Madison's Ghost on The Intoxicated Presidency


 by Thom Hartmann

I just returned from Argentina. People there understand Machiavelli, I discovered; when he wrote his instructions to The Prince, that, "Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose." it would make perfect sense to anybody who'd lived through Argentina's past half-century.

And, while they don't so often read James Madison there, I think they'd agree with the letters he left to his countrymen, that I was reading as I traveled, warning us about war as the greatest danger to the democracy he'd just helped birth. As I walked about, talking with all sorts of people, I kept feeling Madison's ghost tapping on my shoulder. But more about that in a moment; first the questions I encountered in Argentina:

Is Bush just manipulating the press and really planning to wait until 2004 to have his war, thus guaranteeing his own re-election? Or is it going to happen faster to begin pumping oil and thus repay the oil industry campaign donors who brought him to power? Or is it all about something even more insidious: the end of democracy itself, carefully planned by a small group of cynical intellectuals who truly believe that democracy is cute and quaint but that only an all-powerful government can guarantee stability in a dangerous world?

For example, last weekend in the Buenos Aires airport I was sitting next to a gregarious man while waiting to board our flight. When he saw my American passport, he said, "You know, this Saddam thing has little to do with trying to throw the 2002 elections, like all you Americans think. Of course, that's a nice side-benefit, keeping everything else out of the news. But it's really about 2004 and setting up the Republicans for a half-century of one-party rule like Roosevelt did. Bush will pull back from his war
rhetoric after the elections and let in the UN inspectors, and all the world, even his opponents, will hail him as a man of peace. And then, just before the 2004 elections, there will be problems with the inspectors, they'll find some excuse, and the war will start in time for November 2004." He smiled and wagged a finger at me. "We know about one-party rule here. You'll soon learn."

Two days earlier, in a pleasant middle-class home, I sat across the table from a woman who had been tortured and electro-shocked by the police for protesting, exactly 20 years earlier, the war between Great Britain and Argentina over the Malvinas or Falkland Islands. I never would have guessed; she was soft-spoken, middle-class, and fashionably dressed. But she was one of "the disappeared" for a brief moment, and among one of the lucky ones who were released. Indeed, the Argentineans knew about one-party rule.

"The war covered up the dark side of the government and the corruption of the politicians of the time," another woman in a Buenos Aires restaurant told me. "It was a good way of putting the attention of the people somewhere else, like when you're with a little child, and you want to distract him, and you say, 'Come here and have some sweets.' And we bought that immediately. There was dancing in the streets. 'We're going to win a war - oh, boy, oh, boy!' We went with flags to the streets, singing the national songs to celebrate the possibility of winning this war."

The Falklands/Malvinas war was over quickly, though, in part, because each side had an enemy: a nation. Terrorism, on the other hand, is not an enemy: it's a tactic. Unless you want to have a perpetual war, you must declare war against an enemy, not a behavior.

But what if a perpetual war is just what the Bush administration wants, as another man in a restaurant in Buenos Aires suggested? The man said in his Latin accent, "He has learn from mistakes of his poppa: don't end the war too quickly before an election. Keep the talk going, but make sure the war itself happens in 2004."

Others thought it would happen sooner, to get Iraq's oil, seize control of the Middle East and neutralize OPEC, and to start the profits flowing to the oil corporations who got Bush elected.

Or maybe it's all a plan to drive a stake into the heart of democracy, another suggested, using war as the excuse. 

In the novel 1984 by George Orwell, the way a seemingly democratic president kept his nation in a continual state of repression was by having a continuous war. Cynics suggest the lesson wasn't lost on Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, who both, they say, extended the Vietnam war so it coincidentally ran over election cycles, knowing that a wartime President's party is more likely to be reelected and has more power than a President in peacetime.

Similarly, Hitler used the 1933 burning of the Reichstag (Parliament) building by a deranged Dutchman to declare a "war on terrorism," establish his legitimacy as a leader (even though he hadn't won a majority in the previous election).

"You are now witnessing the beginning of a great epoch in history," he proclaimed, standing in front of the burned-out building, surrounded by national media. "This fire," he said, his voice trembling with emotion, "is the beginning." He used the occasion - "a sign from God," he called it - to declare an all-out war on terrorism and its ideological sponsors, a people, he said, who traced their origins to the Middle East and found motivation for their "evil" deeds in their religion.

