The New Absolutism in American Politics

            To observe American politics in recent weeks is to marvel at the new levels of extremism and partisanship to which it has fallen, and to lament the dogmatic absolutism that many in power within it now evidence and apparently believe both appropriate and likely to receive the approval of their primary constituencies. While it is not difficult to make the case that the nation now stands at something of a crossroads in its willingness even to try to govern itself, it is less clear which factors precisely have caused the current pass, or why so many of our elected leaders are willing to take steps to drive the nation ever more perilously toward an incapacity to address its compelling challenges. Indeed, if one takes seriously the wild rhetoric and actions of a share of these leaders, it is not altogether obvious that some wish to see the country continue to exist as one nation. A few examples from different domains make this point.

            First, one must note House Speaker John Boehner’s deeply misguided invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress without consulting President Barack Obama before doing so. Netanyahu indeed came to Washington D.C. and once more, as presumably Boehner and Republican partisans desired, sought to critique as dangerous and misguided the Obama administration’s present negotiations with Iran and other U.S. allies concerning inspection of that nation’s nuclear program so as to avoid the attainment of atomic weapons. It apparently did not occur (or matter) to Boehner and other GOP leaders that those negotiations are still underway and that their invitation interfered in a profound way with the executive’s capacity to represent the nation in foreign affairs. One central reason for the failure of The Articles of Confederation and the development of our nation’s current Constitution was the former’s incapacity to prevent a welter of just such efforts by the states and Congress.

            In addition, Boehner and his colleagues surely knew that the Israeli leader has been predicting that Iran would develop a nuclear bomb “within months” since at least 1997 and that such had not come to pass, making his sweeping assertions somewhat less than credible, but that fact surely did not dissuade them from proceeding anyway. Finally, neither the House Speaker nor his colleagues, sabre rattling aside, seem to have a plan to address this vital concern other than to undermine the President and his Secretary of State’s good faith efforts to attend to it. So, the questions remain, why take this step and seek to undercut your country’s chief executive on so grave a national security issue in so visible and so viciously partisan a way? And why now, when an agreement has not even been finalized?

            Second, the GOP-led Congress was not content alone to repudiate the President by cheering Netanyahu as he thundered against negotiating with Iran. Forty-seven senators, including, sadly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and John McCain, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, chose to issue a public letter “informing” Iran’s leaders that a new President (presumably a Republican) could vitiate in early 2017 any agreement reached in the current negotiations. Tom Cotton, a freshman senator from Arkansas with three months of legislative experience, drafted the letter. The apparent aim was to undermine the talks now in progress and prevent a bargain of any sort. Never mind that this effort violated constitutional principles and tradition, and that Congress would later review any accord reached. It is also not clear whether the legislators considered that their effort might actually gain the end desired and result in Iran abandoning talks in favor of what many hard-liners in that nation’s government already want: a rush to develop a nuclear weapon. Perhaps the New York Times captured the character of this episode best by noting in an editorial that, “The letter was the latest shot to blow up the negotiations with Iran. … Besides being willing to sabotage any deal with Iran (before they know the final details), these Republicans are perfectly willing to diminish America’s standing as a global power capable of crafting international commitments and adhering to them.” 1

            Apart from their undercutting efforts in foreign policy, GOP leaders have taken similar steps to fan the flames of constitutional repudiation in another domain. The Party has taken every opportunity in recent memory at its meetings to open “discussions” about the federal government’s supposed abrogation of “States’ Rights,” with many GOP officials sounding positively Calhoun-esque (referring to the South Carolina senator and author of the infamous “nullification” doctrine in the 1850s) in their rhetoric. One ongoing example is the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision to order its probate courts not to abide by a federal district court decision to permit same sex marriages in that state. That state high court’s choice follows on Alabama’s similar misguided challenge to federal supremacy in immigration policy in recent years. Should other states follow its example, that state judiciary’s action will throw into question whether our nation’s dual courts system can continue to work. No other state has chosen Alabama’s course to date, but not because GOP officials are not persistently raising just such arguments. In fact, the underpinning of Alabama’s claim seems quite similar to that on which many Republicans in Congress have lately been acting more generally: that they are somehow not part of the nation they are sworn to serve, but exist apart from it, and that that regime must be undone. Notably, during the last heyday of these sorts of arguments, at the height of the civil rights movement, not one state court chose to defy national supremacy in the way Alabama has in recent days. Whatever else may be made of the Alabama Supreme Court’s recent choice, it is surely a radical one that attacks the principle that the national government is the supreme and only legitimate representative of the entire American people.

