"The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through."
— Alexis de Tocqueville
Could 2006 be the year that we reclaim our democracy?
As we begin the new year, reclaiming our democratic traditions seems to be a priority greater than even the war on terror.
In the four-plus years since Sept. 11, we have methodically surrendered small pieces of our democracy for the illusion of safety. We have acquiesced as more and more power was concentrated into the executive branch.
The understandable post-Sept. 11 fear caused the nation to rationalize actions that conservatives and liberals alike would have abhorred otherwise.
Without much resistance, the USA PATRIOT Act became law, torture became a key ingredient in fighting the war on terror and the president justified wiretapping without the requisite due process or congressional oversight.
Yet, the war on terror remains a war that only requires sacrifice from a few. The spigot is wide open with a ceaseless flow of tax cuts for the wealthiest but has dried up when it comes to services for those who need help most. It is hard to imagine such policies being tolerated by a people committed to democratic values.
Why should we bother to send elected representation to Washington? The president believes he can unilaterally determine any policy that is remotely related to a war that has no definable end. And he does so without regard for the rule of law or our democratic values.
We have long passed the point of moral self-reflection when the commander in chief can brazenly state that he ordered wiretaps on U.S. soil, justifying it with the notion that the rule of law is trumped by the war on terror.
How long can we remain content believing that Sept. 11 changed everything? Was the impact of Sept. 11 so great that we now believe that the president is above the law?
If so, those of us in dissent owe the president and vice president an apology. Moreover, we would also need to declare Osama bin Laden the victor.
Time is the only antidote to fear-based emotionalism. And the further away we are from Sept. 11, the clearer we can see how much our democratic traditions have needlessly been relinquished.
The collective burden is on the American people to reclaim the courage that is at the root of our democracy. Nowhere can one peruse the texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the Federalist Papers and find justification for the bad intelligence leading to pre-emptive war, the torture policies or domestic wiretapping without obtaining a warrant.
We must be prepared to remove any elected official, regardless of party, who is not willing to put the country first.
The post-Sept. 11 experience should remind us that a democratic nation never has the luxury of putting its values on autopilot. We entrusted the president with keeping us safe, and in the process with few exceptions, promised not to question.
This may have been one of the great Faustian bargains in U.S. history: absolute power in return for the perception of safety. That is not how democracies work. Unlike totalitarian regimes, they require a constant conciseness and commitment to the values they proclaim.
For in the words of George Bernard Shaw, "Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve."
The Rev. Byron Williams is pastor of Resurrection Community Church in Oakland, Calif.