Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Friday, May 05, 2006

Checks and balances not needed in America

Sorry. A politicohistorical one today.

In a famous case in Australia, an autocratic and corrupt state premier was asked on television what the three arms of the government were and the separation of powers. He stammered through something about the police, the bureaucracy and the premier's office, and was almost immediately ejected from office at the next election.

Oddly, in Australia, the three arms of government that are often quoted - the judiciary, the legislature and the executive - are not separated. The executive is elected within the legislature, and the judiciary is appointed by, and monitored by, legislative committees. But the overall effect is much the same. There are some (woefully too few, however) checks and balances against corruption and perversion of due process of the rule of law.

In America, however, the separation of powers has the force of written constitutional backing, and has been consistently defended by the judiciary there. Until recently. Now, George W. Bush has overturned a key element of the American system by simply claiming that he doesn't need to enforce or obey any law he believes is unconstitutional. Simple as that. If the legislature rules that a given action is unlawful, he can ignore them. He is judge, jury and policeman.

This just begs a comparison with the King (Charles I) and Parliament debates of the 17th century in England. The King prorogued Parliament because it was rejecting his decisions, and declared he was not bound by the laws of the land, as he was the law of the land. The end result was a civil war and the execution of the King, followed by a dictatorship. The present checks and balances of the British system, although not written down as neatly or legalistically as the American Constitution and Bill of Rights, are the result of that terrible time. The British, it seems, can learn from history.

Will there be a civil war in America? The way that the conservative extremists are behaving, demonising opponents as non-Americans and traitors, profiling entire religious communities on the basis of the actions of a few, and running witch hunts and arbitrary arrest and incarceration, it certainly looks like the prerequisites are there. Either the partisanship will succeed in taking full control, resulting in a classical tyranny, or the "Others" (liberals, gays, Jews, the educated) will have to combine to fight them. And there will be a civil dispute, if not an out and out war.

America has always had a tendency to demonise those who are not in line with the ruling culture; from the Salem witch trials, which were the last gasp of that sort of thing, through to the massacre of freethinkers in Texas, to of course Joe McCarthy, it seems that a considerable number of people think it is a good thing to divide a society, ignoring the now-abandoned motto that once adorned its money - "out of the many, one". These days it's "in [my] God, we trust [or else]".

I believe America will end up in civil war. All the signs are there, and this is the beginning of the classical arrogation of power that leads to such strife. While each historical case is unique, there are sufficient similarities to be worried. Unless something is done by the populace, but the legislature, by the judiciary, and the public service, to reign back this partisan grab for control over social institutions, the fragmentation of American polity seems inevitable. And that will be very bad for everyone else who depend upon the US in various ways, economically, politically, militarily and culturally.