The Progressive Crack-up
As anti-NSA activism goes from protest to resistance, liberals balk
The response of self-identified progressives to the Edward Snowden revelations has been ambiguous from the beginning. On the one hand, there are the ACLU-type liberals, epitomized by Glenn Greenwald – the reporter most responsible (along with Laura Poitras) for shining a light on the National Security Agency’s all-pervasive surveillance – who are horrified by the Orwellian scope of it all. On the other hand, there are outright apologists for the NSA, like the historian Sean Wilentz and the Obamaite cyber-guru Tom Watson, who have teamed up with the neocons to smear both Snowden and Greenwald as "traitors": their position is an ideological one, based on their view of government – the federal government – as a beneficent entity that exists only to make life better for all.
The progressive pro-NSA’ers are particularly vicious when it comes to Greenwald, attacking his motives and his methods in personal terms: the reason, I think, is because they consider him even more of a "traitor" than Snowden. That a fellow progressive would deal such a devastating blow to an ostensibly liberal administration is, for them, a sin worse than any the world’s most famous leaker – who’s a libertarian of some sort – has committed. And it’s not just partisanship, although that has a lot to do with it: it’s an ideological issue for them, as this ThinkProgress piece by Zack Beauchamp and Ian Millhiser is at pains to make clear.
"Beware of Libertarians Bearing Gifts" the title warns readers, and so what are these gifts – and what’s the alleged "catch"?
The gift is the effort by a broad coalition including libertarians to go beyond protest to actively resisting the NSA at the grassroots level by campaigning for local legislation to cut off utilities – water and electricity – to NSA facilities. In ten states and counting, legislation is up before legislatures that would do just that: in addition, the proposal is to make evidence acquired by NSA snooping inadmissible in state courts. The progressive ideologues over at ThinkProgress are horrified:
"This might seem like a good idea to NSA critics unhappy with President Obama’s reform proposals, but the constitutional theory it depends on is profoundly dangerous. It poses a serious threat to that liberal touchstone, a federal regulatory and welfare state equal to the problems of growing corporate power and poverty.
"Ultimately, this proposal to depower [sic] the NSA reveals that there’s only so much that can be accomplished by right-left coalitions. Unless each side can agree to abandon tactics that threaten the other’s sacred cows, the members of these coalitions must constantly be on guard against the man standing behind them waiting to stick a knife in their back."
This is a case of pure projection: that knife you see sticking out of the back of the ACLU and the wide array of liberal-left institutions and organizations that have joined the coalition to restore the Fourth Amendment and get the NSA out of our computers was put there by progressives like Beauchamp-Hillhiser, Wilentz, Watson, and the rest of the James Clapper Fan Club. Aside from this little crime scene, however, the unusual honesty of the authors in declaring that the Constitution is not a particularly sacred cow is revealing: I suppose that goes for the First Amendment as well as the Fourth, which is a pretty startling confession for an ostensible "liberal" to make. The irony is compounded by the authors’ charge that many aspects of these local legislative initiatives are "unconstitutional" – an argument that gives new meaning to the word "cherry-picking." What a smart take.
These, however, are not liberals in the sense that my generation understood the term: there is nothing remotely liberal about their almost religious worship of the federal government and the principle of super-centralism that dominates progressive thought today. Forced to choose between a bloated overweening federal hegemony and eliminating the NSA’s invasion of our private lives, the Beauchamp-Hillhiser progressives unhesitatingly choose the former.
Except they aren’t forced to choose: the arguments they make about how this will set a legal precedent inevitably leading to the wholesale dismantling of the welfare state – and, indeed, of the country itself – is entirely bogus. That’s because most of what the NSA is doing – e.g. the data dragnet – is entirely illegal, as the President’s own Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board pointed out in their report and a federal judge has ruled. Beauchamp-Hillhiser claim the manifold welfare programs and federal initiatives they approve of are endangered by this localist approach, but whatever else one might say about these programs – they’re inefficient, a waste of money, etc. etc. – they are most certainly not illegal in the sense that, say, the NSA’s PRISM program, or its spying on Antiwar.com are blatant violations of both the letter and spirit of the Constitution (not to mention the authorizing legislation that gave rise them).
