Ellsberg Discusses Decline of Democracy

Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg discussed the threat of National Security Agency surveillance and the decline of American democracy in a late-night interview that he gave after a lecture at George State University in Atlanta.

Do you worry about being surveilled?

Oh, I’m sure I’m surveilled in terms of credit card, cell phone, and email, as is everyone. They collect everything but it doesn’t mean they collect it in real-time. They want to record it. I’m sure it includes content as well as meta-data. When they want to find out about somebody, they just dial it in like Google and they’ll get someone’s whole life. By the way, they can listen to you via your iPhone when it’s turned off. And of course the location is traceable. In short, they are more interested in me.

Now that it’s come out that I’m going to see Snowden, I imagine they’ll be a lot more interested in me. I don’t expect to take any computers or thumb drives or anything with me because they would probably confiscate it right away.

Daniel Ellsberg on the cover of Time after leaking the Pentagon Papers

Daniel Ellsberg on the cover of Time after leaking the Pentagon Papers

Sometimes the public is the problem. Democracy is not foolproof. It’s just better than the alternatives. I mean the elected Republicans took Congress, how do you explain that? It sounds like the ethics commission did their job. Obama appointed people to investigate the NSA after Snowden. They came up with a lot of recommendations, and he almost entirely ignored it.

You can’t force the person appointed to follow their recommendations, and you can’t ensure they will make good recommendations. When they do find things out about the person or the administration that appointed them, they’re less likely than before to have any of those recommendations followed. If the perpetrator is in charge of implementing these things, then it’s not going to happen. It’s hard to find the rationale for the people who elected these Republicans. Yes, the country doesn’t like the economy. And to a great degree they blame Obama probably more than his due.

The president usually gets blamed on the economy, whether it’s the weather or whatever it is. If things are bad, the incumbent will get the blame. To be mad at him and to elect people who oppose him seems like an understandable thing except when you realize when they are almost certain to make matters worse. When things are bad under the incumbent, it’s irrational to elect people who are almost sure to make them worse. And yet people do that rather liberally. That shows that the theory of rationality, getting all the information they can and acting reasonably, is not something that humans should be counted on to do.

For the people to elect Republicans because they don’t like results under Obama is self-punishing in effect. It’s ignorant. It’s counterproductive and does not do them credit. I’m in a country that almost elected George W. Bush two times. That’s quite a charge against any nation. Even if he did steal both elections, he came close to winning. He got almost half the country.

That’s not easy to explain and it does us no credit as a country and frankly it means that the chance that we will dig ourselves out of this hole of war, bad economy, unemployment, and climate, and help the world take on those things, is very small. We can do what we can and we should do it despite knowing that the actual chance of success is not high. And when I talk about success, I’m talking about survival of the species – the survival of our civilization.

As Noam Chomsky said recently, we’re in the twilight of civilization. It must be hyperbolic, but it isn’t. There’s a very high chance of climatic catastrophe, which ends urban civilization and large populations. It means a huge deal in the next century. By huge, I mean most humans. It could not be more serious. It could not be overstated. Yet this country and other countries are acting in total denial, as if those problems are entirely trivial. This species and this country and this civilization are in bad shape and we’re not showing signs of a willing to do anything to avert catastrophe. And yet the challenge is there.

Whistleblowers have mostly not had an impact on policy, but sometimes they have. Movements have generally not succeeded, but sometimes they have. The stakes, being what they are, are definitely worth someone’s life, many lives, to try and change the process.

The interview was originally posted by Paul DeMerrit at http://clatl.com/freshloaf/archives/2014/11/19/daniel-ellsberg-the-original-whistleblower-on-transparency-politics-and-civilizations-future

10 comments for “Ellsberg Discusses Decline of Democracy

  1. Abe
    November 20, 2014 at 15:46

    Sheldon S. Wolin: Do we live in a Democracy?

    Sheldon S. Wolin is an American political philosopher and writer on contemporary politics. Wolin is currently Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University, where he taught from 1973 to 1987.

    A critic of contemporary American politics, Wolin is known for coining the term inverted totalitarianism.

    During a teaching career which spanned over forty years Wolin also taught at Oxford University, Oberlin College, Cornell University, UCLA, University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, Santa Cruz. During this time he mentored many graduate students who would become leading political theorists, such as Cornel West, Wendy Brown (who dedicated her famous book States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity to him), and Hanna Fenichel Pitkin.

    His most famous work is Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded ed. (1960; Princeton University Press, 2004).

    He is the author of Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton University Press, 2008).

    • Abe
      November 20, 2014 at 15:52

      The video is excerpted from “Democracy and the Nature of Power: Sheldon Wolin,” an episode of A World of Ideas with Bill Moyers that aired in 1988.

    • Abe
      November 20, 2014 at 15:55

      The increasing power of the state and the declining power of institutions intended to control it has been in the making for some time. The party system is a notorious example. The Republicans have emerged as a unique phenomenon in American history of a fervently doctrinal party, zealous, ruthless, antidemocratic and boasting a near majority. As Republicans have become more ideologically intolerant, the Democrats have shrugged off the liberal label and their critical reform-minded constituencies to embrace centrism and footnote the end of ideology. In ceasing to be a genuine opposition party the Democrats have smoothed the road to power of a party more than eager to use it to promote empire abroad and corporate power at home. Bear in mind that a ruthless, ideologically driven party with a mass base was a crucial element in all of the twentieth-century regimes seeking total power.

