Follow The Leader
(Swans - February 2, 2004) The distinct characteristic of the state, said German sociologist Max Weber, is that it alone claims a "monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." (1) The state's distinct and irreducible essence rests in its legal capacity to wield violent and even lethal power against other states and against its own citizens. In the latter instance, actions are directed not just at the criminal element but sometimes even more determinedly at dissenters and others who challenge the existing distribution of privilege, wealth, and institutional authority.
To give an aura of legality to the suppression of dissent, laws dealing with sedition, terrorism, and internal security are leveled against troublesome agitators. In addition, the more ordinary criminal code is enlisted: disorderly conduct, mob action, criminal trespass, destruction of property, felonious assault, resisting arrest, and the like. These repressive tasks are carried out by the police, the National Guard, the military, the secret intelligence services, the courts, and other agencies of control and coercion.
State power is wielded primarily by the executive, specifically the president and the national security apparatus. Representing the entire nation rather than a particular locale, the president, "possesses a sort of divine right," as Marx noted of the French presidency in the Second Republic in 1852. "He is the elect of the nation," an embodiment of the national spirit who stands "in a personal relation, to the nation. . . . The National Assembly, indeed, exhibits in its individual representatives the manifold aspects of the national spirit, but in the President this national spirit finds its incarnation." (2)
The US Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power to make war. Yet again and again US forces are committed to armed actions by presidential order, without a declaration of war. Indeed, some presidents make a point of ignoring Congress on this matter. In late 1990, while the legislators debated whether US forces should engage in hostilities against Iraq, President Bush père went on record as saying, "I don't care if I get one vote in Congress. We're going in." (3) Bush understood that during times of crisis and national peril -- real or fabricated -- Congress would not dare impeach the commander-in-chief for such a trifling as an undeclared war, especially since so many of the lawmakers were themselves fervent flag-waving militarists.
Presidential usurpation of the warmaking power took a final giant step in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and a wing of the Pentagon, with the loss of some 3000 lives. Congress forfeited its constitutional responsibility and voted outright to give the president the power to decide when the nation should go to war. This surrender of congressional power and responsibility was itself an unconstitutional act. In effect, Bush fils now had the right to declare war whenever he wanted, a one-man decision usually enjoyed only by absolute monarchs and dictators.
Some of our citizens are understandably cynical and suspicious about politicians in everyday affairs. Politicians, we hear, cannot be trusted; they say one thing during election campaigns, then do something else once they get into office; they are often corrupt and self-serving. All true enough. Yet these same citizens display an almost child-like trust and knee-jerk faith when politicians trumpet a need to defend our national security. So it happens that with the launching of each new US war against one or another small but "menacing" nation, superpatriots rally around the flag, draped as it is around the president. The nation is under siege from a lethal foreign threat, we are told. This is no time for splitting hairs about right and wrong, or war and peace. Get behind our president and our nation. Support our troops. Destroy the alien menace. The inverted morality kicks in. When serving the higher good, the commander-in-chief can do no wrong.
All this should remind us of what happened in Germany in the 1930s when Hitler and his Nazi thugs took power (financed by the big moneyed cartels). The Nazis insisted that unquestioning obedience and adulation be accorded the leader. It was governance by der Feuhrerprinzip, the leader principle, the notion that the head of state is the living embodiment of the state itself, the supreme repository of the nation's virtues. It is a short step from the cult of the nation (superpatriotism) to the cult of the leader. And in the case of Nazi Germany, the world reaped bitter fruit.
When George Bush launched his war against Iraq, someone said to me "This is where you and I differ because I have faith in the president. I trust the president." I responded in words close to these: "Excuse me, you have faith in the president? What are we doing here, religion or politics? Is the president to be treated as an object of worship?" And what does it mean to trust the president? Trust is something we extend to loved ones or very close friends and family (and even then, check them out once in a while). Democracy is not about trust; it is about distrust. It is about accountability, exposure, open debate, critical challenge, and popular input and feedback from the citizenry. It is about responsible government. We have to get our fellow Americans to trust their leaders less and themselves more, trust their own questions and suspicions, and their own desire to know what is going on.
