The Mueller Probe and the Constitutional Crisis
The controversy over the Mueller probe simply refuses to go away. As time passes, one begins to wonder what sustains it? Why is it still here? Personalities and political rivalries certainly play their role, but they alone certainly do not seem to be sufficient to explain this longevity. Indeed, one gets a nagging impression that what drives this controversy is something very fundamental, rather than coincidental and fortuitous. There is a persistent view that this controversy represents a constitutional crisis; that is, that it poses a threat to democracy and the rule of law in America.
The American Constitution is the fundamental document that formalizes our social practices. It is not a dead dogma. It has emerged out of the life experience of this country; and, like life, it is full of tensions and contradictions. One of the most important tensions in our Constitution is the tension between its commitment to broad democratic principles and freedoms, on one hand, and the reality of the presence of hierarchies based on subordination, on the other.
The Founding Fathers were well aware of this contradiction between democratic inclusion and empowerment of all citizens and the imperatives of hierarchical control. This awareness was the main reason why they embedded in the Constitution a system of checks and balances designed to protect citizens against encroachments on their rights and freedoms.
The system of checks and balances mitigates and subdues the tension between the commitment to broad democracy and the recognition of the need for hierarchical control, but it does not eliminate it. This tension has persisted throughout American history. It has periodically resurfaced during its most dramatic periods when the pressure for broad democracy clashed with efforts by hierarchies to preserve the existing order. One can see its manifestation in the American Civil War and during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. There are many indications that this tension drives the constitutional crisis we experience today.
There are two principal sides to the controversy over the Mueller investigation. The supporters of the probe argue that the probe should continue until it provides exhaustive answers to all concerns warranted by its original mandate. Those opposed to the probe insist that the probe has already exceeded its original mandate and, since it has not uncovered any evidence of collusion, it should be terminated.
It is not necessary to go into the legal details pertaining to this investigation. Most of these details have already been exhaustively covered in numerous media articles and talk shows. Also, the more one examines the arguments on both sides, the more one understands that what matters in this controversy is not so much law and legal norms but politics. There are many indications that politics, and more specifically the rise of the anti-establishment protests that led to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, has played a crucial role in creating this controversy. Whatever the original motivation for the probe may have been, the reality is that those opposed to President Trump see the probe as a way to counter what has often been referred to as the “surge of populism” that brought Trump to power. Also, it certainly does not appear that the controversy will be resolved exclusively in the legal sphere.
The participants fight it out primarily in the court of public opinion and the political arena. President Trump and his supporters are trying to gain popular support through social networks and put pressure on the legislators in order to bring the investigation to conclusion. The supporters of the probe try to capitalize on any new development to extend it as far as possible with an obvious intention to mobilize voters for the upcoming elections in November. They make no secret that they want to gain control of Congress, or at least one of its chambers, use it to either scuttle Trump’s presidency or even impeach and remove him from office.
Despite political implications of this controversy, one should be cautious to jump to conclusions that would suggest traditional party rivalry and partisanship that has often divided the Democrats and the Republicans. The supporters and the opponents of the Mueller probe do not reveal any clear party divide. There are, for example, quite a few Republicans, including Mueller himself, involved in the probe. Many prominent and highly respected Republicans, of the likes of John McCain, who strongly support the probe and would even like to see Mr. Trump removed from office.
Rather than party bias, the controversy reveals the opposition between the elemental anti-establishment moods and attitudes that played such a significant role in the last presidential election, on one hand, and those who are fearful of these elemental forces and rely on the hierarchy of law enforcement agencies to stave off the onslaught of those whom Hillary Clinton contemptuously called “deplorables.” The on-going conflict between the democratically elected members of Congress and the high-level bureaucratic appointees in the government law-enforcement agencies supports this contention.
Thus one can see that the controversy over the probe manifests a nascent tension one can see in the American Constitution and history between elemental democracy and hierarchical control. There is nothing fortuitous or accidental about the re-emergence of this tension. The current crisis has deep causes rooted in the new social reality that has emerged in the course of the evolution of our society. Also, the opposition between elemental democracy and the hierarchies that try to maintain the existing order is not unique to the United States. Indeed, over the last decade or so there have been a number of such conflicts around the world: the Arab Spring, the Maidan protest movement in Ukraine, Occupy Wall Street, the protest movement in Hong Kong, and many others. These conflicts have not been accidental. Rather, they are a product of deep underlying dynamic causes.
