The first job for the next President is not Iraq and not the economy. I don’t really hear any of the candidates talking to the key priority as forthrightly as I might like, but this is very much how I understand some of Obama’s emphasis on bipartisanship. Not as centrism, but as a desire to reconstruct processes of consultation, to remove politics as much as possible from those aspects of governance that need to at least strive for neutrality, to firewall off partisan calculation from ordinary administrative work. The key priority is to rebuild the way the federal government actually functions in both its everyday and extraordinary business.
Look around at the mounting evidence of relentless and reckless misuse of executive power in the last eight years. The next eight years need to be a kind of truth-and-reconciliation commission where we study openly just how disastrously we went wrong. Not went wrong in Iraq, or with subprime mortgages, or anything else, though those failures are a good demonstration of what happens when you fail to lead the nation and choose instead to lead on behalf of your narrowest if most passionate political base.
It really needs to be “we” went wrong, not “them”. This is the whole point of the U.S. Constitution, that it is an uncommitted, non-partisan prior constraint on the uses of governmental authority. If it turns out that its guarantees rest not so much on its formal provisions, but just on men and women of good will and honest commitment agreeing to live up to their responsibilities under the law and the social contract, then that’s what we need to work to rebuild and restore. The last eight years have been a test, and a lot of people, some of them surprising, failed it. Equally, many people in all parties and factions passed, which is also worth a lot of attention. A lot of the downward momentum has been arrested by people with whom I strongly disagree on political positions, but whose dedication to their office and responsibilities I appreciate. Much of what we know about what has gone wrong in the last eight years is due to Republicans inside and outside the Administration drawing some lines in the sand.
There was a good example of this in 60 Minutes‘ piece that aired this Sunday on the case of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman, who very much appears to have been the target of a Karl Rove operation. Scott Horton has a good summary of the piece and some of the new information in it. I was really struck by the on-camera comments of former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, who is one of 52 former AGs calling for a Congressional investigation. Asked how he reconciles being a Republican appointee with his clear opposition to how this case was handled, he replies, “We’re Americans first”.
In a wider sense, this goes well beyond the Bush Administration. I think that we’re looking at an unusually raw and exposed example of the general and global crisis of liberal democracy that began in the 1970s, a crisis that extends to the institutional aspects of civil society as well. Modernity has created large social institutions, including the state, that have capacities and powers that really are unprecedented in human experience. Prior to the 1970s, most people fully expected that the state would grow beyond some of its internal contradictions, that its failures and problems and weaknesses were but growing pains, and that we could eventually hope to benefit from the manifest and obvious advantages of modern institutions without their dangers.
We thought that the state as well as civic institutions could be secured by structural reforms of some kind, by making states more responsive or self-reforming. We thought transparency could help, and it does somewhat. Transparency only helps, however, if there are strongly internalized professional and social ethical commitments that are widely distributed both in the general population and among the people who do the business of government, or education, or medicine, or any other major institution. If you don’t have enough people like Grant Woods, the liberal state will fail. So much as I might look to something like the U.S. Constitution as foundational bedrock, it tells you very little about what kind of building gets built on top of it, except that it has the possibility of being sturdy.
This is the crisis that is still unfolding, to which I see no easy resolution. Everything that works about institutional life rests on the habitus of professionals, bureaucrats, experts, on whether they are stewards or parasites, whether they recognize the fragile possibility of a better world or are just looting the till, whether they are humble in the face of wider and more distributed experience and knowledge or whether they are contemptuous of anything besides their own immediate power. We all know it: this is Arendt’s banality of evil. We do not need to fear the person at the top, but instead the mass force of institutional action. The libertarian answer, to sweep away all institutions (save those of private capital: a blind spot that I still find baffling), is no answer at all, any more than jumping off a cliff is a way to prevent being in an automobile accident.
Once the world all knew that this was the danger we faced, after 1945 (and have had it demonstrated repeatedly since), there has been no way to trust that some day the state or other institutions could be continually perfected until the danger would pass for all time. It will never pass, it can never pass. For the last eight years in the United States, we’ve gotten a reminder of just how close and ominously it lurks.