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The Death of Liberal America

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Americans seem to have lost any sense whatsoever of what liberalism means and what it strives to insure. Liberals have insisted that tyranny can only be combated by the multiplication and fragmentation of power. A free society is one in which there are various centers of power, various positions from which people have the ability to influence decisions. That's the whole point behind creating three branches of government, the vaunted "separation of powers." Liberalism aims to insure peace and prevent tyranny in pluralistic societies. Liberalism strives to place lots of individual actions outside the pale of politics and beyond interference from the state or other powers. And, culturally, it strives to promote tolerance, where tolerance is, at a minimum, indifference to the choices and actions of others and, at best, a recognition that diversity yields some social benefits. Liberalism guarantees through freedoms of speech, the press, and association, and through the institutional mechanisms of election, jury trials, and legislative deliberations, the active engagement of citizens with one another. Liberals should promote in every way possible the existence of a vibrant, accessible, and uncensored civil society. In short, liberalism proliferates the occasions where citizens of different opinions, backgrounds, creeds etc. mingle with one another, express their views, and argue about specific issues. And in some, but not all cases, these settings have to move to a decision that is then accepted, even when not very satisfying, by all the parties involved.

Democratic procedures of decision making which guarantee to all interested parties their chance to say their piece (their chance to sway others by argument), and use the vote and majority rule to adjudicate differences, are a vital liberal expedient for keeping the peace. That's because democracy, amazingly enough, has proven an astoundingly effective way to get people to accept - peacefully - the fact that they have ended up on the losing side of a political debate that was resolved by a vote. Liberalism, we might say, relies to some extent on the desire of all the participants to maintain the social peace. But even more fundamentally, it expects that the process of deliberation will move participants to an appreciation of the others involved, and the desire to come to an eventual decision that satisfies as many of the participants as possible (with the understanding that no one will get everything they want). Democracy has it benefits, with the most obvious being peace. The most important corollary benefit is that the opposition party plays a key role in keeping the party in power honest. It is obviously in the opposition party's interest to keep the public informed about the missteps and misdeeds of the administration party. The opposition party is as crucial to ongoing publicity as a free press. And publicity is a crucial safeguard (not the only one, but a crucial one) against governmental abuse of power. Democracy, in short, prevents one party rule.

So what's the problem in 2005? Up until now American democracy has been remarkably stable with the notable exceptions of the Civil War and the Civil Rights conflicts. But now, the Republicans have launched a full-scale assault upon democracy at home. This assault is about grabbing and using power, and it also reflects an impoverished view of democracy - basically one that limits democracy to free elections. The understanding of democracy tends toward the plebiscite and toward the establishment of a strong leader, usually one who promises to sweep aside the complexities, compromises, frustrations, and inefficiencies introduced by parliamentary janglings and an independent judiciary. The plebiscite has almost always favored right wing leaders impatient with legal and institutional impediments to forceful action. In other words the plebiscite is perfect for establishing the tyranny of the majority. By emphasizing a direct, even cult-like, relationship between "the leader" and the people, democracy by popular ballot bypasses intermediary associations, either voluntary or constitutional. This in turn brings us to the reason that Republicans can't stand liberalism. Liberalism, first and foremost, is a set of expedients (mostly institutional and legal) for minimizing tyranny by setting limits to government power. It also tries to prevent the consolidation of power by fostering the multiplication of power. Democracy is not worth a ---- if it is not partnered with liberalism. Democracy and liberalism are a squabbling pair; they each locate power in a different place and neither one trumps the other; both are essential ingredients of a legitimate polity. Even at the best of times, the liberal check upon power is a tenuous bulwark that fights against the odds. There is nothing that underwrites the rule of law except the continued practice of upholding it. The law mustbe reaffirmed anew each and every time it is enunciated and enforced. And the temptation to circumvent the law, to rewrite it to accommodate one's current beliefs and practices, is also ever present. To pay heed to the law is to accept that one's own virtue is doubtful or that one's own beliefs are, in every sense of that word, "partial." It is their assurance in their own virtue that renders the Republicans most dangerous, most prone to set the law aside when it gets in the way of doing what they want. Impatience with the law is endemic and is the harbinger of extreme politics regardless of whether it's from the right or the left.

Republicans have done everything they can, from restricting access to the debate to disempowering any input from participants with whom they do not agree, to destroying the deliberative process and its tendency toward building large majorities. In Congress alone, the way the Republicans have used conference committees, have allowed lobbyists to write legislation, and have prevented various issues from ever coming to the floor for debate, make their desire for one party rule evident. The spectacle of the President using tax payer money to go

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