Friends say Anne Applebaum is cool – but of course she’s in another world, that of the international public intellectual. There are few of those, and in her case her 2003 book Gulag: A History won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction writing, and of course she is fluent in English, French, Polish and Russian, and married to the Foreign Minister of Poland, and a journalist who has written for just about everyone. She may be open and friendly and not intimidating at all, but all that can make you wonder what the hell you did with your own life. And now she’s the director of political studies at the Legatum Institute in London – a non-partisan independent organization concerned with growth and good governance, and not with posturing. Just what ideas and policies support free and prosperous societies around the world? That’s not a bad question to ask, repeatedly. Carefully considering that basic question may not earn you a slot on the Sunday morning political talk shows, and it certainly won’t earn you a slot on Fox News, trading snark with Bill O’Reilly and Dennis Miller, but you can’t have everything. Some questions just aren’t sexy. They’re only necessary.
And the necessary come up in her latest short column in Slate, Anders Behring Breivik and the Crisis of Legitimacy – where she links that Norwegian mass-murderer and American “birthers” – as they do have something odd in common. She does cover how Anders Behring Breivik has been described as a racist, a white supremacist, and an anti-Islamic fanatic, and the ensuing analyses of the problem here – which might be Europe’s failure to absorb its immigrant population or be that odd business of the rise of far-right political parties or really be all about the threats posed to Muslims living in Europe – and she argues it comes down to this – “Having mistakenly assumed that the story of terror in Oslo belonged to the narrative of the war on terrorism, we are now placing it firmly within the equally familiar narrative of white racism and anti-Islamic fanaticism.”
But she argues that we might be missing the point once again:
Breivik was not, in fact, a killer of immigrants or Muslims. He was a killer of Norwegians. The particular set of obsessions that led him to madness and then to mass murder were not merely racist. They also sprang from an insane conviction that his own government was illegitimate.
That’s the key here, and it’s not that surprising:
This particular form of obsession is not new. Nor is it confined to blond, white, racist Norwegians. Raskolnikov, the hero of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, brutally murdered a pawnbroker in the name of a vaguely defined “freedom” that was not available in decadent, czarist St. Petersburg. Since then, revolutionaries and madmen of all kinds, from the Russian anarchists to the Irish Republican Army, have justified the murder of innocent people on the grounds that it would hasten the end of an illegitimate government and bring to power some theoretically more authentic regime.
And it seem that there’s a lot of that going around here in contemporary America, and Applebaum invents a name for such people. She calls them illegitimists:
They believe that the president of the United States is illegitimately elected, or that the country is ruled by a cabal that is in turn controlled by some other sinister force or forces. In the past, left-wing illegitimists were quite common, and in fact Marxism is a classic, paranoid version of this creed. The illegitimist Marxist argument goes like this: Bourgeois democracy is a sham; bourgeois politicians and the bourgeois newspapers are tools of shadowy financial interests. The entire system deserves to be overthrown – and if a few people die in the course of the revolution, it’s all for a good cause. Though not every Western Marxist advocated violence, this is certainly the kind of argument that motivated the Weathermen, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and other far-left American and European terrorists of the past.
But now we have the right-wing version of this argument – birtherism.
The attempt to prove that Barack Obama isn’t American-born was, at base, an attempt to prove that he is illegitimate and that he therefore deserves to be removed from power – somehow. Birtherism is also linked to other forms of illegitimism, such as the belief that Obama is a Muslim, and is thus controlled by international jihadists, or the belief that he is “Kenyan” and thus motivated by anti-colonial hatred of white people in general and Americans in particular. It is not accidental that the one note of sympathy for Breivik in the U.S. media came from the lips of birtherist and illegitimist Glenn Beck, who helpfully compared the young Norwegians murdered by Breivik to “Hitler Youth.” Presumably if they are Hitler Youth, then they deserved to die?
