'There will be no loyalty -- except loyalty to the Party': Historian suggests the GOP has reached Peak Orwell
The phrase "the loyal opposition" was coined by John Hobhouse in a debate in the English Parliament in 1826. Less than a hundred years later, A. Lawrence Lowell, a political scientist (and later president of Harvard University) proclaimed the loyal opposition "the greatest contribution of the nineteenth century to the art of government."
Designed to make space for the political party out of power to dissent and hold the majority party accountable without facing accusations of treason, the concept of a loyal opposition depends on the deference of non-governing parties to the authority of democratic institutions and the normative framework in which they operate.
The saving assumption of the loyal opposition, Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Liberal Party in Canada and President of the Central European University, has written, is that "in the house of democracy, there are no enemies." When politicians treat each other as enemies, "legislatures replace relevance with pure partisanship. Party discipline reigns supreme… negotiation and compromise are rarely practiced, and debate within the chamber becomes as venomously personal as it is politically meaningless."
Republicans in the United States Congress, many of whom endorsed groundless claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged, it now seems clear, have changed the meaning of "loyal" to obeisance to party rather than to democratic principles. And the decision of GOP leaders in the House and Senate to block a bi-partisan commission to investigate the January 6 assault on the Capitol serves as the most recent example:
According to John Katko, the New York Republican Congressman who negotiated the provisions of the draft legislation with his Democratic counterpart Benny Thompson of Mississippi, the bill was modeled on the 9/11 comission to ensure it was "depoliticized entirely." The commission would have been composed of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, with equal subpoena powers, an inability to subpoena a witness without bi-partisan agreement, and shared authority to hire staff.
Although Democrats incorporated the provisions Kevin McCarthy (R-California) demanded into the bill, the House Minority Leader declared last month that he opposed the commission because its "shortsighted scope" omitted "interrelated forms of political violence in America… I just think a Pelosi commission is a lot of politics."
Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who declared in 2010 that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president" and in 2021 that "100% of his focus" would be on "stopping the [Biden] administration," claimed, without evidence, that Pelosi, Thompson and Company negotiated "in bad faith" in order to "centralize control over the commission's process and conclusion in Democratic hands." Although the Justice Department is limited to investigating crimes and lacks the power to subpoena individuals with knowledge of the assault who did not break the law, the Minority Leader opined that the DOJ probe rendered a bi-partisan commission "redundant." To this allegedly good reason, he added his real reason: winning majorities in the House and Senate in 2022 requires Republicans to prevent Democrats from continuing "to debate things that occurred in the past." McConnell then orchestrated the filibuster that prevented the Senate from considering the legislation.
Ditto John Thune, Republican Minority Whip. Without addressing the need to determine what happened on January 6, who was responsible, and how another assault might be prevented, Thune expressed his fear that an investigation "could be weaponized" in 2022. Senator John Cornyn, who had agreed in February "with Speaker Pelosi – a 9/11 type commission is called for to help prevent this from happening again," also began to sing along with Mitch. "The process has been highjacked for political purposes," he declared. Democrats are "going to try to figure out what they can do to win the election. Just like 2020 was a referendum on the previous problem, they want to make 2022 one."
In the closing pages of 1984, George Orwell's dystopian novel, O'Brien, a functionary in the totalitarian state of Oceania (whose first name is never revealed), predicts that in the not-too-distant future "there will be no loyalty, except loyalty to the Party… There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy."
It has been said that "when the loyal opposition dies, the soul of America dies with it." And it may not be unreasonable to fear that unless principle begins to trump party that time may be at hand.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.
Jeff Bezos' terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week got even worse Friday, as a slate of antitrust legislation aimed at reigning in the power of Big Tech was introduced in Congress to bipartisan fanfare.
It was the latest blow for Amazon's CEO, one of the world's richest men, who made headlines earlier in the week when details from his tax filings were shared by ProPublica, showing that he has paid little federal income taxes relative to his wealth and skirted them entirely for at least two years. He recently agreed to step down from his longtime post in July and hand over the reigns to Amazon's head of cloud computing, Andy Jassy — celebrating his departure later that month with an exorbitantly expensive trip to space on a privately funded rocket.
