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The New Authoritarians

We need a change in nomenclature. Those who continue to support the administration’s radical theory of executive power are properly described as authoritarians. Once upon a time they may have been conservative but I think it’s safe to say that circa February 2008 conservatism has been orphaned by its ostensible champions. As a philosophy for governance it has no meaningful support on the national stage and hasn’t for years. I won’t dwell on long-forgotten odes to small government and fiscal responsibility, the counseling of prudence and pragmatism in foreign affairs, or reverence for tradition and precedent in conducting the nation’s business. All of it deserves more attention and the erstwhile conservatives served us all very poorly by abandoning it, but what bothers me most is their enthusiastic embrace of militarism, torture, fearmongering and a near-voyeuristic obsession with surveillance. They are at best former conservatives, as are those who maintain a discreet silence while all this happens. Some like Andrew Sullivan have explicitly distanced themselves from it and identified as Burkean conservatives (a lonely tribe at the moment, but possibly the only long-term alternative to extinction for the Republican party). The rest don’t deserve the legitimacy “conservative” implies.

Here are two recent examples. Senator Saxby Chambliss had the following to say during the Protect America Act debate: “Our intelligence community told us that without updating FISA, they were not just handicapped, but that they were hamstrung. Time is running out.” Put aside for the moment that this is the same intelligence community the right cheerfully excoriated a couple of months ago for being unreliable. Let’s assume their judgment is back to being infallible. What is there about FISA that hamstrings them? We never hear. Intelligence agencies can begin surveillance whenever they want - no delays - but in some cases they have to get a warrant from the FISA court within a few days. How does that harm them? What about our traditional principle of judicial oversight has become so hateful? And note that “time is running out.” How are unsupported arguments, stifled debate and fearmongering conservative? Those are authoritarian characteristics.

Then there is this (via) from John Boehner in October:

I’m not sure that we need to get into all the paperwork and all the background details of what went on after 9/11. But after 9/11, our country and our intelligence officials went to telecommunication firms and other third parties and asked them to participate in a program to help secure and bring safety to the American people, and they did. And because they did voluntarily, I believe that they deserve immunity from lawsuits out there from typical trial lawyers trying to find a way to get into the pockets of the American companies.

What about any of that is conservative? We don’t need to “get into all the paperwork” about what happened, as though doing so would drown us in minutia. He doesn’t believe the American people should have any idea what its government has been up to. Isn’t it infantilizing to suggest we wouldn’t be able to understand background details or that they are somehow irrelevant? Wouldn’t knowing more produce a better-informed citizenry and more robust democracy? Then he says “intelligence officials went to” the telecoms as though that is how we proceed in America. We had a perfectly good court authorized by a perfectly good law that could have handled the administration’s needs; why weren’t they engaged? And he justifies it by saying it somehow protected us even in the absence of any evidence. In short he wants an uninformed populace to be cowed into acquiescing to a shadowy, unaccountable spying regime. How is any of that consistent with conservatism? Boehner may well be a pleasant man and may seem very nice and upstanding but in practice he is forcefully advocating in favor of authoritarian forms of government.

At least he goes Chambliss one better and attempts to make an argument: It’s all those greedy lawyers’ fault. A preposterous reason is better than no reason at all so I have to give him that much, but it can be disposed of easily. Simply put, this is driven by activists with no individual stake. I haven’t made a dime from any of my efforts and don’t expect to. Glenn Greenwald doesn’t have a suit pending, neither does Marcy Wheeler or any other online activists. They, their supporters and everyone else making noise about the PAA have no practical stake in it. As far as I can tell all of us are motivated by a belief that basic tenets of our democracy are under attack and we must rise to defend them. No one is turning a buck on it, and to suggest otherwise is an almost surreal species of dishonesty. We are simply struggling against an ugly turn in our politics. Major, influential actors have come to champion a style of governing that is at odds with who we’ve always been. Those in favor of it should be called what they are: authoritarians.

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Reader Comments (22)

Our minds have been working along similar channels today. No one should be allowed to describe her/himself or others as "conservative" or "liberal" without saying what they mean by the term.

Email got bounced back by maildaemon. It contained this link for you.

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPW

When is the "chattering class" going to wake up to the core fact against freeing government spying and removing the over-sight of FISA that by doing so the government in power would be able to use those powers unrestricted for political spying?

