Datagate and the Death of American Liberalism

The widely noted poll showing Democrats are now the biggest cheerleaders for the Surveillance State has conservatives delightedly calling out the left for “hypocrisy,” noting with glee the leftie pundits who denounced George W. Bush’s administration for trampling on our civil liberties and are now defending the Regime against the SnowdenGreenwald revelations. Their liberal targets come out swinging, however, rightly pointing out that that PRISM and the phone collection program originated under George W. Bush’s watch, back when all these born-again civil libertarians of the right were either silent or supportive of these measures.

Indeed, the left has gone on the offensive, crowing that what Edward Snowden calls the “architecture of oppression” is all perfectly legal, pointing out that the NSA went through the FISA court – a secret “court” whose orders are classified top, and that, out of thousands of such requests, has only denied the government a grand total of 11 times. This left-right dynamic dramatizes the symbiotic relationship between authoritarians on both sides of the political spectrum – and, perhaps, explains how the Panopticon unveiled by Snowden came to be built and legitimized.

Now it is the liberals’ turn to justify the demolition of the Constitution, and especially to give the final push to take down that once-mighty and now greatly eroded bulwark against tyranny, the Bill of Rights. Anyone who is surprised by the alacrity with which they have taken up this task is unfamiliar with the history of American liberalism and the left in general.

Being a liberal, or any number of degrees to the left, didn’t always mean hating J. Edgar Hoover and the “architecture of oppression” – a superstructure that emerged in all its wartime glory in the 1930s and 40s, in the heyday of what is known as the “Red Decade.” It was American leftists who cheered FDR’s wartime dictatorship the loudest, and called for ever more repressive methods to deal with recalcitrant elements. It was the “liberals” who whooped it up for the farcical Great Sedition Trial of 1944, in which the brilliant African-American anti-interventionist Lawrence Dennis and 29 other defendants were accused of treason for their “isolationist” views and jailed. These memorable (yet now mysteriously forgotten) anti-Japanese cartoons by Theodor Seuss Geisel, left-wing author of the “Dr. Seuss” books, hailed the internment camps in which thousands of Japanese-Americans were held.

A listening device was planted in the office of Col. Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the fiercely antiwar, anti-New Deal Chicago Tribune. The push to jail the leaders of the anti-war movement was spearheaded by the Communist Party, which was then selling the line that “Communism is 20th century Americanism”: the Communists urged their many allies in the Roosevelt administration to widen the Justice Department’s net to include prominent leaders of the America First Committee and members of Congress who opposed getting into the war. The President, for his part, made a point of asking his reluctant Attorney General, Francis Biddle, at every Cabinet meeting: “When are you going to indict the seditionists?” (The Trotskyists got the same treatment, and a “sedition” trial of their own, while the Stalinists and the “liberals” at The Nation stood and cheered.)

Far from opposing government surveillance of Americans in America, the left in those days was busy helping the FBI with their own “private” intelligence-gathering operations, such as the “Friends of Democracy,” and other groups, most of them Communist front organizations. These folks saw themselves as adjuncts of law enforcement, playing much the same role as the Southern Poverty Law Center does today: fingering “fifth columnists” and other “seditionists” and “extremists” who posed a threat to the Roosevelt regime.

Journalists, intellectuals, and publicists played a key role in the left’s war on civil liberties: it was a Washington Post reporter, Dillard Stokes, who posed as a serviceman and asked the defendants in the 1944 trial to send him literature. These letters turned up at the trial as “evidence” that the defendants were trying to undermine the morale of US servicemen: thus the charge of sedition. The left-wing anti-subversion movement had an entire New York City daily newspaper, PM, devoted to publishing its endless exposes of the anti-interventionist movement as a Nazi fifth column.

During the cold war era, however, suddenly the left became the champion of civil liberties and the Constitution, with particular attention to the Bill of Rights – as so many of them had to take the Fifth at numerous congressional hearings investigating suspected Communist activities in the US. Through the 1960s, and right up on through the Bush era, American liberals – who began calling themselves “progressives” sometime around the Clinton years – continued to fight for basic civil liberties, which were under attack from the right and the insensible “center.” All that changed, however, when Barack Obama became the first Democratic president of the post-9/11 era.

The post-Obama left in America is rapidly regressing to a former incarnation: the police state “progressivism” of the 1930s and 40s. Some of the more old-fashioned liberals may be baffled by this, but fortunately Joshua Marshall, of the decidedly “progressive” Talking Points Memo blog – who approves of the spying and thinks Snowden is a criminal – has been good enough to provide an ideological rationale for what seems on the surface to be mere partisan loyalty to the Obama administration.

In response to the shock and anger of the more old-fashioned liberals who inhabit TPM’s comment threads, Marshall says he’s “trying to think through what is the difference between the prisms we’re looking through that makes us see [Snowden’s actions] so differently.”

