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Does political power get too concentrated even in democracies?
Patrick Asare -- Author of 'The Boy from Boadua' Patrick Asare -- Author of 'The Boy from Boadua'
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Wyomissing, PA
Monday, May 20, 2024


In Genesis chapter 3 verse 17, the Lord God said to Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” God was furious with Adam and his wife, Eve, for disobeying His command not to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree that stood in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, and their descendants, thenceforth had to sweat for sustenance, as opposed to the life of eternal leisure and total comfort that God had originally intended for them.

Clearly, even the omniscient God could not foresee some of the character weaknesses of His own creations. He reacted to the flaws when they were revealed through the original couple’s transgression. Because of that, the insistence by textualists and originalists that judges should not deviate from the text of the U.S. Constitution and original intent of the Framers when making legal decisions is a rather unreasonable proposition. The Framers, who were mortals after all, couldn’t have predicted the future with absolute certainty. Hence, allowance must be made for incorporation of new knowledge, when necessary, in application of the constitution. This is the argument that retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer made eloquently in his new book, Reading the Constitution: Why I Chose Pragmatism, Not Textualism.

The Founding Fathers made references to demagogues in their deliberations, but some of the characters we have on the political scene today are much worse than that. Whereas the Founding Fathers were highly pragmatic people who understood that they had to make compromises in order to achieve their collective goals, today there are simply too many people in Congress, and Washington generally, for whom compromise is a dirty word. Either they have their way, or they would burn the place down.

People use different adjectives to describe these arsonists. Some call them “crazies.” Washington Post columnist George Will referred to them as “grotesques” in one of his recent articles. The pyromaniacs seem to have no interest in governing. It has become quite clear that they rather take pleasure in sowing chaos.

The Framers brilliantly put mechanisms in the Constitution to guard against tyranny of the majority. Some of those powers thereby granted to minority parties in the U.S. Congress have been used over the course of the nation’s history to prevent implementation of some really bad policies. Watching the perennial gridlock in Washington has always been quite frustrating, but in the past, I tried to view it as the way our government was designed to function. Not anymore.

Observing the conduct of House Speaker Mike Johnson over the last several months has convinced me that too much power is concentrated in the hands of individuals and small groups of people who don’t deserve to wield it. Proper statesmanship requires political leaders to put the national interest above the personal. Speaker Johnson has claimed for a while that he understood the gravity of the threat that a Russian victory in Ukraine would pose for America and its allies in Europe and Asia. Yet, he steadfastly refused to bring up the Ukraine aid package to the House floor for a vote due to fear of losing his speakership. He relented only after he received assurances from Democrats that they would help him stay in power.

By delaying the aid bill for so many months, he has allowed Russian forces to advance on the battlefield. Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, is now under relentless attack and is at risk of either being taken over or destroyed. Speaker Johnson has knowingly helped bring a Russian victory closer to reality. The Taiwanese are nervously watching the developments in Ukraine because they know they could be next—in their case an attack by China.

Logistical constraints make it necessary to grant some extraordinary powers to certain national leaders. For example, the president of the United States is given full control over the nuclear code because if an adversary were to launch a nuclear attack against us, there would be no time for public consultation about what our response should be. We put our faith in the president to act on our behalf in that situation. But it has become increasingly clear that generally, powers should be granted sparingly to the current crop of leaders. We are not blessed with Jeffersonian and Madisonian democrats in Washington nowadays. What we have are unyielding politicians who would be more than happy to take the nation down with them if they had to.

Amending any part of the constitution is no easy matter. It is a long, complicated process, with the states involved. But preventing the constant hostage-taking by the arsonists shouldn’t require constitutional amendments. Some parliamentary rules can and should be changed to allow circumvention of their roadblocks when necessary.

This flagrant misuse of power in democracies is not a uniquely American problem. Israel, another supposedly functional democracy, has that malaise. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stubbornly and repeatedly doubled down on extreme right-wing policies despite vocal opposition from much of the Israeli public. One of the most controversial of those policies was his proposed judicial reform, which triggered mass protests for weeks. It was quite shocking to hear Israeli doctors, engineers, and other top professionals tell journalists during those demonstrations that they planned to emigrate because under Netanyahu, their country had become too autocratic. Some observers have argued that those deep divisions played a role in the intelligence failures that allowed the Oct. 7 Hamas attack to occur.

Numerous political commentators have said that Netanyahu’s policies and obstinacy have endangered the security of Israel. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has particularly been quite consistent in his criticism of the prime minister. He has said in several articles over the last few months that Israel has become perilously isolated on the world stage due to Netanyahu’s conduct.

I cringe whenever I hear people say that many of Netanyahu’s controversial decisions are motivated by his desire to stay in power. That seems to have been the case with Speaker Mike Johnson’s handling of the Ukraine aid bill. Democratic societies cannot and should not be hijacked in such manner to serve the interests of individuals or small groups of people. We certainly have some serious housecleaning to do before we go about telling autocrats and leaders in illiberal democracies to stop abusing power.

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