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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mr. Madison's Mistakes, Part 1

Americans are a proud people, though not always considerate of what Jefferson called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind". Our name says that in spades. We are Americans, but technically there are two continents called the Americas, so everyone from the Canadians in the north to the Chileans in the south could correctly call themselves Americans.

Only not as long as we're around.

It's very common for people from across the political spectrum in our country to call the United States "the greatest country on Earth", again missing the mark of that whole "decent respect" thang. If I were to say I am proud to be male, the greatest gender of all, or proud to be Caucasian, the greatest of the races, the howls of sexism or racism would be universal and the howlers would be correct. No amount of data I could bring to bear on my thesis could change the fact that saying those things is just plain rude. Clearly, jingoism is not as objectionable to people as the previously mentioned isms.

We do have pride in our form of government, and the beloved, nearly sacred document of our nation is the Constitution, a radical re-definition of government compared to the governments of Europe of the day, most notably the government of the United Kingdom, the country from whom we had declared our independence and fought a war to uphold that right. While a lot of people's ideas went into the document, James Madison gets the historical credit as the author of the Constitution. When the Constitution is brought up by writers today, it is as an object of wonder and wisdom, and praise for the document by Americans is nearly as universal as praise for the Koran by Muslims or the Torah by Jews or the New Testament by Christians.

Allow me to get all iconoclastic on all y'all. There are some serious structural flaws in the Constitution, and the amendment process probably ain't gonna fix them.


Flaw #1: The evidence is in. Impeachment doesn't work.

We have a three part government with checks and balances and stuff. Cool! I mean, what other choice did we have?

Well, we could have made a parliamentary government without a monarch, which is a very common practice today. But back in the late 1700's, the "without a monarch" idea was pretty radical, and the Founding Fathers decided to make a non-monarch monarch out of the presidency, a position of leadership that would last four years, which would give some sense of stability without the inevitability of open-ended rule by one faction.

There was an obvious problem compared to the parliamentary system. What if we elected a bad president? In a parliamentary system, there is the vote of no confidence to remove a government, and new elections can be called within weeks of a party's inability to keep even its own members happy, at which point the people can decide to vote for change or keep the party in power. The founders, and to simplify things let's put the credit or blame on Madison, came up with the idea of impeachment, a way for the legislature to remove the president without waiting for another election.

Well, here's the thing. We've been at it for 200 years and we have impeached two presidents and neither was removed from office, and neither should have been. Once and only once, the threat of impeachment did the job of removing a president from office who had committed high crimes and misdemeanors, and that only worked because Richard Nixon listened to reason from people in his own party.

Let me repeat that. The Republic was saved because Richard Nixon listened to reason.

On the other hand, we have had several instances of presidents clearly, directly and openly spitting on the Constitution and the legislative branch doing absolutely nothing about it.

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson was a political act, not a true constitutional crisis. Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" concept is much praised at the moment, but in 1864 he decided to change vice presidents and put in Johnson, who was not a Republican but a Unionist, a Southerner who stayed loyal to the Union. Of course, Johnson comes to power when Lincoln is assassinated by Southern sympathizers, and Lincoln's "malice towards none and charity to all" words are not the marching orders anymore. The Radical Republicans, in charge of both houses by wide margins, try to hamstring Johnson in every way imaginable. Johnson made mistakes, without doubt, but the Congress passed a unconstitutional law over his veto and impeached him when he broke that law. Congress made a law that Johnson could not fire any of Lincoln's cabinet without congressional authority, a law that would be found unconstitutional itself when it was finally tested sixty years after the fact, and when Johnson relieved Secretary of War Stanton, the House voted articles of impeachment. The Senate did not remove him from office, but the two thirds majority was missed by only a single vote. Johnson did not have a vice president, so had he been removed, the Speaker of the House would have been president.

Li'l Jimmy Madison kind of missed the conflicts of interest inherent in this whole impeachment process, especially since when presidential elections first started, the vice-president was the prize given to the runner up in the election.