Now, Bezos — along with executives at Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and other large tech firms — is preparing a massive lobbying campaign to rival any in history, marshaling a veritable army of think tanks, academics, lawyers and public relations firms in an attempt to to defang the measures and maintain the top tech companies' grip on power.
House lawmakers introduced five distinct bills Friday, each intended to address a different issue raised in a blockbuster report released last October. The 449-page behemoth was the result of a years-long investigation by the House Judiciary Committee into anticompetitive practices in the digital marketplace.
"To put it simply, companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons," the report reads. "During the investigation, subcommittee staff found evidence of monopolization and monopoly power."
The slate of bills would:
- Prevent tech giants from prioritizing their own offerings on marketplaces they operate
- Force companies to break off verticals that present conflicts of interest
- Make mergers and acquisitions more difficult to complete
- Substantially raise fees in order to increase funding for regulatory agencies
- Require companies to share certain data with consumers and other platforms, which advocates say would even the playing field for smaller firms looking to enter a competitive market
Amazon and Apple in particular would be impacted by "The American Innovation and Choice Online Act," sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline, D-RI, which would regulate the ability of companies which run online marketplaces to promote their own goods and services ahead of competitors. Both tech giants have encountered pushback for their marketplace policies in recent years, which leverage private data on third-party sellers to determine which products the company should develop and promote itself, eventually pushing those vendors out of the marketplace altogether.
Any changes to Amazon's ability to promote its own product lines would represent a substantial hit to the company's bottom line — the House report identified more than 158,000 products from dozens of different Amazon-run brands for sale on the company's online marketplace.
Perhaps the most controversial proposal, the "Ending Platform Monopolies Act," sponsored by "Squad" member Parmila Jayapal, D-Wash., would take this idea one step further — forcing companies to splinter over "conflicts of interest" like Amazon's product lines and Google's prominent placement of advertisers' search results over other websites. Advocates have referred to the bill as "Glass Steagall for the Internet Age," referring to the landmark 1933 law that separated commercial and investment banking.
"This is a reaction to the fact that our antitrust laws have been construed so narrowly by the Supreme Court," Eleanor M. Fox, a professor of law at New York University, told the New York Times. "Because of this problem, it is very appropriate for Congress to be stepping in to prohibit and determine what's bad and what's good for markets."
But groups like Chamber of Progress, a lobbying group which consists of Amazon and several other Big Tech firms, seized on the criticism to raise fears that the bills would "ban" certain goods and services that Amazon data shows are popular on the site, including "Amazon Basics" batteries and Amazon Prime free shipping.
"With all the challenges facing our country — pandemic recovery, crumbling infrastructure, racial equity, and climate change — it's a bit strange that some policymakers think our biggest problem worth fixing is…Amazon Basics batteries," wrote Adam Kovacevich, the head of Chamber of Progress, in a post Friday on the micro-blogging platform Medium.
The bills will first need to clear the Judiciary Committee before debate in the full House of Representatives begins.
In addition to a flurry of tech-related action in the lower chamber, the Senate also appears to be nearing a vote on President Joe Biden's appointee to run a key Federal Trade Commission post overseeing U.S. antitrust laws, Lina Khan, who has been a longtime proponent of stronger enforcement against technology firms.
It's one of the exceedingly rare areas of bipartisanship still remaining on Capitol Hill, with a number of Republicans signing onto the push. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., has emerged as one of the bills' loudest supporters — though that support has also come alongside spurious accusations of conservative censorship on major social media platforms.
"This legislation breaks up Big Tech's monopoly power to control what Americans see and say online and fosters an online market that encourages innovation and provides American small businesses with a fair playing field," Buck said in a statement Friday. "Doing nothing is not an option. We just act now."
As my colleague Amanda Marcotte frequently points out, conservative ideology these days seems to boil down to little more than "owning the libs." If you manage to achieve "triggering a lib," maybe you get imaginary bonus points — perhaps the Star Theme from Super Mario Bros. plays in your head.
Well, I think it's time for liberals to return the favor. We should repeatedly bring up the fact that America's most important founding father, George Washington, warned us about the rise of Donald Trump.
