can attest to, these ideas often flounder in practice due to the many horrible variables introduced by reality.

It is at this point I feel it necessary to clarify that this is not an attack on the Occupy movement.  Indeed there are many intelligent people within the movement whose political acumen outstrips that of this author.  However, the key problem in the transition of the Occupy movement from a generalized, communal declaration of outrage to a more focused and disciplined movement is due to a larger societal problem.  That key problem is our unintentionally internalized conceptions of society as dictated by the limits imposed upon us by the ideological superstructure built of the ruling class.  While the populist movements in the U.S. have obviously shed much of their allegiance to the mainstream political current, Americans as a whole have not been able to shake or even think to question certain conventions of a system whose class interests and media monopoly have driven said ideas to be incorporated by us.

Nobody 2012

Courtesy of Wade Hampton of the Wade's World blog. Click image for link to site.

One of the most surprisingly unquestioned norms of American politics is that of the Office of the Presidency.  While the Occupy movement has taken a very conscious and decidedly utopian decision to oppose any form of official leadership within their own movement’s supporting organizations, they have been less vocal about the legitimacy of positions of leadership outside the confines of their movement.  This is not to say that occupiers have been entirely silent on this issue; various contingents of occupies across the country have been mock-campaigning in support of “Nobody” for president.  While this definitely challenges the worth of those running for the office, it only indirectly challenges the legitimacy of the office itself.  In fact, one could potentially argue that by confining the challenge to the well-worn moors of a presidential campaign they have further supported the very concept they seek to depose.

This campaign for Nobody has been the closest Americans have been to even imagining the possibility of an America without the executive office.  To the overwhelming majority of Americans this is literally an unthinkable proposition, not in that many or even most of us would oppose it, but in that it simply is something we do not think of.  It is easy to see why this is the case.  Particularly since the infamous Citizens’ United decision, there has been an increasing trend towards ever more money being deployed in the presidential election cycle.  This in turn fuels more advertising revenue, which compels media companies to focus more attention on the presidential race.  Given the omnipresent talk of the president in U.S. politics, particularly in the ever growing election “year”, why would anyone even think that America could survive without one?

The original purpose of the president was to provide a function very similar to that of the king in the former colonies.  Many in the triumphant bourgeois of the revolution were worried that the lack of a strong executive would lead to anarchy, as the malcontent working classes assumed control and threatened their wealth and privilege.  Some floated the idea of submitting to a European royal such as Prince Henry of Prussia or Frederick Duke of York (George III’s son).  Eventually however the pressures brought from the common veterans of the revolution kept such schemes from being feasible.  Instead in 1787, the founding fathers choose to institute the executive branch under the aegis of the president, who assumed many of the powers of the British monarch, yet in a fashion constrained by the newly formed federal legislature.

While the question of monarch or president has been asked in the course of American history, few have so much as raised the question of the legitimacy of any post which grants such enormous power to any individual.  Yet ever since the rise of the “war on terror” and the corresponding increase in the powers of the now conceived “unitary executive”, this is a question that should be asked more now than ever.  The original compromise on the question of the executive office rest upon the dual distinctions of the presidency in contrast to that of a monarch, that the president is not chosen by birthright and that the president is constrained by the national legislature.

Both of these distinctions are becoming ever more tenuous.  As the wealth disparity has grown we have become witness to a growing number of presidential lineages; such as the Roosevelt’s, the Kennedys, the Clintons, and the Bushes.  Furthermore, as money becomes more of a determining factor in presidential elections the number of likely candidates is shrinking as the super wealthy and the established political insiders become the only viable options.  While this is not necessarily a new problem, it has become vastly exacerbated by a new class of uber-bourgeois, whose massive wealth allows them to buy political power at a degree unprecedented since the last gilded age.

Even more disturbing is the quiet creep of the exceptional executive.  With the cover of the 9/11 terrorist attacks the Bush administration begun a blitzkrieg on the constraints of the presidency, a campaign continued in earnest under their predecessors.  This campaign for dominance by the executive branch has assured that positions as extreme as the assassination of U.S. citizens without trial, formal charges, or any accountability are now uncontroversial and bipartisan positions within the mainstream current.  The Democratic party, once a chorus of voices against this growing tyranny have become silent as one of their own has adopted the throne.  No discussion of this matter can be uttered within the party for fear of losing the only position worth having in the U.S.

It certainly is not only the “war on terror” which is responsible for this presidential overreach.  The growth of presidential influence is likely attributed to the development of mass media and the quickening trend of globalization in the late twentieth century.  While the presidency has been the focal point for most countries’ political cultures for a little over a century, it has been historically dulled by provincialism brought about by local concerns.  As our vision, in a political, cultural, and economic sense, has expanded so has the tendency to look towards the personification of our countries’ political systems, the president.  This development has greatly expanded the power of the so-called “bully pulpit” at the disposal of the president, the ability of a single individual to guide the political consciousness of an entire nation.