This would allow them to get dirt on their competitiors or even people considering opposing them, it would allow them to bug and surveil their opponents freely and if confronted they would just claim "National Security !!" and get a get-out-of-jail free card with no one the wiser.

We're talking East Germany, and Russia and China with modern "cool" technologies - makes me chilled.

Who cares whether they listen to me talk to my wife about the kids or if they see what web-sites I might visit. But if they took an interest for example in comments like this one - then we are ALL in BIG trouble. They would be able to take over very easily.

Is that what we want?

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDM

He doesn’t believe the American people should have any idea what its government has been up to.

Oh, but you see, it's so dangerous for that sort of sensitive information to be out there in the open where our enemies can use it against us.

[Of course, by "enemies" I mean our own traitorous, back-stabbing liberal citizens, and by "us" I mean the Bush administration.]

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercharles

Well said Pruning Shears.

This is why, as a conservative, I cannot support McCain. This is why, as a conservative, I plan to renounce my Republican status prior to the general election and register as an independent.

McCain's conservatism is not conservative.

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDave F, Arlington, VA

This is what I really don't get about "conservatives." Have they lost their ability to reason?

If President George W. Bush can decide on his own to listen to people's phone calls and read people's emails, then so can President Hillary Clinton. She'll be able to hack into their computers and see what's on their hard drives. She'll be able to track those who attend gun shows. How long will it be before the government routinely tracks what websites you read and who you vote for, and then some bureaucrat in Homeland Security decides whether or not you are a threat to "national security" (i.e. the party in power)? Is this the conservative utopia?

It can happen, all because people allowed our current president to decide for himself whether or not he could take an action without anyone else's say-so.

So-called conservatives are letting the genie out of the bottle, and that genie won't always be a Republican.

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPhildo

Everytime I engage someone in this argument, their response is "if you're not doing anything wrong, this shouldn't bother you." I then ask them if that's the case, what would they do if they, from time to time, saw a government agent staring at them through their window. Their tone always changes.

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBW

Look, conservatism lost its core a long time ago. It was killed by two events. First, the cold war engendered the national security state, that excused increasing government power in the name of fighting communism (now jihadism). Then, the political apparatus of conservatism, already hollowed out by this new authoritarianism, was hijacked by the radical spiritual agenda of the religious right, born out of the anti-abortion movement. Now we are stuck with the antithesis of limited government; a christian militarist welfare state. The only remains of the old conservatism is the lip service genuflection to the free market that still maintains a loose grip on the Republican Party. The heart of the thing was ripped out long ago. Your paranoid hippie college professor was essentially right. We no longer live in a really free state. We live in an empire.

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSpence

Everytime I engage someone in this argument, their response is "if you're not doing anything wrong, this shouldn't bother you."

Yes, I detest that one as well.

Indeed, it is especially frustrating given the secrecy that this administration has asserted. As I wrote a little while ago:

I still maintain that it is ironic, and quite galling, that this administration in some of its anti-terrorism policies believes that it has the right to information on innocent citizens and takes the attitude that “if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about” yet asserts extreme privacy rights for itself.

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSteven Taylor

Indeed. "Authoritarians" is clean, accurate word. And not nearly as loaded as "fascists."

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRobert S.

As long as the vast majority of conservatives and/or Republicans continue to support this administration, there's absolutely no need for a change in terminology. The problem does not lie in the names, it lies in the movement and the party.

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBobN

Well said here...all the more reason to support Ron Paul in his bid for president.

A candidate that says things like, "I don't want to run your lives or run the economy," and, "Freedom really is popular!"

A person that describes himself as the "Champion of the Constitution"...how is he not leading in every poll???

Oh, that's right, American Idol is on, and...who cares if the government is secretly spying on everyone. Heck, I've got nothing to hide, do you!?!?

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Kowalski

Yes... "new authoritarians." All because the powers requested could be used improperly, and could allow some people in government to use the information against political enemies. Nevermind that not a single solid case has been produced in the past four years. But there is the possibility. Fair enough - the administration has handled the whole matter stupidly.

