Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Carrots, Sticks, Poisoned Apples

[posted by Callimachus]

If you read the left-side blogs, the steady screech is that Bush and Company are marching America headlong into police-state fascism.

If I could lay a bet with any chance of collecting on it, I would wager the Bush II administration will be remembered as a temporary step back from that poisoned apple in America's garden of temptations. Because it tried to advance that game so recklessly, and managed every aspect of governance so poorly, it exposed the trick.

The goal is to advance the authority and control of the federal government and especially the executive branch. The game is to concentrate power there. The trick is to do it in such a way that it seems to be the only way to solve urgent problems, or to do it with such concessions to individual liberties and the popular sort of freedoms that it masks the power creep.

As some of the more awake left-siders note, the drift is much older than George W. Bush. Some pick one 20th century date, some another, for when it began. This is the fallacy of the Golden Age. There never was one; the danger is original. The warnings are woven into the fabric of everything the Founders wrote that was meant for us to still read. But we've stopped reading.

And the Founders were the first to succumb. The first crisis came in John Adams' reign, when America was not sure yet what it was, when it might have bloomed at once into an authoritarian, centralized state. The Federalist clamp-down on the brink of an undeclared war looks clumsy only in retrospect. And it is a false model of how authoritarianism comes to America. The right people learned the lesson at once -- Monroe, for instance -- and rarely has anything so naive and naked ever been attempted again.

Thomas Jefferson did it in spite of himself when tempted by sweet Louisiana and adventures in the Mediterranean. He turned back the Alien and Sedition Acts of the previous administration (but one of them remains on the books today) and pardoned those prosecuted under them, and thus the people felt more secure in their liberties because they felt they could say any bad thing they liked about the government. But Jefferson's use of executive power left footprints that presidents after him followed. It left the federal executive that much stronger.

He had luck. The acquisition of the Great Plains for American settlement turned out to be undeniably a good thing to the people. No one today would wish it otherwise. But only Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans in 1815 cemented the ownership in the eyes of the world and spared the United States the agony of having to fight to keep what it purchased so, seemingly, cheaply.

Every president felt the temptation; most surrendered to it at some time. Jackson understood the game intuitively and was a master at it: Expand democracy at the same time you ramp up executive potency. Polk in forty-six figured out a key strategy: how a president personally can steer America into a war in spite of checks and balances. Lincoln, then in Congress, scorned him for it. Fifteen years later, President Lincoln did exactly the same.

The Civil War that followed burst the dam. In the name of saving a union still alive and flourishing, the federal government took on enormous unintended authority. Under the silken purr of Lincoln's rhetoric and trembling with rally-round-the-flag patriotism, the people handed over every right they held. After the war, the courts handed back most of the visible personal ones -- habeas corpus, press autonomy -- but the federal government now controlled the banks and had the power to tax every income and draft men directly into military service.

Those who saw it coming and warned of it were tangled in the partisan issues and personalities of their time. They also too often believed the social and economic relations between the races in the United States ought to be ordered and ordained. (Many people today still think so, in a different sense.) They did not foresee that within a few generations this unobjectionable -- at the time -- view would taint all their opinions and make them untouchable. Their vicious partisan obsession with Lincoln and the Black Republicans was a great gift to their enemies, over time.

And so on through the 20th century -- Wilson, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, abetted in most cases by pliant or partisan Congresses.

Every now and then a clumsy player takes the White House and overplays the game -- Andy Johnson; Nixon; the late, leaderless, stroke-crippled Wilson Administration. Then the alarm sounds for certain individual rights, and the courts or the Congress advance them. In some cases it's a genuine advance: Americans on the whole now are more free to say and do as they wish on a day-to-day basis than at any time in history. But in the matter of reigning in federal and executive authority, what's restored is often a fraction of what was taken.

George W. Bush is shaped in the Andy Johnson mold. The Congressional Republicans today are the Federalists of ninety-nine. Bill Clinton at the height of his persuasive skills and with a more capable team than he actually had (thanks to too many years of Democratic wandering in the wilderness) could have gotten away with all this and more, and made you want to thank him for it.

Americans still yearn for legal pleasures, favors for their own sects, tax structures that lean harder on someone else, and savvy politicians know the use of the carrot as well as the stick when they drive the mass of voters enfranchised in Andy Jackson's day. More of us can vote than ever before -- some even clamor to allow illegal immigrants into the polls. More can vote, but the votes matter less and less.

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