Andy Schmookler: No longer the party of ‘law and order’ or of ‘limited government’

Andy Schmookler

Andy Schmookler

Do you remember when the Republican Party was the “law and order” party? Yet now we have the spectacle of the two leading contenders for the Republican nomination for president supporting the commission of crimes.

That’s not how they put it, of course, but when Donald Trump “”http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/22/politics/donald-trump-black-lives-matter-protester-confrontation/index.html"” target=”_blank”>says of the Black Lives Matter protester who was knocked to the ground and kicked and beaten at a Trump rally that “Maybe he should have been roughed up…” because his conduct was “disgusting,” that’s what it amounts to. According to the law, we citizens do not have the right to assault our fellow citizens just because we are disgusted by their behavior. We can summon the law to remove someone who is disturbing the peace, but we can’t beat and kick whoever we don’t like. That’s the crime of assault and battery.

Meanwhile, the other front-runner, Ben Carson, in an “”http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/5651df1ae4b0879a5b0b5c7c"” target=”_blank”>interview on ABC, joins Trump in advocating another still larger violation of the law. When asked if he supports Donald Trump’s recommendation that the United States resume waterboarding, Carson “wouldn’t rule out torturing terrorism suspects.” He regards the policy of ruling out torture as “political correctness.” But it is not political correctness, it is the law. The practices Carson says are options we should consider are violations of both federal statute and international treaty obligations to which the United States is formally committed.

When the government deliberately violates the law, or when a partisan aspiring to power condones a criminal attack on a fellow citizen, what you get is not “law and order.” You can get something quite different, as some important history back in the first half of the 20th century showed, when bullies hostile to democratic values beat and intimidate their opponents, and when a regime seeks to prevail without regard to its legal and international obligations.

Law and order is a high value to true conservatives. But, as we see these days again and again, there’s nothing truly conservative about today’s Republican Party. The Republican Party as the party of law and order is a distant memory.

And one hardly needs any memory at all to recognize that the idea of “limited government” is part of the values the Republican Party claims to represent. This has been a Republican tradition, but this is also a refrain we still hear, especially when the “Don’t Tread on Me” tea partyers declare what they stand for.

It seems that the Republican Party can still be counted on to insist that government powers be limited — when it comes to protecting the public good from the depredations of giant economic powers. But no one who wants the American commander-in-chief to torture prisoners in violation of the limitations placed upon him by law and treaty can have any genuine belief in limited government.

To our founders, this kind of limitation was central to the American ideal. If it were not, they would not have dedicated so much of the Bill of Rights to protecting citizens, subject to the power of the United States government, from the kinds of brutalities that absolute rulers had inflicted on their subjects in Europe. A whole catalog of such rights – such as the right against self-incrimination, the right to be secure against unreasonable searches, the right to due process – lies at the heart of the “limited government” they sought to create.

Yet we now hear the two front-runners in the race to become the leader of the supposed “party of limited government” arguing that our government should be unshackled by the restraints of the law. They argue that the threats to our security are so dire that we should ignore the legal restraints to which this nation long ago committed itself not to torture the prisoners we take. This, despite the considerable evidence that torture does not even increase our security.

In contrast with our founders, who sought to help us Americans to avoid the kind of regime of unlimited powers that gave European history its dungeons and star chambers, these potential Republican presidents would lead us back into that darkness.

We’ve come a long way from the party of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. I can’t imagine such true conservatives choosing such a path of such lawlessness and unchecked power.

Andy Schmookler’s newly published book is What we’re up against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World .

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