The Declaration of Independence is a document rarely referred to these days. We should all remember it for its central principle: governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. In its time this was a truly radical proposition: no divine right of kings, no legitimacy for inherited power, no legitimacy for any kind of monarchy, theocracy, strongman, despot, or dictatorship, even a dictatorship of the proletariat. At the time these words were written, there was no government on earth that could claim legitimacy under this standard, and even today, there are many which cannot.
We’ve been taught that things are different here, but one must wonder if it is true. Just in the last week we have had the following revelations:
The Bush Administration has been paying journalists in Iraq to publish newspaper stories favorable to U.S. policy.
The Defense Intelligence Agency was tracking the movements and activities of peaceful antiwar groups within the United States.
President Bush has for years authorized the National Security Agency to spy on Americans, secretly recording their telephone calls without warrant or other legal authorization.
The President and John McCain agree on new legislation that prohibits American forces from engaging in torture, but retaining a defense for obeying orders.
President Bush, and his former lawyer, John Yoo, have taken the position that there are essentially no limits on the power of the president, including his ability to order secret wiretaps and torture, regardless of what the law says.
So we now live in a country where the government feels free to lie to us, or to anyone else in the world; to spy on its own citizens; and to do whatever it wants, even if it violates the law.
If the government no longer must follow the law, is that democracy?
If the government may lie to the people about its goals, motives, and actions, is that democracy?
If the government can spy on its citizens who oppose it, is that democracy?
Which brings me to the question: has democracy outlived its usefulness?
And if not, what are we going to do about it?