The Snowden Effect and the Liberal Implosion

A political realignment in favor of libertarianism has liberals steamed

by , January 24, 2014

We haven’t seen anything like this since the Vietnam war era: an administration caught red-handed illegally and systematically spying on Americans in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war. At that time, too, the political class was badly divided, with the hard-liners circling their wagons against the rising tide of popular outrage and the dissenters auguring a new and not-so-Silent Majority.

While the Vietnam conflict dragged on for years without much protest aside from a marginal group of extreme leftists, as more troops were sent and the conflict expanded in scope the massive demonstrations against the war began to shake the heretofore solid unity of center-left liberals who constituted the electoral base of the Democratic party. The cold war liberalism of the Arthur Schlesingers and the George Meanys was the main intellectual and political bulwark of the war’s defenders, but that fortress was stormed and taken by the "new politics" crowd, who took over from the defeated supporters of Hubert Humphrey and LBJ’s old gang and handed the party’s nomination to George McGovern.

With the news that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) has handed in a report declaring the National Security Agency’s meta-data dragnet flat out illegal it is clear that Edward Snowden’s revelations have badly split a political class that was once pretty much united in its fulsome support for the national security status quo. This comes on the heels of a new poll that shows the majority of Americans oppose the NSA’s data dragnet – with an even larger majority contending that the main danger to their welfare is their own government.

Yet history never repeats itself exactly: there are endless variations, and the one we are living through now is extraordinary in the sense that it inverts its precursor. The tumult of the Sixties was provoked in large part by ostensible conservatives who badly overreached: our current state of affairs is the result of "liberals" of a Rooseveltian stripe who have gone a step too far.

President Barack Obama, who campaigned on a platform of government "transparency," and promised to protect whistleblowers, long ago surpassed Richard Milhous Nixon in his paranoid penchant for secrecy: his Justice Department has relentlessly pursued leakers with the zeal of Inspector Javert. Not only that, but a good many of his Boomer acolytes, who spent the Sixties marching in the streets against government repression under J. Edgar Hoover’s watchful eye, are now defending the little J. Edgars of our own time as they sit at their computer stations at NSA headquarters reading our emails. Sean Wilentz, a sixty-something year old Princeton professor and historian, who recently authored a vicious attack on opponents of the Surveillance State, has a photo of Bob Dylan as his Twitter avatar. Do we all become what we loathe in the end?

Wilentz is concerned to save liberalism from the libertarian invasion of its moral high ground from the Snowdens, the Greenwalds, and the Assanges, but I have news for him: the times, they are a changin’!

Liberalism isn’t what it used to be: liberals don’t even call themselves liberals anymore. Today they’re "progressives" – a label with quite unfortunate historical antecedents, among them explicit racism, blunderbuss imperialism, and the hubris of alleged expertise. But our progressives aren’t big on history, an inherently conservative preoccupation.

Here again, history repeats itself, this time following the old script a bit more closely: just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt initially appeared on the scene as a messianic populist figure who would drive the money-changers from the temple of American democracy and deliver a "New Deal" for the Common Man – and wound up delivering the country into the grasping hands of his corporate allies – so in our own day the same pattern emerges. A "progressive" President, elected and reelected in the midst of economic turmoil and a wave of discontent with the conservative status quo, winds up handing the economy over to the same Wall Street moneychangers who brought it down in the first place. Repeatedly promising the voters that he would keep us out of war, Roosevelt kept his cards close to his chest as he plotted and schemed to provoke the Germans into attacking American shipping in the Atlantic. In the end he had to settle for Pearl Harbor, but that proved sufficient for his purposes.

We saw this Janus-faced persona in Obama’s mien as he campaigned against the Bush administration’s overreach in the Middle East – and then tried to pull a fast one in Syria, a scheme nixed by an outbreak of popular outrage. We saw it as he looked us straight in the eye and told us his is the most transparent administration in modern times – and then did nothing when his Director of National Intelligence denied collecting data on American citizens and was exposed as a liar practically the next day.

