The Historical Antecedents of Grover Norquist
by Charles Lemos, Fri Dec 25, 2009 at 10:48:39 PM EST
Earlier this week, Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for an investigation into Rahm Emanuel's activities at Freddie Mac and suggesting that there was a White House conspiracy led by the Chief of Staff to thwart an investigation into financial accounting improprieties that may include intentional, and thus criminal, earning misstatements during Mr. Emanuel's brief but lucrative tenure on the board of directors of Freddie Mac. The allegations that the White House is blocking the appointment of an Inspector General who would look into the financial mess at both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are serious and in part based on this story in the Chicago Tribune. Nonetheless what has mostly garnered attention, at least so far, is the fact that Jane co-authored the letter with Grover Norquist, the head of anti-tax advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform and a board member of both the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union.
The pairing has sparked a flood of commentary on the peculiarity of the alliance but only a trickle on the substantive issues addressed by the joint letter. Chris Good of The Atlantic noted that "Grover Norquist and Jane Hamsher are not often on the same side of anything, beyond both usually being in the Western Hemisphere." Mr. Good quoted the letter in full and notes the seriousness of the allegations but not much more. Bret Baier of Fox News opined that "politics can make for strange bedfellows" and then devoted but a single paragraph to the substance of their charges. More thorough was the New York Times who called them an "odd couple" before adding that "ideological opposites Jane Hamsher and Grover Norquist have found common ground in a common enemy" in the White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel. Even so, the nation's paper of record buried the story by Jackie Calmes in its Caucus Blog section with five short paragraphs on the substance of the joint letter with another five short paragraphs on "the strangest odd-couplings since James Carville and Mary Matalin married." The Times finds while Mr. Norquist is a familiar GOP provocateur, "Ms. Hamshers role, however, reflects her emergence as a leading cyber-voice for a Democratic left wing increasingly disaffected by what it sees as the sell-out centrist policies of the Obama administration" adding "for that it blames Mr. Emanuel, viewing himi [sic] as a sort of presidential puppet-master."
A number of blogs have also covered the joint letter. The Huffington Post reported the story in a completely straightforward manner with the post receiving over 2,500 comments mostly critical or outrightly hostile of Jane and her efforts. The Daily Kos has had both a front page story by Jed Lewison entitled Sheer Nonsense and at least one diary critical of the alliance. Oliver Willis accused Jane of "jumping the shark" adding that "no progressive should be locking arms" with Grover Norquist. Over at Jack and Jill Politics, they find that "Hamsher has crossed the line."
However, Jane's efforts have found support in the liberal progressive blogosphere including a diary on the Le Grand Orange. Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks finds that "on the substance, Jane Hamsher and Grover Norquist are right." Uygur believes that the left has to hold Obama's centrist feet to the fire and that "somebody has to throw some punches and in steps Jane Hamsher with a two by four and she just clocked Rahm Emanuel across the head" because a joint letter with Grover Norquist is bound to "get everybody's attention." Perhaps so but what they are largely talking about is the oddity of the Hamsher-Norquist alliance and not the merits of their charges. An exception is Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism who is supportive of Jane Hamsher's efforts. More importantly, Yves provides the relevant background that speaks to the merits of the joint Hamsher-Norquist letter. Yves, as always, is well worth the read. Her conclusion is particularly noteworthy:
I [sic] addition to his role as White House Chief of Staff, Mr. Emanuel is heavily involved in decisions made by the Treasury Department . The Wall Street Journal reported in May that "Rahm wants it" has become an unofficial mantra in the Department. It is therefore of grave concern that the New York Times reports the Treasury is negotiating to increase their commitment to Fannie and Freddie, in the absence of independent oversight: "Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy and resell mortgages, have used $112 billion -- including $15 billion for Fannie in November -- of a total $400 billion pledge from the Treasury. Now, according to people close to the talks, officials are discussing the possibility of increasing that commitment, possibly to $400 billion for each company, by year-end, after which the Treasury would need Congressional approval to extend it. Company and government officials declined to comment."
