Did you hear about the peanut that got beat up? He was a salted. George W. Bush has launched a fairly open assault on the values and institutions of the New Deal, but the perceptive observer can tell that he has his sites set on a much larger project. Over the course of his presidency, George W. Bush has launched an assault on the Enlightenment.
One of the central philosophical underpinnings of the New Deal is the concept of the welfare state. That concept refers to the role the state plays, as the structural embodiment of the larger polity, in taking care of people. The effort to dismantle the signature achievement of the New Deal’s program and philosophy, Social Security, demonstrates Bush’s (or, technically, Karl Rove’s) assault on the New Deal rather succinctly.
But the Enlightenment is a bigger deal. For one thing, it is shared throughout the Western world. It is philosophically more complex. And (arguably) its crowning achievement, the United States Constitution, is also under assault from the Bush administration. But he doesn’t stop there, either.
In the State of the Union Address, Bush reasserted his plan to escalate the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The most recent Newsweek/Princeton poll showed that 24 percent of people support Bush’s handling of Iraq. The midterm elections have been more or less universally interpreted as a refutation of Republican policy on Iraq. Yet Bush plows ahead.
This isn’t just a case of being a little hardheaded. This is willfully ignoring the collective decision of the people of the nation. In Enlightenment theory, the government is its people. The governed give their consent to their leaders through elections, but sovereignty rests with the people. Condorcet is the thinker who did the most to popularize the value of elections. He essentially theorized that the more people participate in a decision, the more likely it is to be right. This insight is also reflected today in the “wisdom” of stock markets.
So when Bush recognizes but goes against the wishes of the people, especially as demonstrated by elections, it is really more than a casual insult. The same holds true whether it is about Iraq policy or shady election shenanigans in Florida and Ohio.
Another classic application of Condorcet’s theory of decision-making is juries. The framers of the Constitution recognized that one of the gravest threats to democracy was tyranny, and one of the easiest ways to slide into tyranny is to take away due process in criminal proceedings. That’s why three of the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights (numbers V–VII) have to do with juries.
That’s also why it was so horrifying when the nation’s Attorney General and Bush’s former top lawyer, Alberto Gonzales, told the Senate last week that the Constitution does not guarantee the right of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus signifies that anyone who is imprisoned has the right to a hearing with a judge, that he has the right to be charged with a crime or else set free.
If you aren’t charged with a crime or allowed to speak to a judge, chances are pretty slim you’re going to get a jury trial. I don’t want to go into the legal details of why habeas corpus actually is guaranteed by the Constitution. Let me just say that after over 200 years of Constitutional scholarship, I have never heard of anyone else coming to that conclusion.
These are some of the major recent points, but they are set against a backdrop of countless others. For example, the administration constantly denies the scientific truth pointed to by data on climate change and contraception. This is an affront to the Enlightenment principle that truth is found by empirical evidence instead of by whims of politicians or whispers from God. Or how about the Enlightenment innovation of having a professional bureaucracy that isn’t subject to political pressure, one that reduces corruption and incompetence by performing its own functions.
Contrast that with the Bush plan of intimidating climate researchers at NASA into not reporting their findings on global warming or the Bush plan of privatizing the collection of back taxes. In other words, the Enlightenment now joins the New Deal and peanuts on the list of the assaulted, all thanks to Dubya.