Politics may not be beanbag, but electoral politics is also not the game of basics that America needs today. It is no longer realistic to speak of trying to win elections by means of dismissing basic issues like what liberty means, and whether government has grown so big that we really do have to transform it fundamentally. There can be no such thing now as Republicans winning a national election by speaking as if we can remain on our current course without making major changes.
To speak so is to speak on the Democrats’ terms. For all their talk of attacking the status quo, the Democrats are, today, the party of the status quo of law and government in America. The status quo involves keeping the people trapped in a vise of regulation, taxes, and carefully calibrated “benefits.” It involves funneling every problem of human life through government – but more than that, it involves making up fake problems in order to increase the power of government. In today’s status quo, moreover, the federal government is as closely involved in local and personal issues as state and local governments are; there is no working principle that the federal government’s armed power should be kept separate from intricate economic regulation and moral law.
Examples of radicalism and corruption in government abound. President Obama, in his second term, has taken off the mask of moderation and now speaks about many issues in the most radical terms – and using the most radical methods. His climate-change speech was delivered to a hand-picked audience – and was not open to the public – at Georgetown University on 25 June. This is a favorite tactic of despots the world over. Castigating those who are skeptical of climate alarmism as a “Flat Earth Society” is also a radical tactic, especially for a head of state: it is typical of fascists and communists, but not of most American presidents, to speak in such intemperate language of those who disagree with them.
It is also typical of despots to promise to take action in spite of a recalcitrant legislature, as Obama did in his climate speech. At no time has it been politically moderate to promise sweeping action – action that would destroy an industry, kill jobs across the economy, and impoverish the people – on the authority of the executive alone. When presented as an antidote to a heel-dragging legislature, it is the type of measure propounded by dictators and aspiring dictators, on the model of Hugo Chavez.
From Fast & Furious to the scandal of IRS bias against conservative and pro-Israel groups, corrupt use of the federal government’s power has mushroomed. The most banal form of corruption – taxpayer money being used as a slush fund for the Obama administration’s political backers – has been enshrined in everything from the 2009 federal Stimulus to actions like cash support to failing “green energy” companies, the bailouts of GM and Chrysler, and the passage of the Obamacare law, which pays “community” groups to sign citizens up for the state insurance exchanges. The “Gang of 8” immigration bill, which just passed the Senate, sets up the same kind of slush fund for community groups, which will administer the “path to citizenship” for today’s illegal aliens.
But the slush-fund aspect of the funding for community organizations is not even the most damaging. More dangerous still is putting the administration of federal programs in their hands. The community groups are unelected; they are not even appointed, nor are their operations managed through the nominally accountable federal bureaucracy; and once their participation is written in law, they cannot be removed from power through the defeat of their political patrons at the polls. Only if the law itself is changed can their taxpayer-funded fiefdoms be touched.
Betsey McCaughey has compared the anointing of community groups to do the government’s work with the Bolshevik campaign to create “soviets” – worker collectives – to effectively take over the political space of Russia in conjunction with the 1917 revolution. This comparison has merit, but it is also useful to compare the legislation favoring community groups with the well-documented patterns of political “bossism” in American cities like Boston and Chicago, or states like Louisiana. Political predators use different pretexts in different times and places, but the patterns of cronyism, ward-tending, and services-brokering are very, very old. In most of the world, they have always and inevitably fostered tremendous corruption and brutality.
The political forms set up in the U.S. Constitution were intended to prevent the federal government from having a reason to get involved with them. The federal government was to be a recourse for the people, in extremis, if they were being mistreated by local governments.
But Obamacare creates a permanent vehicle for federal “bossism.” By instituting the bossism in the state insurance exchanges, it also ensures that the states will be fully aligned with the federal “boss.” There will be no level of appeal or protection for the people above the level of the “boss.” This situation will be far worse than it has ever been in Chicago, even during the worst days of the Daley machine.
… in the judicial branch as well
America is menaced not only by the measures of law and by overreach from the executive, however. As Justice Scalia observed in his scathing dissent from the SCOTUS opinion on U.S. v. Windsor, in which DOMA was struck down, the five justices in the majority wrote their opinion not from principles of law but from a very particular, and emotionally expressed, political perspective. They purported to know the motives of those who voted for the DOMA law, and they excoriated its proponents for supposed “hatred.”
This is not the language of jurisprudence. It is the language of demagoguery. Scalia is right about that, and he is right to be concerned that five justices of our highest court felt free – indeed, felt compelled – to couch their opinion in these terms. Sound jurisprudence is not a dispensable art; it is a pillar of ordered liberty, and if we cannot expect to have it under today’s political arrangements, then the serious question arises whether the arrangements are worth keeping.
As with Obama in his second term, this display from the Court really amounts not to a new radicalism, but to a mask coming off. The Supreme Court has strayed from narrow, constitution-oriented jurisprudence for decades. Like the other patterns now threatening our liberties, this one has been growing through several generations. Each pattern has hacked away at the limits the Framers imposed on the scope and power of the federal government.
