Thursday, February 11, 2010



Last week, Sarah Palin delivered a speech to the first annual "Tea Party" convention in Nashville. Many listened very closely to her remarks because everyone wants to know what she plans to do with her political future. Love her or hate her, she has found a niche: Semi-factually orating to the semi-intelligent, nativist, government-hating "silent majority" that would not mind seeing President Obama lying in a pool of blood.

Apparently, this "silent majority" has launched a "counter-revolution" called the "Tea Party Movement." From what I understand, its adherents believe that all government is bad. They take their name from the American patriots who revolted against English taxation by destroying royal property in 1773. I suppose that these 21st Century "patriots" share the same hatred for taxation as their 18th Century "brethren."

But that's about all they share. Patriots in the 18th Century fought against legitimate wrongs. They sought to establish a Republic of laws against foreign autocracy. By contrast, these 21st Century "patriots" are not rebelling against a foreign monarch to establish a "more perfect Union." No, they are rebelling against their own government in order to pay fewer taxes and to exclude undesirable immigrants from American shores. They don't want to establish a new government to provide for Justice and "Domestic Tranquility." They basically want to abolish all government so that private business can do whatever the hell it wants.

I don't think James Madison or Thomas Jefferson would have joined this "Tea Party." Their talk about "the Rights of Man" and "equal human dignity" would not have gone over too well with this wetback-hating crowd. And they certainly would not have gone far with arguments about a Constitution. No, Palin's "Tea Party" adherents just want unlimited business license, not an enlightened Bill of Rights.

In sum, then, I gather that the "Tea Party" wants something just above anarchy. They want a "minimalist" government that does not interfere with private wealth or property ownership. They don't want health or welfare regulations, nor do they want intrusive "civil rights" legislation that blocks business opportunity. They want government to maintain an army, protect the borders, guard foreign trade interests, vindicate private contract rights and to prosecute domestic criminals. Beyond that, they do not want government to play a role in public life.

So these are the folks to whom Sarah Palin directed her remarks last week. And what did she say? Not surprisingly, she took vicious swipes at President Obama, who represents everything the "Tea Party" is not: A big-government minority intellectual who eschews military strength and supports high taxes. She lambasted him for failing to keep America safe from terrorism. To make her point, she attacked his intellectual spirit: "To win [this] war, we need a Commander-in-Chief, not a Professor of Law."

In other words, law professors ruminate and dawdle over legal intricacies while Commanders-in-Chief ignore the law and just kick ass. "Tea Party" members don't want the law. They want swashbuckling, extralegal ass kickers.

As much as I personally disagree with Palin's simplistic reasoning on this point, I cannot ignore that she illuminates a popular distinction: She equates law with weakness in war. There are "law professors" and there are "Commanders-in-Chief." Law professors are vacillating cowards who waste time worrying about the law. By contrast, Commanders-in-Chief kick down doors and get the job done, the law be damned.

Sadly, there is a widespread public belief that anyone who follows the law cannot protect the country from terrorism. The "Tea Party" fully endorses this belief. It asserts that the President cannot protect Americans if he insists on following the law--and the Constitution. Rather, according to the "Tea Party," a "strong President"--namely, a "Commander-in-Chief"--will gladly ignore the Constitution in order to "kick terrorist ass."

This is a stunning admission of the law's weakness. After all, if ignoring the law is the only way to win wars, what does that say about the law? Why even bother with it? Wars test States in the harshest possible ways. Yet law is supposed to guide a State through everything. If the law cannot handle war, it cannot handle anything. If the public believes that law is insufficient to win wars, then it rejects law completely. No one trusts weakness; and the "Tea Party" associates law with weakness. In that light, it is no wonder that Palin pejoratively labels President Obama a "law professor." That is the same as calling him a "Professor of Weakness."

But what is the alternative? Who is the fabled "Commander-in-Chief"? What does the "Tea Party" want in a President? Do they want a man who tears up the Constitution and tramples on their rights as citizens? Do they want a man who ignores international treaties and indefinitely imprisons people without cause or charge? Do they want a man who tortures others? Do they want a military State? Well, that is the opposite of law. And if law is weakness, maybe they do. After all, terrorists exploit weakness. It's better to be strong than weak, no matter how much liberty you must surrender, right?

I say no. It is dangerous to associate law with weakness because our law exists to govern all contingencies, including war. Our Constitution creates the term "Commander-in-Chief." See U.S. Const., Art. II § 2, cl. 1. There is no fanciful distinction between "law professors" and "Commanders-in-Chief." If anything, the "Commander-in-Chief" owes his existence to the Constitution--and the Constitution symbolizes life under law. In this sense, "Commander-in-Chief" is a legal term. The "Commander-in-Chief" plays a specific constitutional role under law. According to the Constitution, the President manages war within the law. He even takes an oath to support the Constitution. See Art. II § 1, cl. 8. Textually speaking, then, the President's first duty is to the law, not to kicking ass.

Ms. Palin did not know that. But then again, she does not know a lot of things.

Law is not weakness. If anything, it symbolizes our strength as a State. In the United States, law stands for something better than mere brute force. We enshrine our deepest values in law. Through law, we guarantee personal liberties and rights. Through law, we define the parameters by which government acts. We insist on law because the law protects us. If war suddenly entitles government to ignore the law, we have lost our protection. And it is no accident that our Constitution provides for war. Our Framers knew that war often provides an excuse to ignore law. That is why they demanded that the law remain intact, even in war. By defending law even in war, we affirm ourselves our own strength as a State--and our own rights as individuals.

Yet the "Tea Party" would have us believe that war trumps law. It even mocks a President who commits himself to following the law to govern war. This is extremely troubling. After all, the President has an institutional duty to follow the Constitution. By observing the law, the President is not betraying the people; he is doing his constitutional job. This is not weakness. If anything, it is strength.

Still, it is hard for the semi-intelligent (and sub-intelligent) masses to understand the value in defending law. To them, kicking ass seems a much more satisfying governmental option than according Due Process rights to prisoners and fretting over procedures. But if they only knew that fretting over procedures keeps everyone free. Perhaps then they would understand that there is value in defending law. After all, once the law falls in one case, everyone is vulnerable, not just the ne'er-do-wells rotting at Guantanamo Prison.

For my part, I feel safer knowing a law professor is guarding the Constitution than some "Tea Party" fanatic who would gladly take a dump on my rights simply because he says there's a "war on" somewhere.

But I'm unusual. Most Americans don't mind when authorities shit on their rights, as long as they can keep shopping in peace. That's why they might join the "Tea Party," and I won't.


Blaiser said...

Good one. Completely on point.

SteveW said...

This is a tough spot for you. You generally are antagonistic on the Law (although NOT because it doesn't kick enough ass). Also, the libertarian stripe of the Tea Party certainly doesn't want authority to shit on their rights - they want authority to stop confiscating wealth (words they would use) and stop trying to control their lives (e.g. health care).

I'm also in a tough spot on this one. I personally disagree with Obama on spending, health care, climate change, and pretty much anything else he's done. However, I think Palin would be a nightmare, and would be inclined to repeat my Libertarian vote in '12 if it's Palin. I would be out of Afghanistan and Iraq by now, and that's another place where I differ with both sides. (You already know that I think "both" sides - Obama and the Repubs - are actually the same side)