The "nullification" bogeyman the authors conjure has nothing to do with the resistance campaign against the NSA: it is federal officials, acting in secret, who have nullified the Constitution, and in doing so have committed illegal acts that must be checked by the states – and the people. Congress has so far dropped the ball when it comes to fulfilling their constitutional duty to protect the rule of law, and so it must fall to the various state legislatures – and community-based activists – to pick it up.
What if federal officials decided to pick off another important part of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment, and started censoring certain newspapers and shutting down blogs? And what if local judicial and police officials refused to enforce these edicts? Would Beauchamp and Hillhiser be screaming about "libertarians bearing gifts"?
My fear is that they would indeed – provided the government officials acting in such a lawless manner were members in good standing of the Democratic party.
Beauchamp-Hillhiser make the spectacularly untrue argument that the "anti-commandeering" legal principle gives states the right to "have their own drugs laws" – which ought to be news to all those medical marijuana outlets in California and elsewhere that have been raided by the Drug Enforcement Agency and forced to close. Leaving that aside, however, Beauchamp-Hillhiser are convinced that any kind of decentralized system is outright subversion: if federal agents can’t enter a state and enforce Washington’s will over the wishes of the local citizenry, they claim, the Union is effectively dissolved.
This is utter nonsense – and irrelevant to boot – because it is the states, in this instance, who are in the position of upholding the federal law that is the Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment, and it is the NSA and federal officials who are acting in a lawless manner. The piece goes into the by-now-familiar libertarian-baiting by characterizing the Tenth Amendment Center, one of the many supporters of the local resistance movement, as a subversive coven of quasi-anarchists: the progressive hysteria upon discovering that not everyone shares their reverence for government drips faux outrage. And their projection of what might follow if such efforts succeed – they’re afraid North Carolina will immediately start "turning the lights off on federal voting rights attorneys challenging their comprehensive voter suppression law" – is pure fantasy. The prospect of that scenario playing out is politically highly unlikely as well as being legally impossible given the default tendency of the courts to defer to Washington.
So what’s the real agenda here? Two items:
1) This is a crude attempt to split off liberals and progressives from the growing local resistance movement, and also to prepare for the upcoming presidential (and congressional) elections. If I had a dime for every article recently churned out by this crowd railing against libertarians as the "new Communists," among other unpleasant labels, I could stop writing this column in mid-sentence and retire to Hawaii. With libertarian Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky now being touted as the front-runner for the 2016 GOP nomination – and given that his class action lawsuit against the NSA is well-positioned as a springboard for his projected presidential bid – any popular anti-NSA movement is suspect, in their eyes, which brings us to the second item.
2) The ThinkProgress folks write:
"Any liberal-libertarian alliance, then, will necessarily be tactical and limited, or else one side will invariably lose out. With such fundamental disagreements, the center cannot hold, even on issues like NSA spying where the sides are broadly in agreement. Ideology, in very practical terms, matters."
Yes, ideology certainly does matter, which is why a great many progressives responded to the Snowden revelations by simply shrugging their shoulders and holding out hopes for some vague "reform" of NSA practices. That’s because progressive ideology is a veritable church, these days, the god of which is State power as an unmitigated good. Even after a decade of war accompanied by a wholesale assault on the most basic civil liberties, they don’t fear the power of government: they worship it as the only agency that can right what’s wrong with American society. Even as the nation rankles under the yoke of Obamacare, and federal regulators meet fierce resistance on every issue from gun control to land management, any challenge to Washington’s supremacism is considered dangerously subversive.
While Beauchamp and Hillhiser write as if they, too, oppose the NSA’s worst depredations, in actually existing reality they are exhorting their progressive comrades to refrain from taking any meaningful action – because it might hurt their cause and help us libertarians in our quest to dismantle the Welfare-Warfare State. Yes, in politics "one side will invariably lose out," and in this case it’s clear which side we’re talking about. That’s what scares the ThinkProgress crowd – and I take great pleasure in savoring their fear.
What we are witnessing is the progressive crackup, the end of American liberalism as we knew it, and we have Edward Snowden – a Ron Paul supporter – to thank for that. The ThinkProgress types know their goose is cooked, especially with young people – who were supposed to be the vanguard of the Obama cult – and it grates on them to no end. Too bad the NSA’s emerging police state doesn’t grate on them nearly as much – but then again, as the authors state, "ideology matters."
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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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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- Iraq: Back to the Beginning – April 19th, 2016