I Read It For You: "Democracy Denied" by Phil Kerpen

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 18 2011 1:25 PM

I Read It For You: "Democracy Denied" by Phil Kerpen

As Herman Cain surged in the Republican primary polls, surprising everyone, becoming a top presidential contender, the Associated Press worked on a story that would expose his ties. It ran on Sunday, reprinted with a variety of headlines along this theme: "Koch ties fueled Cain's rise." The former business executive's path into Tea Party politics had been greased by the fearsome two-headed hydra of libertarianism -- David and Charles Koch.

Shocking! Scandalous! Actually, neither of those things. At this point, learning that something has "Koch ties" is interesting, but about as useful at that hilarious Reuters story connecting Occupy Wall Street to George Soros with a game of financial hopscotch. Breaking news: People with money fund causes they agree with. What do they get from it? What do they believe?

To learn that, you can pick up Phil Kerpen's book "Democracy Denied." Kerpen is the brainy vice president of policy at Americans for Prosperity, the 501c4 funded in large part by David Koch. (The jacket copy calls the organization "a national grassroots organization committed to educating Americans about economic policy and returning the federal government to its constitutional limits," which it is.) He's the hand behind some of the complicated charts, demonstrating how this Obama official is connected to that regulation is illegal because of this law. These charts and Kerpen's commentary frequently wound up on Glenn Beck's Fox News show. With that banished to Internet pay-for-stream services, Kerpen's act can go solo, in great detail. His heavily footnoted polemic opens up the Tea Party's strategic mind -- what the goals are, where the outrages come from, how to win.

Kerpen's thesis is simple: Barack Obama, like most recent presidents, tramples on the Constitution to interfere with markets. "Contrary to the ideologically blinded analysis of most observers from the left," Kerpen writes, "all of the elements of excessive executive power that they feared from Bush have continued -- or worsened -- under Obama."

This might be a bit much, and it doesn't help that Kerpen's analogue for the much-despise Bush signing statements governing the war on terror is a signing statement reasserting the right to have "czars." Kerpen's on to something anyway. The ideologues are so blind that they spent the run-up to 2009 bragging about how they'd change America, and the run-up to 2011 explaining how they'd get around the Tea Party House of Representatives to enforce the changes. Kerpen was just paying attention. Things are bad enough now that an anti-regulation crusade, "can, if well communicated, arouse enough opposition to reverse a multi-decade trend toward ever-greater regulatory power."

The book keeps a healthy, quarantined distance from Glenn Beck's FEMA-camp-on-every-corner mentality. (Okay, there are lapses: "Earth Day, of course, is celebrated each year on Vladimir Lenin's birthday, April 22," and Obama's attacks on libertarians are "right out of Friedrich Engels.") Kerpen sees Obama and his team as wily liberals who believe in central planning, which is largely accurate. You want to learn where environmental regulations are brainstormed, and why libertarian businessmen want to stop them? Kerpen has that, and juices it with a short history of the REINS Act, which would grant Congress right of refusal on new regulations affecting more than $100 million of business. It does sound like a good idea.

But this is a polemic; it's uncritical. In Kerpen's view, a country without regulation would be more productive and just as clean. Not only are higher mileage standards unrealistic, but "there are no adverse health effects" to CO2. Leave business alone, completely, and we'll be fine. Kerpen quotes Hayek on the "fatal conceit" (that planners can ever do better than the invisible hand), and states as pure fact that "markets work and competition is a remarkably effective way to discipline anti-consumer behavior." Our current battle is between social democrats who admire Europe (sure) and ordinary Joes who just want to produce in peace (well…). This is a Manichean struggle, one side all light and the other side all dark. Darrell Issa's call for businesses to name which regulations they couldn't live with -- not really an innovation, not even very effective -- is applauded as a brilliant jujitsu flip over the president.

Kerpen's very good at this, but he's better at picking out the obscure government hold-overs, like the Antiquities Act, that really are abused. No one benefits much if the debate over what government should do is between two combatants in the center. Kerpen's critique is pure Randianism, a pure distillation of what the people funding the New Right believe. It's useful to know, because this is the ideology that's going to win.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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