Revolution and Political Engagement

Friday 28 May 2004 at 08:38

El chele corrects me in a comment to Citizen Power and the Political Bell Curve. I quote it here so the comment and response both make it to the RSS subscribers.

Eric - I think that part of the struggle you are having in deciding how to have an impact on the political system is that you've internalized the "popular" conception of the political structure in the US. Paraphrasing Nietzsche: "The Constitution is a modern idea, that is to say, it is a false one."

The Constitution most certainly did not "divide power into four groups"--it divided power into two groups: the Federal government and the State governments, with the balance of power subtly but firmly tipped in favor of the former. The passage of the 16th and 17th amendments and the Federal Reserve Act at the beginning of the 20th century removed the few remaining checks on Federal power. At that point the Federal government became a National government and it has not stopped growing since.

We have a National government that is out of control--and you can caucus and vote all you want and you will do nothing more than feed the system. In the end revolution--guns and bloodshed not bumperstickers and politically-conscious "Rock The Vote" warm-fuzzies--is what is headed our way.

El chele further recommends The Hologram of Liberty for more on the myth of the Constitution. The link itself is worth visiting, I'm sure the book is an interesting read.

Voting is a duty too many citizens shirk. It may only feed the system, but the more citizens voting, the more balanced the diet will be. That would be an important improvement. More importantly, abstaining from the vote does not starve the system but only exaggerates its imbalance. A tax revolt might starve the system, but not voting makes political matters worse.

El chele, your attention to States' rights compelled me to re-examine The Constitution. A number of things leap out in light of our conversation. I'm almost completely wrong about the power given to the people. "People" only appears twice in the document: once in the preamble (_We the People..._) and once in the discussion of the election of Representatives. By contrast "State" is mentioned throughout. Much of the document describes the boundaries of federal power and the division of federal power. The rights of the people are granted in the Bill of Rights but the only powers granted to the people are in the brief but sweeping afterthought of the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

After reconsidering my position, I still think there's cynical genius in the Constitution in setting the various governmental powers in opposition to each other. With the power hungry occupied with each other, the People can pursue life, liberty and happiness mostly unmolested.

We're agreed that there's a revolution calling as I alluded earlier, though I am convinced there are peaceful solutions that won't require guns and bloodshed.

Coincident with your comments, I found my way to Gen. Wesley Clark's article Broken Engagement in the Washington Monthly thanks to Coyote Gulch.

The article is interesting in its own right, but in the context of our discussion about the Constitution, I want to apply Clark's reasoning to the notion of revolution. I agree that the popular understanding of the Constitution is largely mythical. The government of the people, by the people and for the people is a myth created by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. But as Gen. Clark observes, those myths have power -- "the power of our values".

The neoconservative goal was more ambitious than merely toppling dictators: By creating a democracy in Iraq, our success would, in the president's words, "send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran--that freedom can be the future of every nation," and Iraq's democracy would serve as a beacon that would ignite liberation movements and a "forward strategy of freedom" around the Middle East.

This rhetoric is undeniably inspiring. We should have pride in our history, confidence in our principles, and take security in the knowledge that we are at the epicenter of a 228-year revolution in the transformation of political systems. But recognizing the power of our values also means understanding their meaning. Freedom and dignity spring from within the human heart. They are not imposed. And inside the human heart is where the impetus for political change must be generated.

Clark also offers the following analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 80s. Bear with me, these quotes are relevant to the discussion.

The foreign policy consensus coalesced around containment, an idea which had been in the air since the early post-war period, when George Kennan, then a veteran American diplomat, published his seminal Foreign Affairs article "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Kennan argued that the Soviet system contained within it "the seeds of its own decay." During the 1950s and 1960s, containment translated that observation into policy, holding the line against Soviet expansion with U.S. military buildups while quietly advancing a simultaneous program of cultural engagement with citizens and dissidents in countries under the Soviet thumb.

These subtler efforts mattered a great deal. The 1975 Helsinki Accords proved to be the crucial step in opening the way for the subsequent peaceful democratization of the Soviet bloc. The accords, signed by the Communist governments of the East, guaranteed individual human and political rights to all peoples and limited the authority of governments to act against their own citizens. However flimsy the human rights provisions seemed at the time, they provided a crucial platform for dissidents such as Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov. These dissidents, though often jailed and exiled, built organizations that publicized their governments' many violations of the accords, garnering Western attention and support and inspiring their countrymen with the knowledge that it was possible to stand up to the political powers that be.

With the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s, it became clear once more that it would be the demands of native peoples, not military intervention from the West, that would extend democracy's reach eastward.

Clark goes on to apply this logic to Iraq, and beats up the White House for failing to understand it. I enjoyed that turn, but for our conversation, I think the US Federal system contains within it the seeds of its own decay. A bloody conflict will not be necessary, though we do need to contain the spread of federal power. You are quite correct that I hope to effect the US political system. My appeal is aimed at the hearts of US citizens "where the impetus for political change must be generated." I see these political entries in my blog as a "program of cultural engagement with citizens and dissidents" of the US and hope to inspire my countrymen to reclaim their own power and correct the gross imbalances in our country.

I am deeply suspicious of concentrations of power. Redistributing power back to the States would be a welcome decentralization of power. At this point, the States have surrendered too much of their own power to be able to reclaim it, for example the 17th Amendment you mention. But there is latent power in we the people if only we will reclaim it. Our cultural myth of the government of the people, by the people, and for the people is only a myth because the people aren't participating.

Politicians are necessarily swayed by the weight of public opinion, even if the votes themselves are a fairly flimsy form of power. In an election year, public opinion is measured by pollsters who count the opinions of registered voters. They probably further filter their numbers by those who have voted in the past and plan to vote again. If half the people are unregistered or not planning to vote, their opinions won't be reflected in the polls that measure the weight of public opinion. Voting and polls are necessary, if insufficient, measures to help contain the federal government.

el chele commented

28 May 2004 at 15:46

Eric - There was genius in setting the States against the Federal government, but, again, that tension has been gone for almost 100 years now.

And there are certainly avenues available that might prevent the ultimate need for violent revolution. Check out the Free State Project: (although I personally prefer Free State Wyoming: for reasons you might be able to guess.)

As for voting, there is an economic argument that says that the lower the voter turn-out, the better. In other words, it takes time to educate yourself, make a decision and cast a vote, but what if your time would be better spent doing something else? What if the power of government was sufficiently constrained such that what ever the government decided to do had a negligible impact on your life? There would be little point in voting--and that would be a good thing.

el chele