08.18.11

Rick Perry, Anti-Federalist

In his Tea Party manifesto, Texas Gov. Rick Perry tries to paint himself as the heir of the Federalists, who favored a strong national government. But his arguments more closely resemble their paranoid opponents.

Fresh onto the GOP field, Texas Gov. Rick Perry wants to reignite a debate about federalism.

Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington, his second book, is a rousing call to return to the federalist ideas that shaped the American Constitution. But Perry’s ideal model of a federal government sounds exactly like the system the federalists rejected: a loose confederacy of independently run states with strictly limited authority to tax, little authority to enforce national laws, and primarily responsible for waging wars.

Perry’s hatred of federal government—the snarling tone of this book cannot be construed any other way—is rooted in the view that Washington has shamelessly abandoned any pretense of respecting the Constitution. His disenchantment supposedly finds its historical basis in the Federalist Papers, from which Perry picks out passages that emphasize the powers of the states. But more often than not, Perry is lumping together early constitutional debaters and quoting the people on the losing side. He leans heavily on the warnings of Thomas Jefferson, known for his vehemently anti-federalist pronouncements, about the encroachments of the federal government. And he adopts as his mantra the Tenth Amendment, a late-breaking addition advocated by anti-federalists: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

Like a fundamentalist of the more biblical sort, Perry picks his texts and elevates them to dogma. He preaches a historically dubious view of the federalists as states-rights ideologues, obscuring the fact that they were the primary proponents of a strong central government. Indeed, their main goal in the Federalist Papers was to defend their conception of a strong central government to the skeptical anti-federalists. This meant playing up the restrictions on its power and emphasizing the “concurrent” authority of the states. Perry seizes on the passages that showcase states’ rights, echoing the anti-federalists’ fears about tyrannical federal government. If he wanted to adopt an 18th-century label, he picked the wrong side.

It’s clear that Perry would prefer American history had been frozen in 1787. The profound legal and moral crises that punctuated the 20th century sweep by with scarcely a mention, and when Perry must confront a historical event that challenges his constitutional fundamentalism, he tends to ignore it. It’s difficult to imagine a more calculatedly partisan version of historical events—or one that omits so many crucial details.

Perry tends to portray policy expertise as sham and pretension, mocking political arguments, legal reasoning, and historical analysis that attempt to articulate context or nuance.

On the Civil War, he seems equally desperate to oppose slavery and to minimize its transformational impact. He believes Lincoln’s actions to end it were justified, but neglects to mention the Constitution-bending necessary to their success. Lincoln suspended Americans’ habeas corpus rights, held thousands without trial, and ignored the Supreme Court’s protests that his actions were unconstitutional. Perry glosses over this and picks up where the reunited states were adding new constitutional amendments prohibiting discrimination. This becomes a tidy lesson about the need for “explicit constitutional authority” for contentious, transformational policies. But Lincoln declared an end to slavery and refused to allow secession, all without “explicit constitutional authority.” In Perry’s book, that kind of disregard for the Constitution amounts to tyranny, no matter how morally necessary.

The tyrants Perry finds most unforgivable, though, are “nine unelected justices who tell us how to live.” Only federal bureaucrats and liberals come close to meriting the disdain he visits on the Supreme Court, which “arrogantly chooses to hide behind the Constitution while it implements its own policy choices.” Again, Perry abandons history when it doesn’t suit his narrative. He cites Jefferson as a skeptic of the federal judiciary and declares the Supreme Court’s role as “not envisioned by the Founders.” But in Federalist No. 82, Alexander Hamilton argued forcefully that the court’s rulings would be the supreme law of the land, that federal courts would sometimes transcend state authority, and even that American courts should look globally for legal insights. Hamilton also argued that judges would be a “safeguard against occasional ill humors in the society.” Perry doesn’t discuss the reasons why, almost immediately, the legal doctrine of judicial review by the Supreme Court proved necessary when the country was plunged into an electoral crisis. His prose creaks under his sarcasm as he mocks the court’s “whims,” “provocative arrogance,” and “culture of litigation against our closely held values.”

For so virile a hunter of constitutional enemies, it’s puzzling that Perry essentially spares the branch that has recently treated the rule of law with the most disdain: the executive branch. He need only look to the past two administrations for a trail of violations that should inflame his ire. Lawyers for George W. Bush’s administration argued that the executive branch has the authority to eavesdrop on American citizens without a warrant, to hold and torture prisoners of war without charge, and to hand captives over to unsavory foreign torturers. The Obama administration not only has shielded Bush officials from prosecution but also has asserted its own prerogative to launch wars without congressional approval, to assassinate American citizens without charge, and to persecute whistleblowers who have tried to reveal serious wrongdoings by their superiors. But according to Perry, “no issue is more critical for the defense of freedom” than repealing a health-care policy passed by a democratically elected legislature.

War seems to be a love like no other for Perry—the one arena where he’s happy for the federal government to break all his rules. After bemoaning in chapter after chapter the federal government’s inherent, hopeless corruption and waste, he asserts that the U.S. seriously underspends on national defense and that the Pentagon’s sprawling bureaucracy is both indispensable and infallible. He even argues strenuously against cutting funding for the F-22, a fighter jet the outgoing defense secretary, Robert Gates, called a Cold War relic and a source of massive waste.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect Perry to have some historical perspective, or his constitutional arguments to display consistency. After all, Fed Up! often bristles with contempt for intellect that came after 1787. Perry tends to portray policy expertise as sham and pretension, mocking political arguments, legal reasoning, and historical analysis that attempt to articulate context or nuance. He plays to the lowest common denominator, leading his reader in jeering the deluded public servants who dare to think they might be able to solve a problem. At one point, Perry even recommends Congress “pass shorter, understandable bills rather than long, incomprehensible ones.” By his closing argument, he’s made his case: he hates government far too passionately ever to be entrusted with it.