The impeachment of Bill Clinton did not include Clinton breaking some new-fangled law, since lying under oath has been a crime for some time, but it did include the Republican dominated Supreme Court deciding that a civil case could be brought against a sitting president, which was a break with previous law. But what was the actual point of the impeachment? If he had been removed, what would have been the result? President Al Gore, sharer of most of Bill Clinton's political convictions, but without a penis that is jabbering at his brain 24/7.

Not all penises are created equal.

While the two impeachments of presidents the House has successfully passed went nowhere, there have been several presidents who fully deserved impeachment and removal, but got neither. The two most egregious cases were Andrew Jackson, not Johnson, and George W. Bush.

Jackson, the guy on the twenty dollar bill, openly ignored a decision by the Supreme Court, whose decisions are supposed to be the law of the land. If I may use a 19th term to describe a 19th Century concept, many presidents including Jefferson were in favor of Indian Removal, moving Native American peoples from their ancestral lands to places on the other side of the Mississippi. Jackson's presidency saw the start of removing the Five Civilized Tribes from their homelands in the Southeast to the Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma. The most civilized of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee, acted as much like white folks as is humanly possible. When the government tried to take their land, they took the government to court.

The Cherokee won the case, and won the right to stay on their land. Andrew Jackson ignored the court decision and continued the process of removing them from their land anyway. His political fallout from breaking the law of the land was... zero. The human cost was not zero. The relocation of The Five Civilized Tribes is known today as the Trail of Tears, and it is as shameful an act in our history as the Bataan Death March is a stain on Japanese history.

George W. Bush's crimes against our constitution are even greater. Under his misrule, the United States now tortures prisoners, had (and may still have) an archipelago of secret prisons in foreign lands and spies on its own citizens. The Congress, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, did nothing. This is because impeachment is not about legality, but politics, and completely controlled by the whim of the House leadership, whether a hot-headed and weak thinking bomb thrower like Newt Gingrich, or a pathetic and bloated figurehead like Dennis Hastert, or a spineless and corrupt jellyfish like Nancy Pelosi.

An article in the latest Vanity Fair asks former Bush officials about the Bush legacy, and unlike the self-serving comments the press has reported from Laura Bush and Condi Rice in recent days, some of the people who worked for this president are honest enough to see that Bush was a political corpse after the response to Hurricane Katrina was correctly perceived as a failure of government at every level, most especially the federal.

If we had a parliamentary system, he would not have survived a vote of no confidence after Katrina and we would have been spared his miserable leadership for at least three of the last eight years. Instead, we have a constitutional system that has no effective way to remove an ineffective leader or a leader unwilling to obey any law, and the next president is left with a much more daunting task of damage control because of our governmental system's flaws, codified in our beloved constitution.

Wednesday math, tomorrow. Mr. Madison's Mistakes, Part 2 on Thursday.

7 comments:

CDP said...

Excellent. And Laura Bush's comments on Katrina just astonished me.

dguzman said...

Hear, hear! All hail Matty Boy.

namastenancy said...

I could not watch the attempted Republican white wash of Katrina or anything else for that matter. When I heard Laura Bush's lame excuse, I turned the TV off immediately before I got sick. I've wished for many years that we had a parliamentary system with several viable parties forced to work together and compromise. That might have prevented the worst excesses of the "christian" far right but we will never know. If anybody ever deserved impeachment for war crimes, it's Bush and Cheney. I am not very hopeful that they will pay for their crimes but it could happen.
Thanks for bringing up the Trail of Tears. I don't know how I found out about it but when I did, I was shocked and disgusted. Yet, so few of the official history books mention that "little" episode when they write about Jackson's presidency.

Lockwood said...

Very interesting post. I guess I hadn't realized that the Cherokee resettlement was in direct contravention of a court decision- just that it was an atrocity from our current perspective. Looking forward to Thursday's post. Of course, I always look forward to Math Wednesdays.

DCup said...

This post is so good. MathMan printed it off and read it to me in the car this morning as we drove to an appointment.

Really - this should go viral. It's full of information that most of us have no clue about.

sfmike said...

Good explaining.

Distributorcap said...

great post! we should so have a parliamentary style of govt