Trump-Comey saga underscores weird contradiction in democracy 

opinion May 17, 2017 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

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Shouldn’t police just “serve and protect”? This is where democracy confuses me most. I understand why an elected leader should bring in their own finance chief, who may prefer a lower or higher interest rate than others, or an agricultural supervisor who wants to plant more rice and less rubber. But what “differences” can political parties have regarding the police?

US President Donald Trump’s decision to sack the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has drawn plenty of comment, but none of the explanations given mention law enforcement’s ultimate yet simple duty. All the gossip is centred on what exactly ousted chief James Comey did or did not do where Russia and Trump were concerned, which is deeply disturbing.

The FBI has intelligence-gathering duties, of course, but it exercises those duties on behalf of the American people, not on behalf of any individual. The whole saga reeks of the bureau being used as a political tool, serving groups in power rather than the American public. It also means that if Trump was right about Comey, his predecessor Barack Obama must have been dead wrong about the FBI chief, and vice versa. If this doesn’t scare democracy-loving Americans, I’m not sure what can.

Last July, Comey carefully laid out the case against Hillary Clinton over her alleged mishandling of classified information, but later refused to recommend charges. Then, the bureau was caught in another “Should we or shouldn’t we?” situation over Trump’s alleged links with Russia. Both are hugely significant issues that, under the logic of democracy, must not be resolved according to which way the political wind is blowing.

Since the FBI acts as a check against misrule in high office, through investigations that no other law enforcement agency has the resources or jurisdiction to carry out, Trump should not have the power to sack its director. Yet as things stand, the president can politically guide the most powerful law enforcement agency, rendering it almost toothless.

Not surprisingly, the FBI is often depicted as a villain in movies. Its powers, mechanism and actions are virtually no different from that created in a dictatorial system, where the police serve whoever is in power rather than the ordinary people. As such a democratic system is better off leaving its armed security forces alone, since permitting an elected leader to name a law-enforcement chief can lead to all kinds of trouble. 

Just look at Thailand. When Thawil Pliensri was removed as secretary-general of the National Security Council in 2011, the “principles of democracy” were cited as an explanation. Thais who disagreed with the move had to grit their teeth and bear it. Thawil sought recourse from the Supreme Administrative Court, which eventually ruled that his transfer had been unjust, and what was initially defended as a democratic exercise was questioned, scrutinised and made to seem anything but.

To cut a long story short, Thawil was kicked out of the NSC to make way for police chief Wichien Potposri, whose office was being handed to political favourite Priewphan Damapong. Priewphan got the top job and Wichien got a face-saving transfer to the NSC. The fall guy in this alleged high-level nepotism was Thawil.

No “serve and protect” anywhere, right? Instead it’s all about which party is in government and thus has control over the police. Well, zealous advocates of democracy might say an elected leader must be able to determine who heads the police force. 

But if that’s the idea, they are not zealous enough.

What about making the police chief an elected official? That would really empower the voters, not to mention the fun. Imagine a candidate for police chief pledging to investigate a Cabinet member’s alleged involvement with call girls, or an FBI hopeful vowing to reveal all secret wire-taps that infringe on public privacy.

Trump’s firing of Comey demonstrates that the “winner takes all” principle is not true democracy. Or to put it another way, it’s a version of democracy that doesn’t really serve the people. Just as we can’t expect Trump to know everything about diplomacy and make pinpoint judgements on complicated matters of espionage, we are certain Hillary Clinton is not equipped to handle every single aspect of American life. Likewise Thailand’s Pheu Thai Party may be better than its opponents on healthcare, but the Democrats seem a better bet on education.

The prevailing notion of democracy papers over politicians’ weak points by proclaiming voters’ empowerment while, in fact, the people are nowhere near empowered enough.

The “zealous advocates” will claim that this is as close as we can get. The Trump-Comey saga tells us that if this is the best democracy can do, it’s not good enough.