Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah
In 1651 Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan, a controversial work arguing for the creation of a mortal god on earth answerable to no this-worldly power. Only the constitution of such a government could preempt the war, Hobbes’s fearsome state of nature, into which humankind would descend in its absence. Hobbes was not so much making an historical claim about the transition from a prepolitical condition to civil society as he was warning people already living in such a society about their future prospects should they fail to heed his political recommendations. Another way to put the matter: radical demands for untrammeled freedom, if taken seriously, would lead to civil war, each against all. Liberty left unchecked annihilates itself. Hobbes thus tried to shock and awe his readers by depicting an all too possible nightmare centered around the want of absolute government: “In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the Face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Remarkably, the contemporary Republican Party, aided and abetted at key moments by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, has effectively embraced Hobbes’s state of nature as an ideal to be pursued rather than a calamity to be avoided. Republicans are hostile to the very idea of government as a collective and social good. For them government, by definition, imposes illegitimate limits on human conduct. It’s not just that they privilege the workings of a so-called free market, code for letting corporations and other major economic players do as they will in a game neatly rigged to their advantage regardless of consequences; it’s not just that they obstruct, at almost every possible turn and through any means available, the ability of the state to act even in the most rudimentary fashion on behalf of the sovereign people it supposedly represents; it’s that they seek a world in which the people, save for the entitled one percent who receive special treatment, have to fend for themselves and live subject to a host of forces, circumstances, events, and happenings well beyond their control, as if doing so is to live in keeping with the natural order of things. For Republicans this amounts to the good life, though it is not necessarily any kind of recognizable society.
The consequences of Republican depredations and Democratic collaboration are manifest everywhere. Domestically, the country continues to suffer from a self-induced depression, the capricious continuation of which serves Republican values and interests. The GOP refuses to consider stimulus measures that would put people back to work and erase deficits. The success of such measures would defeat Republican ambitions to shrink and eliminate government and redistribute wealth upwards, two projects of great passion. Austerity means destruction and death for countless people, but innumerable personal catastrophes cannot compete with the evil that is government and the joy animating its dissolution. For the GOP it is preferable to ruin and compromise the lives of tens of millions than to have government intervene to assist them. As if prizing a nasty and brutish existence weren’t enough, the GOP doesn’t mind if it’s short either. Thus tens of thousands of people die annually from gun violence, which includes children killing children, as Republicans, at least nationally, refuse to consider the possibility of gun regulation. This also requires that government not be allowed to fund research into the public health consequences of gun violence, what with the danger of potential remedial action. For Republicans ignorance is indeed bliss. The will to ignorance also informs the Florida legislature’s so-called Timely Justice Act, which curtails defense appeals and accelerates the imposition of the death penalty, not despite but precisely because Florida leads the country in both sentencing people to death and subsequently exonerating them. Here Republicans actually prefer to enhance the power of the state when it comes to making war on selected categories of citizens, blacks in particular. It also leads to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voting to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act thirty-seven times, since it is preferable that people be deprived of insurance coverage and live shorter, less healthy lives rather than have government (further) involved in medical care. Ignorance (not to mention dishonesty and denial) also enables Republicans to dismiss climate change science and the mounting environmental costs to the planet from the civilization of productivity and consumption. It is the American way of life to master the forces of nature and bend them to our every purpose; it is the American right of nature to consume the earth’s resources as called for to sustain a comfortable, pleasurable mode of existence. Republicans affirm, with a kind of bitter glee, legislation and policies that foster American privilege, even if it kills us. And when it does kill us, Republican indifference to the diminution of the central missions of Library of Congress, including digitalization and preservation of the nation’s intellectual record, and corresponding preference for the arbitrary cuts mandated by sequestration, may finally make sense. Globally, the United States reserves to itself the right of nature, to take any action in the name of security, including the assassination of those formally recognized as citizens. Universal war-making can be accomplished through a military that can invade any territory at will or through an armada of drones ready to strike individuals anywhere the president points his trigger finger, recently announced restrictions notwithstanding. The infinite projection of power thrills it proponents.
The Republican Party is a political entity driven by myriad resentments. Though it worships power, it generally despises government, especially insofar as it signals the failures of neoliberal capitalism and worse, a collective project dedicated to equality and fairness. The GOP dreams of a world of boundless private accumulation, whether of wealth, guns, status, or control, which the state must protect but with which it must not interfere. It can’t imagine the self-destruction Hobbes posited insofar as it manages to romanticize life in “the natural condition of mankind” as if it were an epic Hollywood western in which the heroic loner prevails against all odds, insofar, that is, as it believes itself immune—for now, anyway—to the horrors it happily unleashes on others. Why Democrats seem increasingly ready to embrace such an understanding of the good is another matter altogether. Their active, willing, even enthusiastic complicity, however, cannot be in doubt, starting with Barack Obama.