Ascent of Praetorian Liberalism

"apparently we now have an ‘Emperor of the United States.’"

"that’s maybe a criticism that the President wears with a badge of honor"

In 1973, American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published The Imperial Presidency, a survey of the executive branch’s history and its accrual of powers since the Republic’s founding. Coming in the aftermath of American interventions in Vietnam and Cambodia, Schlesinger argued the space granted to presidents in foreign policy and war-making had exceeded their rightful constitutional scope. The argument achieved greater urgency as then President Richard Nixon became implicated in the Watergate scandal. A former member of the Kennedy Administration, Schlesinger acknowledged the occasion of an emergency could justify sweeping presidential authority, but as a stalwart liberal, he also signaled a growing liberal apprehension at an emerging Republican lock on the executive branch. Nixon’s re-election in 1972 had just marked the fourth Republican presidential victory in six elections.

Schlesinger’s concern is now the Republican Party’s concern. The Democratic Party has similarly achieved four presidential wins in the past six elections, the Republican Party is neither united nor poised to win in 2016, and President Barack Obama has just exercised sweeping executive authority on the matter of immigration. Obama conspicuously lacks a crisis to justify his actions and the sudden pivot to the issue only two weeks after devastating losses in recent midterm elections reeks of crass political maneuvering. Nevertheless, the episode marks the latest, and perhaps the most pernicious, phase of modern progressivism – praetorian liberalism.

Before Empire

As noted previously, In Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, American scholar James Piereson documented how the once optimistic liberalism of John F. Kennedy mutated into the dour and pessimistic “punitive liberalism” of George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and James Carter. Piereson demonstrated how the incomprehensibility of the JFK assassination left some liberals grasping for explanations. Some crafted intricate and complex conspiracies while others assigned blame to the entire nation.

However these despondent liberals coped, the cumulative result was a doctrine of "punitive liberalism" whereby America was identified as the source of all misfortunes in the world. Punitive liberalism held that a racist, misogynist, greedy, and imperial America had enslaved Africans, oppressed its women, abandoned the poor, and installed dictatorships around the world.

In terms of policy, punitive liberalism included affirmative action and quotas, the expansion of welfare entitlements, environmental regulations, abandonment of longtime Cold War allies, and campaigns for unilateral disarmament.

The doctrinal shift upended the Democratic Party and sunk its future for a generation.

Despite the interlude of the successful William Clinton presidency, the McGovern-Carter coalition re-emerged and captured the party in full in 2008 and returned to the White House under Barack Obama.

Under the Obama Administration, the strength of punitive liberalism was evident in the characterization of America as cowardly on race relations, the partial nationalization of health care, and the disarray in foreign policy in which longtime allies have been derided and the actions of anti-American rogues go unopposed.

This latest round of punitive liberalism prompted a major but limited backlash in 2010. However, after four years of desultory growth and an ever more intrusive nanny state, the “silent majority” of the Democratic Party is now in revolt, helping to eject punitive-inclined liberals at all levels of government two weeks ago.

Stripped of the legitimacy provided by Senator Harry Reid’s regency in the Senate and his legislative legerdemain, progressivism can now only survive by latching onto unilateral presidential authority.

Punitive liberalism chastened America with the whips of regulation; praetorian liberalism will now unleash the scorpions of executive orders.

Praetorian Pretense

Again, the impetus is not emergency, but craven politicking.

To be more direct, the motivation is complete antipathy for any and all obstacles to the progressive agenda.

The bankruptcy of progressivism has become evident as praetorian enablers like Lois Lerner and Jonathan Gruber have given lie to the pretense of an apolitical technocratic meritocracy.