Still my conscience dictates that I bring up one additional point for as much as Jane Hamsher wants to connect the Freddie Mac dots to Rahm Emanuel it is as important to be informed of the full measure of Mr. Norquist's past associations. While Mr. Norquist is best known for his anti-government, anti-tax crusade as evidenced by his infamous quip: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." What isn't as well-known, or perhaps better put well-remembered, is his support for international terrorism. His support for Angola's UNITA rebels and Mozambique's RENAMO - both of which were allied with South Africa's apartheid regime - is not just morally reprehensible but criminal - Mr. Norquist was neck deep in plots to overthrow at least three legally constituted governments. This is, in my mind, what should disqualify Mr. Norquist from any podium.
From 1981 to 1985, Mr. Norquist was the front-man for Jonas Savambi, the leader of Angola's UNITA, in Washington serving as his unofficial ambassador and was instrumental in securing some $15 to $20 million annually in covert US military aid during the Reagan-Bush years and in tapping millions more from various conservative sources helping to prolong an unnecessary civil war. At least a portion of Mr. Norquist's wealth can be traced to fate of Africans who died in the blood diamond trade. It bears reminding that the Angolan Civil War claimed a half million lives and because these rebel movements made fertile use of land mines, they are still killing and maiming people to this day. Physicians Against Land Mines estimate that 1 in every 334 Angolans has lost an arm or a leg to landmine injury. The number of amputees in Angola is 70,000 - 8,000 of these are children under the age of fifteen. These children's prostheses have to be replaced every six months as they grow out of them. Most victims do not die: land mines are intended to maim, not kill, with the heavier consequences on cost of medical care and morale. Fewer than 7 percent of landmine victims in Angola die immediately, instead land mines beget a nation of amputees. Mr. Norquist's Angolan and Mozambican clients together laid over half of all land mines in Africa, land mines whose victims are 98 percent civilians. This is the legacy of Grover Norquist. It is regrettable that Jane Hamsher is either unaware or has overlooked Mr. Norquist's role in abetting a human tragedy and one that will continue for generations to come for land mines can lay dormant for decades. It is for this reason that I cannot sign the petition, notwithstanding its own merits. If you care to do so, you may do so here. My disagreement here is tactical, not on the merits.
I'll note that if the suggestion of a conspiracy inside the White House to prevent an investigation at Freddie Mac is even remotely true, then it is likely to throw the Obama Administration into disarray. It's clear why Grover Norquist would welcome such a development. Jane Hamsher is certainly within her rights to take a principled stand against Rahm Emanuel but I hope she also is cognizant that the repercussions of such extend far beyond Rahm Emanuel. Furthermore, I am beginning to suspect that dragging Obama leftwards is a quixotic quest though I agree with John Judis who last month noted that "Obama and the Democrats need active, unruly, and independent pressure from the left to combat Republican conservatives, intimidate Democratic fence-sitters, and persuade business that, if it doesnt back Obamas reforms, it could face much more radical measures." Active, unruly and independent is Jane Hamsher to a tee.
Knowing and appreciating Jane's fearlessness and tenacity, I suspect that we will learn more on this story especially given the Christmas Eve news dump by the Obama Administration to provide unlimited financial assistance to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The move allows the Treasury Department to exceed the current $400 billion cap on emergency aid without seeking permission from a bailout-weary Congress. The Geithner Treasury Department can continue to run the mortgage companies, which were seized last year, as arms of the government for the rest of President Obama's current term. Coupled with the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac disclosed that they had received approval from their federal regulator to pay $42 million in Wall Street-style compensation packages to its top 12 executives for 2009, there is bound to be further outrage and a bleeding of support for the Obama Administration. While Jane is calling for Rahm's dismissal, I, among others, have been calling for Tim Geithner to be fired. Rahm serves the President, Geithner should be serving the American people and he is clearly not. At some point one does have to wonder about whether the Administration is evenly remotely aware of the mood of the country.
But Jane Hamsher's dalliance with Grover Norquist also allows me to cover a few points on a subject that I have been wanting to write on for sometime now - the enduring current of anti-statism in the United States. Grover Norquist has been, of course, one of the faces of that movement since 1970s. As such Grover Norquist is heir to a long tradition of anti-statism found in the United States. In 2008, Mr. Norquist published a book entitled Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government's Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives. The book is new but the sentiments run deeper. Since 1992, Mr. Norquist has headed a "Leave Us Alone" coalition that holding weekly breakfast meetings on Wednesdays at his offices on L Street. He describes this coalition in his book as:
The Reagan Republican party and conservative movement can best be understood as a coalition of individuals and groups that -- on the issue that brings them to politics -- want the federal government to leave them alone.
