I wonder sometimes how the spirit of resistance in The Jeffersonian‘s articles finds its way into the larger political culture. Nor did I want to be right about predictions that this spirit would produce great turmoil in our nation. We’ve entered that period of trouble now, sooner than most might have expected. Lest we become pessimistic, though, we should recall a passage from one of our nation’s great optimists, Jefferson himself: “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive.”
Some have argued that Jefferson was a crazy radical, too much a child of the French Revolution to do the new nation on this side of the Atlantic any good. Obviously I don’t agree with that, though I suppose one could do worse than name a blog after a revolutionary. Post-revolution, advocacy of resistance to government feels like treason, a word we hear on and off these days, as Bill O’Reilly slugs it out with his liberal friends. Jefferson and Locke did not, when they explicated a right of revolution, advocate treason. If citizens act on their wisdom to alter or abolish a government when that is necessary, do the citizens’ activities look like treason to the existing government? Yes.
If a lawless organization takes over the state, good citizens are justified – obligated if they have the means – to remove the organization and replace it with legitimate government.
If a lawless organization takes over the state, good citizens are justified – obligated if they have the means – to remove the organization and replace it with legitimate government. In many respects, the United States government has become a lawless organization. We cast around for comparisons, and we do not find any. Every inflection point in history is unique. The Nazi state was also lawless. Because we waged a great struggle to destroy that state, we tend to look there for comparisons. Yet our state does not look like tyrannies of the past.
Many would argue that the descriptive term tyranny is over-dramatic, and over-states the case. I agree. Neither is our state democratic. It is something in between, what political scientists might call a hybrid state. Before Trump, we could argue about how far we had come in the transition away from a democratic republic. We don’t argue that question anymore. We have an autocrat in the White House, and we have to live with that.
The signal fact of post-9/11 politics in the United States is that government exceeds constitutional limits on its power to wage a so-called war on terror. Mistreatment of prisoners, secret warfare uncontrolled by the legislative branch, and domestic surveillance represent three areas where abrogation of constitutional limits comes to mind. These examples stretch the concept of constitutional government to its limit, to a point where the state relies not on authority that derives from the nation’s fundamental law, but on simple power. Power dissolves legitimate authority.
The signal fact of post-9/11 politics in the United States is that government exceeds constitutional limits on its power to wage a so-called war on terror.
John Locke argued in the Second Treatise of Government that when the government dissolves its own authority, citizens are obligated to replace it. Yes, they can choose anarchy or submission, but then they cease to be citizens. Anarchy means the end of the state altogether. If people submit to illegitimate authority, they become subjects rather than citizens. The only way to remain a citizen in the face of illegitimate power is to replace the organization that asserts it. That is the lesson we have from Locke and Jefferson. That is the lesson of the Declaration of Independence. Human beings have a natural right to be free. Citizens must act to preserve the right.
To move ahead in the argument a little bit: to those who say that secession of states or confederation of several republics would mean the end of the United States, the state has already taken care of that issue. The United States does not exist as a democratic republic, grounded in a constitution. Several forms of democracy continue, but we no longer function as a constitutional republic. Secession and other radical changes recognize and ratify something that has already taken place.