Of Horses, Politicians, and Fences
Unbridled horses tend to think they are wild. For that reason, fences were made. Politicians unbounded by law -- or who think themselves unbounded by law -- tend toward running wild, toward the commission of deeper and wider intrusions on personal liberty. As Americans, we are now living thorough a consequential moment. Like it or not, we are witness to accelerating executive abuse.
Lack of legal fencing, or an unwillingness to use legal fencing that exists, leads inexorably to runaway behavior. Uncorrected and deterred, small breaches of accountability accelerate. We all know this. We know this of our everyday lives, even as we know this of political leadership. Lord Acton noted that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The corollary is this: Incremental and tolerated abuse of public trust produces larger and more frequent abuses of power.
Do you doubt the basic principle? Just go to a bookshelf – or google – any of the thousands of pages written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, our fourth and third presidents respectively, Father of the Bill of Rights and writer of the Declaration of Independence. Or flip open Plato's Republic, in which Socrates describes a "democracy" which cannot unify and hold leaders accountable as destined for "tyranny." Not my words, nothing Democratic or Republican, just Plato's candid assessment, written over a millennium ago.
If you prefer, look to history. Take King George III, whose abuses built on each other, small oppressions, larger regulations, unjust taxes, until they triggered a movement -- the American Democracy. Once unified, democratic disposition and love of individual freedom is hard to suppress. Out of George III's abuses, we got the world's most successful, open, pluralistic, limited and stable republican government.
Take any oppressor of the last hundred and fifty years, for that matter, the last hundred and fifty decades! You will find corroboration for the principle that abuses accelerate over time. Even over the past sixty years, history is littered with examples. Consider Panama’s former self-appointed strong man Noriega, Syria's two Assads, Cuba's Castro, Venezuela’s Chavez, and the Soviet Union's suite of uniquely oppressive, reflexively deceitful, and unaccountable dark figures, Lenin through Andropov.
Leaders who fashion themselves above law "just a little" and only in their own minds, soon assert rights far above the law, and boldly move to remake the world to conform to their delusions. Even if you can tolerate a dictator, abhor his means. Such leaders never evolve back into democrats. They are never humble servants of a Sovereign People. In their minds, they are smarter. While they hold power, they are objectively powerful. They seek to control the marketplace of ideas.
First with caution, then with arrogance, they swallow individual, local and provincial prerogatives, slowly and then in gulps. Counterintuitively, the more they can consume, the hungrier they become. Having subverted little liberties, their ambition grows. Having shaded the truth, they learn to ignore it. Eventually, all is justified. New assertions of authority feed the delusion, and reinforce the appetite for control. The process accelerates – until checked. Like wild horses, they roam until fenced.
That is why, in this country, we have always said no man is above the law, not even a president. We have reminded each other for 300 years that we are a land of laws, not of men. There is no legal toleration for cult of personality or utopian ideologies. There is no policy that can justify suppression of God-given liberties – not yours, mine or our neighbors'. That, after all, is what makes us so unique, we Americans. We live the idea. This has always been true, even if our neighbors made more money, drove bigger cars, and drank bigger sodas than we do. Nothing trumps the average American's commitment to individual freedom. Our identities -- individually and collectively -- form through this commitment.
Of course, some political leaders do not get this. But you know it and I know it. Why does this disposition to permitting our neighbors to have freedom, so we can keep our own, run so deep? The answer is in the question. We do not need John Locke to know that we tolerate each other's oddities and preferences, so we can enjoy toleration ourselves. Left to our own devices, we prefer to judge less, so that we are less judged, less regulated, less controlled. Democratic government has a legitimate role, but a limited one.
So, we are a bit off track. Horses are running wild. In a sense, we have been duped. We have been progressively encouraged by a divisive leader to absorb ourselves in petty bickering, while he assumes control of what is important. We have been sucker punched, enticed to nip and yap, bite and judge each other. Just read the latest White House press release -- on anything. Diversions, deflections, denials, and appeals to diminish or attack some aspect of society are standard fare. Worse, many political leaders on both sides of the aisle have risen to the bait, undermining the process of accountability by attacking each other. They are lost in a mire of distraction, afraid to criticize this president for some reason, and missing the main thing.
As Americans, we have always been self-bounded. We are used to fencing our political leaders, not letting them get away with injustices. What has happened to us? Historically, we were universally resolved to prevent overreach. We instinctively refused to let any politician unilaterally fence us. We thrived on keeping them accountable. After all, it was Republicans who took the bad news to Richard Nixon: That he needed to resign or face impeachment. We need to start remembering that we are Americans first, partisans later.
If we do not reign in a runaway executive, we lose. Tyranny comes with speed, an accelerating pace. No political leader’s “pen” puts him above the law. In this country, no executive branch official can unilaterally make, waive, subvert, claim ignorance of, or misuse the law for his own purposes. No well-paid counsel in the West Wing can justify abuse. Why is that? Because we have a fence. We call it the U.S. Constitution.
So, now we come to the edgy moment. There are breaks in our fence, whole sections are down. As in past generations, it is incumbent on us to do the hard work of repairing that fence, getting a runaway executive branch back into the corral. It is time we use our laws, step up to principles, and admit what we all know: Few of us want a king, benevolent, belligerent or otherwise.
What are the options? There are few. Debating impeachment is thankless, but may be coming. Lawsuits filed by members of Congress are interminable, and yet what is the choice? Arresting and trying administration members for contempt is fraught with difficulty, untested and laborious, but how else does one enforce contempt? Perhaps a courageous federal or state prosecutor will take his place in history, risk job security to articulate the actionable abuses of power we all see. Perhaps a mountain of articles will decelerate these abuses. Perhaps the wild horses will cheerfully wander home.
However, if these things do not occur, we must take the measure of who we are. If we do not unify to contain these real abuses of power, are we worthy of all the sacrifices that brought the Republic to this point? Is it really an option to sit by as freedoms our fathers and grandfathers died for are eroded, or stripped away? To allow the triumph of arrogance over legal and legislative process would be unforgivable. So, what do you say? Shall we no longer be taken for fools? Let us put policy differences aside and rescue our country. As we do not tolerate runaway horses, we should not tolerate runaway politicians. Keeping the executive branch accountable is now the main thing, if a very uncomfortable task. Ronald Reagan was prescient. Listen to the echo of his words: "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” So let’s work together – on the Hill and in the heartland -- to get that fence back up, and to keep this Executive Branch -- all of it, top to bottom -- accountable.
Robert Charles worked in the Reagan and GHW Bush White Houses, served as Counsel to Speaker Hastert and as Assistant Secretary of State for Colin Powell. He taught Oversight at the Harvard University Extension School, clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals and runs a consulting firm in Washington.