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.


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.

The Arab Spring is Warmer than the American Winter

Recently in light of the conflict in Mali several articles in major US newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Times, have attempted to connect the “Arab Spring” of 2011 with the perceived increase in fundamentalist Islamist activity in North Africa. The argument made by these commentators is that the break down of strong governance in the region led to the ability for fundamentalist groups to organize and ethnic tensions to boil over into open conflict. This echoes earlier criticism of the various mass movements in the US media, where elites expressed wariness at the supposed influence of Islamist groups which often opposed American backed dictators and interests.

Like any major political upheaval the events of the Arab Spring have been followed by instability and uncertainty. However, the recent events in Mali and Benghazi have less to do with the Arab Spring directly, and more to do with the US response to the Arab Spring, specifically the Libyan offensive. The Obama administration’s war effort in Libya was not only blatantly unconstitutional, but it also appears that the offensive is directly responsible for exacerbating ethnic tensions in Mali and leading to the arming of Islamist rebels with a large supply of sophisticated weaponry.

I don’t think I’m qualified to judge whether intervention in Libya was successful in achieving a humanitarian mission in protecting Libyan civilians, but it is pretty clear that the events in Libya have had negative consequences for Mali. It also appears that these consequences were given little consideration by NATO in the aftermath of the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. What is particularly certain, is that the our country’s reaction to the Arab Spring shows a profound problem with the state of American democracy and the way we view the world.

As mentioned earlier, the decision to go to war was made unilaterally by the president and largely approved of by his supporters, who had a mere three years earlier bitterly complained about the Bush administration’s willingness to violate our nations laws, make major decisions in secrecy and otherwise abuse the power of the presidency. No effort has been made in the wake of the Libyan offensive to curtail the power of the president to engage in what are clearly acts of war without the consent of the American people. Regardless of whether the Libyan offensive was a justifiable use of force, the decision to go to war should be a more carefully considered decision and should certainly not be the decided at a presidential whim.

Furthermore, the Libyan offensive outlined a major problem with how Americans view the world. The Arab Spring was often described in the media as something that happened spontaneously as a result of popular unrest. The cause of the unrest was rarely discussed, but even at the time the largest indication was that an increase in food prices caused by poor agricultural planning and water allocation was the main culprit in finally providing the pressure to oust dictators who had otherwise successfully ruled for decades. Despite this obvious cause and the solution in desperately needed infrastructure development and dealing with the rampant speculation on Wall Street which saw Egypt’s food prices double as a result, the American media obsessed on the role of American media technology such as Twitter and Facebook. The American response wound up being what it has always been in the Middle East, cynical defense of American interests through handpicked dictators whenever possible and military action in the guise of higher ideals.

Attempting to stop civil wars with drone strikes only seems to spread the problem to other countries. If our wars in the last half century should have taught us anything, it is that attempting to win an asymmetrical war through air strikes only leads to our opposition thriving from the ever constant recruitment provided by the remnants of our “collateral damage”. Also, what does it say about us when our “humanitarian intervention” is obviously designed to ensure that our soldiers are as far removed from combat as possible, even if it means that our intervention will be less capable of preventing the spread of violence and death of those we supposedly came to protect.

These are all questions we should ask ourselves before we decide to jump head first into another “intervention”. 

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.

Safety or Domination: What is Our Military Budget For?

The US military is a subject Americans love to talk about, unfortunately it isn’t a subject that we like to think about.  Fortunately, since our military is a volunteer one that is only a problem for the less than 1% of Americans in the military, or the people in the 130 or so nations with US military bases on their soil.  The average American citizen can remain blissfully thoughtless as to what our military does, well at least until they have to pay for the approximately $700 billion/year military budget plus the $3.7 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (so far…).  However, it is an issue that demands critical thought, because it is an issue with deep moral ramifications for our country.  It is a question of whether we view our military as a force to protect us from harm or one to enforce our will on nations and dominate their peoples.

The United States is by far the most prolific military spender, outspending more than the next 13 countries with the highest military budgets in the world.  In terms of total military spending worldwide the US accounts for 41% of the total figure.  Yet some people do not seem to believe that we are spending enough on our military.  In regards to the automatic defense cuts which would go into place if congress were unable to compromise on a budget last year, vice presidential candidate and supporter of said automatic cuts Paul Ryan said the following in his recent debate with Vice President Biden,

“We should not be imposing these devastating defense cuts … When we show that we’re cutting down on defense, it makes us more weak. It projects weakness. And when we look weak, our adversaries are much more willing to test us.”

The Romney / Ryan campaign has instead proposed increasing the already bloated military budget by a projected $2.1 trillion over the next 10 years by enforcing a minimum of a base defense budget (note: this does not include war spending) equal to 4% of the US GDP.

