Brilliant, but scary


Richard W. Crockett


Newt Gingrich is brilliant, but scary.  When I say that he is brilliant I am talking about his impressive mental acuity.  When I say that he is scary I am talking about the substance of what he believes about our institutions of government. He preaches through the rhetoric of patriotism, but beneath the surface he is an avowed nationalist in international politics and gives the appearance of a low commitment to our present institutional arrangements in domestic affairs.  Think of patriotism as loyalty not only to the nation, but also to the American consensus—that agreement on the fundamental rules of the political game which, made at the founding of the republic, is embodied in and represented by the Constitution.  This includes all of our rights and privileges found in the Bill of Rights.  When I say that Gingrich is a nationalist, I am referring to his propensity to wave the flag in behalf of our nation, but not in behalf of our institutions of government, including our Constitution.


In his critique of the Bush Administration war strategy, Gingrich has correctly declared, “stubbornness is not a strategy.” He argues that what we need to do in Iraq is a kind of “CCC,” referring to the Roosevelt New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps, which would employ idle Iraqis constructively. The goal is to keep them from killing each other and from killing Americans.  Of course if such a program had been employed from the beginning it may have had real merit, but today I fear it is too little, too late.


My real concerns are raised when considering Gingrich’s notions of American domestic governance.  He argues plausibly that, “all of our instruments of power are broken” and implausibly that what we need to do is “fundamentally restructure these instruments of national power.”   (Emphasis mine.)  He cites as broken institutions the Departments of Defense, State, and, remarkably, Justice, among others. He frighteningly justifies that we revamp government to “meet the threat.” For Gingrich, this explicitly means abandoning civil liberties and personal freedom in favor of national security. Of course history is filled with examples of petty tyrants and serious tyrants alike employing the fear of a foreign threat to justify the oppression of a domestic population.  Both the fear and the threat may be genuine, but the danger is in who political leadership uses the fear against. 


He cleverly wraps himself in the cloak of Lincoln, who at the time of the Civil War, faced a genuine domestic crisis and probably exceeded the constitutional powers of his office, in order to preserve the nation and its liberties.  In contrast, Gingrich raises the fear of an external threat to diminish our liberties.  This represents a continuation of the neo-conservative strategy of George W. Bush and is an ideology, which has been used to curtail liberty upon the pretext of a “war on terror,” wherein the enemy creeps among us. It is true that we were attacked on 9-11, but we quickly lost site of that war and started another one. 


The American public has been conditioned to embrace this “restructuring institutions” pitch by a Republican Party doctrine, which is suspicious and even skeptical of government institutions and of domestic regulatory power.  The argument is simply that the government is notoriously inefficient and incompetent at exercising responsible power. 


So if in conducting his presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich frames the debate in this way, he is employing a strategy which exploits the public frustration and impatience with corruption, the Katrina aftermath, and the war in Iraq, and he can present himself as a Republican alternative to the Bush team disaster and can look like a solution to it rather than looking like a continuation of it.


But let the buyer beware! If we restructure government along more efficient lines in order to ward off foreign threats, real or imagined, we may wind up with a hole in our foot and a smoking gun in our hand.   For more efficient governments are rarely democratic.  Policy choices in these governments can be made free of politics and herein is where the danger lies.  If we attempt to streamline in the name of efficiency and national security by eradicating politics, we may also find that that we have eradicated democracy and with it most of our civil liberties.    Hans Buchheim, a refugee of the Nazi regime in Germany, has written that the single most important characteristic of totalitarian rule is the total absence of politics.  Virtually every failing of our institutions of government has little to do with the structure of government, but rather has to do with its occupants.  Rather than electing persons to office who make a political career out of assailing the institutions of government as bloated and inefficient--those who don’t even like government and are dedicated to undermining it-- the solution is to elect persons who have a philosophy, which is dedicated to making government work.