“I refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer,” said President Obama this week as he claimed new powers for himself in making recess appointments while Congress wasn’t legally in recess. The chief executive’s power grab in naming appointees to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board has been depicted by administration supporters as one forced upon a reluctant Obama by Republican intransigence. But this isn’t the first example of the president’s increasing tendency to govern with executive-branch powers. He has already explained that “where Congress is not willing to act, we’re going to go ahead and do it ourselves.” On a variety of issues, from immigration to the environment to labor law, that’s just what he’s been doing—and he may try it even more boldly should he win reelection. This “go it alone” philosophy reflects an authoritarian trend emerging on the political left since the conservative triumph in the 2010 elections.
The president and his coterie could have responded to the 2010 elections by conceding the widespread public hostility to excessive government spending and regulation. That’s what the more clued-in Clintonites did after their 1994 midterm defeats. But unlike Clinton, who came from the party’s moderate wing and hailed from the rural South, the highly urban progressive rump that is Obama’s true base of support has little appreciation for suburban or rural Democrats. In fact, some liberals even celebrated the 2010 demise of the Blue Dog and Plains States Democrats, concluding that the purged party could embrace a purer version of the liberal agenda. So instead of appealing to the middle, the White House has pressed ahead with Keynesian spending and a progressive regulatory agenda.
Much of the administration’s approach has to do with a change in the nature of liberal politics. Today’s progressives cannot be viewed primarily as pragmatic Truman- or Clinton-style majoritarians. Rather, they resemble the medieval clerical class. Their goal is governmental control over everything from what sort of climate science is permissible to how we choose to live our lives. Many of today’s progressives can be as dogmatic in their beliefs as the most strident evangelical minister or mullah. Like Al Gore declaring the debate over climate change closed, despite the Climategate e-mails and widespread skepticism, the clerisy takes its beliefs as based on absolute truth. Critics lie beyond the pale.
The problem for the clerisy lies in political reality. The country’s largely suburban and increasingly Southern electorate does not see big government as its friend or wise liberal mandarins as the source of its salvation. This sets up a potential political crisis between those who know what’s good and a presumptively ignorant majority. Obama is burdened, says Joe Klein of Time, by governing a “nation of dodos” that is “too dumb to thrive,” as the title of his story puts it, without the guidance of our president. But if the people are too deluded to cooperate, elements in the progressive tradition have a solution: European-style governance by a largely unelected bureaucratic class.
The tension between self-government and “good” government has existed since the origins of modern liberalism. Thinkers such as Herbert Croly and Randolph Bourne staked a claim to a priestly wisdom far greater than that possessed by the ordinary mortal. As Croly explained, “any increase in centralized power and responsibility . . . is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy. But the fault in that case lies with the democratic tradition” and the fact that “the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to a serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat.”
During the first two years of the Obama administration, the progressives persuaded themselves that favorable demographics and the consequences of the George W. Bush years would assure the consent of the electorate. They drew parallels with how growing urbanization and Herbert Hoover’s legacy worked for FDR in the 1930s. But FDR enhanced his majority in his first midterm election in 1934; the current progressive agenda, by contrast, was roundly thrashed in 2010. Obama may compare himself to Roosevelt and even to Lincoln, but the electorate does not appear to share this assessment.
After the 2010 thrashing, progressives seemed uninterested in moderating their agenda. Left-wing standard bearers Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation and Robert Borosage of the Institute for Policy Studies went so far as to argue that Obama should bypass Congress whenever necessary and govern using his executive authority over the government’s regulatory agencies. This autocratic agenda of enhanced executive authority has strong support with people close to White House, such as John Podesta of the Center for American Progress, a left-liberal think tank. “The U.S. Constitution and the laws of our nation grant the president significant authority to make and implement policy,” Podesta has written. “These authorities can be used to ensure positive progress on many of the key issues facing the country.”
Podesta has proposed what amounts to a national, more ideological variant of what in Obama’s home state is known as “The Chicago Way.” Under that system, John Kass of the Chicago Tribune explains, “citizens, even Republicans, are expected to take what big government gives them. If the political boss suggests that you purchase some expensive wrought-iron fence to decorate your corporate headquarters, and the guy selling insurance to the wrought-iron boys is the boss’ little brother, you write the check.” But the American clerisy isn’t merely a bunch of corrupt politicians and bureaucratic lifers, and the United States isn’t one-party Chicago. The clerisy are more like an ideological vanguard, one based largely in academe and the media as well as part of the high-tech community.