The "Leave Us Alone" coalition includes taxpayers who want the government to reduce the tax burden, property owners, farmers, and homeowners who want their property rights respected, gunowners who want the government to leave them and their guns alone, homeschoolers who wish to educate their own children as they see fit, traditional values conservatives who don't want the government throwing condoms at their children and making fun of their religious values.
The Leave Us Alone coalition also includes those Americans who serve in the military and police as they are the legitimate functions of government that protect Americans' right to be left alone by foreign aggressors or domestic criminals.
As I noted above, Grover Norquist has been expounding these views for quite some time. Back in 1997, he wrote this in USA Today:
The old Republican coalition of northerners, big business, farmers, and professionals has given way to a modern coalition of individuals and groups who share a common political goal: They all want to be left alone by the government.
This "Leave Us Alone" coalition is made up of taxpayers who oppose higher taxes and farmers and property owners who don't want the Federal government making their property useless by declaring it a wetland or endangered species habitat or by inventing some other regulation. The coalition also includes westerners who resent being treated as a colony and having their water and land rationed by eastern bureaucrats. The 17,000,000 small businessmen and women who fear taxes and overregulation, the self-employed attacked by regulations and labor laws written for General Motors in the 1940s, and gun owners who do not want their weapons stolen have joined as well. The "Leave Us Alone" coalition provides a haven as well for the 1,000,000 parents who educate their children at home and the 12% of parents who send their children to private schools.
During the Cold War, Americans who were concerned about the threat of Soviet imperialism were a strong part of the "Leave Us Alone" coalition. They wanted to be left alone from foreign aggression. Today, Americans with the same concern about predatory criminals are part of the coalition. They know that the Left's response to the Soviet Union -- that it wasn't hostile, wasn't a real threat, and behaved badly only because it was mistreated by the U.S. -- is also the Left's response to crime and criminals. They believe that the Left's solution to crime -- gun control -- mirrors its belief that unilateral arms control was the proper response to the Red Army.
The pro-family, traditional-values conservatives are an important part of the "Leave Us Alone" coalition. The so-called Religious Right did not organize in the wake-of the Supreme Court decision banning school prayer, or even after Roe v. Wade. The development of a national grassroots conservative activism grew out of a self-defensive response to threats from the Carter Administration to regulate Christian radio stations and remove the tax-exempt status of Christian private schools.
In political terms, the pro-family movement can be understood best as a parents' rights me members fight against government interference and spending (financed by their own tax dollars) that insults and attacks their values and their faith. Pro-family leaders support school choice and the right of parents to direct the education of their own children. They have led the battle to win a $500-per-child credit so that parents can have the resources to take care of their own families, rather than have their income laundered through Washington and returned in the form of day care centers, educational bureaucracy, and social engineering.
The good news for conservatives is that every part of this coalition is growing -- in numbers and political sophistication. While the National Rifle Association has 3,000,000 members and the Christian Coalition has 1,000,000, 20% of Americans, when polled, say they agree with the NRA and 19% identify with the Christian Coalition. More than 600,000 businesses are members of the National Federation of principle Independent Business, and every year more and more Americans strike out on their own in the marketplace.
Also important for the future is the fact that the "Leave Us Alone" coalition is built around a single political consistent with American history and tradition -- that government should be limited and the people free. As such, it is a "low maintenance" coalition. Conservative leaders can meet in a room, and the taxpayers can agree not to throw condoms at the children of Christians and orthodox Jews; the gun owners can agree not to raise everyone else's taxes; the Christians can agree not to steal anyone's guns; and they all can agree not to take anyone's property. Everyone in the coalition can agree to keep out of the pockets and faces of everyone else. United, they can turn to do battle with the Left. In America, unlike Europe, traditionalist and supporters of limited government are allies, since America's political tradition is one of ingrained distrust for centralized authority.
