I have long nurtured this thoroughly depressing conviction that the United States, far from being a shining city on the hill, has become one of the most corrupt of nations. Why does America have more lawyers than the rest of the world combined? It is because the corruption has been institutionalized at every level of political life and is protected by laws and procedures created precisely to enable elites to maintain dominance over the rest of us. I appreciate that my viewpoint may be regarded as somewhat simplistic as I am neither a judge nor a lawyer, and I do concede that many of those in the legal profession are both honest and dedicated to the Constitution. Still, the bad taste of the past 11 years continues to remind me that there is something seriously wrong with how our political system and rule of law operate.
Take, for example, the issues of lobbying and political contributions. Lobbying, which essentially consists of advocacy on behalf of groups that promote their own interests at others’ expense, is legal and even encouraged at the federal, state, and local levels in the United States. It distorts the perception of the public interest and lines the pockets of both the lobbyists and those who possess the resources to commission the lobbying. The politicians who are corrupted are frequently rewarded after their terms of office expire. Lobbying rarely serves the people of the United States, and in many parts of the world it would be regarded as what it in fact is — a particularly pervasive form of political corruption.
And then there is the corruption of the system caused by the perceived need by politician-aspirants to raise vast sums of money to get nominated and elected to office. Once in office, the politicians reward their financial supporters, awarding ambassadorships at the top end, providing patronage-level government jobs lower down the food chain, and relying on earmarks to generate returns in a more direct fashion. Does anyone seriously think the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s funding of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich with tens of millions of dollars is disinterested? Adelson is a passionate Israel-firster, so much so that he has said he is ashamed of having served in the U.S. Army and would prefer to have the Israeli Defense Forces on his resumé. Gingrich is his man because Adelson perceives that Newt will do Israel’s bidding in the Middle East. It is as simple as that. Rick Santorum is likewise largely funded by multi-millionaire Foster Friess, who recently described the best method of birth control as an aspirin placed between a woman’s knees. He will no doubt cash in his markers if the nomination and electoral process are successful for his candidate.
And as for the impartiality and “blindness” of the law, fuggedaboutit. Repeated attempts to get the Israeli lobby AIPAC to register as an agent of a foreign power, as required by law, have failed because the Justice Department refuses to do what is right when confronted by a powerful constituency, no matter how strong the case against it may be. Or if you or I were to go to our neighbor’s house, tie him to a board, and force water up his nose until he thinks that he is drowning, we would be sent to jail for many years. But when the government does the same thing, the White House gives the perpetrators a pass, even though the activity is clearly illegal under international law and according to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a signatory. The entire matter is brushed off, with the president and attorney general claiming in a high-minded fashion that they are looking forward rather than backward, a convenient subterfuge to hide behind when not enforcing the law of the land.
And if you are the government and want to kill an American citizen without any due process and without any regard for the Bill of Rights, you get an obliging Justice Department lawyer to draft a memo. If you want to pluck someone out of his home and send him to a military prison for the remainder of his days without any recourse or appeal, you insert language into a defense appropriation act that is then dutifully passed by Congress and becomes law. If you choose to stage a lethal drone attack on a country with which you are not at war, you declare it a “constabulary” action. All legal and neat. Obama and Holder’s condoning criminality has apparently morphed out of the change that some believed in back in 2008, and, quite frankly, we the people have been shafted by the lies of yet another slick politician aided and abetted by a corrupt and venal Congress.
You might consider challenging the government on some of these issues in court, right? That is why we have an independent judiciary, isn’t it? But you can forget about that, because even if your case surmounts the hurdles to get into a courtroom, the Justice Department can cite the state-secrets privilege to derail your efforts, whether or not anything that is actually secret is about to be revealed. Obama has already cited the privilege more frequently than George W. Bush did in his eight years in office.
So the question becomes, why do the American people put up with the venality and outright criminality that seem to have become part and parcel of our polity? Well, it could easily be argued that most Americans have been sold a bill of goods and, in exchange for material comforts and empty assurances, are quite comfortable in having their liberties stripped from them.
I have recently finished a fascinating book relating to the rise to power of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The book, The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi’s Italy, is by Maurizio Viroli, who teaches politics at Princeton University. Viroli’s arguments about what has happened in Italy and how it developed culturally and politically resonated with me and made much clearer the genesis of the political malaise that has engulfed the United States.
Viroli explains that there are two types of liberty. Given Italy’s historical and social context, he describes them as the liberty of the servant and the liberty of the citizen. In the United States, given our own history, it might be more appropriate to refer to them as the citizen and the slave. The slave or the servant might believe that he leads an enviable life if he has a good master who only beats him occasionally. He may have food, drink, a place to sleep, and freedom to do what he wishes. But what makes him a servant or a slave is his unwillingness to address his fundamental condition, that someone else has absolute power over him and can do anything he wants at any time and for any or no reason.
In the modern context, a citizen of a state can have what he thinks to be considerable freedom in his daily life, but he will frequently fail to understand that he lacks real freedom. Viroli calls it trading political liberty for private freedom. The freedom that the slave possesses is an illusion, sometimes derived from a situation that Viroli describes as a “veiled tyranny.” In a veiled tyranny, the government takes office through legal or constitutional means but gradually subverts the checks and balances that prevent it from behaving arbitrarily. If the government is a good one, respectful of individual rights and mindful of its limitations, there will be a constitution in place that protects one from arbitrary rule or capricious behavior by officials.
The constitution also protects the individual from mob rule, since in a pure democracy unchecked by constitutional restraints a majority can always vote in laws that diminish the rights of the minority and that can lead to autocratic rule. The constitutional system breaks down when an individual (Berlusconi in the case of Italy) or a bipartisan system of control (in the case of the United States) disregards the rules that it is supposed to play by and becomes powerful enough to either ignore or change the laws to its advantage and to the disadvantage of the average citizen. This is precisely what has occurred in the United States over the past 11 years, with an over-mighty executive completely shifting the power relationship between the government and those who are governed and passing laws that constantly erode the rights of the individual. We the people now have little real power even if every two years we are allowed to choose between two different forms of the same despotism at the ballot box.
Viroli’s proposed solution for Italy, a revival of civic sense and responsibility, is not exactly the formula that would work for a larger and more diverse nation like the United States. Here the problem is rooted in money, power relationships, and the misguided belief that the law is somehow impartial and the government not oppressive. Voters inhabit a comfort zone in which they have material wealth but no real say in what happens in their lives. They think they are free because they can choose from many brands of cereal and flat-screen televisions, but their liberty is an illusion, the freedom of a slave for all its emoluments. Reading the Constitution of the United States and the Federalist Papers tells one what the liberty of a citizen should be, as part of an engaged people that understands that citizenship entails duties and responsibilities as well as benefits. Thomas Jefferson said that “Every generation [of Americans] needs a new revolution.” The American people must be prepared to defend to the death their rights against all comers, including their own government.