Bovard: Obama and the Perilous Delusions of Democracy
From James Bovard:
When Barack Obama was inaugurated on January 20, there was euphoria across the land and millions of people cheered in the streets of Washington. Many people are convinced that American democracy has been redeemed and that the federal government no longer poses a peril to individual rights. Since the people’s choice is now at the helm of the U.S. government, Americans are free.
The Founding Fathers scorned the doctrine that the election of one person could purify or redeem an entire political system. The notion that choosing a supreme leader is the epitome of democracy is the result of philosophical doctrines that spread shortly before the American Revolution.
Early Americans’ thinking on representative government was shaped by the abuses inflicted by the British Parliament. The Sugar Act of 1764 resulted in British officials’ confiscating hundreds of American ships on the basis of mere allegations that the shipowners or captains were involved in smuggling; Americans were obliged, in order to retain their ships, to somehow prove that they had never been involved in smuggling — a near-impossible burden.
The Stamp Act of 1765 obliged Americans to purchase British stamps to be used on all legal papers, newspapers, cards, dice, advertisements, and even academic degrees. After violent protests throughout the colonies, Parliament rescinded the Stamp Act but passed the Declaratory Act, which announced that Parliament “had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.” The Declaratory Act meant that Parliament had the right to use and abuse the colonists as it chose.
Many American colonists believed that, for them, British representative government was a fraud. The “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” issued by the Second Continental Congress on July 6, 1775, a few weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill, highlighted the crimes of the British Parliament. (The Declaration of Independence, issued almost a year later, concentrated on King George III as the personification of British abuses.) This Declaration, written by John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson, complained that “the legislature of Great-Britain, stimulated by an inordinate passion for power … attempted to effect their cruel and impolitic purpose of enslaving these colonies by violence….” The Continental Congress demanded to know, “What is to defend us against so enormous, so unlimited a power? Not a single man of those who assume it, is chosen by us; or is subject to our control or influence…. ”
Freedom and democracy
Americans and British profoundly disagreed on the source of their freedom. Many British believed that freedom depended on vesting unlimited power in Parliament, since they believed the only threat to their freedom came from the king and his lackeys. Sir William Meredith praised the British constitution in 1769 because it was the privilege of the Englishman alone “to choose those delegates to whose Charge is committed the Disposal of his Property, his Liberty, his Life.” In 1768, the speaker of the House of Commons announced, “The freedom of this house is the freedom of this country….” As Professor John Phillip Reid observed in 1988,
This new or “radical” constitutional theory was a departure from the British tradition of defining liberty without having its preservation depend on specific institutions, presaging the nineteenth century and the general British acceptance of what in the eighteenth century had been constitutional heresy — that liberty and arbitrary power are not incompatible, if the power that is arbitrary is “representative.”
Because Parliament supposedly automatically had the concerns of the entire British Empire at heart, Americans were told they had “virtual representation,” regardless of the fact that they could not vote for any member of Parliament. The British claimed that the Americans were free because they were permitted to petition members of Parliament with their grievances, even though their petitions were routinely not accepted or read.
“Slavery by Parliament” was the phrase commonly used to denounce British legislative power grabs. Americans believed that the power of representatives was strictly limited by the rights of the governed, a doctrine later enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Pamphleteer John Cartwright in 1776 derided “that poor consolatory word, representation, with the mere sound of which we have so long contented ourselves.” James Otis, an influential Massachusetts lawyer, asked,
Will any man’s calling himself my agent, representative, or trustee make him so in fact? At this rate a House of Commons in one of the colonies have but to conceive an opinion that they represent all the common people of Great Britain, and … they would in fact represent them.
One New York critic declared in 1775 that it was inconceivable that Americans’ liberty should depend “upon nothing more permanent or established than the vague, rapacious, or interested inclination of a majority of five hundred and fifty eight men, open to the insidious attacks of a weak or designing Prince, and his ministers.”
The influence of Rousseau
At the same time that the Americans were fighting a revolution against the fraud of representation, continental Europe was becoming entranced by a new doctrine. From the 1600s onwards, the abuses of monarchs made representative government increasingly attractive. Unfortunately, at a time when most continental Europeans had scant political experience, the doctrines of Jean Jacques Rousseau swept the intellectual field.
Rousseau’s 1762 book, The Social Contract, merged contemporary romanticism and mysticism with 18th-century political thought. Rousseau gave people an engraved invitation to delude themselves about the nature of majorities, government, and freedom...
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And consider the task at hand.