Can We Keep the Republic?

Review of ‘Daybreak – Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union’ by David Swanson, BRAD BLOG

Guest Blogged by Peter Weiss, Vice President, Center for Constitutional Rights

David Swanson, a tireless analyst and organizer, has taken a leaf from Emile Zola’s playbook and written an American "J’accuse". And what an indictment it is. In over 300 pages crammed full of facts, figures, incriminating and self-incriminating quotes, Swanson’s Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union makes the following case: Bush-Cheney and their cohorts are guilty of a power grab which has inflicted near mortal wounds on the Constitution; Obama has not done nearly enough to repair the damage; Congress has collapsed, and even the Supreme Court could use some fixing up.

The saving grace of this mauling is that, unlike most other critics who are satisfied to accuse and condemn, Swanson devotes a good part of his book to suggestions for how to set things right…

In the first section of the book, Swanson demonstrates, in a series of overlapping chapters, how presidential power, both before but exponentially more under Bush and Cheney, has nibbled away at domestic and international law and at the economy and the judiciary, until the president’s constitutional obligation to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" has become the president’s discretion to do or order to be done whatever seems right and fitting to "the decider".

The second section takes Congress to task for "voluntary impotence" by, inter alia, substituting overlooking for overseeing, renouncing the power of impeachment, ceding the war power to the president, failing to use the power of the purse to end illegal and unpopular wars and toying with proposals for ineffective investigations instead of insisting on the prosecution of people in high places who have given the green light for torture and other war crimes.

This part of his exemplary bill of particulars, however, leads to a paradox which Swanson fails to resolve. His sympathy clearly lies with Congress in the contest between that branch of our tripartite government and the executive. He points out, for instance, that the constitution deals first with Congress and that 58 percent of its words concern the legislative branch compared with only 18 percent for the executive. He does not ask us to believe that that in itself is evidence of the supremacy of one branch over the other. But he does argue that since Congress is closer to and more representative of the people than the presidency, that is where popular pressure is likely to be most effective. Fair enough, but how does that work with a corrupt and spineless Congress? Well then, says Swanson, we must reform the Congress. But could the same not be said about the executive? So it comes down to whom do you trust more, or, speaking realistically, whom do you mistrust less? Swanson seems to be saying that, given the right kind of popular pressure, applied in the right places, a trustworthy Congress is conceivable, but a trustworthy presidency never.

Maybe so, maybe not. At any rate, given the noxious role of the corporate media, which occupy one chapter in the "Citizen Power" section of the book, credit is due Swanson for his manual on how to use both old fashioned tactics like demonstrations and lobbying and new technologies like the many facets of the internet to explode the falsehoods which lead the people and their representatives to make the wrong political decisions. Swanson himself is a leading practitioner of citizen power, as a co-founder of and participant in a number of other organizations which continue to shed light on the dark places where imperial presidents hatch their imperial plots.

Swanson is a scholar as well as an activist. Although he is not a lawyer, his use of the constitution and of Supreme Court decisions, as applied to contemporary politics, would put many lawyers to shame. The founding fathers (mothers not invited) also get their due in this valuable book, including Benjamin Franklin, who comes in as calling these United States "a republic, if we can keep it".

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