In the aftermath of the Amash Rebellion, there are two new parties in Congress: the authoritarians and the Americans. The vote on Rep. Justin Amash’s LIBERT-E Act, which would have gutted the National Security Agency’s phone records dragnet, drew a clear line of demarcation that will only widen in the coming months as civil libertarians continue their push to roll back the Surveillance State.
It was close – 205-217 – and the administration, along with the Democratic congressional leadership and its Republican enablers, were scrambling at the last minute to hold back the tide. With the leadership of both parties calling for a "no" vote, a special "emergency" briefing by NSA officials, and – to top it off – a rare White House statement urging members to reject the measure, the Amash amendment still managed to garner 111 Democratic votes (a majority of the House Democratic caucus) and a whopping 94 Republicans.
There hasn’t been a vote like this in the House – nor a debate quite like it – since the last time the Patriot Act came up for renewal, in 2011. Back then, a mere 27 Republicans voted against renewing the Act – Ron Paul and a scattered band of beleaguered libertarian conservatives. What – or, rather, who – jolted GOPers out of their somnolent indifference to the Fourth Amendment? Two words: Edward Snowden.
On the other side of the aisle, the news is less encouraging: it is, indeed, downright depressing for that dwindling band of progressives who remember (and honor) their liberal roots. As Patrick G. Eddington points out on his blog, 17 Democrats who voted against reauthorizing the Patriot Act in 2011 – including Nancy Pelosi – voted against Amash. So how does this compute? Well, it doesn’t – not in any ideological sense, unless one considers blind partisanship a "philosophy" of sorts.
Yet it wasn’t a partisan issue: indeed, this was a moment that should have gladdened the hearts of all those David Broder clones continually lamenting the lack of bipartisanship in Washington. Here you had the leadership of both parties, and the entire Washington Establishment, united in opposition to a measure that would begin to dismantle what Snowden called "the architecture of oppression" – much of which, I would remind you, is yet to be uncovered.
On the other side, we had what the Los Angeles Times called "an oil-and-water mix of deeply conservative tea party Republicans and some of the chamber’s most liberal Democrats." Amash, of course, is a libertarian Republican, a fact the paper wouldn’t ignore if only Charles Koch would finally make up his mind to buy that fast-fading remnant of the legacy media. I have to give the paper credit, though, for pointing out the most salient fact in all the coverage of the Amash rebellion:
"During the debate few lawmakers stood to defend NSA’s surveillance programs, while speaker after speaker rose to denounce them."
That just about says it all – and underscores the fact that, while the vote on the LIBERT-E Act was a legislative defeat, it was a stunning political victory for the party of constitutional restoration. It was left to the bombastic Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence committee and also part of the Michigan GOP delegation, to give voice to the authoritarian party’s rationale for universal surveillance – although Rep. Tom Cotton, the neocons’ new golden boy, provided some comic relief by defining "metadata" as no more sinister than "an Excel spreadsheet." Not quite. Yet none of that matters anyway, according to Cotton, because even if what they say about the metadata collection is true, it’s okay because the US government is "at war."
As usual, the neocons cut right to the heart of the matter, without the usual obfuscations thrown up by the Obama administration and its Pelosi-crat defenders. They’re upfront authoritarians, and they make no bones about the fact that the US government is at war with the American people – and they know which side they’re on.
Rogers, for his part, played the 9/11 card – "Have 12 years gone by and our memories faded so badly that we forgot what happened on Sept. 11?" – but this is no longer a trump and so he resorted to playing the Public Servant of High Principle, urging his colleagues to swim against the tide of public opinion. Congress must ignore "Facebook likes," he said, and do its duty to "protect the country" – even venturing to tell us who would protect us from our protectors: he will, he promised, when his committee considers additional intelligence funding this fall.