Yes, no one here is being gunned down or blown up at the moment – it’s been some time since Timothy McVeigh blew up that building in Oklahoma City, to do something about ZOG – the Zionist Occupation Government that had taken over “his” country. But toying with the idea that the government is not really legitimate is a dangerous business:
Democracy, as a political system, has clear disadvantages, many of which are on display in Washington this week. But democracy has one overwhelming advantage: If conducted according to a pre-arranged set of rules, and if all sides accept those rules, democratic elections produce legitimate political leaders. In addition to being insane, Breivik doesn’t accept the rules of democracy in Norway – and now we see the result. Let’s hope no Americans ever follow his example.
But logically, what is to stop them?
And of course there is more than that, which Applebaum doesn’t explore, as much of the current ideological battles are about the legitimate role of government. All the shouting back and forth about spending cuts is really about eliminating what isn’t a legitimate function of government. If the government should attempt to assure the nation has breathable air and clean water, and not a whole lot of toxins in the environment, then it should fund what the Nixon administration championed and congress approved, the EPA. You don’t cut that, saying that’s not what the government should be doing. That was created by a legitimate process – as was the FDA to protect the food supply. To claim the market, or the individual states, can take care of such things and none of that stuff is the business of the national government is to argue against a legitimate process, where there was a pre-arranged set of rules and all sides accepted those rules, and everyone agreed – just as more people voted for Obama than McCain, by the established rules. And you can say the social safety net – programs like Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and unemployment insurance – just ruin things by sapping citizens of any sense of personal responsibility, but those things were established by means that were fair and square, as they say. In a democracy you don’t get to say the stupid majority voted for the wrong thing, again and again and again, so since they voted so many times for what was obviously the wrong thing, then that thing is not a legitimate function of government.
Hey, you lost that vote. Bring up the issue again and lose that vote again and yes, you can still say the government has no business doing that one thing you think is wrong – but you lost that vote, again. It is sad, and you may long to end this illegitimate government and bring to power some theoretically more authentic regime. But that’s just too bad. Yes, you may hate public schools, or the tax code that has been traditionally progressive, with those who can afford to chip in more asked to chip in more, but unless you have the votes to abolish publics schools or exempt the rich from paying any taxes at all, all your wailing about that stuff not being legitimate for a government to do is kind of silly. The government is the people – of the people and by the people and for the people – and that’s where it derives its legitimacy. “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” – not from some theoretically more authentic source. That was how we set things up. We even wrote it down.
So all this business about cutting social programs to finance tax breaks for the rich does have a whiff of Anders Behring Breivik about it, of having an unshakeable conviction that your own government is illegitimate.
And that leads to some odd places, as Andrew Leonard reviews here – citing Robert Greenstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities doing the budget number-crunching concerning the ongoing debt ceiling crisis, and coming up with this:
House Speaker John Boehner’s new budget proposal would require deep cuts in the years immediately ahead in Social Security and Medicare benefits for current retirees, the repeal of health reform’s coverage expansions, or wholesale evisceration of basic assistance programs for vulnerable Americans.
The plan is, thus, tantamount to a form of “class warfare.” If enacted, it could well produce the greatest increase in poverty and hardship produced by any law in modern U.S. history.
That’s not what anyone voted for, but Leonard notes that “a significant number of House Republicans oppose the Boehner plan because it does not go far enough.” And Leonard cites the Washington Post:
But those hopes were dampened Monday by conservative opposition to the plan, highlighted by Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), who leads a conservative caucus of more than 170 GOP members. Jordan is one of 39 House Republicans who previously took a pledge vowing to increase the debt ceiling only in return for Congress sending to the states a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.
And the “Cut, Cap, and Balance Coalition” – a distinct and new conservative group of House Republicans – was also unhappy, in a statement released Monday “expressing why the Speaker’s proposal does not meet the principles articulated in the Cut, Cap and Balance pledge.”
As we stated this morning, Cut, Cap and Balance is not merely a legislative framework, it is a series of principles. Principles are not subject to negotiation. Unfortunately, the Speaker’s plan falls short of meeting these principles. Perhaps most troubling is the proposed Congressional Commission. History has shown that such commissions, while well-intentioned, make it easier to raise taxes than to institute enduring budget reforms. Additionally, a symbolic vote on a balanced budget amendment at some later time minimizes its importance, as it will not be tied to an increase in the debt ceiling. A BBA that allows a tax increase with anything less than a 2/3 supermajority is not a serious measure.