Their authoritarian progressivism—at odds with the democratic, pluralistic traditions within liberalism—tends to evoke science, however contested, to justify its authority. The progressives themselves are, in Daniel Bell’s telling phrase, “the priests of the machine.” Their views are fairly uniform and can be seen in “progressive legal theory,” which displaces the seeming plain meaning of the Constitution with constructions derived from the perceived needs of a changing political environment. Belief in affirmative action, environmental justice, health-care reform, and redistribution from the middle class to the poor all find foundation there. More important still is a radical environmental agenda fervently committed to the idea that climate change has a human origin—a kind of secular notion of original sin. But these ideas are not widely shared by most people. The clerisy may see in Obama “reason incarnate,” as George Packer of The New Yorker put it, but the majority of the population remains more concerned about long-term unemployment and a struggling economy than about rising sea levels or the need to maintain racial quotas.
Despite the president’s clear political weaknesses—his job-approval ratings remain below 50 percent—he retains a reasonable shot at reelection. In the coming months, he will likely avoid pushing too hard on such things as overregulating business, particularly on the environmental front, which would undermine the nascent recovery and stir too much opposition from corporate donors. American voters may also be less than enthusiastic about the Republican alternatives topping the ticket. And one should never underestimate the power of even a less-than-popular president. Obama can count on a strong chorus of support from the media and many of the top high-tech firms, which have enjoyed lavish subsidies and government loans for “green” projects.
If Obama does win, 2013 could possibly bring something approaching a constitutional crisis. With the House and perhaps the Senate in Republican hands, Obama’s clerisy may be tempted to use the full range of executive power. The logic for running the country from the executive has been laid out already. Republican control of just the House, argues Chicago congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., has made America ungovernable. Obama, he said during the fight over the debt limit, needed to bypass the Constitution because, as in 1861, the South (in this case, the Southern Republicans) was “in a state of rebellion” against lawful authority. Beverley Perdue, the Democratic governor of North Carolina, concurred: she wanted to have elections suspended for a stretch. (Perdue’s office later insisted this was a joke, but most jokes aren’t told deadpan or punctuated with “I really hope someone can agree with me on that.” Also: Nobody laughed.)
The Left’s growing support for a soft authoritarianism is reminiscent of the 1930s, when many on both right and left looked favorably at either Stalin’s Soviet experiment or its fascist and National Socialist rivals. Tom Friedman of the New York Times recently praised Chinese-style authoritarianism for advancing the green agenda. The “reasonably enlightened group” running China, he asserted, was superior to our messy democracy in such things as subsidizing green industry. Steven Rattner, the investment banker and former Obama car czar, dismisses the problems posed by China’s economic and environmental foibles and declares himself “staunchly optimistic” about the future of that country’s Communist Party dictatorship. And it’s not just the gentry liberals identifying China as their model: labor leader Andy Stern, formerly the president of the Service Employees International Union and a close ally of the White House, celebrates Chinese authoritarianism and says that our capitalistic pluralism is headed for “the trash heap of history.” The Chinese, Stern argues, get things done.
A victorious Obama administration could embrace a soft version of the Chinese model. The mechanisms of control already exist. The bureaucratic apparatus, the array of policy czars and regulatory enforcers commissioned by the executive branch, has grown dramatically under Obama. Their ability to control and prosecute people for violations relating to issues like labor and the environment—once largely the province of states and localities—can be further enhanced. In the post-election environment, the president, using agencies like the EPA, could successfully strangle whole industries—notably the burgeoning oil and natural gas sector—and drag whole regions into recession. The newly announced EPA rules on extremely small levels of mercury and other toxins, for example, will sharply raise electricity rates in much of the country, particularly in the industrial heartland; greenhouse-gas policy, including, perhaps, an administratively imposed “cap and trade,” would greatly impact entrepreneurs and new investors forced to purchase credits from existing polluters. On a host of social issues, the new progressive regime could employ the Justice Department to impose national rulings well out of sync with local sentiments. Expansions of affirmative action, gay rights, and abortion rights could become mandated from Washington even in areas, such as the South, where such views are anathema.
This future can already been seen in fiscally challenged California. The state should be leading a recovery, not lagging behind the rest of the country. But in a place where Obama-style progressives rule without effective opposition, the clerisy has already enacted a score of regulatory mandates that are chasing businesses, particularly in manufacturing, out of the state. It has also passed land-use policies designed to enforce density, in effect eliminating the dream of single-family homes for all but the very rich in much of the state.
A nightmare scenario would be a constitutional crisis pitting a relentless executive power against a disgruntled, alienated opposition lacking strong, intelligent leadership. Over time, the new authoritarians would elicit even more opposition from the “dodos” who make up the majority of Americans residing in the great landmass outside the coastal strips and Chicago. The legacy of the Obama years—once so breathlessly associated with hope and reconciliation—may instead be growing pessimism and polarization.