The Magazine

Government Isn’t Us

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Barack Obama might consider all of this to be a touch “paranoid,” but the Framers had lived through a generation of decidedly un-republican government. They had seen the American people occupy a second-class role in the British system, which no less an eminence than Montesquieu praised as a model of republican probity. Then, having thrown off the British yoke, they were appalled to find that their democratically elected state governments acted in equally villainous ways. In other words, the lesson of the 1770s and 1780s was clear: Getting the government to do “our” business is much easier said than done.

This is a lesson that history has taught again and again, for those who care to study it. Worrying about what the government is up to is not “paranoia.” It is healthy skepticism grounded in an understanding of the self-interested nature of man as evidenced by centuries of experience. Such skepticism is necessary to the maintenance of any republic, including our own. Even within the Framers’ rigorous system of checks and balances, it would be practically impossible to recount the number of instances in which the government has not behaved as if it were “us” over the years. Our government has violated the republican principle on a regular basis since it was established. That is the only way to explain every reformist movement from the Jeffersonian Republicans of the 1790s to the “hope and change” Obamaites of 2008. If the government was not establishing and servicing interests adverse to the public good, then there would never be a need for such reformers.

This points to why Obama is making the specious case that “government is us.” In 2008, he claimed to be the reformer; today, he is the chief executive of a government in desperate need of reform. He surely knows better than to believe this happy talk; his course syllabi at the University of Chicago, for instance, were full of critical race theorists who promulgated radical, leftist versions of the very same critique. The difference for Obama between then and now is that cynicism about government threatens his political power, something he simply cannot abide.

Since he arrived on the national stage, Obama has tried to recast every criticism of himself as some sort of paranoid, fringe plot cooked up by knaves or fools. Perhaps in a sign of his declining power, he is now trying to dump American luminaries like Madison and Jefferson, who dared wonder if government was really looking out for the people, into the crazy bin with the rest of us.

Conservatives may want to take it as a compliment that the president lumps them along with America’s Founders into the ranks of the “loonies,” but they still need to explain why wariness of government is actually a civic virtue. Obama cannot be left unrebutted in his attempts to equate healthy, republican skepticism with paranoia and nihilism.

Recent Blog Posts