The Persistence of Dear Leader-ism

by: David Sirota

Fri Dec 05, 2008 at 09:41

Back in October, I wrote a column about how the economic pressure to compete against foreign autocracies was pushing our political system to subjugate democracy in favor of a kind of czarism - one justified by the need for quick action in international financial markets. That was the theory behind the bailout legislation giving Henry Paulson czar-ish power to spend taxpayer money as he sees fit - on a global stage where Saudi princes and Chinese communists can move trillions without so much as a press release, Paulson was arguing that congressional oversight or the incremental appropriations process (ie. the normal safeguards in a democracy) would slow decisions down too much in a fast-moving situation.

Mix this czarist impulse with our usual religion of presidentialism and a newfound zeal for a kind of Dear Leader-ism and you have all the ingredients of a political system moving to use an emergency situation to crush its own democratic ideals. And here's the thing that's probably most disturbing - the Fourth Estate watchdog of democracy often contributes to this anti-democratic push.

We all remember when every major pundit and reporter in America took to teevee to berate opponents of the bailout who were objecting to the legislation on the grounds that there weren't enough oversight provisions. The message from the entire media Establishment was simple: The only Serious thing to do was to hand over $700 billion to the Dear Leader, Henry Paulson. Unfortunately - and incredibly - this continues, despite the government's own auditors saying the money may be being wildly mismanaged.

Look at this declaration from the New York Times' top financial reporter Diana Henriques on MSNBC this week. After admitting that the GAO had raised serious concerns about Paulson's management of the $700 billion, she nonetheless concluded by saying this:

"[Paulson] says that the spending is necessary. If he says it's necessary, you'd be a pretty brave lawmaker to second guess him, given how quickly things have deteriorated in the past two to three months."

In other words, despite the fact the government's own experts have raised the possibility that the bailout money is being wasted, despite the fact that banks are pocketing the money and not using it to address the credit crisis, despite the fact that Paulson's mismangement is one of the big reasons WHY "things have deteriorated in the past two to three months," the New York Times top financial reporter is STILL insisting that if Paulson asks for the next $350 billion, it would take unprecedented - almost unthinkable - "bravery" to second guess him, or tie some strings to the money. That is, it would be almost unimaginable for a single member of Congress to oppose the Dear Leader.

David Sirota :: The Persistence of Dear Leader-ism
This pernicious psychology is everywhere - and it is the imperial presidency on steroids. It's a danger to our country whether that kind of deference is given to a Democrat or a Republican president. And up until now, Democrats on Capitol Hill have played right into it, with czarists like New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) forwarding the absurd Innocent Bystander Fable and claiming that "there's not much we can do" to better regulate the bailout.

The good news is that finally at least some Democrats on Capitol Hill are raising rhetorical flags:

Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd said he opposes giving the Bush administration the second half of the $700 billion financial rescue plan, joining Republicans upset with how it is being managed.

"I would be a very hard person to convince that this crowd deserves to have their hands on the next $350 billion," Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, told reporters today in Washington after a hearing on whether automakers should get government aid. "I am through with giving this crowd money to play with."

In terms of both short-term economic policy and long-term respect for basic democracy, this statement of frustration by Dodd is right on the money. We've been down this road way too often - when a crisis hits, our first reflex is to turn the president into an autocrat, handing over all power to Him in hopes that the Dear Leader can save us. We saw it with the Patriot Act and the Iraq War after 9/11 and we've seen it during history's so-called "red scares." And unfortunately, the media - rather being a check on this kind of power grab - all too often is a part of it.

It's time for Congress to reassert itself and not be cowed by this growing Dear Leader-ism that seeks to use this crisis as a Naomi Klein-style shock doctrine - one that vests all power into the executive branch. Burning down our democratic village to save it doesn't work.  

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Failure as justification (4.00 / 4)
The justification for giving Paulson even more power is "how things have deteriorated in the last two or three months."  In other words, Paulson's ineffectiveness is the sole justification for giving him more absolute power and more money to burn.

Get him out quick.  And Times, get a dose of reality.  

Of course it takes bravery to SAY it (0.00 / 0)
even when all can see that the Emperor is stark raving naked.

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

1 simple question (0.00 / 0)
Will Obama tell the truth about the economy? In other words, will he stop telling people that this or that program will prevent a depression when a depression is inevitable?