Two weeks later, the first prison for terrorists was built in Oranianberg, holding the first suspected allies of the infamous terrorist. In a national outburst of patriotism, the nation's flag was everywhere, even printed in newspapers suitable for display.

Within four weeks of the terrorist attack, the nation's now-popular leader had pushed through legislation, in the name of combating terrorism and fighting the philosophy he said spawned it, that suspended constitutional guarantees of free speech, privacy, and habeas corpus. Police could now intercept mail and wiretap phones; suspected terrorists could be imprisoned without specific charges and without access to their lawyers; police could sneak into people's homes without warrants if the cases involved terrorism.

To get his patriotic "Decree on the Protection of People and State" passed over the objections of concerned legislators and civil libertarians, he agreed to put a 4-year sunset provision on it: if the national emergency provoked by the terrorist attack on the Reichstag building was over by then, the freedoms and rights would be returned to the people, and the police agencies would be re-restrained.

Within the first months after that terrorist attack, at the suggestion of a political advisor, he brought a formerly obscure word into common usage. Instead of referring to the nation by its name, he began to refer to it as The Fatherland. As hoped, people's hearts swelled with pride, and the beginning of an us-versus-them mentality was sewn. Our land was "the" homeland, citizens thought: all others were simply foreign lands.

Within a year of the terrorist attack, Hitler's advisors determined that the various local police and federal agencies around the nation were lacking the clear communication and overall coordinated administration necessary to deal with the terrorist threat facing the nation, including those citizens who were of Middle Eastern ancestry and thus probably terrorist sympathizers. He proposed a single new national agency to protect the security of the Fatherland, consolidating the actions of dozens of previously independent police, border, and investigative agencies under a single powerful leader.

Most Americans remember his Office of Fatherland Security, known as the Reichssicherheitshauptamt and Schutzstaffel, simply by its most famous agency's initials: the SS.

And, perhaps most important, he invited his supporters in industry into the halls of government to help build his new detention camps, his new military, and his new empire which was to herald a thousand years of peace. Industry and government worked hand-in-glove, in a new type of pseudo-democracy first proposed by Mussolini and sustained by war.

This wasn't a new lesson, however, and neither Orwell nor Hitler were the first to note that a democracy at war was weakened and at risk. 

On April 20, 1795, James Madison, who had just helped shepherd through the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and would become President of the United States in the following decade, wrote, "Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few."

Reflecting on war's impact on the Executive Branch of government Madison continued his letter about the dangerous and intoxicating power of war for a president.

"In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended," he wrote. "Its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war...and in the degeneracy of manners and morals, engendered by both.

"No nation," he concluded, "could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

Once the Revolutionary War was over, and the Constitution had been worked out and presented to the states for ratification, Thomas Jefferson turned his attention to what he, Mason, and Madison felt was a terrible inadequacy in the new Constitution: it didn't explicitly stipulate the "natural rights" of the new nation's citizens, and didn't protect against the rise of new commercial monopolies like the East India Company, which had once dominated life in the colonies and used the British army as its own private army.

On December 20th, 1787, Jefferson wrote to James Madison about his concerns regarding the Constitution. He said, bluntly, that it was deficient in several areas. "I will now tell you what I do not like," he wrote. "First, the omission of a bill of rights, providing clearly, and without the aid of sophism, for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of commercial monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land, and not by the laws of nations."

In arguing for a ban on commercial monopolies, the Founders, who had just fought a war of independence against both Britain and the world's largest transnational corporation (The East India Company, whose tea they'd thrown into Boston harbor), knew the danger of corporations becoming so powerful they could influence government the way the East India Company had persuaded England for the tax reduction and free trade subsidy that came to be known as the Tea Act of 1773.

But it's not just Madison's ghost warning us. More recent presidents have also noted the danger of a corporate usurpation of democracy, particularly when fed by the bloody meat of war.

As he was leaving office, the old warrior President Dwight D. Eisenhower had looked back over his years as President and as a General and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in France during World War II, and noted that the Cold War had brought a new, Orwellian type of war to the American landscape - a perpetual war supported by a perpetual war industry. It was the confluence of the two things Jefferson had warned against, and had tried to ban in his first proposed version of the Bill of Rights.

"Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea," Eisenhower said in sobering tones in a nationally televised speech. "Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations."

Nonetheless, Eisenhower added, "This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence, economic, political, even spiritual, is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the ilitary-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

He concluded with a very specific warning to us, the generation that would follow. "We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes," he said. "We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper