Is America Suffering from Rogue Leaders or Broken Institutions?

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Overzealous presidents and a weakened Congress are the source of our problems. And the remedy is obvious.

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Today on Twitter, several progressive Washington DC-based journalists sent around a link to a paragraph written by blogger Steve Randy Waldman, and posted when President Obama announced that Anwar al-Awlaki had been killed. It is worthy of a wider readership and discussion.

I've broken it into two paragraphs:

I no longer trust my own government to be the provider of a civilized society. No government is perfect or without corruptions. But in 2007, I thought I lived in a remarkably well-governed nation that had gone off-kilter under a small and mean administration. In 2011, I view my government as the sharp edge of an entrenched kleptocracy, engaged in ever more expansive schemes of surveillance and arrogating powers of ever less restrained brutality.

At a visceral level, I dislike President Obama more than I have disliked any politician in my lifetime, not because he is objectively worse than most of the others -- he is not -- but because he disproved my hypothesis that we are a country with basically good institutions brought low by poor quality leadership. Whenever I hear the President speak and am impressed by the quality of his intellect, by his instinct towards diplomacy and finding common ground and rising above petty struggles, I despair more deeply. Not just because a leader of high quality failed to restore passably clean and beneficient government. It is worse than that. The kleptocracy has harnassed this man's most admirable qualities and made them a powerful weapon for its own ends. He has rebranded as "moderate", "adult", "reasonable", practices such as unaccountable assassination lists and Orwellian non-hostilities. He has demonstrated that the way grown-ups get things done in Washington is by continually paying off thieves in suits. Perhaps it is unfair to blame Barack Obama for all this. Maybe he has done the very best a person could do under our present institutions. But then it is not unfair to detest the institutions, to wish to see them clipped, contained, or starved.

Though I sympathize with the writer's disillusionment and share many of his grievances, I am less certain than he is that it is a failure of institutions, rather than a failure of leadership, that has us reeling. My instinct is that the U.S. would be better off, as a practical and moral matter, if we redoubled our commitment to longstanding American institutions -- that the solution to a lot of our problems lies in merely following the law and prosecuting our leaders when they violate it.

Before pinning the blame on American institutions, let's ponder how radically different the status quo would be if we merely adhered to longstanding laws and norms, rather than permitting our leaders to flout them in the name of protecting us from terrorism or financial collapse.

Had the Bush Administration followed the law, it never would have tortured prisoners or started secretly spying on American citizens without a warrant. If Barack Obama was as committed to fulfilling our treaty obligations as pushing his domestic agenda in an optimized political climate, he'd have investigated and prosecuted the Bush officials complicit in torture. As President Reagan wrote upon sending the Convention Against Torture to the Senate that ratified it, "Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today. The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called 'universal jurisdiction.' Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution."

In Libya, where Obama violated the War Powers Act, and in various countries where President Obama is waging undeclared drone wars, more scrupulous adherence to the law would force radical changes in American behavior -- as would a modicum of congressional leadership, since the body has for years abdicated its responsibility. The Founders envisioned three branches of government acting as checks on one another, the members of each zealously guarding their authority and pushing back against excesses committed by their fellow branches.

Is it an institutional failure or a failure of leadership that recent Congresses have let the executive branch do whatever it pleases, even doing nothing as Obama waged a war in Libya that its members wouldn't approve?

The Wall Street bailouts presided over by Presidents Bush and Obama are trickier matters. The measures were legal, and action was arguably necessary to prevent an even worse financial crisis. It is nevertheless maddening to see the redistribution of taxpayer wealth to banks whose irresponsible and at times illegal behavior contributed to a historic bubble and bust -- and to watch as guys like Peter Orszag personify the legal but unseemly revolving door between government and the financial industry, just as Dick Cheney personified it in the war industry.

Despite America's institutional failings, my instinct is that were it not for the lawlessness and disregard for the Constitution of the last two administrations, the dysfunction in our institutions would be manageable and no worse than the problems every advanced democracy grapples with. And if I'm right, a realistic solution presents itself. Americans disillusioned by the actions of our presidents can be forgiven for thinking that neither the GOP nor the Democratic nominee is going to be a good choice in 2012. But maybe the answer is focusing on the Congress, and electing men and women who'll do their utmost to challenge the executive branch, whoever is running it. On the Republican side, that means more Rand Pauls, and among Democrats, more Russ Feingolds. On the whole, it means taking advantage of a fix that is provided for by our Constitution, but that requires a citizenry who cares enough about the rule of law to bring it about.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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