In October 2013, House Republicans shut down the federal government in a last-ditch effort to thwart Obamacare. Benefits and downsides of such a shutdown aside, one of the most interesting aspects of it was the way the Obama administration chose to handle what kept operating and what didn’t.
Some 80 percent of federal employees continued to work during the shutdown. Grocery stores on Army bases in the U.S. were closed. The golf course at Andrews Air Force base was kept open. The World War II Memorial, which is an open-air memorial, was blockaded and staffed with security. The feds shuttered the Amber Alert web site. They wouldn’t let people view Mt. Rushmore from a distance. They tried to shut down the privately run Mt. Vernon.
The punitive pettiness of it all was similar to the news that broke about a scandal hitting the governor of New Jersey. Chris Christie’s top aide has been implicated in a stupid and vindictive attack on a political opponent. Some yahoos conspired to shut lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge out of Fort Lee, N.J. This was all done, apparently, to get back at the mayor who had failed to endorse Christie in his gubernatorial bid. The one he won in a sweeping landslide, needing no help from mayors.
Now, maybe you really like Chris Christie. You appreciate the way he doesn’t back down from a fight with teacher unions. You like how he relates to voters and is unafraid to make his case. Or maybe you love Barack Obama for his speeches or persona or political savvy. Maybe neither Obama nor Christie have actual fingerprints on the petty actions taken by those underneath them. I don’t know.
But I do know this: abuse of power is a completely expected result of government authority. That goes triple for Chicago, New Jersey and the federal government. It’s not our fault. As Samuel Johnson’s Imlac said in “Rasselas,” “No form of government has yet been discovered by which cruelty can be wholly prevented. Subordination supposes power on the one part, and subjection on the other, and if power be in the hands of men, it will sometimes be abused.”
You might be blessed enough to have an Internal Revenue Service targeting your political opponents during an election year or an official who utters the dastardly but poetic line, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” (That last line is why one could be forgiven for thinking “House of Cards” is more documentary than television drama.)
There’s not much we can do about this problem when thinking about it from the perspective of the politicians we choose. Depending on your team, Chris Christie and Barack Obama are some of our best. This is no accident. If politics were wine, New Jersey and Chicago would be our Bordeaux and Napa Valley. Politicians from these areas might be bullying and vindictive, sure. But highly effective at winning elections and wielding power against opponents. They know how to do it even under difficult circumstances. Apparently this is related to how we keep voting for them, even after we get to know them a bit.
Knowing that essentially all men having power ought to be mistrusted, this leaves us with no other option but to restrain politicians’ ability to make our lives nightmares. Mostly this means restraining our government. Anything that government touches, it can use against us in ways large and small. Perhaps we’d do a better job of keeping politicians in line if the size and scope of government wasn’t so expansive.
It also means demanding transparency over government actions. We know about these conversations out of New Jersey because Democratic lawmakers there subpoenaed the documents. It would be nice to have the conversations that led to the shuttering of the WWII Memorial or the IRS’ actions against political opponents, but our federal government is taking its sweet time responding to Freedom of Information Act and Congressional requests on these. (On that note, the Navy this week mistakenly emailed a reporter its plans to dodge his FOIA requests. It would be comedy gold if it weren’t a sign of a deeply unhealthy system of government.)
It doesn’t matter if you’re Dick Nixon or the head of the condo association, there is something about wielding authority that turns us into petty tyrants. Restraining the power supply is the least we can do.