The authoritarian temptation has always been irresistible to the Left.
In the weeks during and since the debt-ceiling debate, the media, pushed by the Democratic Party, has peddled the propaganda that our government is broken — because the Republicans in the House of Representatives negotiated a better deal than the liberals wanted.
While it was President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner who, during the debate, said they couldn't assure payments of Social Security or interest on the federal debt payments (while Republican leaders guaranteed there would be no lapse in such payments) it was the GOP that the media accused of irresponsible threats.
It is par for the course for the losing side in a congressional fight to bewail the end of democracy in America. But it is rare for the major media to push and the broader public to bite on, such a line.
Yet the surprisingly gullible Wall Street and European opinion leaders bought in to that propaganda. Indeed, Standard and Poor's downgraded U.S. Treasuries expressly on the preposterous proposition that the American governmental process was broken and unreliable. After all, a deficit bill passed without tax increases in it — the process must be broken. From their point of view, any system that doesn't raise taxes is broken. (For explanations of why our governance is not broken, see Washington Post opinion writer Charles Krauthammer's column last week, "The System Works" and my article " Is Our Government Really Broken?" from February 24, 2010.)
The immediate price of this "broken government" propaganda is several trillion dollars in lost equity value last week on the stock exchanges of the world. But, the enduring danger — if not intent — of such propaganda is its potential to undermine public confidence in representative government.
Make no mistake: If our form of government is "broken," democracy's challengers would "fix" it by castration. In our case, these critics would castrate the "representative" bit. We have seen this argument before in our history. Put forward by authoritarians and their supporters, it disdains the messy and disorderly process whereby free people thrash out the nation's decisions.
The current recrudescence of this authoritarian temptation did not start with the debt-ceiling fight. Its been building for a couple of years. It comes — as it always does — at a moment when the nation faces serious economic or security dangers. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in September of 2009 gave early voice to the current authoritarian temptation: "One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century."
Abraham Lincoln could have been thinking of Thomas Friedman when he worried out loud in the Gettysburg Address whether any nation "conceived in liberty...could long endure." Lincoln then called the nation to the "unfinished work" of maintaining a nation "of the people, by the people and for the people." That work goes on today.
Friedman's concern arose out of our current economic problems.
Not coincidentally, the last time we saw this urge, amongst "respectable" people, to seek an authoritarian alternative to the regular congressional process was during the Great Depression.
As Jonah Goldberg pointed out in his superb book "Liberal Fascism," "There was an enormous bipartisan consensus that the Depression required dictatorial and fascistic policies to defeat it. Walter Lippmann, serving as an ambassador for America's liberal elite, told FDR in a private meeting in Warm Springs, "The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers." Eleanor Roosevelt, too, thought "a benevolent dictator" might be the only answer for America."
FDR adviser Rexford Guy Tugwell said of Italian fascism: "It's the cleanest, neatest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I've ever seen. It makes me envious." Even the great American humorist Will Rogers said of Benito Mussolini: "I'm pretty high on that bird. Dictator form of government is the greatest form of government, if you have the right dictator." The road to authoritarian rule was paved then — as it is today — with disparagement of the "inefficient" congressional methods.
In Frank Capra's 1939 iconic film homage to American democracy, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," an idealistic freshman Senator, played by Jimmy Stewart, is trying to stop a corrupt bill by filibustering it. The bill he is opposing was titled the "Deficiency Act". Hmmm?
The corrupt political boss who is fighting Mr. Smith is organizing the newspapers and radio networks he controls to slander Smith. The message his lackey newspaper and radio reporters send out about Sen. Smith is that "to gain his own contemptible ends, this man is blocking a bill — vital to you and this entire nation. Relief will be stopped! Men will be thrown out of jobs! He will keep money out of this state; He's going to destroy everything. Federal grants, prosperity — and now the Willet Dam. But Smith will destroy that, too!"
Well, that sounds familiar. Just substitute the Tea Party for Mr. Smith. However, because Frank Capra understood that it was precisely in the procedures of congress that our form of government is preserved, the battle between Smith and the corrupt political boss ends with a scene of a radio broadcast:
"This is H. V. Kaltenborn speaking — half of official Washington is here to see democracy's finest show — Washington's uncontrolled filibuster. The right to talk your head off — the American privilege of free speech in it's most dramatic form. The galleries are packed, and in the diplomatic gallery are the envoys of two dictator powers. They have come to see what they can't see at home — democracy in action."
Nothing changes. The fight for liberty remains unfinished. Tell your kids.