Those Who Are Tasked to Police This Democracy
Are Blinded by Confetti
The real problem with the Bush years is not so much what he did
but that America's political class enabled him to do it
By Gary Younge
Guardian" -- - 'Some nations have a gift for
ceremonial," wrote the future third Marquess of Salisbury, Lord
Robert Cecil, after watching Queen Victoria open parliament. "No
poverty of means or absence of splendour inhibits them from
making any pageant in which they take part both real and
impressive. Everybody falls naturally into his proper place,
throws himself without effort into the spirit of the little
drama he is enacting and instinctively represses all appearance
of constraint or distracted attention."
What was arguably true for 19th century Britain (Cecil, as it
happens, believed that Britain did not possess that gift) is no
less so for 21st century America. As one party convention ends
and another begins (hurricane permitting), we are halfway
through a fortnight of ticker tape, talking points, balloons and
There was a time when these conventions meant something more
than mere pageantry. They were the place where arguments were
made, platforms thrashed out and delegates wooed with policy.
But like British party conferences, conventions are now
essentially media events at which the media enjoys neither
particular access, information nor, for the most part, insight.
The result is two weeks of propaganda rolled out like a
well-choreographed marketing campaign and faithfully transmitted
by supine outlets.
Like most acts of ceremony, form has long surpassed content. The
further they have strayed from the substance the more the
symbols matter. Strip away the high-minded commentary and you
are left with two patriotic parades steeped in electoral rivalry
and masquerading as a celebration of democratic culture.
As far as pageantry goes, they could certainly be worse. At
least in these there are no gilded coaches, crowns, ermine or
wigs. And yet despite the slew of historic candidacies - first
Barack Obama and now Sarah Palin - it seems as though this year
America's political class has less to celebrate than ever.
For the conventions do not just mark the beginning of a new
presidential cycle but the passing of an old one. The fact that
this administration has been criminally incompetent is now the
stuff of water-cooler orthodoxy. The fact that it has been plain
criminal is not. But it should be. Under George Bush the US has
tortured, disenfranchised, lied, spied and, on more than one
occasion, flouted its own constitution. Those who would not go
along were fired or demoted. Those rulings it could not garner
support for it simply classified or hid. Those inquiries it
could not prevent it thwarted. When Major General Antonio Taguba
tried to pursue his investigation of Abu Ghraib up the chain of
command he was stopped. "I was legally prevented from further
investigation into higher authority," he told the New Yorker.
Its violation of international law is ultimately a matter for
the international community. But its violation of American laws
is a matter for the American public. However, it is now clear
that the political consequences of these transgressions will
range from negligible to non-existent. The Bush administration
should be led away in handcuffs - either indicted or impeached.
Instead it is about to leave the scene of the crime in broad
daylight while those tasked to police this democracy - notably
politicians and the press - blind themselves with confetti.
Those who regard impeachment as merely a vindictive attempt to
adjudicate the past display a chronic lack of imagination. True,
it is not going to happen. But that makes it no less morally
compelling or politically relevant to argue that it should.
Trying to look ahead without acknowledging how you got to where
you are is a surefire way to end up wandering around in circles.
And the last place the Democrats want to be is where they were.
Take voter registration. Around this time last year the attorney
general, Alberto Gonzales, was forced to resign amid allegations
of perjury before Congress over his role in the politically
motivated firing of seven attorneys. They were replaced by what
his then chief of staff referred to as "loyal Bushies" on the
advice of the White House. Five of the fired attorneys were in
battleground states. They had irritated local Republicans by
refusing to bring voter fraud cases targeted at loyal Democratic
groups because of lack of evidence.
The congressional hearings were a farce. Gonzales said he "could
not recall" more than 71 times in one day. Clearly he hoped we
would forget too.
But in a year when voter rolls are swelling with the expectation
of an unprecedented turnout it is crucial that we remember. A
few weeks ago John McCain's campaign attorneys attended a
national training session for Republican lawyers on election
law, which included a session on identifying and responding to
instances of voter fraud. Despite the justice department's own
studies showing that voter fraud is extremely rare, Republicans
are gearing up for mass intimidation in minority areas on
election day. If the election is close expect to see Florida
2000 replayed from Virginia to Nevada. And if the challenges go
to court, Gonzales's "loyal Bushies" will be there to hear the
Such are the lasting consequences of Bush's crooked tenure.
Casting him as inept and unethical is not difficult. He is the
most unpopular president for six decades. Some have been loathed
more - but none by so many for so long. But understanding how he
managed to do it demands a wider lens.
For he could not do it alone. The US is not an elected
dictatorship. The president is supposed to stand at the helm of
a system of checks and balances. The reason there was no balance
was because there were no checks. The real problem with the Bush
years is not so much that he did what he did, but that he
managed to gain the consent of America's political class in
enabling him to do it. His political estrangement is not because
he tried, only because he failed.
This has more or less been conceded by none other than the
leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who voted
against the war in Iraq. When asked recently by the Nation why
she took impeachment off the table before the 2006 elections,
Pelosi answered: "What about these other people who voted for
that war with no evidence ... Are they going to be voting with
us to impeach the president? Where are these Democrats going to
be? Are they going to be voting for us to impeach a president
who took us to war on information that they had also?" In other
words, for the Democrats to impeach the president they would
first have to implicate themselves.
This is not to say the Democrats were equally culpable. But they
were differently responsible, and cowed by accusations of lack
of patriotism most of them abdicated that responsibility.
Asked to explain the administration's use of torture, the
director of the 9/11 commission, Philip Zelikow, said: "Fear and
anxiety exploited by zealots and fools." But there is, it seems,
no price to pay for being a zealot or a fool in power. America
will no doubt be anxious and fearful again some day. And for all
the ceremonial hyperbole of this convention season, there is
little to suggest that when that day comes the fools and zealots
won't once again come out on top.
© 2008 Guardian News and Media Limited
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