Friday, June 21, 2013

Government Surveillance and Liberal Instincts

The national government is collecting information on everyone’s emails and phone calls.  Does that make you uneasy?  Does it worry you?  Now, does it worry you more or less when you consider who is president?  Are you a hypocrite if who’s in charge makes a difference?  If so, then, according to the table above (from a poll by the Pew Research Center), many Americans are hypocrites.  As you can see, Democrats opposed (for the most part) such monitoring when Bush was president but support it (for the most part) now that Obama is president.  For Republicans the reverse is true, they were OK with it under Bush, not so much under Obama.  Do partisans just automatically condemn any program run by the opposing president?  Is political tribal loyalty so much more important to them than protecting civil liberties from government abuse?  Clearly some are that cynical or thoughtless, but most are not.  As Seth Masket appreciates, it’s more a question of whether you trust the current president to pursue such a program properly.  That is, state power has the potential for great danger, and fear of that danger lies deep in the American collective psyche, but state power is held by actual individuals and it matters a great deal how much you trust those particular individuals.  You’re not a hypocrite if you trust one president more than another.  You may be mistaken, or even foolish, but you’re not a hypocrite.

Masket seems to believe there’s a sort of ideological empathy that leads people to support their party’s president, that it’s not so indefensible “to think that police state tactics are necessary when someone who shares your values is deploying them but excessive when someone hostile to your values is deploying them.”  But how exactly would that empathy work?  Masket overlooks the cynical interpretation, that Democrats don’t believe Obama would use these extraordinary police powers to persecute Democrats and Republicans didn’t believe Bush would use them to persecute Republicans; no one expects a tyrant to tyrannize his own supporters.  Once again, this may be part of what’s going on, but it’s clearly not all of it.  No, Democrats are mostly OK with Obama running such a program because they believe he will run it for the good.  His values make him trustworthy.  Which values exactly?  Democrats are reassured by two of Obama’s most striking qualities: his humanitarianism and his moderation.  He is a reasonable man, who pursues policy solutions in a measured and thoughtful way.  For example, his concern for the less fortunate motivated his quest for universal healthcare, and his natural conciliation led him to propose a moderate, flexible, market-oriented solution with a respectable Republican pedigree.  Only Tea Partiers find any credibility in the perception of him as a fire-breathing radical, determined to crush capitalism, motherhood and puppies.

But when George W. Bush inaugurated the government surveillance programs that Obama has continued, he did so illegally.  He did not follow the law requiring him to obtain judicial permission before collecting such information (even though such judicial blessings have been all-too-readily dispensed) and he failed to adequately inform Congress.  Obama has at least complied with his legal obligations as secret-policeman-in-chief.  So why did conservatives support Bush’s illegal spying program so much more ardently than they support Obama’s legal and proper one?  Well, for reasons similar to the ones that presently move Democrats to support Obama’s program: partly partisan solidarity, but mostly genuine trust.  But, unlike with Democrats and Obama, Republicans didn’t support Bush because of his values, they supported him because of his character.  Bush was famously a fundamentalist Christian – a “godly” man, as they say – but more importantly he embodied, in the conservative mind, that moral strength and purity which lie at the bedrock of American goodness and greatness.  That is, he was a man of faith and it was the right faith: that the American essence is pure and good and no real wrong can flow from the exercise of its moral power.  Democrats believe Obama spies benevolently, Republicans believed Bush spied righteously.

The national security state was, of course, a liberal innovation that later came to be supported by conservatives, but only after it had lost much of its liberal devotion (the same story can be told of nationalism and capitalism).  At the beginning of the Cold War, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, George Marshall, and others from the F.D.R-Truman regime founded the national security state – the Department of Defense, the CIA, the National Security Agency (the agency presently collecting the communication data), etc. – and committed America to permanent alliances and defensive organizations – NATO, the United Nations – all as part of a grand plan to “contain” communist aggression.  Liberals applauded the efficiency and pragmatism of the new institutions.  But conservatives instinctively rejected the new concentration and expansion of power in Washington just as they had done during the creation of the national welfare state in the 1930’s.  And conservative instincts were (and remain) isolationist and Puritan: they were horrified at the thought of American goodness diluted by close association with foreigners.