Principles are not subject to negotiation, you see. Our system of government is based on negotiation and compromise – that’s what makes a democracy possible – but they’ll have none of that. And The Hill reports that other House Republicans are upset. You see, there aren’t sharp enough cuts to discretionary spending implemented immediately:
Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) debt-ceiling proposal would cut only $6 billion in discretionary spending for 2012, a figure that could cost him the support of conservatives who want larger reductions….
On Monday night, freshman conservative stalwart Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) told The Hill that the amount of cuts for 2012 would be key to determining whether he can support the plan. “I didn’t get a warm fuzzy feeling about it,” he said of the proposal as it was described to him by Boehner on Monday.
And Leonard adds this:
Is it really conceivable that conservatives would rebel against the Boehner plan because it’s too weak? It’s hard to imagine, but underestimating Tea Party conservativism is a fool’s venture. And Boehner definitely needs to keep his caucus together.
One imagines he won’t be attracting more than a handful of Democratic votes for “the greatest increase in poverty and hardship produced by any law in modern U.S. history.”
Yes, you may long to end this illegitimate government and bring to power some theoretically more authentic regime – where poverty and hardship are visited on those who deserve poverty and hardship – but it’s not your government. The people, whose government it is, are not that fond of poverty and hardship.
And there’s this:
Speaking to a crowd of union workers on Capitol Hill today, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi unloaded on Republican plans to lower the deficit through deep cuts to government services in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. Frustrations are running high in Congress with the default deadline rapidly approaching, and Pelosi spoke with a fire that suggested the endless debate over the debt ceiling is taking its toll on her patience.
“This isn’t just about them saying we should reduce the deficit,” she said, adding: “This is an excuse. The budget deficit is an excuse for the Republicans to undermine government plain and simple. They don’t just want to make cuts, they want to destroy. They want to destroy food safety, clean air, clean water, the department of education. They want to destroy your rights.”
The video is here – it has a sense of Norway to it. Some want to destroy this government for something theoretically more authentic:
“We all want to be fiscally sound,” she said. “We don’t want to do harm to our economic growth but we know that if we can save some money, we’d like to do that.”
The Republicans, Pelosi said, her voice rising, have something very different in mind.
“They do not like the government,” Pelosi said. “They’re riding an engine of popular support for, okay we have to reduce the deficit. And they’re using that to destroy.”
“The Speaker has said that between him and the president they have a different vision of America and that’s how come their budget proposals are different,” she said. “Quite different… We get the sacrifice, they get the wealth.”
That may be theoretically more authentic, somehow. But that’s not our government. And it is our government, at the moment.
And even the New York Time’s young conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, sees something is amiss here:
I still trust (or want to trust) the Congressional leadership to do its patriotic duty. But when the hopes for a bigger deal evaporated over the weekend my sympathy for the decision to tie the debt ceiling to the deficit reduction debate evaporated with them. Linking the two made sense if the goal was to leverage President Obama’s desire for a deficit package into a biggish bipartisan deal that started to tackle entitlement spending. But if that kind of broad package isn’t available or workable or wise, then Republicans need to cut a smaller deal and just move on to the 2012 campaign. Putting the credit of the United States on the line in pursuit of the fantasy of “cut, cap and balance” (and making that fantasy a litmus test for conservatism and serious deficit-cutting) is folly.
He still trusts the Congressional leadership to do its patriotic duty. Why? Their patriotism imagines a different country, not this one. Their duty is to that purer and better hypothetical country.
And then there’s Josh Marshall:
Yes, at some level it’s a game of chicken. Something we can all understand pretty intuitively in human nature and game theory terms. But to really get what’s really going on you’ve got to understand one key point: one of the two cars doesn’t have a driver in it. Which changes everything.
But should we be surprised? We’re dealing with people who do not believe in the legitimacy of their own government. Let’s just hope none of them are secretly Norwegian.