Back in October, I wrote a column about how the economic pressure to compete against foreign autocracies was pushing our political system to subjugate democracy in favor of a kind of czarism - one justified by the need for quick action in international financial markets. That was the theory behind the bailout legislation giving Henry Paulson czar-ish power to spend taxpayer money as he sees fit - on a global stage where Saudi princes and Chinese communists can move trillions without so much as a press release, Paulson was arguing that congressional oversight or the incremental appropriations process (ie. the normal safeguards in a democracy) would slow decisions down too much in a fast-moving situation.
Mix this czarist impulse with our usual religion of presidentialism and a newfound zeal for a kind of Dear Leader-ism and you have all the ingredients of a political system moving to use an emergency situation to crush its own democratic ideals. And here's the thing that's probably most disturbing - the Fourth Estate watchdog of democracy often contributes to this anti-democratic push.
We all remember when every major pundit and reporter in America took to teevee to berate opponents of the bailout who were objecting to the legislation on the grounds that there weren't enough oversight provisions. The message from the entire media Establishment was simple: The only Serious thing to do was to hand over $700 billion to the Dear Leader, Henry Paulson. Unfortunately - and incredibly - this continues, despite the government's own auditors saying the money may be being wildly mismanaged.
Look at this declaration from the New York Times' top financial reporter Diana Henriques on MSNBC this week. After admitting that the GAO had raised serious concerns about Paulson's management of the $700 billion, she nonetheless concluded by saying this:
"[Paulson] says that the spending is necessary. If he says it's necessary, you'd be a pretty brave lawmaker to second guess him, given how quickly things have deteriorated in the past two to three months."
In other words, despite the fact the government's own experts have raised the possibility that the bailout money is being wasted, despite the fact that banks are pocketing the money and not using it to address the credit crisis, despite the fact that Paulson's mismangement is one of the big reasons WHY "things have deteriorated in the past two to three months," the New York Times top financial reporter is STILL insisting that if Paulson asks for the next $350 billion, it would take unprecedented - almost unthinkable - "bravery" to second guess him, or to try to tie some strings to the money. That is, it would be almost unimaginable for a single member of Congress to oppose the Dear Leader.
This pernicious psychology is everywhere - and it is the imperial presidency on steroids. It's a danger to our country whether that kind of deference is given to a Democrat or a Republican president. And up until now, Democrats on Capitol Hill have played right into it, with czarists like New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) forwarding the absurd Innocent Bystander Fable and claiming that "there's not much we can do" to better regulate the bailout.
The good news is that finally at least some Democrats on Capitol Hill are raising rhetorical flags:
Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd said he opposes giving the Bush administration the second half of the $700 billion financial rescue plan, joining Republicans upset with how it is being managed.
"I would be a very hard person to convince that this crowd deserves to have their hands on the next $350 billion," Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, told reporters today in Washington after a hearing on whether automakers should get government aid. "I am through with giving this crowd money to play with."
In terms of both short-term economic policy and long-term respect for basic democracy, this statement of frustration by Dodd is right on the money. We've been down this road way too often - when a crisis hits, our first reflex is to turn the president into an autocrat, handing over all power to Him in hopes that the Dear Leader can save us. We saw it with the Patriot Act and the Iraq War after 9/11 and we've seen it during history's so-called "red scares." And unfortunately, the media - rather being a check on this kind of power grab - all too often is a part of it.
It's time for Congress to reassert itself and not be cowed by this growing Dear Leader-ism that seeks to use this crisis as a Naomi Klein-style shock doctrine - one that vests all power into the executive branch. Burning down our democratic village to save it doesn't work.