But subsequent developments changed how both liberals and conservatives came to perceive the national security state.  First and most important was McCarthyism.  When figures such as FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joe McCarthy employed the new national security institutions to sniff out (mostly nonexistent) communist operatives, liberals were appalled and conservatives were delighted.  To liberals such activities smelled badly of the very totalitarianism which they had just defeated in a world war and which they were then fighting mightily to contain in Europe and Asia.  Liberals also suspected that the real target of McCarthyism was liberalism, not communism.  And conservatives gloried in a witch-hunt that allowed them to broadly condemn almost the entire left span of the political spectrum as vaguely and not-so-vaguely treasonous, a charge many conservatives, in their paranoia and hatred of liberal policy, genuinely affirmed.  And for many liberals, suffering from guilty consciences earned from excessive leniency toward Stalin before and during the war, such accusations were simply too painful to bear.  So just as conservatives began to see both the moral and political uses of the national security state, liberals decided that the only way to protect against the totalitarian temptation was to become civil liberties absolutists.  McCarthyism made liberals bitter enemies of state police power.

The modern conservative movement that arose in the 1950’s, which was at first primarily an intellectual movement centering on William F. Buckley’s National Review magazine, was more libertarian and capitalist-oriented than earlier versions of American conservatism.  But it was first and foremost about anti-communism; the tender libertarian sensitivities it exhibited on issues like taxes and the rights of racist business owners did not extend to the civil liberties of commies, their ideological close relations and their defenders.  And McCarthyism, with its assault on the liberal establishment, provided them with grass-roots support in the form of a populism of the right (such populism would grow to include opponents of both the welfare state and the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960’s).  And these new conservatives, in their anti-communist ardor, came to embrace the national security state as the perfect instrument with which to prosecute the world anti-communist crusade.  They redirected their Puritan isolationism: they wouldn’t keep themselves pure by avoiding the world, they would keep themselves pure by going abroad to destroy evil in its lair.  Containment was for over-compromising, pusillanimous liberals; real men demanded outright victory.  And when the fiasco of Vietnam led most liberals to abandon the Cold War, conservatives stepped up to sustain it, perceiving that their determined moralism made for a better defense against the communist onslaught, but also understanding that Puritan nationalism plus anti-communism plus anti-liberalism made for a potent political combination.

Liberals had created the Cold War state as an instrument of pragmatic, prudential internationalism and conservatives had remade it in their own image as an instrument of crusading, nationalist moralism; and once they had accomplished that transformation they became its most dependable supporters.  Look at that Pew Research Center chart again and consider the numbers for Republicans.  A full 75% supported Bush when he engaged in illegal spying on Americans.  Most Republicans even now support such spying when done by a Kenyan, Marxist, Muslim usurper!  Conservatives instinctively support military and police power as instruments of American moral strength just as they instinctively oppose the welfare state as an instrument of American moral degradation.  Liberals pragmatically support the welfare state as an instrument of humanitarianism while they viscerally oppose the national security state as semi-fascism.  Is it so hard to imagine the great difference in attitude between how Bush and Obama must have approached the issue of domestic surveillance?  Both of them must have felt such enormous pressure to keep Americans safe that civil liberties concerns must have seemed a secondary consideration.  But Bush, eager to bring down American wrath forcefully upon our enemies, must have been happy with the power to ferret out enemies; while Obama, prudential and cautious, must have agreed to spy on innocent citizens only with great reluctance.  Eager vs. reluctant.  That’s the difference between conservatives and liberals on this issue, and the Pew chart seems to bear that out.  And what’s scarier: vindictiveness or expediency?

