To Alter or to Abolish: "When the People Fear the Government, There is Tyranny"

If, as it is stated in the Declaration of Independence, governments are instituted among men to secure inalienable rights, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, then must we not conclude that the reigning two-party state and duopoly system of government has become destructive of these ends?  Over the last year, numerous polls have shown that a wide majority of Americans do not believe the US government has the consent of the governed.  Similarly, an absolute majority of Americans consider the federal government to be "an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens."

An overlooked aspect of the public response to the Tucson massacre reveals the extent to which the American people recognize the reactionary and hysterical character of Democratic-Republican party politics as a grave threat to rights, liberties and the rule of law.  Consider these lines from an NPR commentary by Daisy Hernandez:
I wasn't the only person on Saturday who rushed to her Android when news came of the Tucson shooting. I wasn't looking however to read about what had happened. My auntie had already filled me in . . . What I wanted to know was the killer's surname.

My eyes scanned the mobile papers. I held my breath. Finally, I saw it: Jared Loughner. Not a Ramirez, Gonzalez or Garcia. It's safe to say there was a collective sigh of brown relief when the Tucson killer turned out to be a gringo. Had the shooter been Latino, media pundits wouldn't be discussing the impact of nasty politics on a young man this week — they'd be demanding an even more stringent anti-immigrant policy.
Latinos were not the only folks who were concerned that their community would be demonized because of the actions of the lone gunman.  Muslim advocacy groups also likely breathed a collective sigh of relief when it was reported that "the Tucson killer turned out to be a gringo."  The relief among conservative Republicans was palpable as more details of the shooter's person and biography became public knowledge.  Indeed, in many quarters it turned to rage at their demonization by liberal Democrats, who were likely also relieved that Loughner was not obviously one of them either.  And reasonably so.  After it was reported that Loughner in fact had no party affiliation, none other than Rush Limbaugh launched a tirade against Independents and centrists.

Given the predilection of Democrats and Republicans to hysterical reactionism, many communities and advocacy groups remain justifiably concerned about a potential government-led backlash in the wake of the shootings.  Among them: free speech advocates, gun rights advocates, advocates of open government, advocates for the mentally ill, video game lovers, marijuana legalization advocates, just to name a few.  

It is no secret that the ruling political class, under the hegemony of the Democratic and Republican parties, legislates to the particular rather than the universal.  The immediate response on the part of public officials to any such incident – whether it results in a horrible tragedy or whether a potential tragedy is averted – is almost invariably to call for further restrictions on fundamental rights and liberties.  Americans know this all-too-well.  As Thomas Jefferson famously stated, "When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny."  It is time to declare our independence from the tyrannical and totalitarian politics of the two-party state.


Samuel Wilson said...

What about irrational fear of the government, or government in the abstract? Is it possible that for every genuine violation of civil liberties there's a crank crying "tyranny!" because of legally enacted taxes, regulations, etc? Before we apply Jefferson's test to the current environment we have to distinguish between justified and unjustified fear.

d.eris said...

Darn it. Looks like my first response here got eaten by Blogger . . . . anyway . . . as I was saying . . .

That is an important distinction, but it is a different (though related and necessary) discussion, imo. The present context shows that this fear is, arguably, both reasonable and justified. The fact that so many groups – from the ACLU to the NRA, to even Democrats and Republicans themselves, along with the others linked in the post – are concerned about potential violations of rights and liberties demonstrates that those concerns are reasonable. Recent history, moreover, shows that they are justified. Examples ready at hand: the response to the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the ongoing evisceration of the fourth amendment, criminalization of the freedom of the press in the case of Wikileaks, and so on. In a similar vein, the legislature and executive are unlikely to sunset the most extreme and objectionable aspects of the Patriot Act, let alone the abomination in its entirety, when it comes up for renewal once again this year, though it was supposed to only be a temporary measure when it was first passed, if I remember correctly.

When public officials speak about "striking the right balance between security and liberty," it is clear that they often have their fingers on the scales, which they rarely seem to tip in the direction of liberty.

On the other hand, what about the irrational faith in government demonstrated by those who do not fear the erosion of rights and liberties? Indeed, there are many who go so far as to even defend torture in the name of security, apparently unconcerned about the erosion of the rule of law, or even the distinction between civilization and barbarism.

Samuel Wilson said...

I agree that the situation requires concurrent discussions because there are forces clearly pushing in both directions. But so long as "liberty" remains some sort of conversation-stopping trump card conditions will favor those who recognize no rational limit to their fears. Distinctions between civilization and barbarism threaten to be lost here as well. I don't support any of the censorship schemes like Rep. Brady's floating about, nor do I think that the Tucson shootings can be blamed on anyone besides the shooter. But there is a pathological obsession with "liberty" festering amid the justified complaints you've cited, and my main point was that Jefferson's glib epigram seems blind to that development.

d.eris said...

Point taken. But, imo, the emphasis on liberty is necessary to counter the fetishization of security, which has been allowed to function as a "conversation-stopping trump card" for some time now. I think the emphasis on liberty is also necessary to start up conversations that have been shut down by that obsession with security. A discussion of irrational vs. rational fear of government or government in the abstract, as well as irrational vs. rational faith in government or government in the abstract, would be quite interesting. With respect to the former, one of my first associations when you brought it up was with the ironic overlapping of strict right-wing conservative anti-government rhetoric and strictly left-wing anarchist anti-government rhetoric.

That superficial similarity might mark or indicate an underlying possibility that a progressive-libertarian political and philosophical alliance/synthesis contains the kernel for rational solutions and responses to these issues. Or not.

Samuel Wilson said...

We're merely expressing different concerns. My issue isn't with people who oppose "liberty" to "security" but with those who seem to oppose "liberty" to everything -- except, in at least some cases, "security."

As for the existence of irrational faith in government, I won't dispute it. Realism dictates that some of the faith placed in political action is misplaced. Whether such faith is worse than no faith expressed in bad faith is another story.