June 20, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

Landess: Why Not Call Tyranny What It Is?


The word is there for a reason.

We don’t hear the word tyrant much anymore, except perhaps to describe a spoiled child or unreasonable boss. Language has become so soft and powerless that, while it may not offend, neither does it convey much.

These days Americans cringe at intensity in political language. That’s understandable given the constant onslaught of material designed to get the attention of donors, activists and voters. And no doubt there’s a lot of anger in our country, which in increasingly volatile and dangerously unfocused.

But as tempting as it is to scurry for the safety of remaining mainstream, responsible people have a duty to recognize what they already know: our country is at a dangerous tipping point, and anyone paying attention in South Carolina knows that citizens are becoming almost completely unable to control their own government.

The word tyranny isn’t hyperbolic anymore. Not in our state. Madison defined tyranny as “the accumulation of all powers, Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

Welcome to South Carolina, where we can in fact justly pronounce our government tyrannical. It’s not as if human nature has changed so much that such as state is impossible. And we don’t really deny that much of the world lives under tyrannical rule, especially in the third world. We just think it’s silly to suggest it could happen in this country.

But what are the characteristics of tyranny? Even if we aren’t in an absolute state of it here, we can’t deny that we’re headed toward what looks an awful lot like it. Our state is run by a few rulers who aren’t elected by most of the people. They control all three branches of government. They ignore the law, make their own rules, punish their critics through the power of the state, and profit directly from doing all of the above.

Is that hyperbole? You decide.

The state is run by a few “rulers.” This year’s gas tax debate offered one of the best examples of what we at SCPC have begun to reveal over the past several years: a handful of legislative leaders exercise almost total control over state government.

The transportation system isn’t controlled by the governor who is elected statewide and thus has all the priorities to consider equally. The governor barely has any authority at all when it comes to road projects. In addition to making the laws and appropriating the dollars, a few legislative leaders also nominate the Department of Transportation commissioners who are then confirmed by legislative delegations that don’t necessarily meet to vote or debate the candidates in public.

That bizarre concentration of power and secrecy is unique in the country, and possible through a terribly constructed post-Reconstruction constitution designed to preserve power in a ruling elite. Through state law legislators have expanded powers well beyond what even our flawed constitution permits, and today their convoluted web of boards and commissions ensures that it’s almost impossible to hold accountable directly the politicians responsible for everything from transportation and education to energy and even who becomes a judge.

The power to nominate judges lies with a screening committee of 10 people, half of whom are chosen by the House Speaker and the other half by two senators. If there’s any more compelling reason to fear loss of citizen control of government; it’s the ability of one politician – the Speaker – to almost unilaterally put a judge on the Supreme Court.

Tyrants ignore the law. South Carolina legislators are notorious for this – to the point that we almost don’t notice it anymore. But when I’m asked why our taxes aren’t lower and our government isn’t smaller, I point to a law requiring a very clear and transparent process to pass the state budget – which SCPC discovered has been on the books for decades without once being followed. It requires the governor to submit a detailed budget – with all revenue sources and expenditures – for debate in open, joint hearings of both House and Senate budget committees.

Instead of following the law, legislative leaders write the budget in secret, hide most of it and refuse to debate more than two-thirds of the spending on the floor.

Tyrants profit from their positions. Check that box, as we recently learned through the process of holding the former House Speaker accountable. Although it’s technically illegal to profit from office, legislators are protected from any real consequence of doing so. The state’s “Ethics Act” was designed to make corruption largely subjective, and includes the creation of self-policing committees to protect them. They don’t have to disclose who pays them and they exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act, so it’s really almost impossible to know how often they ignore the no-gain-from-office law.

The power of the state is used against opponents of the rulers. Lawmakers have been on a tear in the last two years to shut down those of us who challenge their power. Laws to regulate speech, force us to disclose our supporters and expose them to intimidation, take away our free speech, take citizens to a special “FOIA Court” for “overburdening” agencies with Freedom of Information requests – all have been proposed. And the head of the Senate Ethics Committee even threatened a citizen, who emailed questions about another senator’s campaign spending, with prosecution for violating a senate rule when he cc’d an SCPC researcher.

What does all this spell? Seems like a pretty clear case of tyranny to me. Call it incremental tyranny, or borderline tyranny, or whatever might gives us hope that we can still stop it. Certainly, we can. But we’d better get to work. The longer we deny that we need to do something about this state of our state, the harder it will be to do it.

Ashley Landess is president of the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization.

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