by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & "It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hose words, uttered earlier this month to describe our current political climate, passed without much notice in the media, despite the prominence of the person who spoke them. Talk of dictatorship usually is greeted by widespread eye-rolling -- these are the words of the loser party, the conventional wisdom goes, grousings of the sulkers who are stuck on the sidelines.
But this wasn't the latest salvo from Sen. Russ Feingold, who has been vilified for saying the President of the United States should follow the law. No, these words came from retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whose conservative bona fides are beyond reproach: Nominated to the Court by Ronald Reagan, she voted to stop counting votes in Florida, installing George W. Bush in the White House.
"We must be ever-vigilant against those who would strong-arm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies," O'Connor told a gathering at Georgetown University on March 9. Without naming Tom DeLay, she referred to his comment to a group of religious conservatives, outraged that judges would not intercede in the death of Terry Schiavo, that "the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."
Intimidating judges, O'Connor said, is precisely how dictators rule -- and it's distinctly un-American.
O'Connor also pointed out that none other than the Founding Fathers were extremely worried about the reemergence of a king or some other undemocratic system. They wrote many times that without the protection of wise, independent judges, the rights created under the Constitution would never amount to much.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & ike some other prominent Americans, O'Connor is sounding the alarm that party politics are bending the will of all branches of government to one monolithic view -- and that the GOP has been pretty successful at it.
Congress was created as an independent, legislative branch of government, but over the past five years, whenever it has passed a law, President Bush has added a "signing statement" outlining how he interprets that law -- overstepping both the judiciary and Congress in one deft maneuver. Bush has added such statements, for example, to the ban on torture, saying the president is not bound to the new law; he added another after the renewal of the Patriot Act was hashed out by Congress, trumping all their work. Of course, judges have the final say over whether his signing statements are legally valid, but they have a plan for that, too: Get the "right" kinds of judges on the bench.
When Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, Republicans were terrified she might -- gasp! -- use her own judgment in deciding cases, rather than relying on a pre-approved set of beliefs. Samuel Alito was brought in, and Republicans were satisfied he would vote the "right" way. Judges as political pets: This, O'Connor seems to argue, is exactly how the nation's carefully crafted balance of power could be upset.
There are two ways to look at politics -- as war, or as sport. It seems to me, our current ruling party views it as war, in which the ultimate goal is total domination of all branches of government and the judiciary. The end result, of course, is one-party rule, which is pretty close to the definition of dictatorship (absolute, unchecked authority).
If, however, politics is viewed as a competition, like sports, it's closer to what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he talked about the "marketplace of ideas." Two sides argue, one side wins, perhaps moderating their position in the process, and everyone goes out for a beer afterwards. That's the healthy way to view politics, but partisans have been whipped into such a hateful frenzy, it seems almost hopelessly naive.
And that's too bad, because there is far, far more that we share in common than separates us. We should be Americans first, and Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians or Greens second -- but that's not the way our political role models are behaving. And, as the good book warns, "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he common thread in all this is the desire for more power. And that is exactly what the Founding Fathers feared most -- tyranny or, to use O'Connor's word, dictatorship.
One Founding Father in particular -- the Founding Father, in fact -- left us some very clear thoughts about all this. George Washington was the only president not to belong to a political party, and that's just the way he liked it. His "Farewell Address" should be required reading for every member of Congress and resident of the White House.
"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism," Washington wrote in the Address. "But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism."
It almost as if O'Connor was channeling old George in her speech.
But Washington was a realist, and he knew party passions are "inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind." If you can't eliminate it, he argued, such passion at least "demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume."
That's the kind of scary thought that prompted O'Connor to say we could be taking the first steps down the road to dictatorship. Unfortunately, her courageous speech, criticizing her own political brethren, is the exception: Too few are speaking their minds. And our institutions -- from Congress to the courts to even the media -- are no better, too often failing to function as our national conscience.
Although she's a private citizen again, Sandra Day O'Connor is still judging. And now it falls to We, the People, to enforce her verdict and reassert the nation's true character.