But what has happened to liberal civil-liberties absolutism?  Shouldn’t liberals be more than merely reluctant, shouldn’t they be outright opposed?  Well, that chart doesn’t show liberal views on the subject, it shows Democratic views, which are not the same thing.  Absent more detailed polls, it seems fair to guess that the most stalwart and consistent supporters of civil liberties, that 34% figure, are also the most liberal.  Consider that Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the recent surveillance story that sparked this entire controversy, is quite solidly liberal (some even call him thoughtlessly left-wing).  Indeed, antipathy to the national security and surveillance state seems to intensify the more left you go.  Does it seem plausible that the same is true of going right?  Do you know any strong movement conservatives who opposed Bush’s surveillance program?  Isn’t it a traditional notion on the right to think the government should protect us from evil?  It seems likely that while liberals are best represented by the 34% figure under 2013, conservatives are best represented by the 75% figure under 2006.

And let’s put aside historically conditioned ideological pre-dispositions for a moment and objectively consider which side of the modern centralized state is inherently more dangerous.  Who should we fear more, the IRS or the NSA?  Liberals created both.  Both conservatives and liberals have abused the power of both.  Nixon wasn’t the first president to bug his partisan opponents, Johnson did it too.  The IRS can withhold your organization’s tax-exempt status while it interviews your business associates, though it’s not supposed to do so based upon your organization’s political views.  And Nixon did famously use the IRS to harass political enemies, as did other presidents.  Such uses of the IRS do constitute thoroughly unacceptable state harassment, but are they really as dangerous as government collecting information on your supposedly private communications?  The distinction may appear murky, since the failure to pay taxes can indeed land you in prison; but the suspicion of terrorism can lead an American citizen without due process into indefinite stay in a military brig.  Has the welfare state locked anyone in jail and thrown away the key?

The terrors of the Cold War and the determination to defend democracy from communism led Truman to create the national security apparatus that has played such a crucial role in American politics ever since, for good and ill.  The expansion of that apparatus after 9/11 – undertaken by both a conservative Republican president and a liberal Democratic one – poses a terrible danger to American individual liberty, for a person is not free whom the state watches so well.  Conservatives embraced surveillance out of righteous anger over 9/11; liberals have done so out of pragmatic concern for our safety.  And this may prove to be a crucial part of the Obama legacy: he has reintroduced liberals to the pragmatic view of civil liberties.  Liberals may trust Obama, but the essence of liberalism is opposition to human interactions in which one party has inordinate power over the other.  This is what leads them to oppose traditional straight, white, male supremacy and to support working people against corporations and to force Catholic institutions to provide contraception to employees and patients.  The point of the entire liberal project of the last 300 years has been to replace the rule of men with the rule of law, to replace personal deference with institutional safeguard.  There must have been a few gentle and benevolent slave-masters, ones that could be trusted to treat their slaves kindly.  But the power the master had over the slave was far too easily abused; that power could not be trusted in general, it had to be taken away, at great cost, to be replaced with universal rights.

Government collecting communications information does not constitute slavery, of course, but it does constitute a dangerous concentration of state police power.  Liberals need to resist their natural pragmatism and remember the dangers of that police power.  The liberal fear of inordinate power is what sustains divided government, independent civil institutions such as the press and the university, and democratic accountability; those principles must be applied much more stringently than they have been to all such surveillance programs.  Liberals need not become absolutists, opposed to even the smallest and most prudent invasions of privacy; even broad surveillance programs, which the very real danger of terrorism probably does demand, might be made acceptable with the proper oversight and public scrutiny.  But we must tread very carefully here, and liberals are the ones who must keep the government on its toes.  Liberals are right to trust Obama, but they are wrong if they think that trusting him is enough.  They must remember the power that Truman gave to Hoover and McCarthy and Nixon, and they should wonder: Who have Bush and Obama given power to?