No, he didn't know the man's name, of course — he wasn't a time traveler or a clairvoyant — but he described Trump's personality and actions in detail. Washington was president as the United States prepared to hold its first contested presidential election — he was elected twice without opposition — and wanted to make sure it would run smoothly. More than that, he wanted to make sure all future elections ran smoothly. So in his famous Farewell Address, he outlined what an enemy of this democratic process might look like. The speech was published during the 1796 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the two great rivals of early American politics
The most relevant section of the document (most of which reads as fairly antiquated today) is pretty much a giant spoiler alert for everything Trump did to undermine the results of the 2020 election, an effort that began long before a single ballot had been cast. When you get right down to it, one of the likeliest ways for American democracy to reach its breaking point would be if a presidential candidate refused to accept the will of the people. More than two centuries before that happened, Washington foresaw exactly how it would go down.
Although the ideas were entirely Washington's the address was largely written by Alexander Hamilton. At one point, the man on the one dollar bill warns that partisanship could lead to the rise of a dictator. Decrying the "baneful effects of the spirit of party generally," he argued that if partisanship reaches a fever pitch, it could "gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual."
Washington also warned that hyper-partisanship "opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions." He was worried that these factors could facilitate the rise of "cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men" who would manipulate partisan anger to "subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."
Does any of that sound familiar? Trump has close and somewhat mysterious ties to Vladimir Putin's government, and former special counsel Robert Mueller's report demonstrated that his campaign worked with individuals connected to Russia during the 2016 presidential election. When Trump abused his power in an effort to pressure Ukraine into opening an investigation into Joe Biden, Senate Republicans — intimidated by a voter base that, intoxicated by "the baneful effects of the spirit of party," had come to value defeating Democrats over everything else — rigged his impeachment trial so that partisanship would prevail over justice.
Then Republicans did it again when, after years of conditioning his supporters to believe that any election he loses has been stolen, he became the first defeated president to refuse to accept his loss — and led an insurrection attempt as a result. (After John Tyler, who sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, Trump became the second president to indisputably betray the Constitution.) Now Republicans have allowed Trump to transform the party in his image, not caring that he put many of their own lives in danger. They are using a Big Lie to erode democracy.
And what did Washington think the climax of all of this hyper-partisanship — as manifested in the above "hypothetical" examples — would be?
The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Trump is, to a T, what the Father of His Country predicted. Opponents of Trump, Trumpers and Trumpism need to bring this up waaaaaaay more often.
For what it's worth, I was tempted to bring up two other relevant sections of Washington's Farewell Address. One, which pertains to foreign policy, prophesied the rise of American imperialism and is interesting for that reason, but isn't directly relevant here. The other, which denounces "all obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities," I simply don't support. True, that suggests Washington would clearly have disapproved of the Jan. 6 rioters and their defenders, but not necessarily for the right reason. The problem with the Capitol attack, at its core, is that it was a battle for a baseless and unjust cause. If the rioters had been fighting for human rights rather than fascism — like the civil rights protests of the 1960s, or at least a cause better than shared omnipotence with a malignant narcissist — their actions might have been theoretically defensible.
In any case, those who fight for democracy today should embrace Washington's Farewell Address. We don't need to pretend that Washington was an impeccable and virtuous hero, or look past his numerous flaws. But he wasn't wrong about democracy. His greatest achievement was not defeating the British in the Revolutionary War. It was leaving office in 1797 and handing the reins to Adams, his elected successor — establishing a precedent that Adams knew he had to follow four years later, when he lost his rematch with Jefferson in the bitterly contested election of 1800. It was the precedent that every president followed until Trump lost to Biden in 2020. Washington showed that democratic government could function, for the first time in modern history, because the nation's leaders would respect the will of the people.
I once attended a reenactment of Adams' inauguration as part of my journey covering Barack Obama's second inauguration for Mic (then PolicyMic) in 2013. When the tour guide read from a contemporary account describing the tension in the room as people wondered whether Washington's troops would arrest Adams so the first president could stay in power, it felt like a bizarre account from ancient history. Only eight years later, the very people who would claim to venerate Washington's footsteps have made that 1797 report seem like this week's headlines.
Washington stepping down from power was the first thing that made America great. If Republicans really want to Make America Great Again, they need to heed Washington's message — and dump the "cunning, ambitious and unprincipled man" on whose behalf they seem willing to destroy democracy.
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