Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
This year we celebrate our nation’s birth at a time when the foundational ideas that animated our break with England are under siege throughout our political, business, educational, and cultural institutions. The iconic preamble to the Declaration of Independence–– “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”––is under assault, and tyrannical ambition continues to undermine the infrastructure of our liberty.
We focus so frequently on that world-changing preamble that we forget the bulk of the Declaration is a detailed indictment of George III in terms that evoke Classical tyranny, which Aristotle defined as “arbitrary power . . . which is responsible to no one, and governs all alike, whether equals or betters, with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects, and therefore against their will.” The cost of that tyranny is the weakening both of political freedom limited by the tyrant’s will; and of the independence necessary for self-government and full human dignity.
The Declaration, then, contrasts unalienable rights and political freedom with their opposite, tyranny, laying the foundations of a government that by design checks the excesses of power that destroy both independence and freedom. Rather than depend, as the Left has done since the French Revolution, on the progressive improvement of human nature, the Founders believed that people are by nature driven by “passions and interests,” as Madison called them. These forces motivating human destructive action cannot be eliminated or improved either by greater knowledge or by “technicians of the soul,” as Stalin called technocratic oligarchs. Rather, political institutions must divide and balance power so that “ambition counters ambition,” preserving the freedom of all, and forestalling tyranny whether of the minority or the majority.
A century of progressive assaults on the Founders’ architecture has weakened this defense against tyranny. Power has increasingly been expanded and concentrated in the federal government and its agencies. These bureaucracies are insulated from accountability to the people, and unconstitutionally combine the three functions of government––legislative, judicial, and executive––into one institution backed by the coercive power of the state.
Hence the overweening actions of agencies such as the IRS or the EPA, both of which under the Biden administration have seen their powers and funding increase. And who can forget the feckless arrogance of the NIH and the CDC during the pandemic, as it serially revised its diktats, on everything from masks to the virus’ origins, with every shift of the political winds? Or the Small Business Administration and the USDA illegally doling out grants on the basis of race?
We have an even more shameful example of such tyranny in the excesses of our security and justice agencies in the aftermath of the January 6 demonstrations at the Capitol, which the progressives and their media minions have inflated into an “armed insurrection.” People who committed misdemeanors like trespassing have been imprisoned for half a year. Meanwhile the NSA surveils Americans and the FBI labors to create a mythic “white supremacist” conspiracy to overthrow the government, even as thousands of hours of exculpatory video evidence are embargoed by prosecutors. This is the same role the agencies played throughout Donald Trump’s term when they facilitated the Democrats’ “collusion” and “Russian interference” myths.
In effect, these agencies provide the “muscle” for the Dems’ partisan attacks on Republican voters and their enumerated rights. The consequences of this corruption of federal agencies is the tyranny of the bureaucratic minority that impinges in myriad ways upon the freedom of individuals, families, churches, businesses, all those communal spaces that should be free from the meddling of distant government elites.
Progressives also are working to create the tyranny of the majority, those political clients they make “accustomed to feed at the expense of others,” as Polybius described them, while “their prospects of winning a livelihood depend upon the property of their neighbors” through the redistribution of wealth and the proliferation of cradle-to-grave entitlement transfers. Indeed, if Biden manages to pass legislation for new entitlements, economists John Cogan and Daniel L. Heil report, half of working-age Americans will be on some form of the dole, and $1 trillion will be added to the national debt over the next ten years. Our Constitutional order will become what Winston Churchill called “government of the/by the/for the dole-drawers.”
Hence the Dems plot against the Constitutional “filtrations,” as Madison called them, designed to prevent the tyranny of the majority, such as the equal number of Senators per state, which protects the smaller states from the larger; and the electoral college, which keeps presidential elections from empowering majority rule at the expense of minority rights and freedom. Likewise the attempt to dismantle the guardrails of electoral integrity such as photo I.D.’s, in-person voting, fixed limits on the number of voting days, and same-day, transparent tabulations. The aim of those attempting to dismantle these rules is to make fraud and other interference the features of the system rather than the failures of it. The pretexts for such patent assaults on electoral integrity typical of all tyrannies, have become more preposterous, as in the specious justifications for “reform” based on exaggerated claims of “voter suppression” of minorities who are in fact voting in historical numbers.
Of course, government agencies are the enforcers behind these attempts at revising the Constitution’s provision that the states control elections, as happened with the DOJ’s hounding of states that are trying to reform existing bad practices. Right after the Dems proposed “voting reform” legislation stalled, the DOJ filed suit against Georgia’s recent common-sense reforms that are less stringent than blue Delaware’s. Once again, the federal police, investigative, and judicial agencies are the Luca Brasi for progressives’ anti-Constitutional schemes.
Finally, there’s the government’s support in promoting and institutionalizing literally racist ideologies such as Critical Race Theory and its related fantasies like “white supremacy” or “white fragility.” Sounding like Jim-Crow era segregationists, CRT claims that “racism” is encoded in white identity, every white is indelibly tainted by this stain, and every public and private institution continues to reinforce this racist hegemony. Hence white citizens must be subject to endless brow-beating by CRT commissars, and humiliating spectacles of apology and masochistic self-flagellation unworthy of free peoples.
This intellectually crude, juvenile ideology is diametrically opposed to the foundational principles of the Declaration of Independence and its identification of unalienable rights that are not determined by government, but are part of all humanity’s essential nature. Thus CRT, along with agitprop history like the “1619 Project,” is undermining our freedom and independence, and the proposition that “all men are created equal”––not “all sects,” not “all tribes,” not “all peoples,” not “all ethnicities,” but all human beings understood as unique individuals with minds and free will.
Despite that direct threat to the essence of our political order, here too government agencies are empowering and propagating this pernicious doctrine, particularly in education from preschool to graduate school. Now, however, we see CRT infiltrating all taxpayer-funded governments at all levels. Most dangerous is the adoption of CRT training by the military, promoted by the Generals and Admirals who are nominated by the president with counsel from Secretary of Defense. As such, they are inherently political and vulnerable to partisan political pressure.
Consider the recent spectacle of this nation’s highest ranking military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. There he argued for bringing CRT propaganda into the military academies and the armed forces’ training programs. No adversary could devise a better way to destroy the morale, patriotism, effectiveness, and cohesion of our military personnel than to train them to privilege superficial physical characteristics like skin color more their comrades’ skills, loyalty, and courage.
Such are the predicates of tyranny. For sure, as of now we have not seen levels of civic violence typical of past tyrannies. We are closer to Tocqueville’s insidious “soft despotism” that seeks “to keep [the people] in perpetual childhood”:
It is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
“Soft” as the tyranny may be, all these dangers to our Constitutional order are still real, and have been multiplying and intensifying over the last half-decade.
Yet we are not done for yet. Thanks to the Constitution, we still have the Bill of Rights, we still enjoy a level of freedom unprecedented in human history, we still have sovereign states to check federal overreach, and we still have regularly scheduled elections in which, as compromised as they have been, we are free to vote and to hold our public officials accountable.
But though we still have these Constitutional bulwarks of our liberty like freedom of speech and regularly schedule elections, institutional, cultural, and educational predicates for tyranny grow stronger, and each generation marinated in these tyrannical ideas brings us closer to the tipping point. Like rust, the enemies of freedom never sleep.
So this Fourth of July, amidst the barbecues and fireworks, we should all remember again with gratitude the words of the Declaration that founded the freest, most prosperous, most inspirational, most consequential country in history.