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Conservatives in Conflict

The new GOP agenda seems to be less, not more, freedom. Consider the efforts to bar gay marriage, ban stem-cell research or impose school prayer.


On that occasion, Bush proclaimed, "There is only one force in history that can ... reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom."

But since then, Bush and his party have seemed less like liberators and more like the religious police.

The new GOP agenda seems to be less, not more, freedom. Consider the efforts to bar gay marriage, ban stem-cell research or impose school prayer. Consider thinly disguised appeals by Republicans in Congress for impeachment or even assassination of judges whose rulings they dislike.

And finally, consider the extraordinary intervention of Congress into the private death of one woman, Terri Schiavo. Polls differ about public attitudes toward end-of-life care, but they agree that the Schiavo debacle has hurt Congress and the president.

Conservative hypocrisy? No. Bush is sincere when he proclaims freedom.

So is Tom DeLay when he threatens judges.

American conservatism has two hearts: One is libertarian, the other authoritarian. One heart proclaims "government must not make me live like others"; the other insists "government should make others live like me." The first heart beats in old-style conservatives such as Danforth and Sen. John McCain; the second burns within figures such as John Ashcroft and Justice Antonin Scalia.

This conflict is not unique to the conservative movement. American religion has always wavered between relying on the inner light of conscience and grasping for the sword of law.

American liberalism is two-hearted as well, split between those who want to lift economic barriers to success and independence (think Hubert Humphrey) and those who yearn for asceticism and the rule of the saints (think Ralph Nader).

But liberals have no power; in 2005, conservatives have it all. And therein lies the danger to the nation — and, ironically, to conservatism itself.

For the first time in many decades (by my count, since 1929), Republicans control all the levels of our government. With their focus and party discipline, a united GOP can now do something as consequential as revamping bankruptcy statutes — or as self-destructive as turning one woman's hospice room into a Fox News studio.

It's not surprising that conservatives are making wrong choices.

Whether or not power always corrupts, no one can deny it tempts. Like Tolkien's One Ring, power whispers to dark places in the soul, urging us to calm our own deep fears by using force, or the threat of force. Authoritarianism arises in those seductive whispers.

Authoritarianism as a political concept dates from 1950, when the German philosopher T.W. Adorno and a group of colleagues advanced the idea that there is an authoritarian personality. Because of childhood experiences, such as a distant, rigid father and a smothering mother, Adorno's authoritarians were conformist, submissive, fearful and irrational — easy prey for a Hitler or a Stalin.

Adorno's mistake was imagining that individuals can be essentially all one thing or all another. That's bosh; in each of us, all the time, the will for freedom clashes with the wish to obey.

Events in our lives, or the world around us, bring one aspect or the other to the fore. And no event does more to cow the human soul than war. If the enemy is unseen and undetectable, we feel terror: terror of weakness, terror of disorder, terror of the evildoer, the heretic, the infidel, the demonic Other plotting in the darkness.

In wartime the sleep of reason brings us the most destructive monsters: loyalty oaths, secret tribunals, government lying and spying, censorship and intimidation of media, sexual repression by law and concentration camps for the "enemy" — or even for our own people.

In that sense, the Schiavo family was a casualty of war. A movement that has the power to enforce its will on others sometimes is afraid not to. Self-restraint seems like self-doubt. To tolerate nonconformity feels weak; and inner weakness is frightening.

"If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition."

The framers of our Constitution understood human nature. They decided to allow one part of government to check another, not out of virtue but out of self-interest. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," James Madison wrote in "The Federalist," meaning that Congress or the courts or even state governments must be able to resist the will of the executive, and vice-versa.

When all parts of our system lie at the feet of one party, and one small faction (even, it seems today, one family), Madisonian obstacles are swept away and liberty may be sadly damaged.

If there is hope in this troubling time, it lies in American history. Since the beginning, Americans have not taken kindly to would-be bosses — or at least, not very kindly and not for very long. A Joe McCarthy, a George Wallace, a Newt Gingrich may rise.

But for each one, there comes a time when the magic words — "war," "enemy," "morality," "treason" — cease to work, and the genie of power disappears back into the bottle of restraint.

That may be happening now, as the Republican majority loses the momentum it gained from its November victory. Or perhaps the authoritarian moment — what Jefferson, in a similar dark time, called "the reign of witches" — will persist a little longer.

Even so, Bush and DeLay would do well to heed the ghostly voices of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Those voices warn that the backlash may come sooner or later — but in America, it always comes. When it does, the GOP will return to its roots, which Danforth identified as limited government, free trade, judicial restraint and internationalism.

And no longer will private citizens go to bed afraid of waking to find Bill O'Reilly by their bedside. Hang on, conservatives. History is coming to — well — liberate you. S

This essay appeared in the Oregonian in Portland, Ore. Garrett Epps is a professor of law at the University of Oregon.

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