The Republican Ideology of the Total State

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It has often been pointed out that the Bush administration’s excesses in spending, attacking civil liberties, and foreign policy have not incited nearly the hostile reaction that characterized the rightwing critique of the Clinton government. Only recently, however, has this disparity, along with the full evil of the modern Republican ideology, become so frighteningly clear.

We can expect partisans to turn their heads away from the transgressions of their own party leaders. And whatever some may say, the Republicans have never truly been a party of limited government when they actually held power. But what we are seeing today is most unsettling.

The controversy that has erupted since news broke of Bush’s secret, extra-constitutional NSA spying program, has, like most controversies, offered libertarians very few heroes to root for. No one of any prominence is calling for the abolition of the NSA. No one is saying that FISA itself should be scrapped. Senate Democrats complain they weren’t in the loop, and insist that, had they been included, they would have signed off on anything the Bush regime wanted. All the administration would have had to do is say pretty please, and the opposition party would not have put up any fight whatever.

The Republicans, on the other hand, can’t stand even having to say pretty please. They believe that the president has the "inherent authority" to do anything he wants, without asking a soul. They cite the detention of American citizens without trial as an unmistakable prerogative of the president, supposedly legitimized by the vague authorization of the use of force after 9/11, and argue that, if the president can unilaterally strip a citizen of habeas corpus, he must logically be allowed to spy on citizens without judicial review as well. They are making precisely the same kind of point that was made during World War I in regard to conscription: if the draft is constitutional, surely anything less invasive of liberty must be too. This is a scary road for America to be going down again.

Now, some notable conservatives are a little uneasy about all of this fascism on their side of the spectrum. This is a good thing. But those making up the Republican base — the loyal followers who forward GOP talking points to one another on blogs and e-lists — the ones who run their party and still manage to convince the conservative voters that they are less evil than the other side — the administration groupies that dominate Congress — have been utterly shameless.

On Monday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, one of the few men who could make a libertarian miss John Ashcroft, defended the president’s dictatorial power grab by invoking precedent: "President Washington, President Lincoln, President Wilson, President Roosevelt have all authorized electronic surveillance on a far broader scale," Gonzales said.

Putting aside the absurdity of George Washington in the late 18th century authorizing "electronic surveillance on a far broader scale" than what Bush has done, we see here a truly unpleasant line of argument: If the very worst presidents of American history did it, then President Bush can do it too.

The Republicans have lost even the thinnest pretense of being a party for smaller government. They might prefer deficit spending to taxing people up front. They might understand economics well enough to know that some overbearing regulations favored by Democrats will kill the host on which their parasitic operations depend. They are lower-tax imperialists, perhaps. But they do believe, when push comes to shove, that the president should have unchecked power to spy, detain, torture and wage war. Perhaps the only Constitutional provision worth observing is the guarantee of a Republican form of government — that is, a government of, by, and for the Republicans.

When reflecting on all the times we libertarians have pointed out that the worst warmongers of the 20th century were Democrats, we should now keep in mind that those Democrats have become the models of today’s Republicans. Ever since the spying scandal emerged, Bush’s defenders have echoed the same general line: Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt demonstrated correctly that the president has hardly any limits to his power during wartime. But Gonzales emphasized in the judiciary hearing Monday that there was no declaration of war, and a Republican senator indicated that even during peacetime the president should have enormous, unchecked power.

This Republican doctrine of presidential supremacy raises some questions. First of all, if the executive is indeed endowed with such broad authority, whether by the Constitution, historical precedent, or the resolution passed shortly after 9/11, why do its top officials even bother with statutes such as the PATRIOT Act, which was passed after the authorization of force after 9/11? Why are they putting up such a fuss about renewing it? In his State of the Union, Bush repeated the claim that they need the PATRIOT Act to have the same tools in the war on terror that they have in more pedestrian law enforcement efforts, such as the drug war. But if the president does have, as he and his posse insist, the "inherent authority" to spy on us and throw us into cages without a hearing, why do they need the PATRIOT Act at all?

Another question is why the Republicans resisted Clinton’s power grabs even as lackadaisically as they did. When Clinton continued to bomb Serbia against the protests of Congressional Republicans, when he rammed through expansions of the police state after the Oklahoma City bombing — did he not have the "inherent authority" to do all this and more, given that he was the president and that there were foreign wars and domestic terrorists to deal with? Whether the Republicans are simply hypocrites or devoted to despotic power even when harnessed by their nominal political adversaries, their ideology is not a reassuring one.

Bush’s State of the Union included numerous references to freedom and liberty, and even denunciations of protectionism. The dishonest rhetoric persists. As usual, the Republicans like to have it both ways. They love the authority and violence of the state, from the trigger-happy cop on the street all the way up to the bomb-happy president in the Oval Office. But they also love pretending to be enamored with protecting freedom and the little guy. They feed Big Brother steroids even as they claim to want to get him off your back.

What they really believe, in the end, and especially when they have power, should be clear by now: the unbridled supremacy of the state and especially its executive, its police and its military. They also enjoy shoveling money to their favored corporate interests, but that’s only icing on the cake. Their true love in life comprises beating people up, sticking their noses into other people’s business, and detonating large explosives in other countries.

This NSA spy scandal really strikes to the core of the Republican ideology: belief in the unhampered power of the total state, at least when it’s in their hands. Any apparent law or reason that the state should be curbed is an illusion. Anyone who says otherwise is a traitor.

It’s becoming difficult to see what in principle separates the Bush Republicans from any other total statist. If the president can do whatever he wants, how exactly is this a free country, even superficially? How exactly is theirs the party of limited government? They might not believe the state should collectivize the entire economy, but this preference appears utilitarian, rather than stemming from an authentic opposition to absolute state power.

The Republicans are waging perpetual war abroad and erecting the total state at home. The Democrats complain that they’re being overlooked in the process. A few Democrats, such as Russ Feingold, seem to be offering a few genuine criticisms, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for any improvements after this November or the elections in 2008.

Nevertheless, if there are any freedom-minded people out there who still support the president and his party as some sort of preferable alternative to the Democrats, please cut it out. Better to be ravaged and enslaved by admitted socialists than by those who do it in the name of liberty.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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