First of all, our civilization undergoes a profound transformation under the impact of economic developments, technological innovations, and global transformations, including climate change, changing social landscape, and much, much else. Our civilization faces new and unfamiliar problems that require new approaches and new solutions. Yet the elites that dominate our civilization have miserably failed to provide such solutions. This failure has clearly undermined their legitimacy and control. There is no question that the pains of the transition period—un- and under-employment, declining production growth, several financial crises, etc.—have also produced an army of disaffected and alienated people whose faith in the capacity of the elites to solve these problems has all but disappeared.
Last but not least, those elemental democratic moods and attitudes have found the venue for expressing themselves. The Internet and the social media networks offer numerous opportunities for mobilization, organization, and exchange of ideas among individuals who have had previously few opportunities to exercise their autonomy and agency. These innovations have proven to be very empowering and liberating to many people all over the world whose views and opinions have been in the past generally ignored or suppressed by the mainstream media.
Crises are fraught with dangers, but they also present opportunities. Every time that the tension between elemental democracy and the existing order transpired in the history of the United States, it ended with victories for democracy that created new and more extensive forms of inclusion and empowerment. The current constitutional crisis is also pregnant with such opportunities. The emerging social reality in the United States—and in the rest of the world—requires changes in our social practice, the expansion of the scope of democratic inclusion and empowerment, and, consequently, the elimination of hierarchical domination.
Universal inclusion and empowerment do not imply the elimination of hierarchies, as some radical theories envision. The rise of hierarchies is not a fortuitous and arbitrary phenomenon; they are not a result of some tragic aberration in human evolution. On the contrary, they are its legitimate product. The evolution creates new and increasingly more powerful levels of organization—and, consequently, hierarchies. In other words, hierarchies are essential to this evolution; we need them. They help to conserve and optimize new levels and forms of organization. It is the domination of hierarchies that creates problems. As a form of exclusion, domination creates inequality and hinders progress.
The controversy over the Mueller probe displays in full force the cataclysmic clash between the nascent elemental democracy and those who fear it and try to suppress it. Many people in America begin to realize that this clash is not going to go away. The tectonic forces that set it in motion are too powerful. There is nothing that can stop them at this point. To think that this crisis will simply blow away and dissipate in thin air is to believe in miracles.
So, what lies ahead for us? As is true of everything in the domain of human affairs, the answer to this question depends on our decisions and actions. At this point in time each side tries to prevail over the other, and this is a recipe for disaster. It is hard to imagine that one of the sides will simply give up. As each side tries to achieve victory on any of the issues that rock our political landscape—be it the fate of Donald Trump’s presidency, gun control, immigration, or U.S. foreign policy—the result will be only the deepening of the crisis and the growing of social strife with unpredictable consequences for this country and the world.
However, the above scenario is not the only one possible. We do not have to go this way. There is no question that this crisis that has been developing over a long period of time can be resolved, as we often hope, by a quick fix. Stop gap measures will not do in cases when a problem has been in the making for decades. We need a long-term solution and such solutions take time.
As indicated earlier, the eruption of the current political crisis is due to the tension between our commitment to broad democratic principles that are universally inclusive and empowering, on one hand, and the need for hierarchies, on the other. The long-term solution of the problem that drives the controversy over the Mueller probe is in resolving this tension. We need to transform our social practice in the way that would balance and harmonize hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions, not in new forms of exclusion and domination.
Despite numerous problems that many democracies face in the world today, despite the rise of authoritarianism and tribalism, many people still remain supportive of democracy, are unwilling to give it up, and are prepared to fight for it. At the same time, we can hardly imagine a modern society without hierarchies. All systems that exist in nature combine, balance, and harmonize hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions. As has been indicated, hierarchies are not historical accidents produced by fortuitous circumstances. They are an essential part of reality and play an important role in the evolution of our civilization. It is the domination of hierarchies and elites that has had a stifling effect on the progress of our civilization. This domination has led to the rise of anti-establishment opposition in this country and around the world. The future of America and, indeed, of our civilization depends on the solution of this problem. How this problem can be solved is a different matter that requires special attention. As far as this contribution goes, the identification and recognition of the problem is a good first step in finding its solution.
To repeat, the American Constitution is not a dead dogma carved in stone. It has been evolving throughout the history of this country and as a result of changes in our social practice. Our current period is no different in this respect from similar periods of transformation in the past. We must remain true to the history of this country and to its spirit of innovation and renewal. We have reached once again the point when old dogmas and old practices no longer work. Rather than resist change, we must boldly move forward toward new frontiers and horizons. The future of this country and, indeed, of our civilization vitally depends on what we do.