Manufacturing a crisis to expand power

by Bruce Thornton

In November 2008, President-elect Obama’s chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel signaled the new administration’s progressive sensibility when he said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” For an ideology impatient with the rules of political change and democratic persuasion, the urgency of alleged crises creates powerful opportunities for politicians to suspend those rules and bypass the process of deliberation in which citizens exercise their autonomy and sovereignty.

Emanuel’s progressive intent becomes clearer if we see its relationship to progressive psychologist William James’ famous metaphor, “the moral equivalent of war.” There are serious social-political battles to fight, the implication goes, and it’s the moral duty of everyone to fight for the right side. In the case of progressives, the right side is the “arc of history” progressively bending toward greater “social justice” and equality, but impeded by the superstitious, the greedy, the unenlightened, and the evil.

Delve deeper into James’ metaphor and you see its sinister dimensions. Heraclitus said, “War is the father and king of all: some he has made gods, and some men; some slaves and some free.” War is the original creative destruction, in which fortune can turn in mere minutes. As such war often demands that the machinery of consensual government be compromised.  The demands of war––the need for rapid mobilization, provision of matériel, and decisions and actions whose success relies on decisiveness and speed–– has led even constitutional states to provide for an office or executive that can be temporarily allowed expanded power.

The powers of the ancient Roman office of dictator, or the extra-constitutional scope given to our commanders-in-chief during wartime, speaks to the unique circumstances that war creates. But the example of Julius Caesar illustrates as well the dangers of giving one man too much power. Appointed dictator for a year, Caesar had his term eventually extended to life.  During his tenure Caesar encroached on and abused the constitutional powers of other Republican institutions. And at the time of his assassination, he was rumored to be planning on becoming a king.

The American Founders were obsessed with excessive power creating a tyrant. Caesar was their model of what to avoid, and his assassins like Cato and Brutus, the models to emulate. They designated the president the “commander-in-chief” in recognition of the necessity of concentrating power in times of conflict. But they gave the power of declaring war to the Senate. And fearing a successful, charismatic general like Caesar, who commanded the military means to achieve his ambitions, they subordinated military power to civilian authority.

The Founders limited presidential power for good reasons. History and their own experience with George III had taught them that “power is of an encroaching nature,” and that no man no matter now virtuous or noble, is beyond corruption by power. That’s what made Washington’s resignation of his commission after the Revolutionary War, and his refusal to run for a third presidential term, so remarkable and unprecedented. As George III himself said when told Washington would resign his commission, “If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world!”

Now we can see a major reason why progressives want to dismantle the Constitutional order: its limits on power hinder them from fulfilling their utopian schemes. Before he became president, Woodrow Wilson decried the institutionalized balance and separation of powers for the impediments it put on a visionary “leader of men” who could more efficiently discern what’s best for the citizenry and how to achieve it. Sounding suspiciously like the “messianic great leader” of many an autocracy, Wilson extolled a leader who possessed:

Such sympathetic and penetrating insight as shall enable him to discern quite unerringly the motive which move them in the mass . . .  it only needs what it is that lies waiting to be stirred in the minds and purposes of groups and masses of men. Besides, it is not sympathy that serves but a sympathy whose power is to command, to command by knowing its instrument . . . The competent leader of men cares little for the interior niceties of other people’s characters . . . [except] for the external uses to which they may be put. His will seeks the line of least resistance; but the whole question with him is a question of the application of force. There are men to be moved: how shall he move them?

Such a leader should not be hindered by limits on his power, especially the division of the legislative from the executive branch of government. The president, as Wilson complained, should not be just “empowered to veto bad laws,” but “given the opportunity to make good ones.”

That Wilsonian ambition to “move men” to do what he wanted, and to “make good laws” was realized during Obama’s presidency, during which he used his “phone and pen” to circumvent Congress, issuing executive orders, signing letters, and other executive agency intrusions into the Article 1 law-making powers given to Congress.

And don’t forget his White House bureaucrat Cass Sunstein’s concept of the “nudge,” a kinder, gentler way of making voters do what you want through rewards and hidden persuasion­­–– the 21st century “soft despotism” answer to Wilson’s questions about how to “move people in the mass.” Of course, this implies what Wilson at least was honest about: that the “leader” knows what’s best for everybody else, and sees the machinery of representative government as being too slow or inefficient to achieve progressive ambitions for “improving” society or furthering “social justice.”

The “moral equivalent of war” metaphor also suggests other arguments for bypassing the Constitutional order. Like war, crises demand speedy action that democratic assemblies, deliberation, legislative procedures, and mechanisms of institutional accountability make difficult. And if crises aren’t available? As James’ metaphor implies, they can be created by one faction’s self-interested interpretation or exaggerations of the risks and dangers of inaction. When lives are at stake, the “urgency of now,” as Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King, makes adhering to the niceties of constitutional procedure dangerous as well as inefficient.

It’s not surprising, then, that for a century, progressives have exploited real crises, such as the Depression and two world wars, to increase the number and scope of intrusive executive branch powers. Several of the federal offices that Wilson created to manage World War I, for example, were refurbished for FDR’s New Deal, the greatest expansion of federal power up to then. But faux crises have been manufactured to achieve the same end.

No example is more revealing of this link between “crisis” and the expansion of federal and state power into business and private life than “climate change,” the meaningless euphemism for what used to be called “global warming,” itself shorthand for “catastrophic man-caused global warming.” The Fourth National Climate Assessment released last month is typical of the near half-century of hysterical predictions of civilization-ending catastrophe that conveniently will occur after this generation has passed on. And even as the free market has developed new technologies like fracking that have reduced carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S.–in 2017, 0.5% compared to the green EU’s rise of 1.5%–the climate-catastrophe industrial complex continues to call for more subsidies for “green” energy, and more Draconian reductions in carbon-based energy. Why would they do that? Because solving the climate “crisis” requires an expansion of government’s size, scope, and power to intrude into our lives, ability to appropriate our money, and create further limits on our autonomy.

Finally, just as during war we have seen Constitutional rights temporarily suspended, as Lincoln did habeas corpus during the Civil War, or as Wilson did free speech rights during World War I, so too the progressives have been eager to limit our rights in order to keep such “obsolete and indefensible notions,” as progressive historian Charles Beard over a century ago described natural rights, from interfering with the progressives’ implementation of their utopian ambitions. So today we see calls to limit the First Amendment’s rights protecting speech and religion, or the Second’s right to keep and bear arms.

Our Constitutional mechanisms by design are cumbersome because the Founders’ primary aim was to defend political freedom, both of individuals and the states, from a centralized and concentrated power that inevitably seeks to expand at the expense of freedom. That’s why the progressives want to dismantle the Constitution’s checks and balances that limit power, and in the name of efficiency, justice, and equality, empower and expand technocratic elites who supposedly know better than individuals, families, communities, and the market what’s best.

We need to beware the hysterical cries that “something must be done!” about the “crisis” du jour. For when the crisis passes, more of our freedom will have gone with it.


(TLB) published this article from Front Page Mag with our appreciation for this perspective. 

About the author BRUCE THORNTON

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy’s Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.



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