In October, I wasn’t that concerned with Bush’s torture and habeas corpus revocation bills because it only codified existing infractions, which nobody did anything about anyway. But now the New York Times has an editorial that shows why I should’ve been verbally shelling the administration.
A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night. So it was with a provision quietly tucked into the enormous defense budget bill at the Bush administration’s behest that makes it easier for a president to override local control of law enforcement and declare martial law.
The provision, signed into law in October, weakens two obscure but important bulwarks of liberty. One is the doctrine that bars military forces, including a federalized National Guard, from engaging in law enforcement. Called posse comitatus, it was enshrined in law after the Civil War to preserve the line between civil government and the military. The other is the Insurrection Act of 1807, which provides the major exemptions to posse comitatus. It essentially limits a president’s use of the military in law enforcement to putting down lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion, where a state is violating federal law or depriving people of constitutional rights.
I’m usually skeptical of attempts to connect many different ideological components that happen to go together in a current political alliance. I haven’t read The Wimp Factor, but my general impression of it, based on Bora and Amanda‘s reviews, is negative.
Still, the link between the two most obvious characteristics of fascism – domestic disdain for civil rights and foreign belligerence – is unimpeachable. It appears in mainstream political science in the form of the democratic peace theory, and features prominently in mainstream psychology of fascism. This isn’t some crackpot theory that the left likes only because it flatters its anti-fascism. Warmongering isn’t correlated to authoritarianism by accident the way either is to support for capitalism; the two have a longstanding political and ideological link.
The article describes a bipartisan bill to repeal Bush’s law. If it becomes a priority, it could signal that the window of opportunity of totalitarianism in the US is closing. However, I don’t think it will be a high priority for the Senate leadership. After all, the Democrats could have filibustered the bill indefinitely in October on the grounds that the people should get a chance to vote based on it.
Out of the three requirements for totalitarianism – motive, means, and opportunity – opportunity is the easiest to assail. The motive tends to be longlasting; neoconservatives have been around since the 1960s, and Dominionists since the 1970s. If 9/11 had happened ten years earlier, they’d have passed the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Bill under George Bush Sr. The technological means are here to stay and only get stronger.
There really are two ways of making totalitarian politics less likely to succeed. One is to make the ideology behind it less fashionable. Call it the return of pre-9/11 politics, triggered by the catastrophic failure of the United States to pacify Iraq. That route is unlikely, since it requires a clear political alternative, which doesn’t presently exist.
The other is to directly close the window of opportunity, which is based on fighting back. People don’t generally support authoritarianism, unless it can connect to them by capitalizing on the failure of liberalism to deliver or on traditional values, in descending order of importance. Here Democrat-style spinelessness falls under the rubric of failure to deliver.