Rand Paul and the Tripartisan Case for Optimism

by , May 22, 2015

On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) “filibustered” for more than ten hours against the PATRIOT Act, the USA Freedom Act, and myriad government violations of the Fourth Amendment. He also daringly added some blistering critiques of the US prison state and its racial disparities. He mentioned civil asset forfeiture and parallel construction. He read from articles by Judge Andrew Napolitano, journalist Radley Balko, and writers for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He talked about Richard Jewell, Japanese internment, and other historical proof that innocent until proven guilty takes a lot of vacation days in America. In short, Rand said a lot of things that were true and necessary to say.

In his efforts to let section 215 of PATRIOT expire (as it is set to do on June 1), Paul was backed by a bipartisan team of Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), with a few other senatorial guest stars popping in as well – mostly Democrats, it turns out! (Sens. Cruz and Rubio took their time to show up, but appeared for a victory lap.)

You might note that the word filibuster is in quotes above. There was some debate over whether Paul’s chattiness actually construed an official filibuster, since the senator interrupted a trade debate, not the actual debate over the sunshining aspects of USA PATRIOT. And the fact that Paul stopped talking minutes before midnight seemed to puzzle even the knowledgeable folks of twitter, so it is not just me not getting the master plan at work here.

It does appear that Paul was not as much of a pain as he could have been if he had comfy enough shoes or a clear enough throat. But there is nothing bad about his saying all this stuff about the Fourth Amendment, about racism, justice or lack thereof, and the fact that – Rubio take note – there is a false choice in trading liberty for security. Government spying is expensive, secret, intrusive, invasive, and does not protect us from harm anyway. It’s comforting to see people from both sides team up to agree on that, if very little else.

Speaking of agreeing on one important issue, on Monday I attended a gathering in Washington DC devoted to turning around America’s crisis of overcriminalization. More interestingly, the event was run by a diverse group of organizations coming together under the PR-friendly name of The Coalition for Public Safety. For the event, the libertarian/conservative FreedomWorks invited a score of journalists and bloggers, and the liberal Center for American Progress invited their own crop.

At FreedomWorks in the morning, a dozen and a half people drank coffee and learned about civil asset forfeiture, mandatory minimum sentencing, and other awful things from folks such as libertarian commentator Julie Borowski, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and Molly Gill with the awesome Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Come lunch time, the journalists piled into a van and headed to the Center for American Progress to have discussions with the liberal journalists, with an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, with more FreedomWorks employees, with CAP employees and with other folks who were interested in fixing the criminal justice system. The morning was simply informative. The afternoon sessions had the strange feeling that we were all in a brainstorming session. That provoked great optimism, and not just in me. Everyone impressed each other, it seemed, with their earnestness and their recognition of the problem. The simple fact of all these people with disparate opinions on so many things all together scheming and debating and discussing how to make the US prison state less heinous was amazing. There was a lot of talk about how to make reform palatable to cowardly politicians, which was depressing but an entirely accurate reflection of how weak even the tolerable ones usually are. And again, talking about the problem like that with a tripartisan group just furthered the feeling that we were all in this together, and we were going to sneakily figure this thing out.

Why do I mention this conference? Well, contrary to a few dubious Antiwar commenters’ opinions, the prison state, the surveillance state, and the warfare state are intimately connected. Militarized police are just one dangerously literal example of this close tie. But even if they weren’t so close, they are both incredibly important, and are overdue to be destroyed. You can’t fix dead, and you can’t give back years in prison. You can, perhaps, roll back the surveillance state, but it will take a tremendous effort. These are things we need to fix 50 or 100 years ago, or at least today.

I’m not optimistic most of the time. But Rand Paul, for all his flaws, did something good on Wednesday. And Freedomworks and the Center for American Progress did something good on Monday. And every day at Antiwar, we try to do something good. (And we give you news and views from all over, as long as it’s about war and about stopping war.)

Political conflict is inevitable. Disagreements about economics and business are important, and will not disappear. But at the end of the day, I think we can actually end the lumbering beast of the warfare state, and the prison state that has grown out of it. We can actually begin to work together. It’s long past time we do that, and it might finally be the right time.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

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