A longstanding policy becomes intolerable to many on both sides of the political spectrum, and polls begin to show its rank unpopularity with the American public. Debate ensues in the House and Senate, the former reaching a consensus that there must be a change and the latter (very slowly) hashing out potential avenues of reform in a deliberative manner. At long last — even though it is pretty clear that the President could act unilaterally to improve matters — the chambers finally come together to agree on a bill that makes it to the President’s desk, where he signs it to much applause. In point of fact, nothing actually changes immediately: There is a languorous transition period in which the relevant hierarchies are given ample time to gradually let go of their long-held abominations.
What I’ve just described happened at least twice during the Obama presidency: once very recently with the expiration of Patriot Act’s surveillance provisions, and once in 2010-11 with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the armed forces. We are now living in the transition period away from NSA bulk surveillance as we know it. From December 22, 2010 to September 20, 2011, the United States lived in (and fought two wars in) a similar transition period away from anti-gay discrimination in the military.
To be clear: I am glad that both of these legislative steps were taken. Slow change is better than no change at all. The USA Freedom Act still allows the NSA to collect our phone records until December (a legislative accident that was written under the assumption that the Patriot Act would be renewed), but at least we’ll get some of our privacy back in 2016. What I am growing weary of is the way in which these kinds of solutions are trumpeted as a panacea. Senators take to the microphones to laud them as “bipartisan” and “inclusive” — even though (in both of these cases) Republicans were overwhelmingly opposed. Indeed, you can expect to find a Republican elder statesman or two furiously sulking to anyone who will listen about how this is the end of civilization, or something (as Mitch McConnell did just the other day). They continue to scream “tyranny” no matter how the process unfolds, so the question begs itself: Why does the President not flex his executive muscle and do the right thing (as measured by a majority of Americans’ opinions) without a recalcitrant Congress?
Perhaps Barack Obama is so patient with these playground games because he was in that sandbox himself for four years. During the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell debate he was often vocal about respecting the rights of all branches of government, and seemed to reject an executive orders out of principle. The issue here is really not about Obama though, or any other opaque personality, but about the state of American governance generally. It is scandalously easy for leaders to evade responsibility for political failures when they can just point to one of a hundred others who exercised their “right” to gum up everything so they could “deliberate.”
None of our amazingly gifted Republican presidential hopefuls today seems to have a clue how to improve this process. (Lindsey Graham might just order a drone strike on anyone who disagrees with him.) And on the other side, Democrats are talking tough on economic inequality without the faintest idea as to how they would shepherd tax increases on the rich through a Senate larded with millionaires. It could well turn out that we get a Democratic president in 2017, with 250 million or so Americans outraged about poverty at their back, whose every proposal on the issue (strong or tepid) will be shot down by at least one Republican-controlled chamber of Congress. Then who will be to blame?
Process matters as much as outcomes. Perhaps we’re not ready to consider completely rewriting our Constitution, but we have to ask ourselves whether the machinery in place (much of it arcane and little-understood rules that no Founder ever wanted) to govern the world’s second-largest democracy is going to withstand the stresses of another century — a century when global temperatures are rising at unpredictable speeds, when it is at least conceivable that whole states (Florida? Louisiana?) will become uninhabitable by its end.
Poets like John Milton have known the cost of bad governance. Milton, survivor of the English Civil War, envisioned Satan (recently cast down into Hell) telling “his neerest Mate,” an anonymous fallen angel, what their crew’s political strategy should look like after their bid to rule the universe collapsed [Paradise Lost, 1: 164-68]:
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destin’d aim.
Let’s not shrug our shoulders about the political process “disturbing” the most urgent counsels of the American people from their “destin’d aim.”