Granted this enormous power, like all such tools, is a double edged sword.  Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lynden Johnson used it to advance much needed Keynesian reforms to the American economy.  President Lincoln used it to put an end to slavery and restore unity to a divided nation.  Indeed, perhaps a likely reason we have never thought of abolishing the presidency is due to the memory of such accomplishments as well as the fact that we measure our very history based on presidential terms.

An interesting side note: presidential approval seems to have less to do with the conventional wisdom of concurrence with a strong economy or wartime success. In the case of the latter there is indeed a massive short term gain, but this is followed in each instance by well bellow average ratings. This is probably due to the fact that the period of wartime success is immediately followed by additional mired conflict (Korea for Truman, Iraq for both Bushes). Also note in half of the listed administrations the initial approval rating is never surpassed, and only two of the twelve presidents had a higher approval rating at the end of their term than at the beginning (Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the modern standards for both political parties). Image courtesy of USA Today / Gallup, click image for link.

Despite the provocative nature of this article, and my barely concealed disdain for the current breadth of executive power, it is not my intention to highlight what a president-less U.S. would look like.  Not only because I feel that raising the question is necessary well before it can even begun to be answered, but also because I largely am unable to answer the question myself.  So total is my experience of a country personified under one individual that I can hardly relate to how we would move beyond it.

Even if I could move beyond my immersion in a history and political culture so defined by the presidency (which I believe I could), the question of how to keep power from consolidating in the hands of one person is one that is currently well-beyond my grasp.  It is not merely the legalistic question of checks and balances, but also the innately human social instinct which (like our evolutionary forbearers) has historically been drawn to a hierarchal structure lead by one individual.  Perhaps it is easier to do than to speak to vast, faceless coalitions and material conditions, as even the most politically progressive of us find our way back to describing the aforementioned forces by consolidating them into the familiar visage of a single, human being.

Note that the approval ratings for the more vague concept of "congress" are almost always lower than that of the president. The most notable exception being mid-1974 when Nixon resigned (37% congressional approval v. 24% approval of Nixon). Image courtesy of Gallup, click image for link to site.

It is important that we ask such questions of our society, even if they are difficult and especially if they are uncomfortable.  No higher form of society can be obtained if it cannot even be imagined by those who would seek to build it.  I would hope that those reading this essay would begin to look at the enormous power we have vested in the presidency, and begin to ask if such a condition is truly conducive to a more advanced and fair democratic system.  We should begin to ask if such vested power is a net good, or the seeds which shall sprout into a modern monarchy.

An Urgent Appeal to All Members of U.S. Democratic Party Clubs

             The events of the last year have been quite dramatic even in the context of the last decade.  With the unexpected rise of the Occupy movement we have seen another powerful indication that the American people will no longer stand idly by while multinational corporations and their allies corrupt the basic tenets of our democracy.  At the same time we have also witnessed some of the most profound challenges to our most basic political liberties.  With the passage and signing of sections 1031 and 1032 of the National Defense Authorization Act, America has now been declared a “battlefield” and the standing practice of the president to indefinitely detain any individual without trial has been codified into law.  Furthermore, it has been revealed that the executive branch is now overseeing a secret committee which is ordering the assassination of U.S. citizens without trial or so much as formal charges.

            It should be evident that such provisions and practices are anything but trivial matters.  These extraordinary presidential powers are nothing short of dictatorial and entirely unwarranted.  Despite president Obama’s signing statement in regards to the aforementioned provisions of the NDAA, the simple legal existence and general acceptance of these practices by the highest powers in the U.S.is the death knell of democracy.  The response from every true progressive and loyal Democrat must be a resounding, “This shall not stand!”

            What I am to ask of you is no simple matter, but it is desperately necessary.  I am calling on all U.S. Democratic Party Clubs to send formal resolutions denouncing the signing of the NDAA, and the twin evils of indefinite detention and execution without trial.  This call in and of itself should never be difficult, indeed it should be something that should be done regardless of any impediment if one is truly dedicated to the principles of self-rule and political liberty.  However, it is unfortunately the case that this will require you to rebuke a president who is popular within your party during an election year.

It is highly unfortunate that such a trivial matter should stand in the way of doing what is right and necessary.  For whatever reason, the abuses which were so widely and justly criticized by the party during the Bush administration are now ignored under the present.  While it is understandable that it is difficult to criticize an individual who has achieved so much, while facing opponents so depraved as those in the Republican party, neither should impede the necessary defense of the core tenet of our Democracy.  No individual in our nation should have the ability to deprive any of us of our liberty or our lives without a fair trial by a jury of our peers.

For those party organizations which are noble enough to take up this call, know that you will receive sharp opposition from all corners of your party.  When this happens be sure to point out how vital it is that these issues be discussed immediately.  Ask your comrades in the party what a president Romney, Santorum or Gingrich would do with such unrestricted power.  It is likely that you will face opposition so vehement that the question of the membership of your club may come in to question.  If this is to happen, it is at this point that the question must be asked as to why it is worth supporting a party that would sacrifice its most core principles to have a member residing at a house on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  I would hope that this is a conversation that no one within the party will have to undertake.

