This is a post in a series examining how ancient rhetorical techniques shape contemporary public life.
Under the George W. Bush administration, embassy personnel died and privately hosted White House emails were lost, all without investigation by either party in Congress. So why are Republican members of the House of Representatives investigating the same activity under Obama, focusing entirely on Hillary Clinton’s term as Secretary of State? Last week saw Hillary testifying before a Congressional committee about the Benghazi incident, and the investigation into her use of private email servers has dragged on for months.
Neither investigation is motivated by the pursuit of truth and justice, but instead by Republicans’ desire to discredit a potential Democratic presidential candidate. Fox News and two Republican congressmen involved in the Benghazi hearings have admitted that their investigation is a mere political maneuver. Republicans have been using these tactics at least since Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings. But Democrats are not above it either. During George W. Bush’s term, Democrats in the Senate held hearings sounding the alarm about the sale of US port facilities to a company from Dubai. It was easy to make selling US infrastructure to a Middle Eastern company look like a threat to national security. The deal turned out to be a routine, legitimate business practice, something that the Senators who publicly opposed the deal, among them Hillary Clinton, must surely have known. Just because there is legitimate legal authority behind an investigation doesn’t mean we can be sure it is worthy of our attention and outrage.
It is easy to see this as a symptom of our degraded public trust. Corruption has corrupted even the processes by which corruption is found out. How can our democracy recover from such a sorry condition?
But there is grim comfort in the knowledge that it has ever been so. The use of legal processes as weapons in the power struggles of the ruling class is a practice as old as democracy itself.
In ancient Athens, members of the political class regularly deployed two legal methods to discredit, imprison, impoverish, or exile their enemies. One was called ostracism, and it has no parallel in the American system (though perhaps it should). The other is called political prosecution and we see it all the time in American politics.