One year ago today, Rand Paul captivated much of the country with his filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to the CIA. The 13 hour marathon went spectacularly viral on social media and was responsible for CSPAN’s largest ratings in a while. By now very few Americans are unfamiliar with the Kentucky senator’s passionate rebuke of our clandestine drone program, and that is due to Paul’s political instinct for latching on to broad populist concerns that generally transcend partisan lines. Whether it’s reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, advocating government (state and federal) exit from marriage contracts, suing the NSA for domestic spying or championing drug war reform and felon voting rights, Paul has shown he is virtually peerless at applying his libertarian message to issues that garner broad support and thus enhance the appeal of libertarian ideas overall. Still, for all his policy entrepreneurship in just three years in the Senate, Paul is known most for his stance on drones.
As much as the filibuster was about drones, it was also about much more. It was about the wider War on Terror, as well as a plea for a restored reverence for the Bill of Rights, especially the fifth amendment. Most of all though, the filibuster was a disquisition on checks and balances and constitutional separation of powers. Rand used the hypothetical threat of an American being killed via drone strike on American soil without due process as a vivid entry point through which his audience could begin to appreciate the distorted power distribution within the branches of government.
Since Woodrow Wilson progressives have believed that government power should be concentrated in the executive branch and that the presidency demanded a “vision.” George Will describes the Wilsonian impulse as a desire for the president to interpret the constitution in a way that comports with the wishes and wants of the people and to be the voice that affirms these wants. Wilson’s view of the American founding and of separation of powers would become the legacy sentiment of the American left for a hundred years: not good enough. For Wilson and his ascendant progressive cohort, science was becoming the dominant and indisputable truth; bolstered by Darwin’s theory of evolution in biology, they set out to apply the science of evolution to human behavior. Wilson believed that government’s purpose was to efficiently guide humanity towards its inevitable endpoint of societal evolution. The perfect society would be attainable once the experts were put in charge. You know, top men.
F.A. Hayek famously disparaged this inclination to impose scientific plans on a society the fatal conceit. The idea that you can acquire enough knowledge to plan an economy through the expertise of administrators is essentially the definition of hubris. That you would attempt such a project in a polity expressly founded in opposition to this conceit is nigh treasonous. And yet there was Woodrow Wilson, the first American president to directly challenge the very nature of our government’s structure and the idea that power should be diffuse and majorities neutered. Our Madisonian construct is meant to consist of constantly shifting majorities among competing segments of government, while factions are to be constrained by being discouraged on large scales, the idea being that the inevitable rise of small factions within civil society would harness productive resolutions among competing interests. Wilson and the progressives declared all this nonsense, said “Hail Science!” and went to work on a century long project to gradually erode checks and balances by growing the executive to a scale fit to house a legion of expert administrators, aka “unelected bureaucrats.”
This was the subversive message of Rand Paul’s filibuster. The crucial issue he really meant to highlight was embedded inside his bombastic portrayal of an immediate threat to our natural rights posed by drones. That is not to say that Paul was not sincere about his clarion call for reform to both overseas and domestic drone protocols. Rand is nothing if not a rabid defender of all of the Bill of Rights, and his alarm at the vague guidelines, oversight and legality of the government’s drone program was about protecting various parts of our fourth, fifth and sixth amendment rights. More than anything to do with drones though, the crux of the filibuster was about drawing attention to the bipartisan abuse of executive power.
Paul is fond of quoting Montesquieu (really, who isn’t?), the French political philosopher whose principal contribution to politics was the idea of separation of powers. A merger between executive and legislative branches would mean no liberty, according to Montesquieu’s revolutionary tripartite concept under which our government was conceived. Likewise, as Paul offered repeatedly throughout his filibuster, a combination of the executive and the judiciary can yield no justice. Paul was rightly tying the concern over due process and extrajudicial assassinations to the broader discussion of an overreaching executive. The presidency has simply become too big, with too many agencies and bureaucracies under its aegis. Congress has gradually and steadily forfeited much of its authority to the executive on everything from war powers to educational administration (as if that should be a role of the federal government at all). I believe Rand Paul was sincere when he said he would have stood and raised the same objections regardless of who was occupying the White House. This was not a partisan attack on Barack Obama, but a larger critique of the subtle degradation to our constitutional prerogative to live under three coequal branches of government.
Before Wilson, Congress had far more authority than it enjoys today and the roles of the branches were unambiguous: the legislature writes the laws, the executive branch executes the laws, and the judicial branch determines the constitutionality of the laws. But with the rise of our imperial presidency – brought to you unapologetically and enthusiastically by progressives and their presidential “visionaries” – the executive branch has become Leviathan, buttressed by unaccountable battalions of expertise known as executive agencies, able to cast the tentacled nets of the administrative state across the land, unimpeded and with little input from the other branches. Our government as currently construed is not very far from completing the progressive vision of having a benign dictator administer an expert plan for the country. As the executive branch grows and grows, and with it the number of petty authoritarians manning the cubicles at EPA, IRS, DOE, HHS, and wherever else the executive agencies have usurped power, the ability of Congress and the Supreme Court to effectively check its authority diminishes. We know who is responsible for this. Paul’s meta-narrative was not to affix blame for the bloated, corrupt, too-powerful presidency, but to cast a bright shining light on it and to spend thirteen hours subtly lamenting the fact that not enough Americans in the 21st century seem to care that government today is not functioning as it was designed.
And what better way to jar Americans out of complacency than to warn them that an unchecked executive might drop a drone through their roof. That was the real point of the filibuster, to wake Americans up to the perils of absolute power.