The Banal Authoritarians

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

Great piece by Matt Welch on Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, & co.

Do something. Is there a two-word phrase in politics more loaded with disguised ideological content? Embedded within is both an urgent call for powerful government action and an up-front declaration that the policy details don’t matter. The bigger the crisis, the more the urgency, the sparser the detail. On September 30, 2008, in a classic of the do-something genre, Brooks argued that the Troubled Asset Relief Program should be rammed through Congress over public objections because the federal government needed “to give people a sense that somebody was in charge, that something was going to be done.” Did that “something” involve buying up toxic assets? Introducing or relaxing certain banking regulations? Taking over or winding down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Not important. “What we need in this situation,” Brooks declared, “is authority.”

American discourse is saddled with a large and influential do-something school of political punditry, a cadre of pragmatists from Meet the Press to your local editorial board who are forever seeking to solve the country’s problems by transcending ideology, demanding collective citizen sacrifice, and—always—empowering authority. In their new book That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Friedman and Johns Hopkins foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum lament that people “in positions of authority everywhere have less influence than in the past,” due to a “corrosive cynicism” preventing “the collective action that is required.” America, David Brooks wrote in March 2010, “is suffering a devastating crisis of authority,” resulting in a “corrosive cynicism about public action.” The similarities are not accidental.

Brooks and Friedman may be the most prominent practitioners, but the do-something school is evident just about anywhere the political class is talking shop. Here is former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum at on September 26, lamenting that the “old rules” of bipartisan cooperation “have broken down,” unlike those bygone days when “the imperatives of the Cold War inspired a spirit of deference to the president.” There is centrist Matt Miller at the day before, writing an imaginary speech (a favored tactic of the do-something set) for an imaginary independent presidential candidate (ditto) who rejects “the Democrats’ timid half-measures and the Republicans’ mindless anti-government creed” in favor of “a bold agenda equal to the scale of our challenges.”

As Welch has pointed out in this piece and elsewhere, when politicians do take the advice of the “do something” crowd, and that advice results in spectacular failure, . . . they blame the libertarians.

Personally, I get a kick out of how editorial page editors at places like the NY Times and Washington Post fill out their columnist positions. The elite op-ed pages are just brimming with ideological diversity, from big government conservatives like Brooks, Bill Kristol, Michael Gerson, and Ross Douthat, to big government moderates like Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, and Matt Miller, all the way to big government liberals like E.J. Dionne, Paul Krugman, and Nicholas Kristof.

I mean, that pretty much covers all the possible opinions, right?

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21 Responses to “The Banal Authoritarians”

  1. #1 |  Cornellian | 

    Per the brilliant British sitcom “Yes, Minister,” I hereby present The Politician’s Syllogism

    1. I have to do something about this problem
    2. This proposal is something
    3. Therefore, I must do it

  2. #2 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    “This world, I am afraid, is designed for crashing bores!”

  3. #3 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    Oops, forgot to credit Morissey for the above quote.

  4. #4 |  Aresen | 

    At least the European Monarchs and the Chinese Emperors used to cut off the heads of advisers whose policies failed.

  5. #5 |  CyniCAl | 

    “… when politicians do take the advice of the “do something” crowd, and that advice results in spectacular failure, . . . they blame the libertarians.”

    Since war is the biggest government program, I thought I’d Godwin the thread with a little Goering:

    “Naturally the common people don’t want war [government programs]: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers [libertarians] for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

  6. #6 |  Doubleu | 

    “big government conservative”… are there any other kind?
    “big government liberals”… are there any other kind?

  7. #7 |  EH | 

    We’re screwed if the bulwark of power pits the “do-nothing Congress” against “do-something columnists.” Is “do-nothing Congress” too Newt-90s?

  8. #8 |  Cynic in New York | 


    Yea I was thinking the same thing. Conservatism or Thugservatism and Liberalism or Lieberalism support big government. I’m so tired of hearing the arguments that cons make “Oh those people arent “real” conservatives” because it’s one red statist over another red statist. The difference between a Paleocon/Buchananite and Neocon is who they wish to point the thugerment gun on.

    Granted this is an old piece but it’s worth reading

  9. #9 |  Single Acts of Tyranny | 

    They keep doing something (anything) to feel and appear relevant. How could they tell the truth along the lines of

    “We are the problem, get rid of us”

    It’s a reality people need to work out for themselves because you’ll never hear it mainstream.