Here is I think the essential difference and where it comes back to what I referred to before – a basic difference in one’s idea about the state and the larger political community. If you see the state as essentially malevolent or a bad actor then really anything you can do to put a stick in its spokes is a good thing. Same if you think the conduct of US foreign policy is fundamentally a bad thing. Then opening up its books for the world to see is a good thing simply because it exposes it or damages it. It forces change on any number of levels.

From that perspective, there’s no really no balancing to be done. All disclosure is good. Either from the perspective of transparency in principle or upending something you believe must be radically changed.

On the other hand, if you basically identify with the country and the state, then indiscriminate leaks like this are purely destructive. They’re attacks on something you fundamentally believe in, identify with, think is working on your behalf.”

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the clear implication that Snowden’s defenders are anti-American fanatics intent on defending what amounts to treason: that’s none too interesting, in any case, because it is merely a page torn from the neocons’ manual. It captures our interest only because Marshall takes it one step farther than even the Bush brigade did, deriving a defense of the all-seeing all-knowing NSA from a radically revised liberal theory of the state, and linking conservative fear of overweening government power to “attacks on something you fundamentally believe in,” i.e. on America itself, or, at least, Marshall’s idea of America. Because in Marshall’s world “the country” and “the state” are interchangeable concepts, which is one of the ways “modern” liberalism differs from the old-fashioned variety.

It is hardly even worth pointing out Marshall’s outrage when the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping was revealed in 2006, but just for the record: “The President and Attorney General are engaged in a criminal conspiracy. I mean, to me this is worse than Watergate,” is the way he put it in this video interview.

So a Bush administration program that spied on hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans who called or sent email overseas was “worse than Watergate,” while Snowden revealing a secret program that records the details of every phone conversation and every internet communication in the entire country, and stores it away for future reference, is a reprehensible and criminal act.

Toward the end of his screed, Marshall elects to “lay my cards on the table,” whereupon he avers the military is part of a “political community” with which he identifies, and after that abbreviated pledge of allegiance – reminiscent the post-9/11 fashion that had television anchors sporting flag lapels – segues easily into this:

[Snowden]’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal. I think it’s easy to exaggerate how much damage these disclosures cause. But I don’t buy that there are no consequences. And it goes to the point I was making in an earlier post. Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically – for better or worse – to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?

I don’t have a lot of problem answering that question.”

Of course he doesn’t. In Marshall, the regression to “modern,” 1930s-style liberalism is complete. Moving rapidly away from the old-style anti-authoritarianism represented by such turn of the last century liberals as Randolph Bourne and Oswald Garrison Villard, the new liberalism of Marshall’s school believes “democratic” majorities can vote away the rights of minorities, and that so long as a regime can claim a “democratic mandate,” they are free to do as they like. This is quite possibly the most illiberal concept one could possibly come up with, but that just goes to show how inverted our political values have become, and how what used to be called liberal is instead merely another name for despotism. Marshall’s liberalism is the Bizarro World version – and I’m afraid that with the death of Alexander Cockburn, and the absorption of much of the left into the Obama cult, every other kind is nearly extinct.

Although perhaps not: after all, the reporter who broke this story – Glenn Greenwald – is an exemplar of the old liberalism, and perhaps his example will inspire others to push back against the Obamaite mutation. So maybe – just maybe – there’s hope for the future of American liberalism after all.

The Snowden revelations – and I don’t think we’re done reporting them all quite yet – are the defining issue of the post-9/11 era. How one comes out on Snowden says everything we need to know about a person’s politics, and general view of life. What this means politically is that we are witnessing one of those seismic ideological realignments, in which left and right meet, mix, merge, and invert themselves, until the meaning of “right” and “left,” “liberal” and “conservative,” switches polarities and things turn into their opposites. We are living in an age when yesterday’s liberals are today’s authoritarians, and even a pathetic few of yesterday’s alleged libertarians find themselves on the other side of the barricades from those who are actually fighting for liberty.

This is the most important issue the libertarian movement has ever faced: nothing compares to it in terms of its seriousness, or the way in which the libertarian movement is directly involved. Snowden made two contributions to the Ron Paul campaign totaling $500, and, more tellingly, his rhetoric is explicitly libertarian in tone as well as in content. He is, in short, one of us, and because of that he must be defended to the bitter end. Our first task is to defend the person who made this great sacrifice on behalf of us all – and that means campaigning for a presidential pardon.

Which means it is the duty of every libertarian to sign the White House petition to pardon Snowden, which, last I looked, was homing in on 70,000 signatures. It is almost certain the petition will hit the 100,000 signature threshold requiring a response from the White House – and it is equally certain the Obama administration will take note of the unprecedented speed at which that threshold was reached.

It is a time of testing: when cowards cower, and heroes step forward. When the best – and the worst – in humankind is revealed in each and every one of us. The much-vaunted “libertarian moment” has arrived: we have no choice but to rise to the occasion.


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.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].