Originally published in the January 12th, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press
The highest office in the land is the only job where applicants are rewarded for the level of disdain they express for the position they seek. The greater the antipathy toward government, the better the candidate connects with voters; or so it seems given the tenor of the GOP primary season.
The image of the self-loathing politician promising to shrink the role of government in our lives is as old as the nation itself and usually appears during woeful economic times such as these. Of course, what someone utters on the campaign trail is almost always a far cry from how he speaks upon ascending to the Oval Office. Watching the current slate of GOP-hopefuls repackage this timeless anti-government dogma while vying for the single most powerful job in government is as ironic as it is ridiculous, but it is not without precedent.
Many of the Founding Fathers were highly suspicious of government and the competence of the men seeking to run it. To them, government was a necessary evil, which is why so many provisions were enacted during America’s youth to protect its citizens from tyranny. But even the Founding Fathers weren’t immune to the awesome and corrupting power that accompanies the presidency. One early example was John Adams, one of the staunchest proponents of the Bill of Rights and the author of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which included many of the Constitutional amendments we hold so dear today. It was Adams who cajoled a reluctant James Madison to introduce the Bill of Rights in Congress to protect citizens from encroachments on their liberty.
Only a few years later, Madison was jolted from retirement to join with Thomas Jefferson against an emboldened President Adams, who had recently signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law, thus allowing the federal government to detain and arrest any citizen who spoke out against it. Adams was reacting to federalist fears triggered by watching the French Revolution turn ugly, and his paranoia was not without merit. But the totality of federal authority granted under these acts was so abhorrent to many of his contemporaries and fellow American revolutionaries it prompted the passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions whereby these respective states unilaterally deemed the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional.
Now put this conflict into its proper current context. Libertarians such as Ron Paul, the second-place finisher in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, and free-market conservatives (every other GOP candidate including frontrunner Mitt Romney) routinely paint themselves as Jeffersonian state’s rights advocates. Paul, in particular, identifies strongly with the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions in spite of the fact that they were specific to the threat of the Alien and Sedition Acts and later were the primary separatist arguments upon which the Civil War was fought. While the larger field of candidates is likely incapable of discussing these measures in any thoughtful way, Paul has actually made a career arguing that these resolutions are somehow as sacrosanct as the Constitution itself. He has even gone so far as to criticize their demise under President Abraham Lincoln and has called the Civil War a “major setback” due to the “undermining of the principle of sovereign states.” In a statement made on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2004, which was re-circulated by the organization Campaign For Liberty over the summer, Paul lamented this development saying, “The Civil War profoundly changed the balance of power in our federalist system, paving the way for centralized big government.”
Um, sorry, black folk. Apparently in Ron Paul’s America, the right of a state still trumps your right to be considered more than three-fifths human.
Beyond the unintended consequence of setting the stage for the Civil War, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions did serve to unify the Democratic-Republican Party (later just the Democratic Party) against the Federalists and Adams’ frightful encroachments on individual liberties. But the fight with Adams was cover for the real issue that divided the nascent empire: taxes.
Most of the Founding Fathers were opposed to Alexander Hamilton’s insistence upon centralizing and maintaining a strong federal treasury. They opposed it, that is, until it was their time to lead the nation as president. America’s ability to purchase land, fight skirmishes at home or wage war on the high seas was impossible without levying taxes upon its citizens: an early example of the evaporating campaign promise. When it comes to dollars and cents, ideology cannot overcome fiscal reality.
It’s one of the reasons why our economy is struggling so badly today. Believing that war somehow pays for itself and, even more magically, stimulates growth, the Bush administration chose to ignore history and embroil the nation in two costly wars while simultaneously cutting taxes to anemic levels. This type of disconnect is central to the Republican psychology of this presidential campaign and each candidate’s continued misinterpretation of the Founding Fathers.
As much as the Jeffersonians were ideologically opposed to a strong central bank and morally opposed to the Alien and Sedition Acts, they were pragmatists. Their fight against the latter gave spirit to the party, the former provided substance. Same concept, different century.
Mind you, the GOP isn’t alone in their disassociation between candidacy and presidency. Take the curious case of candidate Barack Obama, self-proclaimed expert on the Constitution who signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 on New Year’s Eve, which includes the controversial indefinite detention provision that has libertarians and others going berserk. As well it should. It’s a confusing bundle of words that, in conjunction with the authority granted to the government under the Patriot Act, theoretically provides President Obama with powers dangerously akin to those bestowed on President Adams by the Alien and Sedition Acts.
So while pundits split hairs over who hates government the most and which candidate has been married the longest, we’ve tragically lost our place in our own history. And so here we are again: back where we started, none the wiser and with little to show for our experience.