  10. #10 |  Carl Weetabix | 

    Agreed, however were the president and a large portion of the political class actually proposing/supporting policies that were “correct” (correct being relative to your particular political proclivities), then we would consider political cooperation and deference as positive thing.

    Regardless, as it it stands (classical) Liberals and Libertarians remain on the outside, rejected by both political parties (even though those parties might give lip service to either ideology). What remains of the “bipartisan center” is very ugly indeed – enacting neither the possible benefits of collectivist/common-good principles of a “managed economy”, nor the possible benefits of true free-market system.

    In fact it’s not even clear that they even attempt to be a useful melange of the two, but instead just an increasingly authoritarian “middle ground” that benefits the very few.

  11. #11 |  Coyote | 

    Matt’s rant on editorial boards goes back to what you were saying Radley about the media being centrally authoritarian rather than liberal. Supported the Iraq invasion? Check. Supported Kelo v. New London? Check. Against Prop. 19 (marijuana legalization)? Check.

  12. #12 |  Doubleu | 

    #8 Cynic in New York
    Too many people on both sides vote by the letter after the name. “Yea, but we need to keep/get our side in power!”

    It isn’t the democrats vs the republicans, it is the government vs the people.

  13. #13 |  Doubleu | 

    #8 Cynic in New York
    … wanted to add that I book marked that page and will read it again when I get the chance.

  14. #14 |  Tim P | 

    It’s funny that small government conservatives are laughed at and made fun of by many libertarians.

  15. #15 |  Cynic in New York | 


    Because most “small government” conservatives are 9 out of 10 times full of shit. They make themselves sound good when compared to the liberal or moderate Democrat running against them but when in office it’s the opposite. Thugservatism is good at one thing; 1. Making themselves appear better over lieberalism.

  16. #16 |  Tim P | 

    @15 I understand your point about Washington level politicians, but I don’t think anyone can argue that since 2007 spending has increased at a level that might tip the country over soon. 2007 was the year Nancy took over and the mess really began. This site and Reason joined the snicker and snark crowd in 2008 and now we have Obama.

  17. #17 |  JOR | 

    The Democrats “in charge” are just continuing the policies of the Republicans before them, as the Republicans were continuing the policies of the Democrats before them. Because it’s never really the Democrats or Republicans in charge, it’s the Viral Center, which is of course worse than the ‘extreme’ right and left combined.

    But as for small government conservatives, they want a leaner, meaner government that’s more efficient at putting drug users in prison and beating up protesters. I don’t want “small” government, I want a weak government that can be held accountable. Or, ideally, no government.

  18. #18 |  MassHole | 

    Tim P,

    You clearly haven’t been here long. If you think that 2007 was when the “the mess really started” either you weren’t paying attention or you are one of those “small government” conservatives that #15 pointed out.

  19. #19 |  Gray Woodland | 

    Doubleu @ 6: “big government conservative”… are there any other kind?

    Yes: people who really want to be left alone to get on with it, or to support each other in it. But they are vulnerable to the biggers’ warning that the wild-eyed liberals and their chaotic rabble won’t leave them alone without big government to fight their corner.

    “big government liberals”… are there any other kind?

    Yes: people who really want to leave other people alone to do their thing, or to support each other in it. But they are vulnerable to the biggers’ warning that the red-fanged conservatives and their feudalist heavies won’t leave anybody alone without big government to impose universal fairness.

    Ha, and ha!

    I don’t think it’s because most people are being stupid or vicious about this. I think it’s much more that fear is a powerful lever for a reason, and that libertarians are seldom in a position to answer a public demand like “Show me!” Because if the Maximalist Middle, moderately representing the bipartisan consensus amongst the best climbers of every independent greasy pole in the land and their professional cheerleaders, were disposed to let any of us do that – the battle would be three parts won already, wouldn’t it?

  20. #20 |  CyniCAl | 

    #10 | Carl Weetabix — “the possible benefits of collectivist/common-good principles of a “managed economy”

    Epic fail.

  21. #21 |  marshall | 

    The best response to the “do something” crowd I know of is the scene in the Heinlein novel “Glory Road” where Star, “Her Wisdom” listens to a problem, and eventually says:

    “This mess will clear up if you take that troublemaker there-What is your name? You with the goatee-out and shoot him. Do it now.” – and they do.

    Government doing something.