Time to Make Some Noise

After what feels like a very long week, the dismay surrounding the inauguration of President Bush to his second term now seems to be fading away, replaced instead with the dread of what the next four years will bring. Of particular concern is the sense of helplessness, of voicelessness, that we on the Left seem to share. We celebrate isolated incidents of strength from the elected Dems—Barbara Boxer standing up to Condi Rice, the brave baker’s dozen that voted no, the two that voted no to both Condi and Gonzo—but the reality of having no control in any of the three branches is wearing slowly on all of us, perhaps because ’06 seems yet so far away; perhaps because things seem to be getting worse, rather than better.

The chance we have rests firmly in whether or not we have the ability to effectively challenge the tactics of the Bush administration, which requires first addressing the reality of how truly radical their agenda is. There are those who feel that claims we are veering dangerously close to handing America over wholesale to extremists are, in themselves, extreme. But such claims are not extreme; they are part and parcel of the beginnings of an successful offensive strategy.

Our president has joked about his affinity for dictatorships on more than one occasion. In describing his role as governor of Texas, he mused:
"You don't get everything you want. A dictatorship would be a lot easier." (Governing Magazine 7/98)

--From Paul Begala's "Is Our Children Learning?"
And on two other occasions, he referenced again how much easier things would be were a pesky little thing like democracy not in his way:
"I told all four that there are going to be some times where we don't agree with each other, but that's OK. If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator.”

--CNN.com, December 18, 2000

"A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it. "

--Business Week, July 30, 2001
Said once, it’s a joke in questionable taste. Twice, and it becomes discomfiting. By the third time, it tends to raise genuine concerns about the inner feelings of a man who is meant to be leading a democracy. When that feeling stirs in our guts, that creeping sense that something isn’t right, we must listen to our intuition. We cannot keep our heads down, hold our breath, and wait for it all to be over.

In reading Lawrence Kaplan’s intense dispatch from Iraq today, I was struck how with a few very minor edits, an account of the politically mangled Iraq was easily turned into an applicable description of the political landscape in America:
[A] powerful executive branch…exerts significant control over all other branches of the state, being in some cases free from institutional checks and balances […O]fficial corruption runs rampant, [the president] governs more or less unchecked, and endless layers of bureaucracy weigh down the government.

This presents a real problem for [the country’s] liberals. The advantages of democracy, after all, routinely get lost in societies divided along ethnic and religious lines, and, [here], these allegiances are rapidly crowding out all others. As a result, the very things that make for shifting majorities in liberal democracies--civic concerns, economic calculations, political preferences--have increasingly taken a backseat to the latest edict from [religious leaders].
I was reminded of President Bush’s assertion in his inaugural address that he seeks to end tyranny. One wonders, however, whether he is truly interested in pursuit of that goal, or rather in simply replacing the old-fashioned tyranny with a new and improved version. In Bush's view, peace and freedom have become freakishly Orwellian threats; you will submit to our will for you to have peace and freedom, or we'll bring it to you with war and oppression.

The guise of propriety is undermined by close examination of the realities. In a tyrannical governorship, opposition is controlled through intimidation. We associate such intimidation with old school tyrants like, ironically, Saddam Hussein, whose death squads handily eliminated any dissention with all the death or destruction required. In Bush’s updated version, the intimidation is of a less violent but no less perilous sort, where any opposition is crushed with the burden of carrying the tag of treason. Those who seek to make their voices heard by casting a vote for a challenger are subjected to questionable voting machines, prohibitive waits, and excessive challenges by controlling party operatives. With dissenting voices of the minority party's elected representatives silenced at every turn, and the rank-and-file relegated to casting a vote and hoping for the best, real opportunity for change remains elusive. In the new tyranny of liberty, democracy is the opiate of the masses.

What better way to quell the threat of revolt than to offer the chance to effect change once every few years, through the simple and effortless act of casting a ballot. But when those ballots have lost any remnant of power, then they have also lost all sense of purpose, and the act of democracy becomes an impotent gesture, its sole meaning to stave off acts of rebellion against an increasingly centralized and exclusionary ruling class.

We are, to be sure, collectively reluctant to acknowledge that our democracy is slowly becoming little more than a useful tool to mollify and distract any element that would seek to impede the increasingly boundless control of the Right. We tell ourselves that all the things that contribute to the steady march toward authoritarianism—no checks and balances, media deregulation, weak and ineffectual opposition—will be solved as soon as we get another chance to vote. But the vote came and went, and the will of the authoritarians triumphed over the will of change. It will not get easier to undo the damage with the last shreds of our democratic system; it will only become more difficult, and more unlikely.

Yet our tunnel vision controls our response. We look to ’06 with blinders, ignoring the reality that focusing steadfastly onto a democratic solution is the very thing that will eventually render such a solution an impossibility. What will they accomplish in the next two years while we wait? What schemes will deepen their hold on us all while we depend on our votes to save us?

We must not give up on our right and our responsibility to vote, but voting alone will not solve the problems we face. Those of us who can look beyond our next chance to trek to the voting booth must find other ways of making our voices heard in the interim. When Ukraine’s government attempted to undermine their democratic principles, there was rioting in the streets. When will we riot in the streets? I wonder, anxiously, what it will take to shake us from our immutable belief that democracy will solve the problem of its own inevitable ruination so long as we depend exclusively on its fading potency.

Citizens of a democracy, we are taught, address their concerns and protest bad administrations and their dire policies on election days. We are polite and respectful as we register our dissent in quiet booths with drawn curtains. But maybe, just maybe, the pride we take in our civility will become our greatest shame.

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