In contemporary America, there is no wrong way of doing things, only wrong consequences. Thus we are doomed as a people.

Modern Times (4.00 / 3)
This diary was certainly timely. For weeks I've been wondering why reading the editorial pages of the NYT and WaPo has left me feeling like Charlie Chaplin -- the poor soul one moment, and sworn enemy of oligarchy the next.

What you describe as Dear-Leaderism didn't start with the time pressure of electronic capital flows; it started with Pearl Harbor, and the ICBM 30-minutes-to-Armageddon scenarios which we were threatened with from the Fifties on.

The consensus answer to these perils was the Imperial Presidency, which, as it turned out, was merely the harbinger and primus inter pares of a whole raft of real and imagined czars to come.

What this Dear-Leaderism of yours boils down to, though, when all the pomp and circumstance are stripped away, is:

1. Mussolini made the trains run on time. (He didn't, but no matter.)
2. As I said in commenting on an earlier diary, the bigger we are, the cheaper we can do it. (Questionable, at best.)
3. Administrative convenience. (Our class is trained for this. Why introduce chaos into our management prerogatives, you silly leftist?)

Dodd and Frank deserve blame too (4.00 / 1)
Although Dodd said ... "I am through with giving this crowd money to play with." ... you have to remember that it was Frank and Dodd who gave this crowd money to play with in the first place.

Standard operating procedure for Congress is this: Give the president and his appointees all the power in the world to do whatever they like (invade Iraq, spend $700 billion), and when they screw it up, blame the administration.

In the meantime, the bankers are happy, the defense industry is happy, and the Democrats can claim the high ground for raising a stink after the fact. It's a win-win for them, and the American people get screwed.

An alternative would be for Congress to re-assume its authority. Stop handing the FCC, the EPA, the Treasury, the President, etc., the power to dictate policy, and instead craft legislation that makes sense. Granted, Bush's veto power has complicated matters. But, in terms of the bailout, Congress had all the leverage.

When Dodd and Frank passed the bill that authorized TARP, they could have mandated funds to help people pay mortgages -- in other words, not allow any release of funds until X amount of dollars were set aside to pay mortgages. They didn't. They crafted a piece of legislation that essentially handed all the power over to Paulson. And they're surprised he stiffed them? C'mon. These Congressmen aren't that stupid.

Don't be surprised if the second $350 billion is authorized. If the banking industry wants it, I have a feeling Dodd and Frank will deliver it.

I don't see how one deals (4.00 / 1)
with "Dear Leaderism" without first coming to grips with the inclination in our so-called democracy to indulge in cults of personality. Surrendering one's own independent judgment to that of another individual, imagined to be superior intellectually and morally, is the root of the problem.

After this election, I think progressives have something to answer for on that account.

If you can't answer the question as to why you enthusiastically support a candidate in terms that make sense and is backed up by evidence based on their past behavior, then you have simply lost your independent judgment and your way.

Paul Krugman noted the problem many many months ago. Now we see its consequences in a fashion increasingly harder to deny.

Another aspect (4.00 / 2)
Another part of the problem stems from the 2006 Democratically-led Congress acting like deferential boyars to the autocrat Bush by consistently passing his war spending bills.  This group includes most members of the ascendant Administration.

Certainly (0.00 / 0)
The bailouts have been startling in their lack of democratic accountability of deliberation. But I think the reason has been genuine fear of economic collapse on the part of legislators. No one wants to be the guy that fucks things up. The problem isn't leader-worship or whatever-- its panic. The huge over reaction to 9/11 was the same thing. We don't have to posit a widespread anti-democratic psychology to explain the situation, just panic (and I don't know if its irrational panic or not! Though I suspect as much).

Hopefully, Obama's cool and collected demeanor is more than just demeanor and he won't fall into this trap. On the other hand he has demonstrated something of an expertise fetish. Generally thats not a bad thing. But in this case the experts, as often as not, aren't able to see the big picture and think they know what they're doing more than they actually do.

What can we do about this though? It seems like overreaction is just a feature of democracy. Five years from now we'll be regretting this and at that time we'll have a better chance of fixing things (as we do with the Patriot Act). But until then, I feel kind of stuck-- especially since we're competing with countries that have far less accountability. Does anyone have an alternative?


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