            Even as the GOP has lately evidenced a fresh fanaticism in foreign policy, federalism and the legitimacy of the nation, its officials have likewise exhibited the tendency to absolutism and what might be dubbed “nation-hating” in other domestic policy realms. One example concerns the availability of armor-piercing bullets to the general public. President Ronald Reagan signed a law in 1986 directing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATFE) to control who could obtain access to ammunition that could kill police wearing protective vests. The bill passed the House easily by a 400 to 21 margin and the President was actively supportive. The ATFE ultimately banned such ammunition for handguns, but allowed it for certain rifles used for sporting purposes on the theory that the latter were less likely to be used in crimes than handheld weapons. Some years ago, however, manufacturers began making handgun versions of their assault rifles and these new models could use the previously banned ammunition. To boost sales, the industry began to lobby ATFE to reclassify, as sporting weapons the assault-style handguns that use the outlawed ammunition. Last month, the Bureau published a draft framework seeking to outline which bullets it would continue to ban and which it would permit the general public to purchase. It did so explicitly on the grounds of protecting police officers from needless danger while simultaneously providing sports enthusiasts the opportunity to pursue their hobby.

            The National Rifle Association quickly charged the ATFE with abusing its authority and likewise accused the President of being a “dictator” for seeking to draw a balance among competing claims and claimants in this way. Meanwhile, the conservative entertainment radio show host Rush Limbaugh asserted, against all evidence to the contrary, that this was the Obama’s administration’s way of taking all guns from gun owners by taking away their ammunition, occasioning a storm of letters and a social media frenzy among concerned firearm owners. In response, more than half of the members of the House of Representatives (236 members), led by the GOP’s Robert Goodlatte (VA), sent a letter to the ATFE Director in early March informing him “The effects of these restrictive interpretations are untenable.” 2 Plainly, these congressmen were telling the Director that they were content to allow the potential for police to die rather than suggest that the Second Amendment was not absolute in character. Many of them did so, too, on the view that any thoughtful national regulation of such ammunition constituted “despotic” action and was per se illegitimate., a view apparently shared by many of their constituents. This said, it is worth noting that all of these claims, including Limbaugh’s contention, have no basis in fact and that all were powered politically by absolutist paranoia. Nonetheless, the ATFE has now retreated under tremendous political pressure and will permit the sale of armor-piercing bullets that might be used by criminals with high-powered assault-style handguns. Today’s GOP-led Congress is now willing to countenance this possibility, unlike Reagan who opined in 1986, “Certain forms of ammunition have no legitimate sporting, recreational or self-defense use and thus should be prohibited.” 3

            One might add to these examples potential GOP 2016 presidential candidate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s ongoing assault on his state’s flagship university (and companion system). Walker has sought massive reductions in state support for the university on the view that it must serve the market more completely, a contention that imagines that the rightful arbiter of all things is what one perceives the market “wants.” As the governor works assiduously to reduce public funding for the University of Wisconsin system, he is in fact ensuring that it will operate more like a private firm, a trend also occurring in most other states. Overall, Walker is redefining higher education as a purely private good in his state that will serve the perceived immediate needs of the market, imagining those can be discerned. The contention beneath these assertions is unproven, but it nonetheless is predicated on the view that society is best off rationing higher education on the basis of ability to pay, and that the only knowledge worth knowing is that which the market appears presently to value. Hidden within these assumptions lies another: that somehow classification of higher education as a public good is illegitimate because democratic governance itself is somehow insufficient.

            Taken together, these examples suggesting a deepening radicalism and paranoia afoot in American politics. That new politics is now tied ever more closely to clarion calls for the delegitimation not only of democratic responsibility, but also for its supposed ready substitution by the market. GOP leaders in particular have adopted this perspective and tied these assertions to assaults on the possibility of national governance especially, but also on democratic governance more generally. It is by now evident that these officials are pursuing a dangerous path for freedom, one that led the nation previously to grievous ignominy in the period of the Articles of Confederation and later, to brutal civil war. These precedents are clear and sobering. What is less obvious is why so many voters seem to be prepared to support this peculiar blend of dogmatic and absolutist partisanship, frenzied paranoia, prejudice and willed ignorance. Its continued vitality augurs an ugly time ahead for American politics.

Notes

1 New York Times Editorial Board, 2015. “Republican Idiocy on Iran,” New York Times, March 11. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/12/opinion/republican-idiocy-on-iran.html

2 U.S. House of Representatives, Letter to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director B. Todd Jones, March 4, 2015, p.2, https://shared.nrapvf.org/sharedmedia/1507341/letter-to-atf-director-jones-apa-framework-final.pdf

3 Ronald Reagan, 1986. “Statement on signing the bill to regulate armor-piercing ammunition,” August. 28. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum website. Available at http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1986/082886b.htm