The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the presidency is in crisis. Under the Obama administration, the Internal Revenue Service has targeted conservative and religious organizations. The Environmental Protection Agency has shown preference for liberal groups over conservative ones. The Justice Department has gone after journalists for criminal prosecution in leak investigations, and the State Department has repeatedly been unable to tell the truth about what happened the night our ambassador in Libya was murdered. Most recently, we learned the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting "metadata"– records of calls and emails sent and received – from ordinary citizens.
As bad as all that may be, there's a bigger problem. Our democracy is in crisis.
What is frightening to people is the feeling that under President Obama's watch, we've seen more government overreach and malfeasance than ever before. Polls show Americans are increasingly alarmed that our federal bureaucracy is spinning out of control: A Rasmussen poll out this week shows that 56 percent of likely voters in the U.S. consider the federal government to be a threat to their individual rights – a 10-point jump just since the president got re-elected. A whopping 78 percent of conservatives now see the government as a threat.
In a 50-50 nation split pretty evenly between red and blue, that's a dangerous place to be: Half of the people in this country feel threatened by the federal government. My theory is that's occurring because the federal government has become an unchecked, absolute power that is growing daily.
To hold unbridled, absolute power is to be despotic. Almost 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" described how democracies like ours can deteriorate into despotism. When most of us think of despots, we think of tinhorn dictators. But de Tocqueville says that a despot can also be a sole, protective and all-powerful form of government, elected by the people.
In the short run, he warned against the "tyranny of the majority" in the legislature. But in the long run, he foresaw that in times of prolonged war – more than 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example – "the administrative function of the State is perpetually extended." Government becomes more and more centralized, and over time begins to overreach and fail. In trying to do everything, government does nothing well. "It is almost always by the abuse of its force and the misemployment of its resources that a democratic government fails," he wrote. That's what we're seeing now.
What's upsetting to so many people is that the massive power of our centralized government also seems unchecked. Our founders set up a system of checks and balances between the judicial, legislative and executive branches, but that system is "off kilter," George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley recently wrote in The Washington Post. He points out that the vast majority of laws in our country are not passed by Congress but are issued as regulations by federal executive agencies. A 2012 study by the conservative Heritage Foundation found that during its first three years, the Obama administration issued four times as many major regulations as the George W. Bush administration, at more than five times the cost. Meanwhile, the number of laws passed by Congress in 2012 was the lowest since Truman.
Turley also points out that the judicial branch has seen its authority decreased by federal agencies. Under our constitution, citizens facing charges are entitled to due process under our court system. Yet as more citizens got caught up in regulatory trouble, Congress created administrative courts outside of the judicial branch. Very few cases are actually decided by the judiciary anymore.
And so, as the reach of this federal administrative state grows unchecked, de Tocqueville explains the consequences: "It would be like the authority of a parent, if like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood ... For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances – what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?"