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Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches

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Excerpted from John W. Dean’s Broken Government : How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches

This book completes an unplanned trilogy addressing post-Watergate Republican rule in Washington. When I first started to write about problems with the Bush administration I had no idea they would keep growing. As they continued, so has my writing. While working on the prior two books, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush (2004) and Conservatives Without Conscience (2006), it became clear, at least to me, that Republicans had learned little about abusing power in the ways that ultimately destroyed the Nixon presidency.

Given my familiarity with that now mostly forgotten history, I find it astonishing that the Republican party has actively incorporated such an undemocratic mentality into its governing philosophy, and in the process turned once conventional conservative thinking about congressional, presidential, and judicial powers upside down, and then sideways. More strikingly, it has gotten away with it, although it seems a reckoning may finally have come.

In the pages that follow, drawing on findings of my earlier works but viewing their subject matter in a far broader context, I examine the troubling consequences of this new “Republican” way of thinking. It has been new on Capitol Hill since about 1997, about three years after the GOP regained control of the House; it has been new to the White House since 2001, with the arrival of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney, although its roots first emerged during the Nixon presidency and began blossoming in the Reagan and Bush Senior years. This is not a how-to book, nor is it prescriptive, but rather a heads-up account about the way Republicans behave when in power. Rational-thinking Americans should hope that the 2008 presidential election confronts the need to repair the government, rather than adopts agendas or selects candidates bound to produce more damage. It is that hope that prompted my writing this book at this time, and I plan to do as much as I can to raise awareness of these issues with voters and candidates, for they simply cannot be ignored.

In Worse Than Watergate I pointed out striking parallels between Bush’s governing style and Nixon’s, focusing particularly on the use of excessive and unnecessary secrecy by both presidencies, along with the resulting consequences. Given my involvement in Nixon’s presidency, not to mention its undoing with Watergate, I recognized early in the Bush administration exactly the same mind-set that had caused such havoc thirty years earlier. I had no doubt that this mentality would result in a calamity of some sort—which, in fact, it has done. Asserting then that Bush’s presidency was worse than Nixon’s has proven, in any case, to be an understatement, for in fact it has proven to be much, much worse. Suffice it to say that no one died, nor was anyone tortured, because of Nixon’s so-called Watergate abuses of power.

In Conservatives Without Conscience I sought to explain the reasons why conservatives govern as they do—callously and ruthlessly—and why loyal conservative followers are so compliant with the wishes of their leaders. I focused my study on the conservative disposition in the Republican-controlled Congress, along with that in the conservative rank and file of the Grand Old Party, all of whom acquiesced in Bush and Cheney’s actions, regardless of how offensive they were to their own core beliefs. Social scientists, I discovered, have been studying such compliant followers (as well as aggressive and dominating leaders) for decades, whom they call “authoritarians.” Surprisingly, studies of authoritarianism, which are based on a half century of empirical testing, had not been presented for general readers. Accordingly, with the assistance of Bob Altemeyer, one of the leading researchers in the field, I explored this research in Conservatives Without Conscience—delving into the dark side of conservatism. For example, social scientists have found, based on anonymous responses from tens of thousands of people, that authoritarians are “enemies of freedom, antidemocratic, anti-equality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral”—to mention only a few of their troubling traits, all of which are contributing to the breakdown of our democratic system.

This book completes the analysis I began in those previous works by examining the operations of all branches of the federal government, as set forth in the Constitution: legislative, executive, and judicial, which are commonly referred to by their placement in Articles I through III as the first through third branches. More to the point, I wish to argue that they have failed to function properly under the control of the Republican Party’s current governing philosophy. I have also sought to answer several basic questions that have been asked repeatedly by my readers—questions that I could not, at the time, satisfactorily answer.

Many wanted to know specifically what damage, if any, Bush, Cheney, and the Republican Congress—and other “conservatives without conscience”— have done to our government. Have they broken the system?

