Who’s to blame for normalizing one-man rule?
If there is one thing the American system of government was designed to prevent, it is the tyranny that results when a single person, like a king, has the power to both write and enforce the law.
So, what explains the fact that Nevada has now entered a second year of one-man rule, with Governor Sisolak continuing to wield the powers of both the legislative and executive branches simultaneously, in plain violation of the Nevada Constitution?
The answer lies in the unsettling truth that it is ultimately public opinion, rather than written constitutions, that determine the scope of government power.
Unfortunately, those with the most power to shape public opinion—the corporate press and public health officials—have determined that unilateral rule by executive decree, unimpeded by any conception of individual freedom, is necessary to respond to the coronavirus.
Former Baltimore health commissioner Dr. Leana Wen made this viewpoint explicit during a recent CNN segment. Wen argued that the government should continue withholding basic freedoms like the right to travel and earn a living until enough people get vaccinated. Such freedoms are “carrots” that the government should use to compel certain behaviors, Wen explained. Only after they have complied with the government’s terms should the people have their rights restored to them, according to Wen.
Wen’s viewpoint—that Americans only have the rights and freedoms the government permits them to have—is now the prevailing orthodoxy among the corporate press, as their coverage of the covid-related lockdowns makes clear.
What Bill of Rights?
Governors who favor lockdowns are seldom challenged about the constitutionality of their actions but instead receive frequent praise from the media and public health officials, even amid disastrous outcomes. Governor Andrew Cuomo was held up as a role model for implementing crushing lockdowns even as his own deadly policy choices contributed to New York having the nation’s second-highest death rate.
Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer implemented arguably the harshest and most absurd lockdown of any state, which included things as idiotic as banning the sale of home improvement supplies. While these restrictions did nothing to stop covid—Michigan’s fatality rate is higher than those of most states—there would be no press pushback for her egregious overreach. Erring in favor of state power and aggression, at the expense of human liberty, ensured that Whitmer would receive remarkably positive coverage, which even included a glowing profile piece from the New York Times.
Meanwhile, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy openly admitted to ignoring the Bill of Rights and giving no consideration whatsoever to individual liberty when he decided to lock the state down. What would have once been considered politically disqualifying was now met with a yawn from the press, who had by that point pivoted from serving as a check on power to providing cover for the most powerful officials America has ever seen.
Those Who Resist Lockdowns and Seek to Abide by the Constitution Must Be Destroyed
Conversely, those who sought to abide by the constitutional rules and respect the freedoms of their citizens were viciously pillared by the press and public health officials. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem was labeled “reckless” and a science “denier” because she sought to balance public health, economic well-being and liberty, as her state constitution requires.
In Texas, the corporate press gleefully laundered the smears hurled at Governor Greg Abbott after he announced that he was reopening their state last month. The media coverage never once mentioned the constitutionality of an extended lockdown, but instead focused exclusively on the dire predictions made by numerous prolockdown politicians and public health officials—all of whom asserted that Governor Abbott’s decision would lead to more cases and deaths. In reality, the exact opposite happened, with new infections down 70 percent one month after the state officially reopened.
A recent Washington Post story highlights just how little facts matter to the press when it comes to disseminating the prolockdown narrative. After a handful of states saw a spike in their covid numbers, the paper blamed “a broad loosening of public health measures” for the increase. There was just one problem with that claim—the increase they were referencing occurred almost entirely in states that kept their restrictions in place. Meanwhile, out of the eighteen states that did loosen their restrictions, seventeen reported declining case numbers. It appears that the “lockdowns are good, and freedom is bad” narrative will not be disputed by the facts, no matter how contradictory they may be.
It is Florida governor Ron DeSantis, however, that offers the clearest example of the media’s obsession with discrediting those who resisted lockdowns. There is more than a thousandfold difference in covid-19 mortality between the oldest and youngest, which explains why those age sixty-five and over account for more than 80 percent of all covid deaths. In other words, if you can protect that demographic, there is no crisis.
Yet, for simply making the commonsense decision to vaccinate the most at-risk first, Governor DeSantis was subjected to vicious media attacks. NBC News, for example, accused the governor of “playing politics” because he chose to vaccinate the elderly first, suggesting that he did so only because senior citizens are “one of Florida’s most potent voting blocs.”
The nearly twelve hundred–word article offers no evidence whatsoever to support this claim. It also does not once mention the relative risk covid poses to the elderly, which confirms that NBC’s intent was always to slander rather than inform.
As it became increasingly clear that Florida’s light-touch approach was superior to the lockdowns favored by the media, their smears would only become more unhinged. CBS 60 Minutes, for example, is convinced that a prior campaign donation is the only reason DeSantis chose the grocery store Publix to distribute Florida’s vaccines. When DeSantis explained the real reason Publix was chosen — which includes the fact that 90 percent of Florida seniors live within a mile and a half of their stores—CBS edited the footage to prevent the public from hearing that. The slanderous segment was so outrageous that the head of Florida’s Emergency Management Division—self-identified progressive and former Democratic legislator Jared Moskowitz—publicly condemned it. Dave Kerner, the Democratic mayor of Palm Beach County, likewise slammed CBS, calling their report “intentionally false.”
