Has Al Gore become a conservative? His recent speech to the Liberty Coalition, a group of conservatives and liberals united in opposing the growing authoritarianism that drives this administration, sounded as if it had been written by some disgruntled paleoconservative. With his frequent references to the Founders and their philosophy of strictly limited government, his embittered lament at the rapid erosion of individual liberties against the Leviathan State, and his openly anti-interventionist critique of our foreign policy of preemptive aggression, one might have imagined he had suddenly started channeling Robert A. Taft. You know we are witnessing a defining moment in American politics when a leader of the Democratic Party starts talking like an Old Right Republican.
In a wide-ranging and withering critique of the president’s domestic “unilateralism,” Gore lit into this administration’s insistence that the president must become a virtual dictator in wartime and that we are, for all intents and purposes, permanently at war on account of the “war on terrorism.” Focusing on the lawlessness that energized the vast spying program carried out by the NSA on domestic phone calls, e-mails, and other means of communication, he opined:
“It is this same disrespect for America’s Constitution which has now brought our republic to the brink of a dangerous breach in the fabric of the Constitution. And the disrespect embodied in these apparent mass violations of the law is part of a larger pattern of seeming indifference to the Constitution that is deeply troubling to millions of Americans in both political parties.”
He urged the appointment of a special counsel a radical step that is nonetheless necessary, he averred, because the danger to our republic has never been greater. We are facing an unprecedented assault on all the Founders held dear, on the very system of government that is their legacy, and, unless we confront it and defeat it, America will succumb to the authoritarian virus. Yes, it’s true that we have faced similar-seeming assaults on our liberties before:
“On more than a few occasions, in our history, the dynamic interaction among all three branches has resulted in collisions and temporary impasses that create what are invariably labeled ‘constitutional crises.’ These crises have often been dangerous and uncertain times for our Republic. But in each such case so far, we have found a resolution of the crisis by renewing our common agreement to live together under the rule of law.”
This time, however, aside from the accumulated power of precedent with the blame, as Gore points out, about equally distributed between both major parties there is something new to add to the mix:
“In each of these cases throughout American history, when the conflict and turmoil subsided, our nation recovered its equilibrium and absorbed the lessons learned in a recurring cycle of excess and regret.
“But, there are reasons for concern this time around, that conditions may be changing and that the cycle may not repeat itself.”
Gore lists three factors as contributing to the peculiar lethality of this threat to the health of our constitutional system:
- “The slow and steady accumulation of presidential power.”
- Claims by the current administration that, for all practical purposes, the war on terrorism will continue in perpetuity.
- New surveillance technologies that “have the potential for shifting the balance of power between the apparatus of the state and the freedom of the individual.”
“In a globe where there are nuclear weapons and Cold War tensions, Congress and the American people accepted ever enlarging spheres of presidential initiative to conduct intelligence and counter-intelligence activities and to allocate our military forces on the global stage. When military force has been used as an instrument of foreign policy or in response to humanitarian demands, it has almost always been as the result of presidential initiative and leadership. But, as Justice Frankfurter wrote in that famous Steel Seizure Case, ‘The accretion of dangerous power does not come in a day. It does come, however slowly, from the generative force of unchecked disregard of the restrictions that fence in even the most disinterested assertion of authority.'”
It was Harry Truman who tried to grab the steel mills during the Korean War, when, in invoking his powers as commander in chief, he tried to head off the threat of a strike. Using the same legal rationale as the “unitary executive” theory upheld by the Bush folks, Truman claimed the right of the federal government to impound and run the steel mills. The Supreme Court struck down this particular bout of presidential hubris, but the real precedent established by Truman was his ordering U.S. troops to Korea in the first place without going to Congress first. Not even Roosevelt had dared to do it. Yet that boring little haberdasher single-handedly abrogated congressional oversight over U.S. foreign policy and surrendered, seemingly forever, the constitutionally mandated power of Congress to declare war.
The “generative force” Gore describes was, of course, a foreign policy that deemed it essential to U.S. national security that our forces should range across the globe. And not only that, but they must be ready at a moment’s notice to take the battle to the enemy. During the Cold War years, the immediacy of the alleged threat meant that Congress could not be consulted: the nuclear age required the kind of split-second decision-making that did not lend itself to the leisurely deliberations of the U.S. Senate. Or so our rulers insisted.
However, the Cold War ended and we have yet to be released from the iron grip of this “necessary” thralldom. Today we are told that, because of a man hiding in a cave somewhere, we face an even greater peril than that represented by the former Soviet Union: there is no time to quibble about minor matters, such as civil liberties or the rule of law. These are archaisms in the post-9/11 world, the neoconservatives opine an argument that is painfully familiar to authentic conservatives.
An all-too-common complaint has been that the Constitution was written in “the horse-and-buggy age” as Franklin Delano Roosevelt once disdainfully remarked. Always, the arguments in favor of ditching the delicate balance of our constitutional design have been couched in terms of accommodating modernity. The added irony is that, this time, the “streamlining” process is being taken to radical new extremes by an ostensibly “conservative” administration.
In defining the danger and drawing attention to it, Gore has approximated the critique of many conservatives who have been openly worried about the rise of what Lew Rockwell of the Ludwig von Mises Institute calls “red-state fascism.” The cult of the president combined with the hopped-up militarism of this administration and the knee-jerk willingness of its partisans to accuse their opponents of openly aiding “the enemy” in wartime all point to a dangerous and growing authoritarian tendency that, coupled with the widespread illegal surveillance, amounts to incipient fascism, American-style.
Gore’s jeremiad against the neo-authoritarians is an encouraging sign that liberals are waking up to a threat they did much to make possible. I particularly admire his honesty in admitting that both parties have their share of the blame. What I find most hopeful is the very rare spectacle of a politician openly undergoing a radical shift in his beliefs.
Is it possible that the Left is moving in a more explicitly libertarian direction? If even Al Gore, who served as part of an administration that insisted on its “right” to carry out virtually warrantless electronic surveillance and that once illegally procured over 400 FBI files on officials who served in previous administrations, is now denouncing similar albeit more radical intrusions as impermissible, then the answer is undoubtedly yes.
I’m not too impressed, however, with the apparent recruitment of noted warmonger Christopher Hitchens to the ranks of the alarmed: Hitchens, the New York Times notes, has become a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits against the domestic spying program recently acknowledged by the Bush administration. That he fails to see the necessary connection between a foreign policy of unchecked aggression and a domestic policy of unchecked surveillance is a consequence, perhaps, of his career as an unregenerate statist of one sort or another. Or maybe that’s just what comes of constantly soaking the brain in alcohol.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I my Monday column, the sentence reading: "So, too, the demography of the Arab world which imparts to it, according to Ferguson, a potentially deadly and threateningly youthful ‘vitality,’ as opposed to the ‘senescent’ West," the word "vitality" should have been "youthful energy." My apologies for the error.