But then, everyone here, and anyone else anywhere, complaining about the privacy invading activities of the current administration must be standing foursquare against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton - a woman who most assuredly was involved in the improper acquisition by White House staff of hundreds of FBI files of her husband's political opponents?

Oh... no? Hmmmm. Oh well, I guess that situation was different because it involved an actual violation rather than a hypothetical scenario....

February 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHand of Vecna

The Bush administration was caught in a historical whiplash (modernism vs tradition in Islam)that it barely understood and finally exploited for unrelated ambition by the opposing visions of Vice President Cheney and Karl Rove. Cheney was and is a business advocate and sought radical restriction on federal power over industry. Rove was and is asocial and political hysteric who sought revenge and punishment for all his imagined enemies. The survellance program abuses reflects the schizophrenic personality of the Bush team. A desire to protect the country but also a deep mistrust of anyone who disagreed with them and a willingness to chase all opponents regardless of rules of law or political philosophy. The signature conduct of the Bush team was to exploit tragedy and national trauma for un related plans, to mix apples and oranges for reasons that left everyone confused. Conservativism was never their agenda as it was a unwitting tool in their plans.

The next ten years will be hell as the GOP and America untangle themselves from the Bush era's cynical abuse of power and betrayal of traditional conservativism.

February 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

McCain is not one of the bad guys Dave. If he was, they wouldn't be having a hissy fit about him as the nominee. He stood against torture. He fought K - Street. The biggest fascist among them is who? Tom Delay. And who does Tom Delay hate the most? John McCain. Wakey. wakey. Know who your friends are and who are your enemies. It was Rommey all along who is the big Antichrist.

February 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHerman of Alaska

Good morning!

I had to laugh this week when Rush Limbaugh was freaking out about John McCain by saying McCain is the one who ruined the conservative movement. OMG! It's the Rush's of the nation that have ruined conservatism all by their lonesome. It's fun watching these assholes fall on their faces.

Why do you think the members of the republican party are flocking to McCain? Because he does represent REAL conservatism. And Huckabee? He scares the crap out of REAL conservatives and this is why when Huckabee won in Iowa right off the bat....the party members in this country went straight to McCain!

That's how I see it. What we're witnessing is natural and the NEOCONS can't stand it.

February 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKayInMaine

"Nevermind that not a single solid case has been produced in the past four years."

Huh ? Hpw would we know under the current rules that the Bush admin has created. Remember WaterGate ? This is the same gang (or at least their direct descendants).

OK - would you want Hilary to be able to use this power too ? I sure wouldn't either. Come on - this isn't a Partisan issue it's a Democracy issue.

February 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDM

Thanks DM - you answered for me. The point of their secrecy, obstruction and flouting of the law is to prevent a solid case from being produced. And their arguments for the PAA reauthorization are authoritarian in nature - there's no "case" to me made.

As for Hillary, the magnitude of the wrongdoing here is far, far greater. Don't try to create a false equivalence. And while as a candidate she should be scrutinized don't have any illusions - the Clinton White House was heavily scrutinized. Please see here, especially "III. NUMBER OF CLINTON ADVISORS CALLED TO TESTIFY BEFORE CONGRESS OR DEPOSED BY CONGRESSIONAL STAFF". As in, "testimony from 134 Clinton Administration White House and agency officials in public hearings". They were constantly under the microscope. Some folks might want to keep fighting those battles, but some folks want to keep fighting the Civil War too.

February 8, 2008 | Registered CommenterDan

There is one omission in your piece which actually strengthens your position: The Bushies went to the telecoms BEFORE 9/11.

February 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterterry in az

The only one left for us is Ron Paul.

February 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterstewie

But after 9/11, our country and our intelligence officials went to telecommunication firms and other third parties and asked them to participate in a program to help secure and bring safety to the American people, and they did.

One way to call them on their bull is to agree to telecom immunity...retrocative to 9/11/01. This will deflate the "fighting Islamunonazis who had just attacked us" excuse and highlight to the world that this was going on before 9/11. Then let them justify to the world why they were spying on the American people in the months before that.

not a single solid case has been produced in the past four years

Do you suppose this has anything to do with the all-purpose authoritarian 'national security' and 'executive privilege' excuses, a supine Congress and a Rethug-mobbed-up Justice Department? Keep believing in magic, and keep watching Fox Noise.

February 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMike G

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