Lerner’s persecution of conservative citizens’ groups at the Internal Revenue Service was only one dimension. As noted previously, Lerner’s machination marked the distinction between Obama and Nixon. Nixon used the IRS to harass the opposition elite; Obama used the IRS to hound opposition citizens. Gruber’s failing has simply been to speak a long-known truth -- progressivism’s disdain for the democratic process and the American voter. (Lerner and Gruber are two sides of the same maleficent coin – and who knows how many other Grubers exist?! The bloated bureaucracy is potentially rife with Gruberitis…)

Such antipathy cannot thrive without inspiration (and acquiescence) from above and Obama’s duplicity has not only become increasingly suspect, but downright incontrovertible.

In rapid succession, the second term has collapsed under the weight of Benghazi evasiveness, an unfounded dismissal of ISIS, misdirection on Veterans Affairs, the health care lie of the year, and now immigration.

Obama is not a “bystander president,” he is an active and ruthlessly one-minded political combatant.

Obama believes the 2014 election results are only a minor setback in the establishment of a new Democratic majority but readily recognizes unrestricted immigration is central to its achievement.

The Democratic Party’s demise among white voters is becoming more and more apparent, and, as in the wake of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, liberals will have to intensify its appeal to identity grievance. Thus the executive order on immigration and the pandering to the growing Hispanic vote.

Striking Back

In response to President Nixon, the Democratic Congress commendably used its constitutionally granted appropriation and oversight powers, but also lurched into constitutional grey areas, such as restrictions on commander-in-chief authorities.

The Republican Congress in waiting has been publicly debating how to respond and, while tailored actions on the budget and upcoming nominations may be elements, such courses may be inadequate.

American commentator Robert Tracinski has proposed an intriguing course of action. Tracinski advises Republicans to remember the central matter is not immigration, but executive overreach. Since previous clumsy Republican Congresses have undermined the validity of government shutdowns as an assertion of legislative constitutional prerogatives, Tracinski recommends the excluding the Democratic minority caucus from all aspects of congressional business.

“If Democrats squawk, Republicans have an unanswerable rejoinder. Why should they care about having power in Congress, if the laws passed by Congress are just going to be ignored by the president?”

The gambit returns the debate to more favorable terrain where either Democrats join with Republicans in ensuring the legislative branch’s equality or accept its disenfranchisement in the name of political solidarity. (A shaky reed to lean on, especially in the aftermath of Senator Mary Landrieu’s recent defeat on the Keystone XL pipeline. Three lame duck Democratic Senators, who could have voted yes, inexplicably did not.)

Absolute majority rule would be gratifying, but the Republican Party should additionally consider another principle at stake: federalism. The Tenth Amendment should be another anvil on which the Republican Party hammers President Obama and the liberal faith in gleichshaltung.

As noted previously, praetorian liberals have attempted to exonerate recent administration missteps and scandals by asserting “you know we have a large government... [and] [p]art of being president is there's so much underneath you that you can't know because the government is so vast.”
Another convenient excuse for progressives, but Republicans have a ready solution: reduce the scope of government. If the government is so vast, then Republicans should rediscover their affection for the Tenth Amendment and enthusiastically dismantle the federal Leviathan and devolve power back to the states.
States along the American-Mexican border are the first to grapple with the consequences of the immigration system’s failures and, in general, the elected Republican leadership there have been vilified for their efforts. States and localities countrywide have begun waking up to the burdens of bloated unionized public sectors, another consequence of punitive liberalism. Coming at a time the Republicans have eviscerated the Democratic Party at the state level is just another plus. For all the anxiety over the future of conservative state governments in Wisconsin, Kansas, and North Carolina, their sizable re-election margins should be reassuring.
The grandeur of the presidency is tempting but amid this latest appearance of the imperial presidency -- as well as the overt hostility of praetorian liberalism to the common voter -- Republicans should desist from deferring and aggrandizing the presidency. (If you can abide Obama, then you’ll adore Hillary Clinton.)
The Praetorian Guard once embodied the martial elite and existential defense of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, over time, the decline was gradual and slow and tragic as Lord Acton’s axiom always prevails.
Pride goeth before the fall and by defiantly embracing the emperor epithet, Obama may be finally ratifying modern liberalism’s imminent demise.

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