I urge those members of the party reading this appeal to reject the petty partisan concerns of electability in a presidential election season.  Is the campaign for one political office so important as to sacrifice the freedom of the common man and woman?  The office of the president is vastly out of reach to those who are not rich and powerful.  What hope do we stand if we sacrifice all our liberties for the hope that those elite who vie for the office will respect our petty concerns such as to be held innocent before proven guilty?  Can we trust our present and future presidents to responsibly wield ultimate power?  I would hope that you realize the answer to these questions, and I beg you all to do what is right.                     

What is Wrong is Wrong Regardless of Season

As we enter into the New Year, six months into the presidential election, I think it is very important that progressives stop and think about what is important and what is not.  The enormous outpouring of money into presidential elections, greatly assisted by the egregious and elitist “Citizens” United decision has exacerbated the already worrying and ever narrowing conception of American government to the executive office alone.  The oversized concern for the executive branch is incompatible with Democracy and has assisted in the frightening concentration of government power into the two hands of the president.  This should be worrying enough for not only to the common man of the 99%, but also to many of those elites in the 1% who would be the first to taste the steel of a hostile administration.  These developments should make all self-identified progressives stop and reflect, in a period where the news media and political campaigns would like nothing more for us to keep marching to their narratives.

The last few years have seen some truly disturbing developments.  The Democratic Party’s control over the legislature and the executive branch was not followed up with anything resembling bold policy.  This allowed the virtually annihilated Republican Party to regroup around the Tea Party, rescue itself from obscurity, and obstruct all but the most conservative of legislation.  Worse yet, much of the progressive energy derived from anti-Bush criticism were sapped by a supposedly progressive president assuming power.  This obsession with the White House and the overconfidence placed in its new tenant’s promises quickly brought an end to the growing anti-war movement along with other progressive causes.

Unfortunately, the majority of candidate Obama’s promises, particularly the most important of them, were quickly dismissed or even opposed by President Obama.  In some particularly alarming ways, President Obama has exceeded Bush in pushing for an all-powerful unitary executive.  Obama has initiated several secret wars such as those in Yemen and Somalia and an open war with Libya without congressional approval and in blatant violation of the War Powers Act.  The one-time constitutional scholar has also approved of measures to declare the United States a “battlefield” and approve of measures to indefinitely detain U.S citizens, even going so far to create a secret committee which has no oversight and deliberates on the assassination of any individual regardless of citizenship or whether they have been even so much as accused of a crime.

Despite Obama’s signing statement on the National Defense Authorization Act (another provision candidate Obama so criticized Bush on), he has opened the door quite widely for the worst imaginable abuses of civil liberties.  It is at this point that as Americans particularly those of us whom identify as progressives, should question what we should be doing in 2012.  No longer should any true progressive support the agenda of an administration which has so violated our basic principles, regardless of his political opposition.  No longer should any true progressive live under the illusion that president Obama would bring about the change we desire if only he could be freed from Republican obstruction.  It should be clear as crystal that an administration which has chosen not only to avoid persecuting Wall Street criminals, but to elevate them to positions of leadership within their ranks certainly has no concern for the >99% of us who haven’t initiated a world-wide financial meltdown.

Many American progressives have not come to these conclusions because they fixate entirely too much on the presidency, as do most Americans.  It is so venerated in our society that it seems as a current that is inescapable.  This current is leading us away from the shore of our vaunted ideals of Democracy and is moving us closer and closer to an ocean of tyranny.  However it is vital that we swim against this current, difficult as it may be, and realize that the modern White House is not an institution which should be sought, but one that should be fought.  No person in a true Democracy should hold the kind of power our president does.

One of the most reliable reactionary tools of the bourgeois in this country has always been the two party system.  It can be seen quite clearly in the fear that a vote not cast for Obama will instead go to one of the uber-conservative cretins which infest the Republican party.  By focusing intensely on this possibility and feeding the never ending horse race which is the presidential news cycle, truly progressive voices become silenced.  Not simply in the sense of losing a potentially progressive candidate, but in also keeping ideas which threaten the status quo outside the realm of consideration.  Thus a “major progressive victory” is the ability for homosexuals to openly serve in our military, bolstering the ability to wage aggressive wars and illegal occupations.  One would hope that progressives have more to offer the LGBT community than opportunity to more comfortably die on some foreign shore in service to the greed of our ruling class.

We must shake off these petty and self-destructive fears.  A better society will not be built from the White House, it will be built by our own hands and in the model of our hopes and dreams.  We have everything to lose by playing into the shell game which is the presidential election. For if we vote for the lesser of two evils it will enshrine the most dangerous elements of the “war on terror” as the bipartisan norm.  Is this truly “winning the White House”?  For to me it sounds like a defeat of everything we stand for.