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Weekly Commentary — A Plague of Jeffersonian Democrats

2009 August 24
by rahul

Over the past eight years, how many times have you seen or read some condescending blowhard ignoramus snigger about the foolishness of expecting to find any “Jeffersonian democrats” in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the entire Arab world? I don’t think most of us can count that high.

In all that time, I have waited in vain to see a single interviewer, opponent, interlocutor of any kind point out that if any of these people had the faintest idea of what a Jeffersonian democrat is, they would know that there are absolutely none in the United States – with one exception I’ll come to.

Let’s just leave aside the fact that a “Jeffersonian democrat” would spend his career in political office working to increase the sway of slavery, as Jefferson did (see Garry Wills’s book Negro President). Beyond that, not only was Jefferson anti-corporate, he was, at least philosophically, radically anti-statist. He believed that a nation should change its form of government every nineteen years, once a generation. Any broad social compact of the kind required to create a state, he thought, could not be expected to bind future generations.

Imagine any of the standard TV or print bloviators supporting a radical turnover of media pundits every 19 years, or of the structure of corporate gravy trains and fat speaking fees, let alone of entire forms of government.

Jefferson recognized that periodic revolution might well lead to periodic violence, but, as he wrote in a letter, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

This quote has finally resurfaced in the national political dialogue because of its invocation by some of the nutcases who have been carrying guns to Obama speeches and appearances at healthcare “town hall meetings.” Indeed, all along, the only socially significant group of Jeffersonian democrats in America has been the lunatic fringe of the radical right/libertarians.

One of the biggest problems of Iraq and Afghanistan has been that they’ve had so many of this type of “Jeffersonian democrat.” Although at least in those countries the authorities try to stop people like that.

There is a difference between carrying an AR-15 outside the convention center where the president is speaking and driving a car full of explosives into a crowded marketplace and detonating it, but the gulf is not as wide as one would like to think. As Frank Rich has pointed out, right-wing nutcases driven by core beliefs of the radical right, like anti-abortion zealotry, belief that Obama was born in Kenya, and generalized belief that the agents of state authority are jackbooted fascist thugs trying to take away your freedom (except when they legitimately use force to keep inner-city blacks in their place) have been involved in a number of incidents of murder – a guard at the Holocaust Museum, an anti-abortion doctor, three policemen.

Nothing that these gun-toting lunatics might do should come as a surprise – guns, violent fanaticism, a president perceived as a foreign agent trying to bring about America’s downfall, rhetorical exhortations from prominent right-wingers including Republican politicians, and extreme permissiveness from those same jackbooted agents of state repression constitute an extremely volatile mix.

Even in a country where all right-wing lunacy is taken incredibly seriously by all the powers-that-be, where there is no limit to the paranoid delusions that large parts of the country feed on, this latest development has surprised me. Under George Bush, unarmed antiwar demonstrators with nonviolence actually frequently written into their codes of conduct were placed in pens, often far away from any site they were trying to picket; the carrying of placards and the wearing of T-shirts by people in favor of peace was criminalized; and the FBI and local police often infiltrated antiwar groups. If such protesters had carried guns outside a presidential appearance, Bush could have had them run over with tanks and there would have been no peep of protest out of the punditocracy.

These people, by contrast, are treated with kid gloves and subjected to constant official recognitions of their inalienable right to carry guns to potentially volatile political gatherings.

While our public discourse descends into medieval barbarism, one aspect of modernity is standing strong. According to an excellent article in the LA Times, the final “better than nothing even though it won’t contain a public option” healthcare bill that passes will likely be centered around government subsidies for health insurance companies to expand their client base and softening of requirements so that their profits on those policies can be even higher – in other words, it will be an unprecedented bonanza for those companies.

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