An odd disconnect permeates our discourse as the administration’s progressive defenders try to justify the creation of a system of all-pervasive surveillance and ensconce it as something normal in American society, gently reassuring their liberal camp followers it’s just another step into the brave new world Obama and his brain trust are building for us. That they are having considerable trouble keeping those followers in line is evidenced by the appearance of a spate of articles preceding Wilentz’s attacking libertarianism – and Snowden – in an effort to wall off the progressive base from further incursions by marauding bands of libertarian guerrillas. Tom Watson, the cyber-guru of corporate progressivism, warned his comrades against allying with libertarians on pretty much the same grounds as Wilentz: following up on Watson’s unsubtle attempt to link libertarianism with practically every vice known to man, the duo of Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu dubbed libertarians the "New Communists" – and didn’t your mother tell you to stay away from people like that? Michael Lind has been on a tear lately in Salon, penning screed after screed detailing the ethical, political, and aesthetic shortcomings of libertarians.

The progressive response to the libertarian upsurge – and the widening insurgency within their own ranks – is motivated not only by fear of losing political preeminence, but also by the bifurcated nature of American left-liberalism itself.

American liberalism has, from the beginning, struggled with the conflict between its populist-individualist proclivities and its programmatic commitment to statism and collectivism. The managerial corporatism of the second New Deal and the globe-spanning paternalism of "It Takes A Village" owe little to the humanist and anti-imperialist liberalism of Oswald Garrison Villard and Randolph Bourne. These two versions of the liberal idea have struggled for dominance through most of modern American history, and it is by now abundantly clear which tendency has won out: after all, who remembers Villard and Bourne but for the small liberal Remnant that ekes out a marginal existence in the pages of such outlets as Counterpunch and the blogs?

Will Wilkinson, a former analyst at the Cato Institute, has an interesting take on the "should libertarians be treated like pariahs" debate. Wilkinson has had a varied career: starting out as a Randian associated with the orthodox branch of the church, he was recruited into the heretical Cato network and then veered off into what he called a "liberal-tarian" direction, seeking to reconcile libertarianism with having a good time at Washington cocktail parties. Wilkinson and his fellow "liberal-tarian," Brink Lindsey, formerly a top scholar at Cato, soon parted ways with Washington’s premier libertarian thinktank, and, as with all renegades, bitterness suffuses Wilkinson’s tone when the discussion turns to his former comrades. While Wilentz sees the massive protest aroused by Snowden’s revelations as a threat to the political status quo, Wilkinson is telling him to chill out, because

"[T]he actually-existing, so-called liberal state is impossible to justify on the mundane liberal terms most intellectuals claim to accept. But this is generally overlooked, and I blame libertarianism. Not really. I blame confused liberals. Libertarianism has only antagonized them into confusion. 

"Libertarianism, as it’s generally taught and understood, isn’t a philosophy of government so much as an argument against the possibility of legitimate government. Libertarians tend to reject standard justifications of political authority. Liberals, who wish to defend the possibility of a legitimate state, have become accustomed to rebutting such libertarian arguments. Of course, it’s crazily illogical to reason that the actually existing state is justified on liberal terms just because the libertarian critique of the state is false, and a legitimate liberal state is possible. That’s really silly. Yet I feel like I’m running into this sort of reasoning all the time. There’s something about the libertarian-liberal dialectic that leads liberals to confuse the identification of the illegitimate, illiberal practices of the actually-existing state with the libertarian argument against the very possibility of legitimate state."

Libertarianism as it is generally presented by the movement’s political figures does not argue against the legitimacy of government per se: although there are anarchists who consider themselves and call themselves libertarians, libertarianism is not anarchism, not in theory and not in practice. The actually existing libertarian movement, and the policy proposals that emanate from the organizations and people who make it up, are trying to limit government rather than abolish it.

Actually existing libertarians, as opposed to the theoretical construct conjured by Wilkinson, are constitutionalists – that is, they want to restore the Constitution to its Jeffersonian preeminence and repeal not only the Great Society but also the New Deal, while dumping the overseas empire that is the often overlooked part of Roosevelt’s legacy. It is therefore no wonder that they have become the fulcrum of organized political opposition to Obama’s Surveillance State – in the present political context, how could it be otherwise?

Wilkinson’s complaint that the "liberal state" of Obama-land has a few "illiberal" aspects to it is about sixty years too late. Such illiberality has existed since Roosevelt’s time – but I guess, these days, you have to be either an avid student of history or else of Japanese ancestry in order to fully appreciate that. The populist progressivism of such Midwestern progressive stalwarts as, say, Burton K. Wheeler – devoted defender of civil liberties and scourge of the robber barons – has long since given way to the ruthless managerialism of our Goldman Sachs progressives and their equally ruthless counterparts among the "national security Democrats."