Much of the above is the ranting of a polemicist. For example, the left's solution to crime is not gun control and no serious voice on the left has ever advocated unilateral disarmament. But it is that last sentence on which I want to focus on because it is historically inaccurate. Really it is incomplete. Ingrained distrust for centralized authority is but one of the various competing political traditions in the United States with Mr. Norquist's brand being a subset of those traditions. There is no doubt that suspicion of centralized authority has deep roots in American history but as the historian Saul Cornell notes this distrust has most often been "counterbalanced by a remarkable faith in the abilities of state and local governments." So while many profess fears of the Federal government, they place much greater trust in state government largely due to the fact that it is easier to be a big fish in a small pond than a minnow in a great ocean. Localism is very often a component of limited government arguments dating back to the Founding Era.
Still, I have long found the "Leave Us Alone" phrasing curious because it is a variation of the first motto of Florida when it joined the Union in as a slave state. In fact, that motto "Let Us Alone" was put on the first suggested Florida state flag shown above. The flag was hoisted in Tallahassee by Governor William D. Moseley on March 3, 1845 when Florida became the 27th state. Though the "Let Us Alone" flag flew over Florida until 1861, it was never officially adopted by the Florida legislature because of a controversy surrounding the motto "Let Us Alone". On the one hand, Florida demonstrated its allegiance to the United States by placing the US flag in the canton but with the use of the motto a states rights and anti-Federalist symbolism in the design is clear.
More recently, "Let Us Alone" is the title of an article by Ayn Rand in 1964 in the Yale Political Magazine and in the Los Angeles Times. The "Let Us Alone" is effectively the rallying cry of the Objectivist creed. It is more likely that Grover Norquist's screed directly traces from Ayn Rand than from the ante-bellum South but in truth they are variants of a deep sentiment that runs through American political discourse even predating the Founding of the Republic.
In this regard, John Judis had a worthwhile read last month in The New Republic entitled Anti-Statism in America: Why Americans Love to Hate Government. He writes:
Americans skepticism about government dates at least from the Revolution. In The Liberal Tradition in America, published in 1955, political scientist Louis Hartz described the Americans of 1776 as Lockean liberals. He was using the term liberal in its classic connotation--more like todays free-market conservative or libertarian. Americans, he perceived, envisaged the state as strictly limited to protecting property relations among equal producers. They saw strong government--which they identified with the British crown--as a threat to economic and political freedom. Government, in Thomas Paines words, was a necessary evil.
The first adherents to this Lockean liberalism were followers of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson--small farmers and (in Jacksons case) urban workingmen who attacked the statism of the Federalist elite. But, after the Civil War, a rising business class invoked it against the political left, claiming that a policy of laissez-faire would best ensure a prosperous America. Lockean liberalism became free-market conservatism.
By the end of the nineteenth century, panics, crashes, yawning inequality, and other market failures provoked a challenge to this free-market conservatism; populists, socialists, progressives, and, later, liberals called for the state to curb the market. But, even during the high tides of liberal reform, free-market ideology held sway. In 1935, Americans overwhelmingly backed specific New Deal programs, but Gallup found them opposed to an increase in government regulation by 53 percent to 37 percent. In a pathbreaking 1967 book, The Political Beliefs of Americans, political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril found that Americans suffer from a contradiction between ideological conservatism and operational liberalism. According to their analysis of surveys they had conducted, only 16 percent of Americans--with blacks and Jews leading the way--were ideologically and operationally liberal.
There are a number of converging factors that help explain why ideological conservatism has endured and so often bested operational liberalism. Lockean liberalism clearly benefited from its identification, in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, with rapid economic growth. Like the British of the early twentieth century who clung to the gold standard as the secret of their past glory, Americans clung to the myth of the unfettered free market. At the same time, there was never a strong statist tradition from which reformers could draw their precedents. Americans lacked not only a feudal absolutist past, but also a history of successful state capitalism: Liberals and progressives could only invoke European or Federalist precedents. The great progressive manifesto that advocated a strong state, Herbert Crolys The Promise of American Life, appeared in 1909 and has been largely ignored ever since.
