Where 43 Gets it Right

Author: Dom Rottman

To say that I have some ideological differences with President George W. Bush is an understatement. Why, then, would I desire to attend his appearance for lecture on my university’s campus? I believe it is important, both politically and personally, to give someone who has something to say the benefit of the doubt; that they might “have something you don’t” so to speak, or will at least allow you the opportunity to refine your own beliefs, even if they don’t end up changing much.

So, given that President Bush offers to speak from a unique perspective that is rare to hear directly, without the filter of news or social media, I took the opportunity and was among the lucky few given a ticket to attend. I didn’t come away with any new great perspectives or revelations–except, maybe, that Bush didn’t actually say “strategery,” despite the President himself thinking otherwise–but I am surprised to be able to write the following: I agree with George W. Bush.

I agree with President Bush on two philosophical points: first, that it is a duty–though not an American duty in particular–to spread ideals of liberty and justice to all. Second, I agree with the idea that democracy is self-corrective, to use his terms. My agreement with him ends here. In what follows, I will explain where I diverge with the president on these ideas.

First, on the duty of spreading ideals of liberty and justice: It is my belief that the American government–or any government–is not equipped to spread the ideals of justice and/or liberty to other nations and peoples. This is because the state as an institution, following the definition of sociologist Max Weber, has only the unique and exclusive advantage of access to monopolized violence. While governments can and do operate through other means, it is monopolized violence that allows states to act in their unique capacities, ways in which other organizations can’t.

That’s all well and good for the defense of a nation state, but how does that afford the American government a superior capacity to spread democratic ideas? When it comes to spreading and discussing ideals of justice, freedom, etc–the essence of politics itself–access to violence is no boon. In fact, it’s probably antithetical. Even if you don’t agree with Weber’s definition of the state, the actions of the United States abroad, especially under the Bush administration, have caused absolutely abominable amounts of bloodshed, including over 4,000 soldiers dead, 134,000 direct civilian deaths, and little to show for it but over a trillion in taxpayer dollars spent and maybe more stability in the region–all this in the Iraq war alone. It’s not like Bush’s successors have fared much better either. Since 2001 the War on Terror, including but not limited to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has resulted in the [deaths of over 6,900 military personnel, 240,000 civilian deaths] (https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2018/Human%20Costs%20Nov%208%202018%20CoW.pdf) and over $2 trillion spent, not to mention the continued development and deployment of new technologies of death, such as drones, and any indirect costs of the war as well as any unaccountable emotional, mental, or moral tolls–all, supposedly, in the name of liberty and justice.

This is all to say that the unique tools of government are not especially predisposed to spreading important political ideas–let alone the idea that America in particular has some sort of burden to spread democracy. This idea is naive at best–who’s to say that we’ve decided what freedom is?–and imperial at worst; Rudyard Kipling’s infamous “white man’s burden” expressed not so different ideas. Overall, the idea that American government has a unique onus to spread democratic ideas is arrogant–even George Soros [is able to do that] (https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org), and arguably just as well if not better than the Bush administration if for no other reason–and indeed almost certainly for no other reason–than that the Bush administration’s goals were achieved with blood and the money of the American people.

At this point the etymology of the word democracy bears repeating: the Greek words demos and kratos, literally, the people have power. It is the duty of the people, individual men and women everywhere, to spread the ideals of liberty and justice. These are not exclusively American ideals, either, they can come from anywhere, anyone, at any time. It is through the power of the people too that democracy corrects itself. Here again President Bush is correct, but does not say enough. Democratic power need not be restricted to the narrow avenues of our political system. It is an oft-repeated admonition, cited begrudgingly by some and approvingly by others, that our form of government is a republic, not a true democracy. That’s not to say the republic is devoid of democratic elements–we refer to our government as a democratic republic, after all–but it is for this reason that the self-corrective capacities of democracy, or any capacity of democracy, cannot be restricted to our political system. Democracy does not wait for the ballot box, it is not caged up in Washington, and it is not subject to the will of lobbyists and congressmen. Democracy begins and ends with the people themselves. There is no time to wait for democracy, for politics is a perpetual activity; don’t wait until you’re old enough to run for office, until you have enough money, or until a cold November afternoon.

It’s not easy, mind you. Exercising democracy is truly difficult, in part because we have to invent ways to exercise it, and create it ourselves.