1994 Redux?

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After seeing the excesses and abuses of single-party dominance of the presidency, Congress, and the Senate, many mainstream Americans have finally had enough. It is very possible they’ll rise up and, beyond our more reserved expectations, vote to throw the bums out during this midterm election, vote for gridlock, vote for change. A legislature that gives the president all he wants out of party loyalty is hardly the check and balance touted in the Federalist Papers. The libertarian strain still alive in America might emerge on election day as it so rarely has before, and let it be known that it is time for the country to change directions, for the legislative branch to rein in the executive, to investigate its abuses of power and curb its boundless spending and graft.

This is similar to what happened in 1994 when the Democrats lost their grip of the House and Senate after forty years of comfort and corruption. Many libertarians saw in the populist electoral uprising some reasons to celebrate. Perhaps Clinton and Reno would finally have to answer for Waco. Certainly, spending would be cut and the president’s power would generally become less absolute. The Contract with America had its severe faults, including unfortunate drug-warmongering and demands for such unjustly applauded reforms as the Balanced Budget Amendment, term limits and the Line Item Veto. But the general thrust of the Republican Revolution, so thought many of us, including this writer, would be to cut back government, or at least to halt the burgeoning bureaucratic growth we saw under Democratic guardianship.

The people were, after all, voting to oust the Democrats for some very good reasons, or so it seemed. It appeared to be a vote against big government. What a joy it was to believe, even for a moment, that America was about to become a little freer!

Then reality hit. It took about a day or so after Newt Gingrich and his minions took over to realize that what we were witnessing was short of revolution and even of reform. It was the same old, same old. Republicans did investigate Waco, and it turns out that a bipartisan consensus that the government did nothing fundamentally wrong is an even more credible whitewash than when only one party covers up for itself. Within a couple years, the pork, protectionism, farm giveaways and spending for the so-called general welfare were in fuller force than they had been under Democrats alone. And when Clinton was flexing his internationalist muscles, killing foreigners, expanding NATO, bombing civilian infrastructure and continuing the Bush I mid-East policy, the Republicans saw it more fit to focus on his marital infidelities than his crimes against humanity. Of course, they also backed Clinton’s post-Oklahoma City police state.

And what do we see today? A discredited and despised administration, a war regretted by everyone but the most loyal GOP goosesteppers, a distrusted security apparatus and an ever-shrinking sphere of liberty yielding to an ever-widening public sector. We see Congressional corruption and conniving so grand that even the Republicans ignore the marital infidelities, or at least they ignore their own.

The response from many libertarians is that it’s time for the Democrats to win, to return to legislative dominance after their twelve-year hiatus and serve as a wrench in the machinery. Maybe they’ll even investigate Iraq, and some heads will roll or at least wrists will be slapped.

Maybe the takeover will happen. Maybe the people will rise up and kick the crooks out. Maybe they’ll even do it for mostly right reasons. But then what?

Democrats are not our salvation. As monstrous and criminal as the Republicans are — and, inexplicably, they are still given a pass by some friends of liberty as the lesser of two evils — the Democrats can always prove to be worse. This has happened before, many times. Franklin Roosevelt ran on a platform of dramatically cutting back the government expanded by Herbert Hoover in the latter’s failed attempts to mitigate the Depression. FDR then did a one-eighty and erected America’s first peacetime garrison economy. Lyndon Johnson was supposed to keep us out of the war that Barry Goldwater was sure to get us into. Once he was elected, peace wasn’t the result, though he did pump up the welfare state while he was drafting Americans and slaughtering Vietnamese.

In fact, the Democrats have pretty much always been a party of war and big government. The Republicans have certainly never been anything but champions of murder and looting, but the libertarian revisionist line that the Democrats have a Jeffersonian strain or at least a libertarian heritage also has its problems. In 1800, the Jeffersonians, the party of free trade and liberty, beat out the Federalists, only to establish the permanent Navy, deploy it abroad and launch the first major war in U.S. government history. The Democrats also gave us the second major war in U.S. government history, when they invaded Mexico in a totally unprovoked and unprecedented act of aggression. And I’ll never, ever forgive them for World War I.

Let’s face it. Both parties are rotten, always have been and always will be.

And God help us if the Democrats take Congress this year and then get the presidency in 2008. At times, Democratic presidents can actually get away with more senseless killing and militarism, since political pressure from both sides of the spectrum pushes them in that direction. The left will tolerate more bombings from a Democrat. And the right will condemn the Democrats for being international wimps if they don’t send ground troops. For a short period in the 1990s, there was some rightwing resistance to Democratic imperialism, but 9/11 has made that dynamic very unlikely. You had better believe that if Hillary demands a bombing, the Republicans will not be calling for ceasefire. A Democrat would have to prove his or her willingness to kill for America, and he or she will. With a Republican Congress and Democrat in the Oval Office, there might be more restraint with domestic spending than we’ve seen in the last six years. But as for war, Democrats have very rarely been against it. And if they come to have both the presidency and Congress, we can expect welfare and warfare from here to the heavens.

Now, some things could get better if the Democrats storm the halls of Congress this November. Or they could get worse. George W. Bush might be worse than LBJ, but his successor might be worse than Nixon, too.

The fact is, electoral politics is not going to bring peace and freedom to America, certainly so long as the population believes in war and statism. We have no way of knowing which scoundrels will actually do more damage once they have power, since power itself has a tendency to corrupt no matter who holds it. The dirty little secret about democracy and our two-party system in particular is no matter how bad things are they can get worse, all under the subterfuge of reform and the people’s participation. You can throw the bums out only to see them replaced by a new horde of rapacious organized criminals waiting in the wings. What’s worse, for at least a few months after a momentous election, people will bring down their guard in hopes that the less evil party they voted into power will actually prove to be an improvement. It sometimes takes years to recognize that nothing has really changed.

The key is changing the minds of the people, educating them about the principles of liberty, sound economics, real history and the moral and practical imperative of peace. Until the culture becomes more libertarian, politicians will be as indecent as ever. So while I’d like as much as anyone to see those ghastly Republicans punished this November, I’m not very optimistic that America will become the least bit freer under the force of a vote. It didn’t after the vote of 1994.

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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