"No matter how paranoid or conspiracy-minded you are, what the government is actually doing is worse than you imagine." - - - William Blum

December 12, 2010

Remembering how things have changed in exactly ten years:
Ten years ago today, the world changed. At the time, we just didn't know it yet.

Ten years ago today, in a baffling and overtly political 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court decided that the only way to protect the equal voting rights of the people of Florida was to stop counting their votes--but only in this particular instance and no other, because they only wanted the votes to stop being counted when George W Bush was ahead.

The Bush legacy is one written in the red ink of debt, greed and death. An occupation of the nation hosting that did attack us, botched from an overweening desire to wage a preemptive war against a country that did not. Thousands of American lives and potentially hundreds of thousands of native lives lost in the process. Torture prisons in the name of national security. Warrantless wiretapping and other forms of surveillance and entrapment against United States citizens and nonviolent peace groups.

Not that the nation was just morally bankrupt: George W Bush did a number on our nation's fiscal health as well, with massive transfers of its wealth into the hands of those who needed the least help, and permission for private entities to loot the land and natural resources of this nation with no return to its taxpayers. And ten years later, virtually nobody has paid the price.

Many progressives--myself included-- felt that the Bush years should have been a national nightmare that we would just wake up from. That the immoral, absurd and illegal practices of those times were just a mere interregnum permitted by the ascension of a Manichean president operating during a time of national crisis, and that once he was out of office, we would instinctively revert to the comparative sanity we had under Bill Clinton. But we haven't yet, and it's likely that without systemic structural change, we never will.

In American governance, some things move very easily in one direction, but not so easily in the other. Taxes, for instance: The current "negotiations" over whether or not to extend the fiscally devastating tax cuts for the wealhiest among us demonstrate that there is almost no such thing as a temporary tax cut because once taxes are lowered, it is almost impossible to raise them again.

Also fitting into that category, however, is executive power. From a structural point of view, it is shocking that even though the Constitution expressly grants to Congress the power to declare war, the United States has not seen a formal declaration of war since World War II. In the wake of the conflict in Vietnam, we now have a so-called "War Powers Resolution"--whose constitutionality has never in fact been tested--that tries to form a compromise that still allows the Congress a certain amount of authority over a procedure over which the Executive has no explicit Constitutional control.

George W. Bush arrogated unprecedented executive powers to himself, primarily in matters of national security. He reserved for himself the right to use the armed forces without limit as he saw fit; to spy on Americans without warrants using no more than his own auspices; and even to torture prisoners without Congressional or judicial oversight. These philosophies of governance were anathema to civil libertarians and the progressive movement, and many of us likely expected those policies to go by the wayside on January 20th of last year.

But executive power is a tricky thing: once there is a precedent, it is not easily relinguished. After all, why would any executive willingly limit his own power, especially when faced with an opposition party already seeking to portray him as weak on national security issues?

President Obama had two fundamentally opposite choices: to oppose in the most vehement terms the claims on executive authority of the Bush administration, repudiate them publicly and be unafraid to pursue prosecutions against those who abused their newfound executive powers; or he could have simply accepted a status quo in which he maintained control over those powers, but just chose not to use them in the perverse fashions of his predecessor.

He chose that latter. And while Obama may not be choosing to abuse these powers, what he has done is cemented a legacy that he most likely did not hope to inherit.

Ten years ago, George Bush was installed in the White House by one vote. Today, what should have been an interregnum is now a permanent part of the American political landscape.
I've lived long enough now to know that the good old USA really is forever changed.

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