Frank Rich does a Harish Khare

I have been struck by how closely the global media is tracking the developing story in Pakistan, and how so many commentators in different parts of the world believe that events in that nation have ramifications far beyond its borders. These events also appear to be causing thoughtful journalists in many constitutional democracies around the globe to take a long hard look at the state of their domestic politics.
In a recent post, we saw how Harish Khare used recent events in Pakistan as a hook to issue some harsh judgments about Indian democracy. More recently, Frank Rich of the New York Times has done the same for U.S. democracy. In an op-ed that appeared in the Nov 11 issue of the New York Times, Rich has much scorn to pour over some recent decisions – and political trends – within the U.S. Here are some extracts from his piece: “[T]he coup in Pakistan has been almost universally condemned as the climactic death knell for Bush foreign policy, the epitome of White House hypocrisy and incompetence. But that’s not exactly news. It’s been apparent for years that America was suicidal to go to war in Iraq, a country with no tie to 9/11 and no weapons of mass destruction, while showering billions of dollars on Pakistan, where terrorists and nuclear weapons proliferate under the protection of a con man who serves as a host to Osama bin Laden. … … The Pakistan mess, as The New York Times editorial page aptly named it, is not just another blot on our image abroad and another instance of our mismanagement of the war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It also casts a harsh light on the mess we have at home in America, a stain that will not be so easily eradicated. In the six years of compromising our principles since 9/11, our democracy has so steadily been defined down that it now can resemble the supposedly aspiring democracies we’ve propped up in places like Islamabad. Time has taken its toll. We’ve become inured to democracy-lite. That’s why a Mukasey can be elevated to power with bipartisan support and we barely shrug. This is a signal difference from the Vietnam era, and not necessarily for the better. During that unpopular war, disaffected Americans took to the streets and sometimes broke laws in an angry assault on American governmental institutions. The Bush years have brought an even more effective assault on those institutions from within. While the public has not erupted in riots, the executive branch has subverted the rule of law in often secretive increments. The results amount to a quiet coup, ultimately more insidious than a blatant putsch like General Musharraf’s. … … … Even if Mr. Bush had the guts to condemn General Musharraf, there is no longer any moral high ground left for him to stand on. Quite the contrary. Rather than set a democratic example, our president has instead served as a model of unconstitutional behavior, eagerly emulated by his Pakistani acolyte. … … … Tipping his hat in appreciation of Mr. Bush’s example, General Musharraf justified his dismantling of Pakistan’s Supreme Court with language mimicking the president’s diatribes against activist judges. The Pakistani leader further echoed Mr. Bush by expressing a kinship with Abraham Lincoln, citing Lincoln’s Civil War suspension of a prisoner’s fundamental legal right to a hearing in court, habeas corpus, as a precedent for his own excesses. (That’s like praising F.D.R. for setting up internment camps.) Actually, the Bush administration has outdone both Lincoln and Musharraf on this score: Last January, Mr. Gonzales testified before Congress that “there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution.” To believe that this corruption will simply evaporate when the Bush presidency is done is to underestimate the permanent erosion inflicted over the past six years. What was once shocking and unacceptable in America has now been internalized as the new normal.”In the remainder of the piece, Rich offers some deeply pessimistic views about the current – and future – state of democratic politics in the U.S. I am not sure whether these will draw as much support as some of the views extracted above. However, his piece, like that of Khare, reminds us that the achievements of liberal constitutional democracy are not something to be taken for granted, or indeed always something to crow about. Both Rich and Khare also note the classic weaknesses of liberal constitutionalism – that it is prone to being misguided by populism, and that it relies too much on the hope that the sense of outrage of the masses will result in corrective action (which, in some cases, results in overly delayed and tame responses).

In a blog post reacting to Rich’s piece, American constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson argues that Rich, like other commentators, fails to ask the more fundamental question : whether there is anything wrong with the design and structure of the U.S. Constitution which enables such actions to be undertaken by the representative wings of government. (To get a sense of what those changes should be, browse through the archive of posts authored by Levinson and other U.S. constitutional scholars at Balkinization over the past few months).

Reading Levinson’s post made me reflect upon the fact that despite Khare’s deeply critical comments about the state of Indian politics, he too does not question whether any fundamental changes in the Constitution of India are called for to remedy the problems he identifies. My own interest is in the constitutional provisions relating to emergency powers, and I hope to post about that in the near future.

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1 comment
  • Good that you brought this to attention. I am writing this as a preliminary comment before I have read Levinson and thought things through but did you read Soros in the Guardian yesterday? He has a different take on the problem of American democracy which I thought was interesting too (the link is here). It is probably increasingly relevant to India as well in the age of media hype and what Khare calls ‘manufactured public opinion’ (though I consider the phrase inappropriate).