Don’t Touch This Partisan Junk

Ross Douthat checks our heads in the NYT:

Imagine, for a moment, that George W. Bush had been president when the Transportation Security Administration decided to let Thanksgiving travelers choose between exposing their nether regions to a body scanner or enduring a private security massage. Democrats would have been outraged at yet another Bush-era assault on civil liberties. Liberal pundits would have outdone one another comparing the T.S.A. to this or that police state. (“In an outrage worthy of Enver Hoxha’s Albania …”) And Republicans would have leaped to the Bush administration’s defense, while accusing liberals of going soft on terrorism.

But Barack Obama is our president instead, so the body-scanner debate played out rather differently. True, some conservatives invoked 9/11 to defend the T.S.A., and some liberals denounced the measures as an affront to American liberties. Such ideological consistency, though, was the exception; mostly, the Bush-era script was read in reverse. It was the populist right that raged against body scans, and the Republican Party that moved briskly to exploit the furor. It was a Democratic administration that labored to justify the intrusive procedures, and the liberal commentariat that leaped to their defense.

This role reversal is a case study in the awesome power of the partisan mindset. Up to a point, American politics reflects abiding philosophical divisions. But people who follow politics closely — whether voters, activists or pundits — are often partisans first and ideologues second. Instead of assessing every policy on the merits, we tend to reverse-engineer the arguments required to justify whatever our own side happens to be doing. Our ideological convictions may be real enough, but our deepest conviction is often that the other guys can’t be trusted.

How potent is the psychology of partisanship? Potent enough to influence not only policy views, but our perception of broader realities as well. A majority of Democrats spent the late 1980s convinced that inflation had risen under Ronald Reagan, when it had really dropped precipitously. In 1996, a majority of Republicans claimed that the deficit had increased under Bill Clinton, when it had steadily shrunk instead. Late in the Bush presidency, Republicans were twice as likely as similarly situated Democrats to tell pollsters that the economy was performing well. In every case, the external facts mattered less than how the person being polled felt about the party in power.

This tendency is vividly illustrated by our national security debates. In the 1990s, many Democrats embraced Bill Clinton’s wars of choice in the Balkans and accepted his encroachments on civil liberties following the Oklahoma City bombing, while many Republicans tilted noninterventionist and libertarian. If Al Gore had been president on 9/11, this pattern might have persisted, with conservatives resisting the Patriot Act the way they’ve rallied against the T.S.A.’s Rapiscan technology, and Vice President Joe Lieberman prodding his fellow Democrats in a more Cheney-esque direction on detainee policy.

James Fallows was not impressed:

The TSA case, on which Douthat builds his column, is in fact quite a poor illustration — rather, a good illustration for a different point. There are many instances of the partisan dynamic working in one direction here. That is, conservatives and Republicans who had no problem with strong-arm security measures back in the Bush 43 days but are upset now. Charles Krauthammer is the classic example: forthrightly defending torture as, in limited circumstances, a necessary tool against terrorism, yet now outraged about “touching my junk” as a symbol of the intrusive state.

But are there any cases of movement the other way? Illustrations of liberals or Democrats who denounced “security theater” and TSA/DHS excesses in the Republican era, but defend them now? If such people exist, I’m not aware of them — and having beaten the “security theater” drum for  many longyearsnow, I’ve been on the lookout.

The anti-security theater alliance has always included right-wing and left-wing libertarians (both exist), ACLU-style liberals, limited-government-style conservatives, and however you would choose to classify the likes of Bruce Schneier or Jeffrey Goldberg (or me). I know of Republicans who, seemingly for partisan reasons like those Douthat lays out, have joined the anti-security theater chorus. For instance, former Sen. Rick Santorum. I don’t know of a single Democrat or liberal who has peeled off and moved the opposite way just because Obama is in charge.

A harder case is Guantanamo, use of drones, and related martial-state issues. Yes, it’s true that some liberals who were vociferous in denouncing such practices under Bush have piped down. But not all (cf Glenn Greenwald etc). And I don’t know of any cases of Democrats who complained about these abuses before and now positively defend them as good parts of Obama’s policy — as opposed to inherited disasters he has not gone far enough to undo and eliminate.

