January 29, 2006

Institutional Debasement in Comparative Perspective

I normally try not to write about US politics in Caracas Chronicles because that's just not what the blog is about. I'll make a bit of an exception today, to air out an old argument with OW. This is a cut-and-paste from the comments section:
Lets say Bush in the United States does something blatantly illegal - like ordering wiretaps with out a court order. Who is going to prosecute him? Not the Attorney General, he works for Bush. Not the Senate that in theory could vote articles of impeachment, that too is controlled by Bush's party. Not the Supreme Court, also controlled by Bush party.

In fact, every institution in the United States government is controlled by the Republican Party - the executive (in the US that includes all prosecutors), the Sentate, the House of Representatives, the federal courts, and on down the line.

Does this mean the United States has ceased to be a democracy? Not really. It just means that party has been winning most of the elections recently.

Same goes for Venezuela. Chavez and his supporters keep winning elections - often by large margins. So it stands to reason they'll wind up controlling pretty much the whole government. After all, God from on high doesn't appoint judges - the A.N. does. And you expect a MVR controlled A.N. to appoint ... whom?

Of course, the opposition could take over control of the government if it were to win some elections. Yet when it was presented with a golden oppertunity to do just that on December 4th it walked away. Which is of course why not too many people take their bitching seriously.

ow | Homepage | 01.28.06 - 11:28 pm | #

I think this argument silly on a number of counts. On the most basic level, using the US as a yardstick of democratic functionality is a weasly move - constitutional liberalism is badly battered in the US, something PSFs should be the first to recognize. Saying "if it happens in the US, it's ok" is a-weirdly out of step with the official chavista line and b-setting the bar way, way too low, because the US itself is badly in need of reform.

But instead of "hey, look how screwed up US democracy is, where the president can wiretap people illegally and nothing happens to him, heaven forbid such a thing should happen in other countries" we get some version of "hey, look how screwed up US democracy is...see, comparatively, Venezuelan democracy isn't so so frayed."

I think that's BS - the NSA Wiretapping scandal is an excellent reason for gringos to raise all kinds of hell about the debasement of their own republic, not AT ALL a reason to excuse the same level of debasement in other countries.

(Incidentally, the NSA Wiretapping story is just exhibit N for my pet theory that the reason Chavez and Bush hate each other so much is that they're so much alike...)

So I reject both leaders, and for the same reasons - neither of them seems to accept the basic principle that the executive branch's power should be limited by law (for Bush the pretext is "hey, there's a war going on here!" for Chavez, "hey, there's a revolution going on here!") Both have a corrosive effect on the institutional system that underpins democracy,

But even if you accept the US-as-yardstick, the argument is still silly...it fails to capture a fundamental difference, the difference between ideological affinity and grovelling sycophancy. My problem with Omar Mora Diaz is not that he's leftish ideologically, it's that he's a yes-man, an appendage of somebody else's will. This is not the case for Justice Roberts or Judge Alito, and glossing over the difference is silly. This, incidentally, is the point of highlighting the grotesque Uh-Ah chanting episode...

OW's argument also misses the basic sociological fact that formal institutional arrangements are only a small part of what gives institutions their vitality, their independence, and their capacity for autonomous action. With or without (the execrable) Alberto Gonzalez as AG, the US Justice Department has the kind of institutional robustness, functional independence, and non-partisan law enforcement ethos that allows its career prosecutors to act against the interests of the party in power, when the evidence merits it. So the House Majority leader can be forced to resign by judicial probes. The biggest fundraising lobbyist in town can be indicted. All because career lawyers at the Republican-controlled Justice Department had the autonomy and the institutional ethos they needed to really investigate, and they really investigated.

And finally, there's a key detail about the US institutional system that serves to contain impunity: multiple fora for criminal prosecution. Tom DeLay was, of course, first investigated by Texas State prosecutors, not the Feds. The existence of State Criminal jurisdiction in the US prevents the situation we have in Venezuela today, where no criminal investigation can go ahead without Isaias' signature.

To sum up - I aspire for democracy in Venezuela to work far better than it does in the US today. But even taking that as the basis of comparison, the argument is unsustainable. You can't spend half your time denouncing US-Republicans' degenerate imperialism and then turn right around and point to their corruption as evidence of democratic normality.

Quico | Homepage | 01.29.06 - 4:46 am | #