Dedicated to a proposition

July 04, 2006

From Philadelphia to Gettysburg is about 140 miles - and of course 87 years. Gettysburg gave shape to the nation that had emerged in the summer heat at Independence Hall in 1776, and though it's an interesting coincidence that the greatest battle in the long struggle to define an American identity drew to a climax on the day before Independence Day in 1863, it was only in November of that year that the deeper significance of that event was cast. On a crisp autumn afternoon, Abraham Lincoln, who had sworn to uphold the Constitution, drew upon the radical promise of the Declaration of Independence to justify his cause and inspire his nation.

The issue in those days of a great war over slavery had to do with the idea that all men are created equal. That's hardly in dispute today, though it's worth noting that neither the declaration nor President Lincoln used the phrase "all Americans." All men (all people): This is the American aspiration and the American ideal. The president that day began by talking about the equality of all men; throughout his short speech he made no mention of slavery, because he had something more in mind; he ended by declaring that what was at stake on the battlefields of the Civil War was government "of the people, by the people, for the people."

He was not talking about the Constitution, a brilliant document but, in essence, a blueprint, a nuts-and-bolts plan for a republican and representative union of states. He was taking his listeners back to the universal and democratic impulses of the earlier declaration, and saying, "This is what the United States is."

Arguments today about the conduct of the Bush administration focus on the constitutional issues of separation of powers. Do warrantless wiretapping and offshore prisons and so-called signing statements, which are seemingly designed to vitiate bills even as the president signs them, overstep the bounds? Or does the president's oath to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution require just these sorts of measures? It's a vital argument, and though we believe strongly that the administration has in fact inappropriately stretched the boundaries of its constitutional powers, there is at least a case to be made for doing so. But a more fundamental question - or call it a more philosophical question - can be put this way: Has President Bush lost sight of the Declaration of Independence?

The president calls himself the "decider." His lawyers have mortared together an ideology based on the "unitary executive." He talks about how his job is to "protect" the American people - and, frankly, we don't see it that way. The nation defends itself (under his leadership, certainly); the idea of a leader, benign or otherwise, personifying the guardianship of the country is infantilizing and repellent. It brings to mind some of the less-appealing regimes of the 20th century.

The point is not that George W. Bush is a tyrant or monarch: The Supreme Court reined him in on military tribunals at Guantanamo; he has had to accommodate to growing unhappiness with the war in Iraq; he lost in his campaign to privatize Social Security. But this in itself does not add up to democracy.

Of the people, by the people, for the people. A democratic society can argue over taxes, or environmental regulations, or the government's response to a natural disaster, or the choice to go to war. This is healthy. But when an administration stifles argument, that is not democracy.

And when one side has control of the government, and it places that government as far as possible outside the scrutiny of the people; when the president's men argue that there are no legal constraints upon his power as long as an ill-defined war on terror continues; when the agents of the president consign hundreds of enemies to a hidden network of offshore prison camps; when the president and his inner circle endeavor to intimidate the press and the exercise of free speech; when the president refuses to level with the people he "protects" over the reasons he has sent them to war - that is not democracy.

President Bush's supporters could argue that the Declaration of Independence itself makes the point that governments are instituted to "secure these rights" - the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Securing American rights today, they might argue further (echoing the debate on constitutional authority), calls for tough and even unpalatable measures. At least we don't have one section of the country waging war on the other, as we did in 1863. But, to use a phrase attributed to the 16th president, this argument won't "scour." The removal of the workings of this administration from the public sphere and from the norms of American behavior and ideals strikes at the fundamental essence of the country. You can't destroy democracy in order to save it.

Americans have gone along - but that's not democracy in action so much as it is acquiescence. Today is a day to enjoy the hot dogs and bunting and pool parties and fireworks - but it should be a day, too, to think about the American inheritance from 1776. The effort to achieve the ideals of the declaration - respect for all, a voice for all - is never easy; Gettysburg is evidence of that. The declaration was not a gift; to the contrary, it places an obligation on each of us.

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