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The New Authoritarians

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Message Dan Fejes

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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Dan Fejes lives in northeast Ohio.
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