So: it’s nice and fair-sounding to say that the party-first principle applies to all sides in today’s political debate. Like it would be nice and fair-sounding to say that Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress are contributing to obstructionism and party-bloc voting. Or that Fox News and NPR have equal-and-offsetting political agendas in covering the news. But it looks to me as if we’re mostly talking about the way one side operates. Recognizing that is part of facing the reality of today’s politics.

Andrew Sullivan on Fallows and Douthat:

There is an understandable tendency for some of the sane right to keep pretending that there really is an equivalence in cynicism and partisanship between both Republicans and Democrats. But in truth, it’s the GOP that is now overwhelmingly the most hypocritical, inconsistent and unprincipled.

E.D. Kain at The League:

I’m quite certain that Obama did not in fact run on expanding the scope and intrusiveness of the TSA to include naked scanners and groping. I’m quite certain that many of the people defending the TSA and Obama’s various security efforts – from assassinations to drone attacks – would not be defending them were a Republican in the oval office. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure Obama himself wouldn’t support Obama policies if he were still a Senator rather than the Commander-in-Chief.

It would be one thing for Fallows to argue that folks like Krauthammer are hypocrites, or that Republicans in general are acting like hypocrites over this issue. That would hold water! But to exonerate liberals and Democrats – the very people who for years criticized the Bush administration’s overreach and security theater, and who are now directly responsible for the expansion of these policies – well, this strikes me as rather one-sided and biased on Fallows’s part. Accusing Douthat of false equivalency here doesn’t work. Both sides are responsible for this mess. If they weren’t, then the Democrats would have scaled back the security state. They haven’t. And now liberals are defending them in spite of that inconvenient fact.

Daniel Larison:

There are other ways to test Ross’ claim. PATRIOT Act renewal came up for a vote earlier this year. If the “partisan mindset” is indeed awesomely powerful, it should have been the case that Republicans voted overwhelmingly against renewal. Instead, renewal passed the House 315-97 with 90% of the nays coming from the Democratic side. The measure passed the Senate by unanimous voice vote after privacy reform amendments were stripped out at the insistence of some Senate Republicans. That tells me that aside from a handful of honorable exceptions, including Ron Paul, Walter Jones, and Jimmy Duncan, there simply aren’t very many Republican representatives who object to intrusive and authoritarian anti-terrorist legislation no matter which party controls the White House. For that matter, there aren’t enough Democratic representatives who object to this sort of legislation on principle, but there were 87. If the “partisan mindset” changed national security views as dramatically as Ross suggests, there should have been many more anti-Obama Republicans resisting renewal of the PATRIOT Act than Democrats.

We could go down the list of relevant issues, and the pattern would be the same. Partisanship does not change that much in terms of the positions taken by members of the two parties. What it can do is change the intensity of feeling. This means that antiwar activists and civil libertarians are caught in an odd bind: many of them are genuinely appalled by Obama’s continuation of Bush-era security policies on detention and surveillance (and especially by his outrageous new claim of assassination powers), they are disgusted that his administration is hiding behind the state secrets privilege to cover up for the Bush administration, and they object to escalating the war in Afghanistan. However, they know very well that the alternative to Obama is to have all of these things, plus torture, aggressive foreign policy in all directions, and possibly war with Iran.

Of course, people should be outraged by the intrusiveness of these new procedures (because the entire process is an absurd overreaction to a real, but limited threat), just as they should have been outraged by the damage done to constitutional liberties for the past decade and more in the name of anti-terrorism, but one of the reasons that there are so few members of Congress willing to cast votes against excessive anti-terrorist legislation is that their constituents do not value constitutional liberties as highly as they claim they do. More to the point, when it does not directly affect their constituents it is clear that there is even less concern for the constitutional liberties of others. Indeed, what we might conclude about a significant part of the backlash is that the slogan of the protesters is not so much “Don’t Tread On Me” as it is “Why Won’t You Leave Me Alone and Go Tread On Them?”

Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast disputes the idea that the left has been quiet on the TSA:

Forget about little blogs like this one, which have been all over this TSA nonsense like flies on horseshit. What are the Big Boiz doing? Yes, Josh Marshall seems far more willing to give the Obama Administration and the entire process the benefit of the doubt than I am. But Digby hasbeennoting the absurdity of it all. HuffPo has had a slew of articles which can hardly be said to defending the TSA. Over at the Great Orange Satan, there’s hardly a rush to defend the Obama Administration. The Big Blue Smurf, as is his wont, has his customary series of one-sentence posts, mostly about nonsense, but since this is nothing new for him, it hardly qualifies as a defense of, or even silence about, Obama’s TSA.

[…]

Karoli over at Crooks and Liars cites a much-publicized (and much maligned in the progressive blogosphere, which shows that we are far more willing to criticize our own than the right is) article in The Nation which pointed out Tyner’s role as a libertarian activist and accused him of being a shill for the Koch brothers. The C&L piece cites other commentary on the Nation article, commentary which blasted it as a smear — which it is.

What NO ONE on the left is doing is defending the use of x-ray equipment and genital-groping as a means of “keeping us safe” — not even Ruth Marcus, who seems to feel that this system may be crap but it’s all we’ve got. This is far more skepticism than we ever got from the right, which marched in lockstep to the notion that “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about” in the context of the Bush Adminstration’s appalling record on Constitutional protections.

And this is the difference between the so-called “liberal commentariat” — at least the commentariat you get if you stick your nose outside the beltway. On the left, we are having a conversation among many minds. On the right, we get only one theme: Republican Good. Obama Bad.

Glenn Greenwald likes the column.

Adam Serwer at American Prospect:

Yesterday, I made some distinctions between liberals and Democrats, but I think Douthat is largely right in the sense that the Democratic Party has been largely silent about the continuity between Bush and Obama on matters of national security.

The most egregious example of this, of course, was the debate over the PATRIOT Act. As I mentioned yesterday, you had Sen. Al Franken making a show of reading the Fourth Amendment to Assistant Attorney General David Kris before voting renewal out of committee. You have Attorney General Eric Holder, who prior to being AG said the Bush administration “acted in defiance of federal law” with its warrentless wiretapping program, only to narrow his critique when he became part of an administration eager to use the same powers. There’s Sen. Patrick Leahy, who voted against PATRIOT Act reauthorization in 2006 but worked with Dianne Feinstein to block Sen. Russ Feingold‘s mild oversight provisions during renewal last year. The president who once wanted to repeal the PATRIOT Act then meekly signed its extension.

Democrats have, of course, blocked funding to close Guantanamo, fallen almost silent about this administration’s aggressive use of state secrets to obscure government wrongdoing despite some early complaints, and have remained largely quiet about the administration’s use of indefinite detention, once decried as “illegal and immoral.”

To say that Democrats who criticized such things before aren’t cheering now sets an arbitrary standard. The point is that, inherited or no, Democrats have lost the urgency they once possessed regarding the expansion of executive powers in matters of national security. No where has this been more dramatic than with the president himself, who once campaigned on reversing many of the Bush-era policies that he has in fact kept in place. The fact that Democrats have meekly acquiesced to this change as opposed to cheering it wildly doesn’t speak particularly well of their integrity.

Yes, it’s facile and stupid when the media draws false equivalences between NPR and Fox News, between pre-2006 Democratic opposition and the unprecedented Republican obstructionism of the past two years. But the reality is that the supposedly tyrannical Bush-era national-security state is largely unchanged, and Democrats have mostly stopped caring because they aren’t going to accuse the leader of their party of shredding the Constitution, even though the 2006 version of him very well might have. In the process, the party has perhaps forever legitimized some of the worst aspects of Bush administration policy by giving them the prized Beltway stamp of bipartisan approval.

The GOP’s outrage over the TSA is more partisan politics than libertarian revolution, and while I’m against the new procedures, I don’t think they come close to something like legalizing torture. But Douthat is right that on matters of national security, it is accurate to say that Democrats have for the most part learned to live with policies they once found abhorrent.

Alex Massie

Douthat responds

More Larison here and here

More Kain

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