Somehow, however, many of his colleagues, including 94 Republicans, remained unconvinced by his assurances, and they rose one after the other to express their doubts. Amash directly addressed Rogers’ 9/11 demagogy:
"Opponents of this amendment will use the same tactic that every government throughout history has used to justify its violation of rights: Fear. They’ll tell you that the government must violate the rights of the American people to protect us against those who hate our freedom."
Here Amash is channeling the forgotten words of one of his ideological ancestors: Garet Garrett, the Old Right proto-libertarian journalist and author, whose prescient pamphlet, Rise of Empire, foretold our predicament in the year 1952, at the outset of an earlier global conflict:
"Fear may be understood. But a curious and characteristic emotional weakness of Empire is: A complex of vaunting and fear.
"The vaunting is from what may be called that Titanic feeling. Many passengers on the doomed Titanic would not believe that a ship so big and grand could sink. So long as it was above water her listing deck seemed safer than a life boat on the open sea. So with the people of Empire. They are mighty. They have performed prodigious works, even many that seemed beyond their powers. Reverses they have known but never defeat. That which has hitherto been immeasurable, how shall it be measured?
"So those must have felt who lived out the grandeur that was Rome. So the British felt while they ruled the world. So now Americans feel….
"Conversely, the fear. Fear of the barbarian. Fear of standing alone. Fear of world opinion, since we must have it on our side. The fear which is inseparable from the fact—or from a conviction of the fact—that security is no longer in our own hands."
The vaunting here is the ridiculous idea that we could possibly find that "needle in a haystack," as Rogers puts it, precisely because we taken in the whole haystack. If Rogers’ faith in this conceit remains unmoved even in light of the news that the NSA can’t even search their own emails, then this is truly Big Government Conservatism with a vengeance.
As for the fear – this is their ultimate weapon, fear of another 9/11. But on this occasion the odor of fear was rising in the legislative chambers from the direction of those silent "no" voters on both sides of the aisle. As Amash tweeted right after the White House issued its statement:
"When’s the last time a president put out an emergency statement against an amendment? The Washington elites fear liberty. They fear you."
And with good reason. Although Amash and his congressional co-conspirators seemingly had next to no chance of winning this fight, it seems to me they have a longer term strategic vision that involves, first and foremost – and this was a brilliant tactical move on Amash’s part – getting Congress on the record. That’s why the authoritarians were mostly silent during the floor debate, except for designated Establishment shills like Rogers and miscellaneous kooks like Michele Bachman, who declared that only "the jihadists" would benefit if the measure passed. The Obama administration has the solid support of the Frank Gaffney wing of the GOP, a fact they must find confusing, although the Bizarro World logic of it is inescapable.
The Snowden revelations have shocked the nation, and the idea that the government should have access to all our data is deeply unpopular. Nancy Pelosi, for example, whose stance on the Amash amendment persuaded a number of caucus members to follow her in opposition, represents a district that will no doubt one day name a street after Snowden. Since no one in San Francisco "progressive" circles has the balls to primary her, Pelosi probably has nothing to worry about – but I wouldn’t say the same is true for any number of other Democrats who might find themselves in trouble. And even in Cuba-like Baghdad-by-the-Bay, which is strictly a one-party city, when they realize Pelosi’s opposition gave the authoritarians the margin of victory they might suddenly remember they’re Americans after all, and toss the old witch out.
On the Republican side, the Tea Partiers are bound to be up in arms over this latest outrage from the Obama administration – which, remember, is using the IRS to go after nascent Tea Party organizations. This movement to restore the Constitution is a serious one on the right, and it isn’t limited to ideological libertarians such as myself: I can see a number of names on that list of Republican naysayers vulnerable to a primary challenge.
And so we have a pincer movement, with constitutionalists on the right taking on – and beating – neocon/Establishment shills like Rogers and Cotton, and progressives-with-a-conscience taking on the Pelosi-crats.
Oh well, I can dream, can’t I? But isn’t that what politics is all about: transforming what ought to be into what is?
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.