Mr. Bush Struggles Toward the Enlightenment

by Paul on January 14, 2008

Our American President, speaking in Abu Dhabi:

Throughout the sweep of history, the lands that the Arab people call home have played a pivotal role in world affairs. These lands sit at the juncture of three great continents — Europe and Asia and Africa. These lands have given birth to three of the world’s major religions. These lands have seen the rise and fall of great civilizations. And in the 21st century, these lands are once again playing a central role in the human story.

A great new era is unfolding before us. This new era is founded on the equality of all people before God. This new era is being built with the understanding that power is a trust that must be exercised with the consent of the governed — and deliver equal justice under the law. And this new era offers hope for the millions across the Middle East who yearn for a future of peace and progress and opportunity. (emphasis mine)

My ears pricked up when I heard these words from our President. Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive, since I’ve felt for many years that Mr. Bush didn’t really get the fundamental principles of our Government. And, to be fair, he was being hosted by one of the planet’s remaining feudal monarchs, where what he said might have seemed pretty radical. Still, to me this comment suggested a dangerous ignorance of the political theories upon which our nation was founded.

One might read Mr. Bush’s comments and imagine that he speaks of a ruler as being given power by God, with the restriction that it be exercised with the consent of the governed. Which, I suppose, if you are living in a nation that has gone from primitive agrarianism to global monetary power in a single lifetime, might seem like a modern concept.

On the other hand, it’s pretty far from the theory of government that was enunciated in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Power is not just a trust which must be exercised with the consent of the governed. Power derives from the governed. They are the ‘owners’ of that power, and grant governments their authority as a means to a goal, to make it easier for them to enjoy their inherent right to Life, their Liberty and to pursue their Happiness.

The people entrust their power to a government, and the government has no just power without that grant. It’s not that power is limited by the consent of the governed, it’s that a rightful, ‘just power’ does not exist without the consent of the governed. The people have the right to dispose of an unjust government, and create one that serves better. This was the powerful idea behind the American Revolution.

I suppose I should be happy that Mr. Bush does at least acknowledge ‘the consent of the governed.’ (After his administration’s position on habeas corpus, I’ve been somewhat in doubt.) This statement does make it seem that he hasn’t completely disposed of the advancements of Runnymeade circa 1215, where King John was forced to concede to the consent of the governed, or at least some powerful, armed barons.

Still, I’d be happier, while he travels around being feted by wealthy monarchs in grandeur and opulence (admiring their falcons and their Royal Stables), if he is going to brandish words like “freedom” and “democracy”, he did more to demonstrate that he himself understands the principles.

Perhaps, if previous presidents had spent more time actually representing those democratic principles instead of paying them lip-service while supporting autocratic regimes, Mr. Bush wouldn’t have to now spend so much time railing against the the treat from Iran, or Arab extremism.

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