“Experience [has] shown that, even under the best forms [of government], those entrusted with power have, in time and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
Thomas Jefferson, 1779
In the aftermath of 9/11 the Bush administration and many Democrats crossed a constitutional Rubicon. By both presidential directives and legislation, constitutionally protected rights have been restricted and/or abolished, and the constitutionally mandated ‘separation of powers’ between the executive and legislative branches of government has been erased by presidential fiat.
While claiming terrorists ‘hate us because of our freedoms,’ Bush’s government has spied on citizens without warrants, issued legal memos justifying torture, usurped the power of the governors and instituted direct presidential control over the National Guards of the 50 states, and threatened Congress with martial law. The result has been, with the Democratic Party’s acquiescence, that the Republic is comatose, if not on its last breath.
Few Americans today understand the concept of ‘separation of powers,’ and fewer still are willing to defend it during times of crisis, whether real or manufactured. Yet, it may help to remind them that James Madison, the author of the Constitution and president of the United States, said he had structured a system to be run by devils, where they could do no harm. In doing so, Madison did not rely on the self-proclaimed good intentions of politicians but on historical experience.
The U.S. has certainly had its fair share of these devils, yet the last eight years have seen not only devils but a plethora of political cowards who, abjuring their oath of office to defend and protect the Constitution, have allowed men to act as tyrants.
According to Suetonius, a Roman historian, Julius Caesar, upon crossing the Rubicon and plunging the Roman Republic into civil war, said, “The die is now cast!” For Rome it was a point of no return – the definitive end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire. Likewise, the die has now been cast for the American Republic, and the Democrats, who control both the presidency and the Congress, have critical constitutional decisions to make.
Which direction will the incoming Obama administration choose? Will it recross the Rubicon and restore the Republic, or will political expediency, bolstered by a real or a contrived crisis, mean the end of America’s democratic experiment? Given recent statements by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice-President-elect Joe Biden, who have forecast a serious national security incident during the initial months of Barak Obama’s presidency, there is only one probable conclusion. Of course, they will stand up for the Constitution and the Republic – when donkeys fly.
Brad Berner formerly taught history at Arizona State University. Currently he is living and teaching in Moscow, Russia.