THE BLOG
06/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Loss of Democracy: The Deeper Meaning of McClellan's Revelations of Imperial Deceit & Media Submissiveness

In his recent memoir, former White House press secretary Scott McClellan reaffirmed what many of us have known for a long time - that the Bush Administration spun us into the disastrous war in Iraq through mendacious propaganda which the mainstream media, abdicating their role as independent journalists, accepted and then disseminated without question or scrutiny.

On the heels of this expose, Jessica Yellin, now of CNN and formerly of ABC and MSNBC, explained that journalists were under pressure at the time of the run-up to the war to uncritically regurgitate the White House pro-war propaganda. Katie Couric, host of NBC "Today" at the time, also said she and other journalists felt pressure from "the corporations who own where we work and from the government itself to really squash any kind of dissent or any kind of questioning of" the rush to war. Indeed, Couric characterized this as "one of the most embarrassing chapters in American journalism."

The result of the White House spin, and the complicity of the press corp. in it, has been the deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. servicemen and women and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. In addition, it has left an ancient civilization in ruin, the U.S. economy in tatters and the credibility of the U.S. abroad at an all-time low.

The other casualty of these events is our already-fragile democracy. A detailed and illuminating account of how this is so can be found in Democracy, Inc.: Managed Democracy & The Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, by Princeton historian Sheldon Wolin.

As Wolin explains, our democratic system is being undermined by those in power who subvert the will and needs of the people through fear mongering, willful manipulation and the perpetuation of a state of permanent war which serves the dual purpose of enriching powerful corporations (e.g., Bechtel and Halliburton) while diminishing the ability of the government to pay for services and social benefits which benefit the population at-large. What we are left with is a demoralized electorate bereft of the means and the will to effectively participate in the government and policy-making - the very essence of democracy.

As Wolin explains, "democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsible to their hopes and needs." It is these conditions which are being systematically subverted by the aggressive pro-business and anti-populist policies of the Republican party on the one hand and "the political loss of nerve among Democrats, the press, and the punditry" on the other. As Wolin opines, the failures of the latter, as well illustrated in the run-up to the Iraq war, have been "so profound as to call into question the health of the political system as a whole."

The Republican party, as Wolin writes, now overtly operates for the benefit of powerful economic interests while paying lip service to patriotism, Christian values, national security and the fight against "big government." On this latter score, Wolin correctly notes that, while the Republican party has for years talked about "getting big government off our backs," it has in fact created a monstrous governmental/military apparatus (a "Superpower") which provides massive welfare to corporations; engages in permanent war throughout the world on multiple fronts; and exercises ever greater domestic policing and surveillance powers, with the U.S. now housing the largest number of prisoners per capita in the world. This phenomenon of Superpower is, as Wolin explains, simply incompatible with a democratic system, as is the Republican party's open attempt to create a "permanent majority" to solidify its hold on the reigns of state power.

Indeed, the only way government is no longer "big" is in regard to its function of providing necessary benefits and services to the citizenry - a function which the Republican party has systematically dismantled, sometimes with assistance from the Democratic party (e.g., the destruction of the federal entitlement to welfare under Clinton), since the Reagan "revolution" of 1980.

At the same time, the Democratic party, abdicating its role as a true opposition party, has aided and abetted this anti-democratic process through its very submissiveness and lack of willingness to fight for the advantages which it helped bring to working class people. The overwhelming vote of Democrats in favor of authorizing the Iraq War is an example of such submissiveness. Similarly, Democrats voted in large numbers for the passage of the 2006 Military Commissions Act, a radical piece of legislation which stripped Americans of their right to habeas corpus - the right to petition a court to be released from imprisonment pending trial. Of course, this right had been recognized since at least as far back as the Magna Carta of 1215.

Another case in point is the 2000 presidential elections, a watershed moment, in Wolin's view, and a topic which he returns to over and over again in Democracy, Inc. It is now largely accepted that the 2000 elections were deeply flawed, particularly in Florida where the outcome ultimately determined the presidency. As we are all painfully aware, and as Wolin explains, the "proceedings in the crucial state of Florida had been marred by irregularities of various kinds, including fraud, voter intimidation and racism. The issue was eventually settled by a process that was as flawed and partisan as the election itself." That is, the issue was settled by the Supreme Court, by then stacked with Republican ideologues, who voted to prevent the state of Florida from engaging in a recount which, as we know by now, would have resulted in Al Gore becoming President of the United States.

As shocking as the process itself, Wolin notes, was the reaction of the Democratic party, its supporters and the media to this process - that is, quiet and almost complete acquiescence. As Wolin explains, "no crowds took to the streets; no one sat down before the Supreme Court in protest; no one mounted a mass march on Washington." Rather, George Bush and the Republican party were simply permitted, without opposition, to steal the elections.
What's more, as Wolin explains, George Bush and the Republican party, instead of humbly taking office in a mood of conciliation -- as was demanded by the circumstances of a close and flawed election process - took over with the immediate aim of consolidating power and advancing their right-wing, pro-corporate and truly anti-democratic agenda.

Since taking office in 2000, George Bush, in the face of almost no dissent and very little opposition from the Democratic party, has further eroded our democratic institutions through, among other things, his unprecedented use of Executive "signing statements" through which he has attempted to amend and even negate legislation passed by Congress by significantly altering the legislation before signing it into law; approving the indefinite detention and torture of prisoners in Guantanamo and other secret locations throughout the world, leading Amnesty International to give more ink to criticizing the U.S. in its annual report than any other country; and, as discussed above, spinning the U.S. into a disastrous war in Iraq, the adverse effects of which the U.S., as well as the Middle East, will feel for decades to come.

In my view, the candidacy of Barack Obama is a refreshing change from this politics-as-usual and appears to represent a real opportunity for reversing the disastrous course upon which this country is now set. First and foremost, Obama has openly pledged to end the politics of fear which has governed this country for decades. In addition, he has pledged to use diplomatic, rather than military, efforts as the preferred means of solving our international disputes. Moreover, Obama just announced that he will review the constitutionality of all the laws and executive orders passed under George W. Bush, and move to overturn those which don't pass muster.

Further, going against the trend of relying on large, corporate donations for presidential campaigns, Obama has largely based his campaign upon the small financial contributions of over 1.5 million citizens, and has successfully mobilized thousands of individual citizens to register voters, get out the vote and otherwise actively participate in the election process. This represents an important reengaging and reactivation of the citizenry - the very precondition of democratic rule. While not often discussed, it is this democratizing role of the Obama campaign which is but another reason to actively support it.

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