Obviously, increasing this budget would require cuts from other programs or increased taxes.  While the classic “butter vs. bullet” debate surrounding the issue of cutting spending for social programs and public goods (ie. roads, schools, power plants, etc.) to pay for military spending is debate worth having, there is a question which is almost always ignored in the mainstream media debate.  That is, “why do we have a military anyway”?

If the military is simply an organization for the defense of the American people, it is far more than we need, even to simply scare off any thought of aggression against us.  The 5,000 nuclear warheads our military has at its disposal, enough to make the planet uninhabitable for humanity, should be far more threatening to any attacker than a massive complex of worldwide US military bases . It is also deployed in such a manner worldwide that is too costly and provokes a great deal of anger among the populations of our allies and our occupied territories.  The only logical conclusion is that the military is not being deployed simply for our defense, but for a more sinister purpose, as a means of subjugating foreign populations and threatening nations to comply with our will.

What does a military memorial like this one really stand for? (Credit: Melissa McDermott)

This isn’t to suggest that those who are serving in the military are necessarily complicit in this.  Most of the people serving in the military do so to acquire a college education or to serve the stated purpose of our military, to serve the American people.  However, those in charge of our military policy feel that America has an implicit right to not only place our security above that of others, but our interests as well.  People, particularly soldiers and veterans, need to speak out against this domineering use of our military.  Otherwise when memorials like the one on UCF’s memory mall taint the honor of those who have served to defend us, by standing not just for our freedom, but for the freedom we deny others.

Why President Obama Should Pardon Whistle blower Pfc. Bradley Manning

On May 2010, Private First Class Bradley Manning was arrested while on duty in a military base near Baghdad.  It would eventually be revealed that the 22 year old intelligence officer had managed to release 260,000 classified cables detailing US activity in Iraq, Afghanistan, and US embassies from around the world to the pro-transparency organization Wikileaks.  In the coming months, five major newspapers from around the world would chronicle the troubling contents of these cables to the world and an American public kept purposefully in the dark by their own government as to its action’s abroad.  Among the many revelations found in the quarter-million highly classified documents is evidence of US meddling in the internal affairs of foreign democracies such as Haiti and India, the use of American diplomats as spokespeople and spies for corporations such as Monsanto and Boeing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling on American diplomats to spy on their UN counterparts, and the US military covering up the deaths of two reuters journalists shot by an American gunship.  Manning’s trial is scheduled for sometime between February 4 and March 15 of next year, where the former intelligence officer faces a possible life sentence.

Bradley Manning was only twenty two when arrested for exposing rampant and unnecessary secrecy within the US military, diplomatic, and intelligence communities. The response of the US military justice system was brutal, placing Mr. Manning into 11 months of solitary confinement under conditions which the head of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Juan Mendez referred to as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”. Mr. Manning was transferred out of solitary confinement as a result of coordinated protests by the likes of the Bradley Manning Defense Network and Firedoglake.

Ever since 9/11, the American government has shown a dangerous increase in the level of obfuscation, willingness to violate US citizen’s civil rights in the name of national security, and complete lack of accountability for high ranking officials.  Whereas in 1991 the US government classified 6 million documents, by 2010 that number had ballooned to 77 million.  Information in these secret documents has been shown to contain blatantly illegal activity by the US government such as the NSA’s warrantless and indiscriminate wiretapping of US citizens (a fact itself disclosed to the New York Times by a government whistle blower).  All of this has developed despite the fact that pre-9/11 intelligence was already aware of a planned attack on the world trade center.

The charges against Manning include aiding the enemy, wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet, transmitting national defense information and theft of public property or records.  However, despite the charges high ranking US officials such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden, have downplayed the damage of the leaks, with Mr. Biden going so far as to say, “I don’t think there’s any damage.  I don’t think there’s any substantive damage, no.” in a televised interview with MSNBC’s Adrea Mitchell.  With such high ranking insiders, one is forced to ask not only how Mr. Manning aided the enemy (and if the ‘enemy’ includes the American public), but as to why the information was classified in the first place.

Upon being elected president Obama promised to run the most transparent administration in US history. Since 2009, he has presided over the administration with the highest level of classified documents and the most prosecutions of whistleblowers.

Lost in the debate has been not only that no one has been reported to have been harmed by the leaked cables, but on the obviously altruistic motives displayed by Manning, common to all whistleblowers.  Fellow whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, famous for his release of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam war has come to Manning’s defence stating that the release of the cables was “exactly the right thing to do”.  It is for these reasons that President Obama should pardon Bradley Manning, and I believe the argument on why to do so is best expressed by Manning himself in his conversation with the man who turned him into the government, “I want people to see the truth…regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public”.

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.