But crazy, evidence-free allegations that rely on doctored footage aren’t the only way the corporate press misleads the public in order to bolster support for their preferred policies; sins of omission can do the trick too.
Shh … If We Don’t Mention It, Maybe They Will All Just Forget!
Governor Sisolak currently asserts the power to single-handedly both write and enforce the law and has made clear that he will continue doing so for as long as he sees fit. This unprecedented arrangement is expressly prohibited by the Nevada Constitution, which bars the governor from exercising “any” legislative function, let alone all of them. As the Nevada Supreme Court previously explained, this means that even if the legislature wanted to give its lawmaking power to the governor, it would be “powerless” to do so.
Yet when was the last time you read a news report that asked Governor Sisolak to justify his indefinite emergency powers? What about merely asking for what it would take to bring an end to this so-called state of emergency? Or perhaps asking why the governor feels compelled to misrepresent the law in his executive orders?
Asking questions like these is the essence of journalism, which is supposed to function as a check on the powerful, after all. That they are still not being asked—some four hundred days after the “state of emergency” first began, with hospitalizations down to roughly three hundred in a state of 3 million and vaccines readily available for all—is journalistic failure of the highest order. It is no surprise that the governor was not eager to give his kingly powers back after “15 days to slow the spread,” of course. But the normalization of endless one-man rule would not have happened without the cooperation of the press, who endorsed rather than questioned this unprecedented and unconstitutional power grab.
Not Even Judges Are Safe
The press obviously cannot come out and expressly advocate for a policy of lockdowns and one-man rule, of course. Doing so would risk the very thing that allows them to shape public opinion so effectively—the perception that they are independent and neutral arbiters of fact. They can, however, move public opinion in their preferred direction through other, more effective means. One way this is done is by simply removing the constitutional issues from the conversation. Another is to reframe efforts to abide by the Constitution as dangerous actions that will lead to more death.
The opening paragraph of a recent Associated Press story shows how it is done:
The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate on Wednesday [March 31, 2021], stripping the governor of one of his last remaining tools to curb the spread of the coronavirus as the state stands on the precipice of another surge in infections.
Wisconsin’s Emergency Powers Act expressly states that the governor must receive legislative approval to extend an emergency beyond sixty days. As the governor did not receive the required legislative approval after sixty days, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the law and ended the state of emergency. But because the Associated Press disagrees with the outcome of that ruling, they did not describe it as the straightforward legal analysis it was, but instead framed it as a potentially deadly policy choice. (“stripping the governor of one of his last remaining tools to curb the spread of the coronavirus as the state stands on the precipice of another surge in infections.”) I suppose the honest description — “enforcing the Legislature’s sixty-day limit on the governor’s ability to unilaterally make the law”—runs the risk of getting readers to think about that pesky Constitution and separation of powers thing!
It is worth mentioning that the court’s ruling did not prevent Wisconsin from enacting a mask mandate or even extending the state of emergency. It only required that such actions be done in a constitutionally permissible way, as Justice Rebecca Bradley explained in her concurring opinion:
Because the Wisconsin Legislature never extended Governor Evers’ declared state of emergency, it ended on May 11, 2020. Any exercise of executive power in the name of the COVID-19 pandemic beyond that date is unlawful unless the people consent, through their elected representatives in the legislature.
Although the AP did not cite a single word from Justice Bradley’s opinion, they did want readers to know that she once received a campaign donation from someone tangentially related to one of the plaintiffs in this case—because ruling that 360 days is longer than sixty days can only be explained by corruption.
The media coverage of covid is remarkably similar to the coverage of former President Trump. The traditional aim of being an impartial source of news has been replaced by the advocacy deemed necessary to confront such an existential threat. At some point, the premise that lockdowns and one-man rule are the only sensible response to COVID was adopted,1 and ever since then, the press has abused its power to push that narrative aggressively.
Consequently, trust in the media has appropriately fallen to an all-time low. And while it is good that more people are waking up to the agenda-driven nature of these organizations, the decline of journalism is terrible for society.
As should be painfully apparent by now, a written constitution alone will not restrain an overreaching government that has the backing and support of the media. That it would function as an additional check on state power is, after all, what made a free and open press so important to the Framers that they afforded it First Amendment protection. And it is during times of crisis that an adversarial press is needed most—as that is when state power is most likely to expand to a level previously unthinkable, only to then become normalized shortly thereafter.
If the press wishes to regain the trust of the people, they should embrace the values that made the profession so revered in the first place. Adopting an adversarial role toward government, rather than being its biggest cheerleader, would be a good place to start.
Reprinted with permission from Mises.org.