In fact, it is the slow encroachment of government that has brought us to where we are today, in terms of our economy and our expectations. It is because of government that people can’t find jobs, that businesses aren’t being started, that wages aren’t increasing, that the poor find it harder and harder to improve their lot. For decades, government regulation has been fostering conditions that will ultimately make radical “solutions” seem necessary. None of this has happened overnight. It is the end result of long processes that began in the 1970s (the EPA, health-care regulatory “reform”), the 1960s (Medicare, the Great Society), and on back through the New Deal of the 1930s to the Wilsonian progressivism of the 1910s, and the creation of the federal income tax, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Labor, and the Food and Fuel Administrations.
If Barack Obama had been elected president in 1908 instead of 2008, he would have had at his disposal almost none of the federal departments or agencies through which his administration has undermined accountable government and sought to place burdens on the people. But it did not take the radicalism of the Obama administration to make us and our economy as vulnerable as we now are to regulatory subversion. Creating the vulnerability has been accomplished mostly through actions that seemed, to most people at the time, measured and incremental.
Because the preservation of liberty was not our top priority, we have ended up with a network of governmental arrangements in which our liberties are incontrovertibly a lower priority than partisan agendas. We do not live in the America envisioned by our Founders. In terms of the mandates imposed on us by our federal government, today’s America is much more like the late-colonial period presided over by King George III and a distant, dictatorial, unresponsive Parliament.
Like us, the American colonists were free, for the most part, to write and speak in dissent from the policies of the British crown. But they had no power to get those policies changed through protest or vote. And the policies themselves were remarkably similar to the ones Americans object to today: policies that coerced, limited, and taxed the colonists to keep them as a submissive economic resource for the government in London.
Our options have changed
Perhaps we did not recognize before Obama’s election how vulnerable we had become to this level of coercion. But more and more Americans are seeing it now. Merely electing a different president will not correct our problem. It’s not just the four-odd years of the Obama administration that have to be undone. It’s the 100 years of dismantling the protections for our liberties that we have to address.
Given only the changes made by the Obama administration, however, the truth now is that there is no such option as trying to elect a Republican in 2016 without having the fundamental debate about liberty, law, and government. The federal government, even without the state governments considered, has the powers it needs to demonize Americans for partisan reasons, and hurt them economically. It has the powers, and the Obama administration has made it very clear that presidents and their appointees will use those powers. This bell can’t be unrung. To pretend that every encroachment on liberty – every misuse of government – is not an issue for our elections is to participate in a lie, one that will be fatal to liberty and prosperity.
We can no longer ignore or downplay what our government has the power to do to us, nor can we pretend that things haven’t changed so dramatically that our priorities ought to change as well. The break with our republican past is upon us. We are living it today. We do not have the option of restoring the conditions of 2008, or 1992, or 1960 – no matter whom we elect. Simply electing a Republican to the White House is not a panacea for our ills. But failing to address the encroachment of statism on our lives will guarantee that we never get our liberties back peacefully.
What we should be doing, here at the break, is looking forward to the America we want to have. There is no going back. The condition of a relatively quiescent, not-yet-corrupted America in which liberties were not prioritized, while government programs and constituency-tending were, was never a sustainable condition to begin with. It has been familiar to most of today’s adults, to be sure. But we cannot go back to it.
We literally cannot go back: the use of this America to enrich radical partisans has already been demonstrated, and that bell, to invoke the metaphor again, cannot be unrung. If we think that by electing a Republican we are going back to the comfort of a big-government, pre-corruption America, we will only be deceiving ourselves. We either navigate forward to a new and deliberately established compact for protecting our liberties, or we succumb to the despotic fate of all previous republics.
The good news is that our founding documents give us the best possible blueprint for this new endeavor. It is more good news that with its mask off, we can see clearly the radicalism of our current government, and understand that the liberties we prize cannot coexist with it. The Obama administration is not business as usual; it is business as inevitable, when government has become so big and all-encompassing. We are being granted today a unique opportunity to see that, without blinders or self-deception, and to make our decisions accordingly.
It cannot be emphasized enough: nothing will change for the better, but everything will change for the worse, if we prioritize an outdated view of electoral politics over the diligent clarification of what government ought to be. It won’t achieve the intended purpose. There is no option to paper over the misuses and abuses of government in order to gain an electoral majority. To argue for such an option is to paint a chimera. Papering over reality will not gain Republicans an electoral majority, even if it were possible that a president elected on such a basis might actually roll back the size and scope of government.
The world in which Karl Rove’s approach to electoral politics is an effective prescription is gone. Today, our ideas must be different, and they must start with the definition of liberty, and how it ought to be prioritized and protected in law. We must avoid embracing “litmus-test” forms of libertarianism, which – like all litmus-test politics, left or right – are situational and particular. But we must not fear to address every issue that is important. The only way to establish what is important – what we agree on – is through robust dialogue.
Fear sits on us like a communicable disease when we are afraid to take on things that must be reformed, like Social Security, or that must be rethought altogether, like the federal Department of Education. We need have no fear that bloated government will suddenly begin to work, openly and accountably, and thus make our concerns look foolish. Everything will perform more and more poorly in the days ahead. It would be the most backward-looking approach possible, to think that we must not associate ourselves with a vision for change. We are at the break. We cannot stop it. There will be no alternative to change in the next few years. We either lead, with a time-tested vision of ordered liberty, or we will get steamrolled with everything else.
J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,” Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.
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