If you’ve spent even a small amount of time discussing politics with conservatives, you’ve been told that we need to beware of the tyranny of the federal government, and that we must transfer their power to state and local governments in order to avoid such tyranny. As the gun debate has heated up in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, Republicans have told me that the reason we need to keep an abundance of assault weapons that can kill 15 people in 15 seconds legal is because we may need them someday to fight off a tyrannical federal government.
Apparently, many Republicans envision a future in which the Democrats will embark on an apocalyptic invasion of the American people that resembles a scene from Schindler’s List. This notion has become especially popular since Barack Obama has been elected as our first black president with a Muslim name. However, such an invasion hasn’t happened in any well-established, democratic nation that possesses a system of checks and balances, not here, and not in Europe either. The U.S. Government invading its own people is pretty far-fetched.
What is not far-fetched, however, is the tyranny of local and state governments. And we have seen this tyranny rise up again in recent weeks. Republicans tend to think that because the federal government is large that it is therefore more tyrannical. The truth is that local government leaders and law enforcers can kill you or falsely imprison you just as easily as the federal government can, and our history shows that they do it far more frequently. Over the past few weeks, we have seen that cops can kill unarmed, non-threatening black men and not even be tried for a crime. For those who have been around for a long time or who know their history (which is, sadly, few people) this was the norm in the American South for nearly two centuries; it is nothing new.
In Cleveland, and possibly in New York, the federal government will now step in and try to straighten out the situation if it’s not already too late. This situation reminds me of the Freedom Riders who, in 1961, were victims of a conspiracy by the KKK, the Birmingham city government, and the Birmingham police department to attack and even kill these civil rights demonstrators as they passed through the city on a bus on the way to a rally in New Orleans. The KKK attacked them on multiple occasions, while the police looked the other way, before JFK threatened to unleash federal troops on Alabama if the state didn’t put a stop to the situation. The KKK was powerful enough to corrupt the city and state governments of the South, but not big enough to corrupt the federal government.
It turns out that local and even state governments are more easily controlled by special interests and corporations than the federal government is (although they are not immune, as corporate power has grown more powerful than the federal government in some cases). In fact, it was the coal companies who influenced the Luzerne County (PA) sheriff’s department to slaughter 19 unarmed, non-threatening strikers in the Latimer Massacre of 1897 and who influenced the Colorado state government to slaughter 25 family members of striking miners in the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. And these are just the human rights examples. I haven’t even begun to give examples of how big business has corrupted legislation to make small government work for them and against the interests those struggling to survive. I detail those examples a bit more in my book, “Rescuing Religion from Republican Reason.”
Nonetheless, our history is clear: Tyranny is worst when democracy fails to carry out the will of the voters. And that is usually the result of wealthy, powerful people manipulating small government to their advantage. They want government to be small, so they can overpower it. But they need you to vote for those who hate and want to destroy government in order for that to happen. Sometimes, the only safeguard “we the people” have against such tyranny is appealing to a strong federal government that is too large to be controlled by local and regional powers. Of course, this federal government can become just as dangerous if we vote for politicians who are servants of large corporate power. But otherwise, we have no reason to fear a strong, powerful democracy unless that democracy is controlled by non-democratic forces.