What President Obama Gets Wrong About Citizenship and Tyranny

He urged Ohio State graduates to trust their fellow Americans to exercise "awesome authority." Mistrust is more prudent.

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In President Obama's commencement address at Ohio State University on Sunday, he began by exhorting the graduates to be conscientious, active citizens throughout their lives. Then he pivoted.

"You've grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's at the root of all our problems," he said. "They'll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can't be trusted .... The founders trusted us with this awesome authority. We should trust ourselves with it, too ... when we don't, when we turn away and get discouraged and cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it."

Almost no one in America actually believes that government is "nothing more" than a sinister entity, or that it is "at the root of all our problems." Obama erected that strawman for rhetorical convenience. Even setting that aside, his history is mistaken and his analysis is flawed.

The founders did not trust anyone with awesome authority. They built institutions predicated on the core belief that men are not angels, and that no one should be "trusted," including the citizenry itself. The founders began with a loose confederation of sovereign states. When it proved insufficient, the central government they established was restrained by a written constitution. That constitution limited the federal government's role to specific, enumerated powers. Obama believes, rightly or wrongly, the federal government should exceed that limited role.

(So do most Republicans.)

The framers included a Bill of Rights that forbade government from making certain laws, because they believed tyranny is always around the corner and must be zealously guarded against. The framers included unapologetically anti-democratic elements in the Constitution to prevent citizens from acting on passions of the moment because they wisely mistrusted the unfettered popular will. Obama believes, rightly or wrongly, that those anti-democratic provisions went too far (as does everyone who supports the direct election of senators and the popular vote). 

Obama, John Brennan, Dick Cheney, John Yoo, and Michael Bloomberg all trust themselves with awesome authority, often imprudently. To mistrust them or even ourselves is not cynicism. It is prudence of a sort that community organizer Obama and Senator Obama championed.  

The U.S. is a mature democracy that has survived many presidents who illegally abrogated civil liberties. Freedom and liberty have always prevailed over tyranny in the end. It is my hope and guess that the same will happen in my lifetime. But only because many worry about tyranny. Only because many agitate for operating within institutional constraints. 

Our vigilance is justified by the fact that our leader, a former Constitutional law professor, believes that he is empowered to kill American citizens in secret without trial, charges, or due process on his order alone, in clear violation of the Fifth Amendment; that he is empowered to indefinitely detain American citizens; that he is empowered to secretly spy on millions of innocent Americans without a warrant, in violation of the Fourth Amendment; that he is empowered to launch wars in foreign countries without a Congressional declaration and in violation of the War Powers Resolution; and that it is good and proper to severely punish whistleblowers.

The mayor of our largest city believes it is permissible to erect an increasingly comprehensive surveillance network, to spy without warrants on innocent Muslims for no other reason than their religion, and to stop and frisk citizens despite a lack of probable cause that they're doing anything wrong. He additionally believes it is proper for government to restrict what chefs are permitted to put in their food, what size soda cups New Yorkers are permitted to purchase, and how much salt they are allowed to consume. No one should trust him or his supporters.

Said Obama a bit later in his speech:
Whenever you feel that creeping cynicism, whenever you hear those voices saying you can't do it, you can't make a difference, whenever somebody tells you to set your sights lower -- the trajectory of this great nation should give you hope.  What generations have done before you should give you hope. Because it was young people just like you who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in to secure women's rights, and voting rights, and workers' rights, and gay rights -- often at incredible odds, often at great danger, often over the course of years, sometimes over the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime -- and they never got acknowledged for it, but they made a difference.
Just so. Civil libertarians shouldn't be discouraged by George W. Bush's transgressions or Barack Obama's betrayals. Dissent matters. Done persistently and effectively, dissenters can in fact win. War is the moment of greatest peril -- the time when it is easiest to slip into tyranny. An ostensibly never-ending war against an abstract enemy is as good a time to be vigilant as any.

That vigilance is part of what makes America strong.