There is nothing like a war or a major crisis to turn adult citizens into trusting infants ready to play "follow the leader," rallying around the president out of a perceived need for national unity and a hope that he will see us through the danger. President Franklin Roosevelt's highest rating, 84 percent, came immediately after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. President John Kennedy's 83 percent approval rating came after his 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, even though it failed. And after the Gulf War of 1991, the elder Bush's approval rating zoomed to 93 percent. (4)
Consider the case of George Bush the younger. War and violence were especially good to this president. As of September 10, 2001, his presidency was floundering and his approval ratings were sagging woefully. Then the next day came the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and Bush saw his rating shoot up to 82 percent. This was swiftly followed by his newly trumpeted "perpetual war against terrorism" and the massive bombing and invasion of Afghanistan. Bush was transmogrified into the determined leader who would rally the nation, shore up our defenses with ever greater military allocations, and protect us with legislation that strengthened the repressive powers of the federal executive.
"You are either with us or with the terrorists," is the way Bush fils put it. Anyone who did not fall into lockstep behind his war policies now risked being charged with giving aid and comfort to terrorists. Here was the president drawing the line, protecting us from threats at home and abroad, addressing military gatherings, flying onto aircraft carriers for photo opportunities (unmindful of how in earlier years he himself had evaded his duties in the Air National Guard and was legally speaking still AWOL). Standing proudly in front of the cameras, with a steely eye fixed on the nation's ramparts, ready to move decisively against any and all, with our flag snapping in the wind, never did this corrupt but affable Jesus-freak billionaire investor and former coke-head alcoholic seem so presidential. His approval ratings skyrocketed.
Then came the corporate scandals of the spring and summer of 2002, the Enron, WorldCom, Harkin, and Halliburton investment crimes. By July, both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were directly implicated in fraudulent insider trading practices. Their respective companies, Harkin and Halliburton, made false accounting claims of profit to pump up stock values. Bush and Cheney along with other top investors and company officers, armed with insider information about when to get out, sold their stock at top value just before it was revealed to be nearly worthless and collapsed in price. Both the president and vice president made dubious statements about what they knew and did not know. They refused to hand over documents and gave every appearance of being directly implicated in deceptive practices that had caused smaller investors to lose billions of dollars.
By July 2002, the Republican Party was reeling from the insider-trading scandals and was pegged as the party of corporate favoritism and corruption. But by September, with war pending against Iraq, the GOP reemerged as the party of patriotism, national defense, and strong military leadership to gain control of both houses of Congress, winning elections it might not otherwise have won. The impending conflict blew the whole Enron-Harkin-Halliburton scandal off the front pages and out of the evening news. (Bush père had done the same thing in 1990, sending the savings and loan scandal into media limbo by waging the first Gulf War against Iraq.)
And once again, George the second, the special interest wheeler-dealer and insider trader, became Mr. President, our fearless peerless leader. Instead of being subjected to criminal investigation and going to jail, he remained untouched in the White House.
But as the terrorism hype seemed to subside, and with the economy in the doldrums, Bush's popularity once again began to sag. By March 14, 2003, it was at 53 percent. But on March 18, after Bush actually began war operations against Iraq, his ratings shot up from 53 to 68 percent. (5) By late April, with a swift and easy victory at hand, his approval rating climbed to over 80 percent.
In the months that followed, President Bush continued to play the terrorism card. Within a brief span of several weeks in September 2003, he referred to terrorist dangers when talking about (a) the war in Iraq, (b) US dealings with the United Nations, (c) the state of the economy, and (d) energy policy. Such persistent references to terrorism were designed to discourage criticism and keep the public rallied behind his leadership. But as the "liberation" of Iraq devolved into a protracted people's resistance that proved highly costly in American lives and dollars, this strategy did not play as well as it had six months earlier and Bush's ratings slumped decisively.
Sad to say, the marriage of militarism and patriotism makes it so much easier for US presidents to gain quick -- but not necessarily durable -- popularity, and so much easier for them to lead the nation into wars of aggression that serve no interests other than their own. Sooner or later, one hopes, Americans will rediscover -- as they have in the past -- that they cannot live on flag-waving alone. They will begin to drift off into reality. They will confront the economic irrationalities and global aggrandizement of a system that provides them with endless militaristic circuses while denying them the bread of prosperity and their right as democratic citizens to live in peace with justice.
© Michael Parenti 2004. All rights reserved. Please DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work on the Web. See our reprint policy.
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1. Max Weber, "Politics as a Vocation," in Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 78. Weber recognized that the right to apply force is sometimes allotted to nongovernmental institutions -- as with security guards and private police -- but "only to the extent to which the state permits it." (back)