Th REE SCANDALS — shifting explanations about the attacks in Benghazi, the targeting of conservative political groups by the Internal Revenue Service, and the administration’s secret inquiry into the Associated Press — dominated politics last week. All self-inflicted wounds, they threaten to upend Barack Obama’s second-term agenda as the inevitable investigations, denials, revelations, and resignations divert attention from everything else.
But the real story here is less about misdeeds than it is about power. Consider how these three scandals mesh with other stories of the day: Escalating drone strikes, bullying investigations of targets such as cyber-genius Aaron Swartz, the shelter-in-place commands in the aftermath of the Marathon bombings, the rush to a never-ending surveillance state, and the like. The impression one gets is of government at all levels consolidating power unto itself and of a government that is ever more willing to use that power. It makes for scary stuff, stuff that has the potential to reset our politics.
The story of America has been a tale of two competing visions of government: one expansionist, the other sharply curtailed. Many of those who fought for independence were suspicious of centralized authority. They had seen what a monarchy could do and they didn’t want it repeated on their soil. Thus the first government they set up under 1781’s Articles of Confederation was extraordinarily weak, without even the power to tax or enforce congressional decisions.
Eventually, those weaknesses were so overwhelming that almost everyone was forced to admit something more was needed. That led us to the 1788 Constitution (the one we still have), which gave the national government more powers but was still fundamentally grounded on a philosophy of limited government. Power was fragmented among the three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial). The idea was to make change difficult and, sure enough, it’s hard to get stuff done in Washington.
Still, we’ve strayed far from the 18th century’s ideals of limited government. Much of that has been purposeful, pushed by people who see the value of a more powerful state. The 16th Amendment, for example, approved the income tax (prohibited in the original Constitution) and gave the federal government access to personal information it never had before. The vast social programs of the New Deal and the Great Society (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) brought about enormous new levels of spending and, necessarily, new powers to police that spending. And regulation — the automatic response to every perceived ill — means bureaucrats are deeply involved in almost every aspect of economic life.
The most profound recent change, however, has been our current era’s rapidly advancing technology. Government now has the technological tools at hand to know far more about the details of citizens’ lives than ever before. If officials wanted to, they could use surveillance cameras to follow every one of us around through almost every moment of our lives. If they wanted to, they could use electronic eavesdropping to track every web search, text, social post, or phone call we make.
We’ve comforted ourselves in all of this with the belief that, while government might potentially have all of this power, it would rarely use it or that, when it did, its use would be well-intentioned and circumscribed. Plus we had rules and systems to stop any abuse: The Bill of Rights, the due process clause, oversight by the media and courts, the two-party system, and strong procedural requirements.
What the Benghazi-IRS-AP scandals suggest — and what victims of drone strikes and people such as Aaron Swartz might testify — is that these protections are inadequate. Rules can be bent or ignored, people are venal, and in the pursuit of what government officials think are good ends, any means become acceptable. Power, as the saying goes, corrupts, and absolute power — and surely, we’re getting close to that point, aren’t we? — corrupts absolutely.
The trio of current scandals has already caused heads to roll and, doubtless, more will. More broadly, they may also cause people to rethink the intrusiveness of government in their everyday lives. There is a perception, largely correct, that Democrats favor a more expansionist view of the state while Republicans desire to scale it back. In the ying and yang of one party versus the other, the administration has handed the GOP a powerful argument for its own resurrection.
Tom Keane can be reached at email@example.com.