      Representative institutions no longer represent voters. Instead, they have been short-circuited, steadily corrupted by an institutionalized system of bribery that renders them responsive to powerful interest groups whose constituencies are the major corporations and wealthiest Americans. The courts, in turn, when they are not increasingly handmaidens of corporate power, are consistently deferential to the claims of national security. Elections have become heavily subsidized non-events that typically attract at best merely half of an electorate whose information about foreign and domestic politics is filtered through corporate-dominated media. Citizens are manipulated into a nervous state by the media’s reports of rampant crime and terrorist networks, by thinly veiled threats of the Attorney General and by their own fears about unemployment. What is crucially important here is not only the expansion of governmental power but the inevitable discrediting of constitutional limitations and institutional processes that discourages the citizenry and leaves them politically apathetic.

      Inverted Totalitarianism
      By Sheldon Wolin

  2. Abe
    November 20, 2014 at 14:35

    “For the people to elect Republicans because they don’t like results under Obama” was the raison d’être of the Obama administration.

    After eight years of the calamitous smirking chimp, President Hope had a mandate to sweep the neocon filth from power. Not only did he shelter the neocons, he elevated them.

    There is no truly independent mass political movement in the United States, as there should have been after the 2000 presidential election, as there should be immediately after the 2014 midterm elections.

    The peace, environmentalist, and civil libertarian movements should immediately unite as a populist Constitutional Party movement.

    A populist Constitutional Party movement must unequivocally reject the Democratic, Republican, and faux-independent right and left libertarian parties that have helped solidify the vicious kleptocracy that currently rules the United States. And it must refuse corporate money from all channels.

    A populist Constitutional Party platform could be established in ten days. A national mass political movement could be active in four to six months. By the spring of 2016 it could determine the election.

    But not if we sit around with our thumbs up our asses listening to Ellsberg and other progressive saints mutter about the end of the world.

    Occupy was a tactic, not a populist political movement. It had no organized political party function. Occupy was immediately co-opted, if not instigated, by corporate power.

    War is over if you want it.

    Inverted totalitarianism is over if you want it.

    Can I get a witness?

  3. Chet Roman
    November 20, 2014 at 13:34

    “If things are bad, the incumbent will get the blame.”

    While that may be true, in this case it is well deserved. Obama was compromised by special interests (zionists & financial fraudsters) from his early days in Chicago. He hasn’t prosecuted any of the executives responsible for the financial crisis because they put him in office. He continues the expansion of imperial America, continues the lies about Ukraine & Russia and continues his blind support of the slaughter of Palestinians. It’s not surprising that there has been a neocon resurgence in his administration, especially since he won a second term and didn’t need to worry about being reelected.

    I am a fan of Ellsberg but he’s bordering on delusional if he thinks there is a significant difference between the political parties. The deep state continues to rule regardless of which party is in power. Yes, there is window dressing on social issues to differentiate the parties but the 1%/special interests continues its stranglehold on the U.S.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    November 20, 2014 at 10:42

    There was one turn over in the pass election where a Democrate won over the Republican, and that was the Pennsylvania governors race. I do agree with Mr Ellsberg though. I am now bracing myself since I dread what’s coming. I suspect this will be a replay of the last of the Clinton years, or worst.

    Until we change campaign financing in this country, we shouldn’t expect much good to come to the commons. Both political parties are bought and paid for by special interest. We have lost our balance on compromise since often it seems the Democrates are just as bad as the Republicans. This is all due to our campaign funding being monopolized by the very rich. With the current attacks on public sector unions there is almost no unions left. Like the unions or not, they were the strongest regular person fund raisers of all. If only the minority’s were better organized then, and only then could something replace the dwindling union members.

    Mr Ellsberg brings up a good point, and so does Zachary Smith. As Zachary points out, people are discouraged, and they don’t vote. It is wrong of course for them not to cast a ballet, but they are just flat out ‘beat up’. The people are sick and tired of voting for their politicians campaign rhetoric only to see the reality of this rhetoric disappear once in office.

    So get ready, the next couple of years should be interesting…oh, did I mention the 2016 presidential election?

  5. Zachary Smith
    November 20, 2014 at 00:26

    For the people to elect Republicans because they don’t like results under Obama is self-punishing in effect. It’s ignorant. It’s counterproductive and does not do them credit.

    I believe Mr. Ellsberg errs here. It’s true that the presidency is a symbolic lightning rod, but very few voters had any real choice. Most of the Democrats who lost in the recent election fully deserved to lose. Democrats no longer represent anybody except themselves and their wealthy patrons. “Not Quite As Bad” as the Republican opponent just doesn’t hack it.

    Back to the “ignorant” voters, or in the last election, the non-voters, they could see they were royally screwed no matter which way they went. With the Democrats the process was merely a bit more drawn out.

    Who gave us Obamacare instead of Single Payer? Who has aided and abetted the Police State? Which one of the Democrats doesn’t kiss Holy Israel’s heinie when they’re signaled to do so? I have a Republican and Democratic Senator. Both of them are entirely useless in things which matter to me.

    • Rusty Shackleford
      November 20, 2014 at 02:24

      Who gave us Obamacare instead of Single Payer?

      Mitt Romney…?

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