As I contended in my essay, We will build with new speech, a primary concern of our politics must be revitalizing our Republic and its democratic institutions because “the greatest existential danger America faces is not al Quida but our own loss of trust in our government and accompanying failure of moral legitimacy of our democratic institutions.”
Today, in an essay entitled 9/11 and the Age of Sovereign Failure, Micheal Ignatieff perceptively identifies that the most damaging attack on 9/11 was not on the twin towers, but the assault on the invisible soul of our democracy.
A sovereign is a state with a monopoly on the means of force. It is the object of ultimate allegiance and the source of law. It is there to protect, to defend and to secure. It is there to think the unthinkable and plan for it.
A sovereign failed that morning.
We have learned to live with that, to accept that there are “black swans” – events so unthinkable that no one can prepare for them. So we accept a new vulnerability. But there is no hiding the childlike disappointment inside us all. Our idea of the sovereign included a child’s expectation that it would keep us safe. We have had to grow up.
In the decade since, we have seen nothing that would give us back even an adult’s faith in institutions, let alone a child’s. There has been a cascade of failure.
Promise after promise, our politicians and government officials have failed to keep their word and honor their stewardship. Following 9/11, came Iraq and the failure to find those foretold weapons of mass destruction. The politicians promised democracy would immediately flourish in Iraq, it hasn’t. Then Following 9/11 and Iraq more failures.
Katrina was a second betrayal of expectation, just four years after the first. And a third was on its way.
The economic crisis of 2008 was a failure of markets, but also a failure of sovereign government. At the height of the financial exuberance, when the warning lights began to flash, government regulators told the American people there was no mortgage bubble.
Then they said the damage from the toxic financial instruments was contained. Then they said a bank failure was unthinkable. Then Lehman Brothers went down. The authorities told us it was another black swan.
Politicians and prosecutors promised there would be consequences. There have been no consequences. No one went to jail, except the most egregious fraudsters, and none of the regulators were held accountable. This was sovereign failure compounded, because no one carried the can.
This failure, unlike the first two, was not confined to America. It was a general failure of regulation in most Western states. Some governments – Canada, for example – did not fail in their sovereign duties. The Conservatives had preached their fair share of free-market nonsense in opposition, but, on banking regulation at least, hewed to a liberal consensus when in power. Other governments let ideology, combined with carelessness, get the better of them.
The fourth sovereign failure was environmental. When the wellhead burst in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the company told Americans that the spill was under control. It wasn’t. The regulators said they had done the inspections. They hadn’t. They had colluded with the industry they were supposed to be regulating. They signed off on the bad welds. They took the industry’s word. Then they said the damage from the spilling oil wasn’t too bad. It was bad enough.
Here was a failure to regulate, to protect and to prevent – basic responsibilities of any government. Is there any real reason to believe government will do a better job, from here on, regulating Arctic and offshore drilling?
This summer, politicians in Washington came within an ace of defaulting on the national debt – on a responsibility so fundamental to the role of a government that it is inscribed in the U.S. Constitution as the 14th Amendment. America (and therefore the world) came within a day or two of a fifth sovereign failure.
The existential threat resulting from this series of failure has been revealed:
It is always good to be skeptical about what governments tell us. But we are beyond skepticism now, into a deep and enduring cynicism. There will come a day when they are not crying wolf and we will not believe them. Then we will be in trouble. Some trust in government is a condition of democracy and security alike. That trust has been weakened and can’t be rebuilt until sovereigns say what they mean, mean what they say and do what they promise.
Trust is government is the cornerstone on which our democracy resides. This cornerstone has been weakened and damaged by 9/11 and the decade that followed. This foundation needs repair and remediation; however, some want to exploit the fractures and further weaken this foundation:
Thus you have a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States telling voters that his objective is to make Washington “irrelevant” in the lives of Americans. He is saying what a lot of Americans want to hear.
This is the politics you get when a country has lived through a decade of sovereign failure (and two decades of ideological fantasy before that).
Instead of learning, as catastrophe sometimes teaches, that we are all in this together, many of us (and Americans in particular) seem to have learned that we are each on our own.
The response of governments has become part of the problem. Environmental regulation is sacrificed on the altar of jobs. Government watchdogs are put down in obedience to the ideology of deregulation. As government weakens in these dimensions, it becomes more coercive in others.
To turn back terror, our institutions have become more ruthless and more vigilant, yet we do not trust them more. A secret war on terror is waged, without foreseeable end, in our name, beyond our ken and beyond our control.
This cynicism leads to hopelessness, community anxiety, and cultural and social psychosis:
When you line these failures up in a row, one following the other, it is no surprise that people have lost faith in government everywhere, but especially in the United States. Yet what the story should tell us is how important sovereigns actually are.
While there are a lot of things a government might do, there are a few things that only a government can do: protect the people, rescue them when they are in danger, regulate against catastrophic risk and safeguard the full faith and credit of their currency.
Sovereigns matter. And rebuilding their legitimacy, their capacity and their competence is the political task that matters most.
Competent doesn’t mean bigger. It may even mean smaller, nimbler, more digital, less bureaucratic and more responsive in the face of the ceaseless ingenuity of greed. But whatever form sovereign government takes in the future, it has to mean government that prepares for the worst and regulates to protect the public from greed, violence and environmental ruin.
Ignatieff points us in the right direction:
If terror challenges democracy, the answer is more democracy, not less; more accountability and openness, not less. The question is whether the secret power we have allowed to spring up in our name is under any kind of democratic control. Do our elected representatives keep our secret agencies under sufficient scrutiny? Does the press know what is being done in our name? . . .
We can live with this knowledge, because we prefer it to the innocence that blinded us a decade ago. We cannot live without faith in others, so we draw inspiration from the courage shown by rescuers and survivors. But we cannot take consolation from the decade we have lived since.
In fact, though, we are not in need of consolation. We are in need of good politics, of democratic systems that are more than reality-TV shows driven by attack ads, and of democratic debate that allows the people to talk about what actually matters and then to elect politicians who will do what must be done.
We are not short of good ideas about what to do. We are not short of dedicated public servants. Most people, apart from those in the grip of ideological fantasy, know that we need competent sovereigns.
But truth be told, a decade later, sovereigns are failing us still. And until they stop failing us, we will not be safe, and our prosperity will not be secure.
The Liberty for which the Statute symbolizes still stands; however, the moral trust in the democracy has been greatly weakened. We are in need a good politics. Let us strive ever toward more democracy, more accountability, more civic participation, and more openness.