Wilkinson’s "liberal-tarianism" was doomed from the start because his concept of liberalism no longer exists except in the sheltered groves of academe or in other isolated pockets that wield little political weight. His exhortation to his fellow liberals to "stand their ground" will fail to buck them up for the simple reason that the ground has shifted under Wilkinson’s feet. What he calls the "the mundane liberal terms most intellectuals claim to accept" aren’t so mundane anymore, not since September 11, 2001.

That signal event and its consequences – the wars, the NSA’s data dragnet – unleashed a political earthquake that changed the ideological landscape in ways that can never be undone. For one thing, Wilkinson’s beloved "liberals" headed for the hills in the face of the neoconservative onslaught on our civil liberties and the peace of the world, and didn’t dare raise their heads until well after the neocon coup d’etat was a fait accompli. How many "anguished" liberals jumped on the Iraq war bandwagon? Heck, how many libertarians followed them? One was Brink Lindsey, Wilkinson’s "liberal-tarian" buddy. Cathy Young, writing in Reason magazine shortly after 9/11, told us there are few "libertarians in fox hole," averring that we’d best get used to being watched.

Libertarianism is, these days, the talk of the town, and this has the ideologues on the other side of the barricades running scared. Young people are no longer kneejerk lefties: those who are politically minded are much more likely to be free-market types who can quote Ron Paul from memory. American liberalism, as an idea that can inspire a new generation of Americans in the midst of an economic and social crisis, is effectively defunct, its dried husk appropriated by interest groups and a gaggle of corporate and identitarian lobbyists. The libertarian moment, it seems, has arrived.

At such moments, rising political movements attract a periphery of fellow travelers, many of them intellectuals with varying degrees of sympathy for this or that aspect of the emerging trend. Some join the movement, others drift away when intellectual fashions change, and still others remain on the periphery, retaining their status as fellow-travelers while distancing themselves from the more controversial (and career-imperiling) aspects of their new friends’ philosophic views. It is this last group that Wilkinson is addressing when he snarks:

"It’s nice that libertarians have kept liberalism alive, but it would be even nicer if it were possible for liberals to espouse liberalism without therefore being confused for libertarians."

A previous mention of "loathsome, possibly racist Paul-tards" underscores just what he means to imply. Yes, the bitterness of the renegade is a bottomless well. But if Wilkinson imagines his vitriol will scare defecting liberals back into line, and get them to "stand their ground," he underestimates the importance of the issue at hand.

As the Snowden revelations tear the "democratic" mask off of contemporary progressivism, showing its true authoritarian face, and people like Glenn Greenwald continue to expose – and mock – the brazen hypocrisy of the "progressive" defenders of our spymasters, the "liberal" establishment Wilkinson sought to join shows every sign of falling apart at the seams.

You may not be interested in war, Trotsky is supposed to have said, but war is interested in you, and the war for the future of the American republic is no exception. We didn’t start this war: it was started by the government’s sneak attack on their own citizens, an attack on their privacy and the Constitution that is the equivalent of an electronic Pearl Harbor. The government and its favored computer experts are always warning us about the dangers of an imminent cyber-attack, perhaps from terrorists, perhaps from China. The truth is that we’ve already experienced the ultimate cyber-attack – and the attackers are the NSA.

It’s hard to stay neutral when you’re in the midst of a battlefield, with arrows shooting at you from left and right. The impulse to find refuge on one side or the other is a survival instinct, and a good thing too. Faced with a regime – yes, a regime – that claims the "right" to spy on everyone, everywhere, at any time and for any reason, the choice is clear: either fight, or flight.

War is the great clarifier. The bonds that tie one warrior to his or her comrades are necessarily strong, and, over time the frictions that arise between disparate individuals in any guerrilla army are smoothed over and an overall discipline is imposed. As the impact of the Snowden revelations rearranges the political spectrum, the two sides face off: the legions of liberty up against army of authority. There is no middle ground.

So, my fellow libertarians, enjoy the luxury of being in fashion while it lasts, but remember this: don’t let your fellow-travelers determine your destination. Be nice to them, but don’t insult them by catering to their prejudices, whether they be liberals or conservatives, and don’t trim your sails in an effort to attract them. The momentum is ours – and we have every reason to let those attracted to our banner see it fully unfurled.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

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