I find this largely on the mark, there are many deep divides among Americans but none perhaps greater than the tug between ideological conservatism and operational liberalism. Like many conservatives today, Grover Norquist can harken back to various competing tenets of the anti-Federalists of the early Republic. Saul Cornell finds that were nine over-riding critiques that appeared time and again in the writings of the anti-Federalists. These are:
Consolidation The Constitution abolishes the federal character of the Union and creates a single national government acting directly on the people. The states are robbed of important government functions. Since republican governments capable of sustaining liberty are possible only in small republics, consolidated government undermines both republicanism and liberty.
Artisocracy The Constitution undermines republican principles and promotes the development of aristocracy. Cabal and corruption are inevitable, given the absence of appropriate checks on the Senate and House. The Constitution lacks important safeguard such as annual elections and forced rotation in office. Without such measures, representation will cease to be accountable to the people. Control over the manner of election also need to be returned to the states. The absence of adequate separation of powers may also lead to collusion between the different branches of government, particularly regarding appointments and treaties.
Representation The Constitution fails to provide for adequate representation of the people in the popular branch of government. The Senate is also too far removed from the popular will.
Separation of Powers The Constitution blends the functions of the legislative and executive branches in a dangerous fashion. The provisions covering treaties, appointments, and impeachments are the most notable blend of functions.
Judicial Tyranny The Constitution creates a powerful judicial branch that threatens the integrity of the state courts. The broad jurisdiction of the courts over matters of fact and law is too extensive.
The Absence of a Bill of Rights (Civil Liberties) The Constitution omits a declaration of rights the essential personal liberties retained by the people, particular the rights of freedom of the press, freedom of conscience and trial by jury. (Note: this objection was largely overcome by the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution)
Taxes The Constitution grants extensive powers to tax, which may be used to oppress the people and further threaten the autonomy of the states by depriving them of the revenue necessary to govern.
Standing Army The Constitution neglects to prohibit standing armies during times of peace and threatens the integrity of the state militia.
Executive The extensive powers given to the president risk creating an elective monarchy.
The anti-Federalists were men like George Mason, Patrick Henry, Elbridge Gerry, Edmund Randolph, Thomas Greenleaf and many others who wrote under pseudonyms such as "Cato", "An Old Whig", "A Federal Farmer", and "A Plebian". Their writings are rich and diverse and in them both the modern left and the modern right can find much to point to support their assertions. For Norquist, he has more common ground with the anti-Federalists on subjects such as Consolidation, Civil Liberties, Judicial Tyranny, Taxes, and Executive Power. The other tenet of modern conservatism was not present in the debate of the 1780s and 1790s because it is largely a response to advancement of secular humanism. In this sense, that component of Mr. Norquist's conservative ideology is reactionary.
In his book and elsewhere, Norquist has long argued that the modern Republican party is a coalition of groups and tendencies created during the political life of Ronald Reagan, based on principle rather than region and history. According to Norquist, the new political movement that now controls much of the Republican party is one made up of Americans who simply wish to be left alone by their government. They are not asking the government for others' money, time, or attention. Rather, they want to be free to own a gun, homeschool their children, pray, invest their money, and control their own destiny. Apparently that right is not extended to those who chose to control their own fertility.
On the other hand, Grover Norquist did break with his party on both the Patriot Act and on FISA. In 2006, he said "If you interpret the Constitution's saying that the president is commander in chief to mean that the president can do anything he wants and can ignore the laws you don't have a constitution: you have a king," adding that "they're not trying to change the law; they're saying that they're above the law and in the case of the NSA wiretaps they break it." In this regard, he is at least consistent with many of the traditions of the anti-Federalists.
However in a more distant time, this "Leave Us Alone" mentality would have included the right to own slaves. In a more recent time, this would have included the right of the states to discriminate on the basis of race. That's part of the legacy to which Norquist is appealing. It is a leave us alone so we can do as we please with the definition of "do" including the right to harm and injure. I suspect it pointless to tell Mr. Norquist that the United States did experiment with limited government once. It was called the Articles of Confederation that governed the country from 1781 to 1789 and it was an abysmal failure.
Here's Grover Norquist in his own words on the "Leave Us Alone" Coalition from a presentation at the New America Foundation:
The full Grover Norquist talk can be listened to at FORA TV.