Others asked what, if anything, they could do. Where should they focus their attention? Could an average citizen make a difference? To find reliable answers, I again searched for the best scholarly and professional political advice, and I’ve reported what I found in the following pages.

While Broken Government draws on my earlier works, it is not necessary to have read them to understand the argument I present here.

For example, the excessive secrecy of the Bush administration, and the fact that Congress and the federal courts have tolerated it, is compelling evidence of broken government, but because this information is featured in Worse Than Watergate I have not repeated here, although I have occasionally incorporated it by reference. Throughout the following pages I refer to “authoritarian conservatives” –the focus of Conservatives Without Conscience—but I have done so in a way that the use of the term is self-explanatory.

I described Worse Than Watergate as a polemic, for it was precisely that in the tone of its arguments against the Bush II administration.

When it became apparent how Republicans ruled when they controlled all three branches of the federal government, I wrote Conservatives Without Conscience—this time, not as a polemic, but as an analysis of what had become of modern conservatism since authoritarianism had come to dominate the conservative movement. Broken Government is both a polemic and an analysis, for I believe something must be done about the negative impact that Republican control has had on the federal government. Although I will be accused by my former compatriots of having become a partisan for their enemies, that is not the case.

Those who will attack me have a vested interest in Republicans remaining in power. I have no such interest, for either party. My only concern is about the well-being of our government, which actually performs best when it is employed on behalf of the public. Today, any objective observer must conclude that it is the Democrats who—while they certainly enjoy power—have the needs of the public at the top of their agenda. Republicans, on the other hand, have become the party of special interests. Republicans seem to think that if their desires are satisfied, everyone will benefit. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. Republicans have sought to reshape the federal government in a manner that best suits them, and in so doing they appear determined to destroy it branch by branch.

In the chapters that follow I have made no effort to collect, and catalog, everything that has gone wrong under Republican rule, for to do so would require many volumes. Instead I have elected to examine vital fault lines underlying each branch in order to gauge where government operations have slipped from their constitutional foundations, to determine what (and who) caused it, and to determine if there has been structural damage. As I explain in the introduction, I have further narrowed my examination to those breakdowns in the system that significantly affect the lives of all Americans. Chapter 1 collects a broad cross section of well-informed views about the legislative branch under GOP rule; Chapter 2 explores how post-Watergate Republican rule has culminated in the Bush White House, hell-bent on expanding presidential power endlessly; and Chapter 3 explores the concerted efforts by Republicans to accomplish their goals through the judicial branch, working from the Supreme Court down, because they cannot achieve their aims democratically. Their actions have brought the federal judiciary to its tipping point. Finally, in Chapter 4, I set forth what should and can be done to fix the damage and restore the  Government. Because not everything I felt needed to be known or said about the operations of Congress and the particular abuse of power that has become the favorite of Republican presidents—the power of war and peace—fit into their respective chapters, so I have also included several appendices, where I have outlined in nontechnical and broad terms information about the separation of powers appropriation process, and the dubious legal legerdemain being relied upon by contemporary conservative Republicans to take the American presidency far beyond Nixon’s “imperial presidency,” a concept that was rejected by Americans long ago.

This is not a book about policy; rather, it is a book about the often ignored processes of the federal government. Candidates for federal office almost never discuss process, under the mistaken belief that no one much cares about it. In the pages that follow I will show that we ignore process at our peril and will advocate far more attention to be paid to government process, for the simple reason that good policy follows from well-functioning processes. In fact, given the Republicans’ efforts to redesign the federal system, if process is ignored much longer the government our Founders established—a system built on separations of powers, with checks and balances—will vanish, and in its place will be the modern Republican conservative philosophy that can  be described as autocratic presidentialism—although the Republicans themselves use much more innocuous terms, like “unilateralism” and “unitary executive theory.”

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John Dean was White House legal counsel to President Nixon for a thousand days. Dean also served as chief minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee and as an associate deputy attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice. He is author of the book, (more...)
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