Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Bush Administration's Dangerous Impulsive Responses to Immediate Challenges

The Bush Administration's Dangerous Impulsive Responses to Immediate Challenges
By Joyce Appleby
History News
Ms. Appleby is an emerita professor of history at UCLA and co-director of the History News Service. She is the author of A Restless Past: History and the American Public (2005).

Retrospectively we can see that our Founding Fathers possessed a marvelous combination of realism, pragmatism and idealism. They even anticipated the particular way that the administration of George W. Bush would put our democracy at risk. Americans must connect the dots soon if they are to save the Republic from the present-mindedness guiding current policies.

In America’s most famous political essay, Federalist No. 10, James Madison identified faction as the mortal [not wounding, but mortal] disease of popular governments. Not wishing to be misunderstood, Madison went on to define the evil through which most popular government had perished:

“By faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” For these astute insights people have quipped that Madison made democracy safe for the world.

Minority factions could be controlled by the majority who are in charge in popular governments, Madison explained. Not so majority factions like the white voters, legislators and judges who set up segregation in the South following the Civil War or those who have discriminated against a series of minorities from Catholics in the beginning of the nineteenth century to Jews at the end with Asian and Hispanic immigrants suffering persecution as well. Only an awakening public conscience stopped the injustices caused by these successive majorities of white, Protestant Americans.

In our histories of the struggles in the United States to achieve a just society, attention has always focused on the first of Madison’s two categories of faction – groups animated by passion or interest to do things adverse to the rights of others.

Today we are faced with the second kind of faction Madison specified: those who act out of passion or interest with little heed for the long-range impact of their choices. Over the last five years, the Bush administration and its compliant Congress have repeatedly sacrificed “the permanent and aggregated interests of the community” to short term and short-sighted goals.

The nation’s financial security in the decades ahead has been put at risk with the tax cuts which began in 2001 and are under consideration in Congress right now. Lost tax revenues will influence the nation’s capacity to govern effectively in the foreseeable future with little or no discernible gain to the public. Those who take possession of America in the future – our children and grandchildren will pay the mounting cost.

Executive decisions have opened up the national domain to more intrusive grazing, cutting, and drilling, despite expert testimony to the deleterious, long range effects upon wildlife and the land itself.

The Bush administration’s dismissal of the Geneva Conventions “as quaint” and the flouting of the United Nations Declaration and Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatments - hasty steps in its fight against terrorists - have undermined America’s moral authority in the world and exposed American soldiers to pay-back punishment in the future. Warrantless, government wiretapping offers another chilling example of impulsive responses to immediate challenges.

Shrewdly Madison, who is often called the Father of the Constitution, realized that, like a dagger poised at the heart of popular governments, majorities would always be tempted to respond to the passions and interests of the hour, even though their decisions put in jeopardy the next generation’s prosperity and “the liberty and justice for all” promised in the Pledge of Allegiance.

In this regard, Bush is certainly not the first president to count on weak, distant vision and the imperatives of the present to carry out his program. What has changed is the gravity of the looming menaces and the unique power the United States possesses to counteract them. How much higher could the stakes be than the questionable future of our planet?

Signs of global warming crop up monthly in record-setting, natural disasters from disappearing glaciers and hurricanes to melting Arctic ice caps and rain forest droughts. The entire human enterprise may depend upon our capacity right now to devise measures to diminish the emissions that adversely affect the atmosphere. Only immediate changes in our life styles can improve the sustainable health of the earth.

Our government’s pattern of increasing deficits, encouraging Americans to deflect escalating danger signs, and exploiting people’s fears makes it more and more difficult to protect “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Without leadership, we live in the moment, ignoring our responsibilities to this democracy and to the world that waits for American initiatives.