We in the United States have yielded
. . . our most basic liberties to a secretive, unaccountable emergency state – a vast but increasingly misdirected complex of national security institutions, reflexes, and beliefs that so define our present world that we forget that there was ever a different America.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have given way to permanent crisis management: to policing the planet and fighting preventive wars of ideological containment, usually on terrain chosen by, and favorable to, our enemies. Limited government and constitutional accountability have been shouldered aside by the kind of imperial presidency our constitutional system was explicitly designed to prevent.
Postwar presidents have assumed broad foreign policy and war-making powers never intended by the Constitution.
Since the 1940s, the traditional tenets of American democracy – limited military intervention abroad, checks and balance at home, executive accountability to Congress and the electorate – have ceded place to something radically different, something Washington, Jefferson, and Madison would have abhorred – the steady expansion of a unaccountable, presidentially directed national security establishment.
As Kaplan points out in this engrossing book, each one of our Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have continued and furthered the emergency state. The emergency state is a bipartisan construction – both Republicans and Democrats and the voters have played along through a fear of perceived danger. One thing that has been missing is rudimentary risk management in which we recognize that
. . . all threats are not equally serious and urgent, and military force is not always the trump card of American power. Out repeated failure to make such essential distinctions makes us more vulnerable internationally, not more secure – and it is eroding our democracy, and our economy at home. Because we cannot preventively extinguish every potential threat, we need to develop a hierarchy of current threats, and to understand the criteria on which such a hierarchy should be based.
Roosevelt started it all. Presidents before Roosevelt had exercise extraordinary powers during wartime or the threat of war – Adams with the Alien and Seditions Acts, Lincoln with the suspension of habeas corpus during The Civil War. The powers used by Adams, Lincoln, and others “were not carried over into subsequent periods of peace.” This did not happen after World War II. Harry Truman retained wartime powers and institutionalized them in the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, and the National Security Council and Advisor.
Eisenhower spoke about the danger of the Military Industrial Complex, but it was under his administration “that Americans began to accept the new emergency state system of government as a bipartisan fixture of national life, an inseparable part of America’s destined passage from interwar isolationism to postwar global leadership.”
A peculiar aspect of some of our presidents is that they ran on a platform that was leery of The Emergency State, but once in office “could never bring himself [their selves] to fully renounce” or to renounce at all. This was particularly the case for Eisenhower and Obama.
Obama was elected at a moment when the emergency state’s national security strategy was proving unable to cope with a new set of nonstate enemies and unconventional threats, when the emergency state’s approach to international economics was undermining the economic security and prospects of most Americans, and when the emergency state’s cumulative encroachments on the Constitution where threatening American democracy and the Bill of Rights.
None of those concerns have been adequately addressed. Instead, hopes for changes “were almost instantly deflated by the new administration’s backward-looking appointments, timid and inadequate policies, and muddled political message.”
One result of Emergency State policies has been that “essential global problems like halting climate degradation, curbing nuclear weapons proliferation, and combating infectious disease’’ have been largely ignored.
What to do? I find myself cynical about the chances of changing course what with the rancorous partisanship of our politics, the willful ignorance of a large part of the electorate, and the tight grip that the corporate and financial world has on our legislature. Kaplan’s suggestions are practical in every sense except the political. Kaplan suggests that
We do not need to change our Constitution. It was well designed by the framers to provide accountable government and checks on executive power with a view to avoiding the endless wars that eroded Europe’s finances and its freedoms. It can achieve the same ends today.
I agree with the above conclusion. I agree that the nine changes that Kaplan describes will move us back to Constitutional government. My cynical self tells me that in order to achieve any of Kaplan’s suggestions (e.g., “Presidential war powers come only with a congressional declaration of war”; and “No branch of the federal government should exercise unreviewable powers”) other basic changes are needed to break the logjam in Washington: do something about gerrymandering and filibustering, and in general do away with practices that make it possible for small minorities or individuals to stop legislation even if favored by a majority of the electorate.