09 January 2013

Tyrannophobia across the political spectrum

While hearing indirectly about the controversy stirred up by conspiracymonger Alex Jones's appearance on CNN I was catching up with some reading left over from last year. In one of the book review magazines I discovered Eric A. Posner and Adrian Vermeule. These law professors co-wrote The Executive Unbound, a 2011 publication in defense of the expanded scope of executive power. The authors criticize what they call "liberal legalism" grounded in "liberal tyrannophobia" for failing to recognize the occasional necessity in modern times for decisive and energetic executive action. Certain circumstances, they argue, require the executive, when he is primarily responsible for national security, to disregard constitutional constraints. In modern times, they claim, the real check on executive power is not the legislative branch, or even the Supreme Court, but the electorate. "The real alternative to liberal legalism is not tyranny but a plebiscitary presidency , constrained by the shifting tides of mass opinion," they write.

Posner and Vermeule's theories of executive power are a subject for another time. For today, I'm interested in this notion of "liberal tyrannophobia." Do the authors mean by this term a fear of tyrants characteristic of 21st century American "liberals," or does their adjective refer to the classical "liberal" tradition from which much of modern American "conservatism" also derives?  Insofar as the authors are academics, I suspect the latter is the case, especially since they trace American tyrannophobia to the Founders and Framers. At the same time, distinctions can still be drawn between "liberal tyrannophobia" in the other sense -- the fears of 21st century ideological liberals -- and the tyrannophobia of conservatives, libertarians or whatever Alex Jones claims to be. The most obvious difference, at first glance, is that modern liberals are more likely to focus their fears of tyranny on the figure of the executive. As Republicans will readily (and not without justice) interject, many liberals, especially those who identify primarily as Democrats, are inconsistent in their suspicion of executive power. Nevertheless, it seems accurate to say that the characteristic liberal form of tyrannophobia is fear of a President ruling by decree, under the "state of exception" theorized by Carl Schmitt and apparently endorsed by Posner and Vermeule. By contrast, and despite the personal invective often hurled at certain politicians, tyrannophobia outside the zone conventionally defined as "Left" seems less personal in nature. Even among conspiracy theorists -- the difference is obvious by definition -- there's less fear of an Evil One than of complex systems which to them are tyrannical by virtue of their complexity and comprehensive scope. People like Jones may hate President Obama, but Jones hated President Bush too, and for him Presidents are probably no more than interchangeable parts for a machine which is itself evil. Another way of putting this is that while "liberals" may grow irrational in their fear of dictatorship in the form of powerful men, some freaking out whenever a dictator appears to emerge anywhere on Earth, other tyrannophobes simply have too low a threshold of alarm about tyranny, seeing it everywhere about them and not just on top, where liberals are watching.  The message of The Executive Unbound seems to be that both forms of tyrannophobia are irrational. Their definition of tyrannophobia as an irrational fear of tyranny implies that they do believe some vigilance against tyranny may be justified -- they claim that liberals see a threat in the presidency where one doesn't really exist -- but I'll have more reading to do before I can say when they'd consider some suspicion justified, or even how they might define tyranny. We can decide these things by ourselves, however, and given the challenges coming this century, the subject deserves more than the kneejerk responses we're accustomed to.

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