History shows that the superficial forms of government remain long after the essentials have changed. For example, the Roman Empire retained the forms of the Republic long after the Republic’s death. Public policy experts, being so close to the object of their study, can be the last to see that a new regime has been born.
So it is with Winslow T. Wheeler. An expert on defense issues after 3 decades working with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office. Author of The Wastrels of Defense, he now directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
The US government that he knows has changed, right before his eyes. He sees the new order but does not recognize it. Just like us. His review of the The Petraeus / Crocker Hearings (Counterpunch, 8 April 2008) makes this evident.
It had all the panoply of a modern congressional hearing and what we have come to expect from senators confronting important witnesses. We saw:
- Speeches parading as questions.
- Staff prepared questions read off, again and again; no matter what the answer.
- Asking a non-question and sternly demanding a specific response.
- Platitudes pretending to be questions.
- Failure-to-launch oversight.
- Studied posing as president-to-be.
- Desperate grasp for political cover poorly disguised as a question.
Throughout all this palaver — I can’t say “questioning” because no real questions were asked — there were no answers that advanced our knowledge of what is going on in Iraq.
… After all, the “questioners” were clearly not after information; they were after political advancement or protection. I f they were after information, they are gross incompetents.
Wheeler’s outrage is unwarranted, or perhaps nostalgia for a past era. Our representatives in Congress are experienced professionals. Princes both in Washington and at home, the competition for their jobs is fierce. These hearings do not demonstrate their incompetence. The Committee was not seeking information, not for their themselves or for us. That is like askingfor justice from Stalin’s show trials. It might have happened occasionally, but was not the purpose of the event.
The role of Congress has changed. Our representatives now function more as Tribunes than as law-makers.
- They act as ombudsmen between the government and the people (no longer fully citizens). Mostly the powerful, but even the proles get assistance on a low level.
- They act as magistrates, holding hearings on past events to judge both the policies and the key actors (both public and private). Playing mock judge is much safer for one’s career than setting policy.
- They divide the spoils of government among America’s powerful special interest groups. Business, labor unions, government agencies, non-governmental organizations (a misnomer, mostly representatives for powerful interests) — both foreign and domestic. Spoils include government money, tax policy, and how to apply (or lift) the government’s omnipresent heavy hand of regulation.
The changing role of Congress is a small part of a larger evolution, as we slide from being citizens to subjects. We have the tools to govern ourselves, but have lost the will to use them. As I said in Forecast: Death of the American Constitution:
At some point in our future the Constitution seems likely to become a purely procedural document, much like that of the former Soviet Union, and equally effective at preserving our liberties. Our rights will exist only on the sufferance of the government and our ruling elites. This is already true in the UK, as their “unwritten constitution” protecting the “rights of Englishmen” has blown away like smoke in the wind.
Eventually the American people will recognize the new regime. How will we react? There are solutions, but not the kind loved by technocrats. Reform probably requires changing the relationship of citizens to the regime. That is, changes in how we think and act, seeing ourselves as citizens, not consumers. Not only might technocratic fixes — new policies and programs — not work, they might exacerbate the underlying problem.
I recommend reading Christian Meier’s “Caesar” to see where this leads. He describes how by late Republic times the Roman people had lost the will to govern themselves. As always, volunteers appeared to take on the job.
Other posts in this series about America, how we got here and how we can recover it
- Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
- Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
- A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
- Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
- The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
- We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
- Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
- Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
- Fixing America: elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
- Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
- Fixing America: solutions — elections, revolt, passivity, 18 August 2008
- The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.