Here's an exercise for this Fourth of July, when Americans celebrate -- or take for granted -- the independence dearly won for them by their ancestors. Imagine today that you live in a country where undemocratic processes occur unchallenged:
* Prisoners are locked up with no formal charges filed and no ability to petition the courts.
* Telephones are tapped at the discretion of the country's government, without warrants.
* Prosecutors are hired and fired based, in part, on their willingness to use their office to help elect members of the governing party.
* Exceptional power is granted by the executive to his second in command, who nonetheless claims he is exempt from executive orders because he is not part of the executive branch.
Sound familiar? Each one of those examples has occurred in this country -- or, in the case of political prosecutions, appears to have occurred -- since George W. Bush was elected president. Nevertheless, the country we are imagining is not this one.
In that unfortunate country, undemocratic processes "occur unchallenged." In this one, they are being challenged six ways from Sunday. That, in the end, is the quality that makes this country great. The point isn't that Americans or their leaders are infallible, it's that we retain the power of self-correction, and we are willing to use it. We can save ourselves.
It is how this democracy protects itself from abuses, whether they flow from greed, miscalculation or the inevitable influences of human nature. We may sometimes be slow to respond, but eventually, we do.
The correction began shortly after the 2004 presidential election, when President Bush's approval numbers began to sag. It became formal in the 2006 midterm elections, when Americans, sufficiently fed up with how their government was being run, gave Democrats control of Congress and with it, the inherent power to do what the Republicans before them would not: monitor a reckless executive branch.
It may be needed again; given new power, Democrats have been exercising it in many of the same ways Republicans did -- in pursuit of their own agenda. Meanwhile, the Bush administration hasn't backed down. It still believes in indefinite detentions, secret prisons and warrantless wiretaps. But it is now under scrutiny and will remain so for its remaining 18 months of existence. It has been taught a lesson that other administrations, from both parties, have also had to learn the hard way: Americans are an independent lot. That's something to celebrate.