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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Delegitimizing Authority

As James Vega pointed out in a post last night, threats or even acts of violence by right-wing fringe groups are entirely predictable–and even rational from the point of view of their perpetrators–in an atmosphere where even “respectable” conservatives often indulge themselves in charges that the country is sliding into some sort of totalitarian system.
I’d add that the problem goes even deeper than overheated rhetoric about the alleged “government takeover” of the health care system or the economy, or claims that an individual mandate to purchase health insurance (which, as progressives should mention as often as possible, has been supported in the very recent past by a large number of Republicans, among them 2012 presidential front-runner Mitt Romney) represents some sort of enslavement. More fundamentally, conservatives have sought to delegitimize the authority of the president and Democratic majorities in Congress by suggesting that they were not properly elected in the first place. That’s the obvious thrust of the “birther” argument, which Republicans continue to flirt with. And it’s the even more obvious implication of the “ACORN stole the 2008 election” meme, to which a significant share of rank-and-file Republicans appear to subscribe.
Moreover, the massive upsurge of militant constitutional “originalism” (a signature principle of the Tea Party Movement) is a new and alarming development, insofar as it implies that generations of Supreme Court rulings, by justices nominated by presidents of both parties, have consciously conspired to destroy the Founders’ design along with basic American liberties. To put it another way, if signficant numbers of citizens come to believe that elected officials aren’t legitimately holding power, and that the justice system has failed to exercise any restraints on “tyranny,” what forms of civil authority are left? The armed forces? “Militias” exercising their Second Amendment rights to bear arms in self-defense?
Back in 1996, an obscure but significant dispute broke out among conservative intellectuals in the pages of First Things, a conservative ecumenical politics-and-religion journal edited by the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus. To make a long (and controversial) story short, a number of Neuhaus’ colleagues argued that the “judicial usurpation” of democratic decisionmaking over abortion and same-sex relationships denied “the current regime” any genuine authority, or any loyalty from citizens. A number of other conservative intellectuals–many of them Jewish members of the “neoconservative” camp–recoiled in horror at this potentially revolutionary line of reasoning.
We’ve come a long way since then, it appears. Now similar arguments, aimed at all three branches of the federal government, are endemic on the Right, and have, for the first time since southern resistance to civil rights for African-Americans, a mass base in the population.
Thoughtful conservatives need to reflect on this development, and its implications, which go far beyond who wins or loses in 2010 and 2012. We are edging ever closer to the situation described by George Dangerfield in his famous study of pre-World War I British politics, The Strange Death of Liberal England, when Tory politicians opportunistically embraced revolutionary rhetoric against Home Rule for Ireland and nearly brought the United Kingdom to the brink of civil war.
It’s a trend that no American of any political persuasion should welcome.

3 comments on “Delegitimizing Authority

  1. ducdebrabant on

    If there were ever a time to take the position that the Executive Branch had no legitimate authority, it was after Bush v. Gore, and Democrats chose not to go there. We also had such an opportunity during the campaign to say that McCain couldn’t legitimately take office, since he was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Republicans always acted as if Clinton hadn’t been lawfully elected, since he didn’t take office with a majority of the vote, but he sure as hell got more votes than George Bush. To practice their by-now-familiar de-legitimizing trick with a President who won in a virtual landslide and brought a Democratic Congress in with him, they’ve had to resort to the Birther fraud and lately they’ve been trying to argue for Nullification and against the Tyranny of the Majority like little John C. Calhouns. I grew up in Alabama, and we pretty much accepted that the Civil War settled whether or not states had the right to secede from the Union, and now these spoiled Texans and Alaskans flirt with it. Sheesh.

  2. Joe Corso on

    Both the “birther” and “ACORN stole the election” notions reflect a peculiar kind of rationalization mechanism that operates by reversing the normal logic of cause and effect.
    The right-winger begins with the emotional conviction that he “Knows deep inside” that Obama is not a legitimate president. This is then converted into a logical premise i.e. if it is indeed the case that Obama is not a legitimate president then it is reasonable to suspect that he may not be a US citizen or that the election may have been stolen — or any number of other things.
    Deep down the person knows that they do not have “proof” that these secondary deductions are correct, but to thim or her they seem overwhelmingly probable because they follow logically (or more accurately psychologically) from a deeply held non-empirical premise.
    CLinical psychologists deal with this perverse kind of logic all the time in the context of individual therapy. In that setting they still use the Freudian era term “defense mechanisms” to describe what are essentially mental delusions induced by psychological need.


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