Monday, November 12, 2007

When Dynasty and West Wing Collide

It occurred to me a while back, as I was shooting the breeze with an old friend, that at the end of Junior Caligula's term, the US will have had a Bush or Clinton occupying the Oval Office for at least two solid decades. If Hillary Clinton manages to "win" the upcoming election, we can expect add four to eight years to that number. It almost seems that the White House is merely passed along between two supposedly rival families, with all other candidates merely providing the sideshow to keep the electorate distracted.

That might strike one as a bit harsh, but if anything I suspect I'm understating things. The notion of being ruled by a handful of elite families, that is of dynasties, is alien to the concept that most of us hold about the US. And yet, it is precisely what has been occurring, right in plain sight, during much of my lifetime. I've been making allusions to a Bush Dynasty since practically the start of my blogging days in 2003, and probably to a Clinton dynasty as well on some of the gated community blogs with increased vigor over the last few months. It's time to ditch the allusions and just come right out and say it: in the US presidency is now a dynastic entity. We might refer to alternating Bush and Clinton dynasties, or as I would prefer, just do away with the distinction altogether and refer to it as the Bush-Clinton Dynasty that has ruled with an increasingly iron fist since the late 1980s with little hope for an end in sight.

There has probably always been a patrician streak to US political life, but that was largely subsumed by an egalitarian national mythology that has finally over the last couple decades begun to decay. Let me drop the latest Justin Raimondo joint on the topic:

The rise of dynastic politics – of powerful political families that, in effect, constitute political parties in themselves – is a sign of empire, which appears as the imperial reality begins to fill the empty republican forms it is fast displacing. Yes, we still have a president, not a king; yes, the Constitution is still referred to, albeit almost never enforced; and, no, we don't have hereditary titles, unless you're counting the editorship of Commentary magazine. Yet an American president has more power than any king ever did, and this has come about as a result of his role as commander in chief as well as chief executive.

In the early days of the American experiment, the dual character of the office of president did not produce permanent distortions in the constitutional order, and the balance of power between the three branches of the federal government was, roughly, maintained, in spite of a few unfortunate lurches in one direction or another. However, a sea-change occurred in the modern era, specifically when we began to abandon the foreign policy of the Founders, who warned against entangling alliances and going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy." Two world wars and a long Cold War enlarged the federal government, especially its executive branch, beyond all recognition, until, by the time Harry Truman stepped into the Oval Office, the presidency was infected with a case of elephantiasis.

It was Truman, you'll recall, who set the fateful precedent of not bothering to consult Congress before sending American troops to fight in Korea. It was a first step down the fast lane to presidential supremacism in the realm of foreign affairs, one that was taken with no thought of the consequences, except among those few Republican "isolationists" – as they were unfairly tagged – who wondered about the fate of the Constitution. American presidents since that time have hardly bothered to ask the elected representatives of the people for permission to go to war, and military action has been largely relegated to the realm of presidential caprice.

The argument went that we couldn't wait for Congress to consult, argue, debate, and vote while the fate of the Free World hung in the balance, when a moment's hesitation could mean the difference between survival and extinction, and the Soviets were supposedly ever ready to take advantage of the West's democratic dithering. We had always to be in a state of hair-trigger alert – so the cold warriors told us – or else we faced certain defeat at the hands of our enemies. In the post-9/11 era, this argument has reached its only logical conclusion, and it is now embodied in the Bushian doctrine of presidential primacy, which avers that the president in wartime has the power to suspend the Constitution (in the name of "defending" it, of course) and can rule by decree.

Our devolution into a system, like ancient Rome's, in which political dynasties are dominant is a function of the bipartisan consensus on matters both foreign and domestic. Now that both parties have agreed that the federal leviathan is an immutable fact of American life, and that it is our moral and patriotic duty to police the world, the only debate that occurs in Washington is over who shall wield the power. In the imperial era, American politics is increasingly a battle of personalities, not ideologies, a clash of rival celebrities competing for public adulation rather than antipathetic platforms competing for the allegiance of the voting public.

With Democrats gleefully anticipating what some call the "Clintonian restoration," the politics-of-celebrity syndrome easily trumps the ideological tics still remaining in the Democratic Party, such as its ostensibly "antiwar" sentiments in the face of Republican super-interventionism. It is no accident that the dynastic candidate, Hillary, is also the most interventionist: she represents a party Establishment that is thoroughly invested in maintaining and expanding the American Empire, and her "right" of succession, based on dynastic loyalties, is more than a match for the ideological fervor of the Democratic grassroots.

There have always been those who preferred the pretensions of titled aristocrats and royal courts to the stern republican virtues of our forefathers, but they were in a distinct minority, mostly confined to certain moneyed precincts of the Eastern seaboard. Most Americans regarded the class distinctions of, say, the British as rather silly, as well as unfair. Today, however, American culture is less egalitarian (in the best sense of the term), more impressed by snobbery, and more inclined to worship at the altar of celebrity: add to this the centralization of power in the hands of an imperial presidency, and you have a recipe for disaster.

As Freeland put it, the "structural weakness in how you get to be president of America" is restricting the pool of possible applicants for the job. The effect is to keep the office open only to those who would maximize the power of the presidency, thereby continuing the policies that virtually ensure the triumph of neo-royalism in America – especially our foreign policy of perpetual war.

The rise of dynastic politics in the U.S. is going not only unopposed, but also almost completely unnoticed by Americans – not even Ron Paul has denounced it. That alone should tell us that American politics as we used to know it – as a battle of competing philosophies of governance – is coming to an end.

Actually, the battle of competing philosophies came to an end some time ago. There haven't been any genuine ideological battles in ages. By the time I was born in the mid 1960s, successive "Red Scares" had effectively wiped out any hope of socialists holding elected office. The old school conservatives (not to be confused with the right-wing authoritarians who stole that label) are a dying breed, and are increasingly marginalized. You get the picture.

Said it before, and will say it again: those holding office - regardless of whether they wear the brand "Democrat" or "Republican - are on the same page. There might be a few differences in terms of favored cronies, but let's face it: that's merely window dressing. Both the Clinton and Bush families are in favor of the contemporary form of predatory capitalism called neoliberalism (not surprisingly both families are on board when it comes to supposed "free trade" agreements and "guest worker" type programs to import cheap labor for example). Both families have steadily increased the raw power of the Executive Branch to the point where we are effectively ruled by a "unitary executive" not only in theory but in fact. Both have no problems with initiating destructive wars, and I would not be the least bit surprised to see that trend continued under a second Billary regime. If you liked the Panama and Balkans wars, and this decade's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, you'll just love the on with Iran. Insiders say it will be "tha bomb". So it goes. It's all about consolidating and expanding power for the sake of power, baby.

But hey, why worry your beautiful mind with all that? Stay focused on Dog the Bounty Hunter's latest mea culpa, or J-Lo's pregnancy. That's where it's at. While you're at it, keep telling yourself that the Clintons and their Democrats will "restore" the US (or for my "conservative" counterparts, that whoever is heir to Bu$hCo will "restore" the US). Repeat that enough times, and who knows, perhaps you'll be able to believe the hype. Good luck with that.

No comments:

Post a Comment