In a recent editorial, Xan White criticizes the president’s policies and the beliefs that underpin them, complaining at length that nobody else has done so (“Bush must govern with more than his beliefs,” 3/28). White presents a comprehensive, compelling argument against his vividly imagined American political scene, which can generously be described as counterfactual.
In the hypothetical state of U.S. politics White has chosen to argue against, which I’ll call “Earth-A,” the president simultaneously pursues his policy aims “in the face of political opposition” and without any of that same opposition; apparently, hysterical columns in the News aside, “this country continues to blindly follow the whims of our leader.” How do these seemingly contradictory circumstances coexist? It’s not entirely clear, but from the gist of the editorial, it seems as if the second is the one to complain about, because if there were legitimate political opposition to Earth-A’s President Bush, why, that editorial wouldn’t make any sense. Luckily, White is the lone voice in the wilderness — and there isn’t public radio, most of the television media, magazines like The Nation (or even Newsweek), a whole “blogosphere,” a little less than half of Congress and most of Yale — to argue incessantly with over the justification for the Iraq War. It falls exclusively on the shoulders of White to call for a “true and honest debate on the merits of the war.” With an undemocratic government that “cause[s] death and destruction on the whim of one man,” Earth-A must be rough.
Meanwhile, back on actual Earth, which I’ll call “actual Earth,” America remains a vibrant democracy, which is bad for insane editorials decrying the anti-fact that the United States has turned into a totalitarian state, but good for, you know, democracy. On actual Earth, the president’s acknowledging the duty of the executive branch to interpret the law is not a hilarious failure of his “knowledge of the three branches of the federal government.” It’s a sign of an executive trying to act legally according to the institutional constraints of our system. Congress should not “resume its position as the most powerful branch of our government” because it has never been “the most powerful branch.” Our system of checks and balances requires that there is no most powerful branch.
Anyway, a more powerful legislature wouldn’t necessarily change anything, as Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and the reason that a Republican Congress hasn’t acted “as a check on the executive branch” is that, according to extensive Wikipedia research, President Bush is a Republican, too. The president and Republican leaders in Congress are pursuing the same policy goals; it’s actually a common complaint that the president hasn’t vetoed a bill during his tenure, when in fact a Republican president vetoing an act of a Republican Congress would only represent a failure of party leadership. And while the “Democratic party’s complete lack of anything resembling a spine” has become common knowledge in a really trite, boring way, it hasn’t stopped Representative John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) from calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the censure of the president, respectively. Whether or not you agree with it, dissent is alive and well in Congress.
And yes, the president acts according to his beliefs (or “beliefs,” because White apparently feels the term requires quotation marks). Democracy only works when all parties involved work to advance their own sincere convictions, and for the president not to act according to his beliefs would be to betray his constituents and to undemocratically second-guess the popular will that put him in office. After all, however comforting it is to attach the epithet “narrowly elected” to the president’s name, that still represents an acknowledgement that he was indeed elected, which means that most of America agrees with him. He wasn’t some sort of stealth candidate without a track record, he was the incumbent, and it was thanks to “Karl Rove’s avalanche of talking points” that he proved the most adept at communicating his values to the American people. That’s how you win at democracy.
So what is undemocratic here on actual Earth? Well, one of the tricky aspects of democratic consolidation is convincing the losers of an election in a newly democratizing state to accept their opposition’s win and to continue to respect the rules of the democratic system. Calling the legitimately elected opposition “aggressive, petty tyranny” does not denote respect for the rules of the democratic system. America does not cease to become a democracy because you lose an election. The only tyranny here is the tyranny of a petulant minority.
Sam Heller is a sophomore in Pierson College.