NOTE: This post originally appeared at the Bill of Rights Defense Committee's People's Blog for the Constitution in 2013 and was cross-posted at ACSblog. Congressional votes in January 2018 to extend and expand federal surveillance of Americans made it unfortunately more relevant than ever.
As the NSA spying scandal has progressed, congressional Democrats have grown co-opted by an Obama administration committed to defending, entrenching, and perpetuating the Bush administration’s legacy—despite the president’s campaign promises in 2008 to reverse it. This co-optation spells grave threats not only to partisan Democrats, but also to principled progressives attached to an ideology inadvertently weakened by partisan Democrats aligned with the president.
Rallying around President Obama…to shoot themselves in the feet
In August 2013, during the debate on the House defense appropriations bill, only 7 votes protected the NSA from debilitating budget cuts that would have ended its domestic bulk collection activities. Seven members of Congress could have changed the outcome of the vote, reflecting a razor thin (under 2%) margin of victory for the surveillance state.
That margin of victory could be explained in many ways. One explanation may surprise progressives: Democrats from the Bay Area and Chicago, representing safe blue seats, who were outspoken about surveillance abuses at one point, comprised the NSA’s entire margin of victory. They chose to resign their principles, oaths of office, and constituents’ concerns in order to support their partisan patron, the president. They’re carrying the Bush administration’s water because it’s now President Obama holding the glass.
After raising a righteous ruckus about government spying under the Bush administration, congressional Democrats saved the NSA from a transformative challenge initiated from within the GOP. Their constituents have already indicated—loudly—that they are not happy.
Under the Bush administration, Democrats criticized dragnet domestic surveillance. The one dissenting vote in the Senate against the passage of Patriot Act was from Democrat Russ Feingold (D-WI).
Yet, as the Obama administration has abandoned its constitutional rhetoric to instead perpetuate the authoritarian legacy of its predecessor, Democrats in Congress have also switched sides, defending powers they once criticized. Their co-optation by the national security state reveals not only bald hypocrisy, but also a grave philosophical threat to progressivism, as well as the electoral interests of the Democratic Party.
Democrats snatching defeat from victory
Conventional wisdom suggests that an ongoing demographic shift across the South portends an inevitable shift in the electoral landscape. States as crucial to national Republican prospects as Texas are poised to turn blue in the next several election cycles, particularly as legions of young Latinos reach voting age.
Yet, even as the traditional Republican political brand appears threatened, a resurgent libertarian brand of conservatism is rising. That’s why the vast majority of Republican youth identify as political iconoclasts, more inclined to rally under the banner of Ron or Rand Paul than Ronald Reagan.
This spring, Senator Paul (R-KY) challenged the CIA nomination of John Brennan, who reportedly led the ongoing witch hunt targeting journalists. While Brennan ultimately gained confirmation after Paul accepted weak assurances from the Justice Department, Republicans were again at the forefront of the constitutional resistance to the Obama administration’s Bush-esque excesses when Rep. Amash (R-MI) challenged NSA spying this summer.
In sharp contrast, long terrified of appearing “weak” on national security by opposing the corruption pervading military and intelligence agencies, Democrats have become its standard bearers: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) saved the NSA from a bipartisan uprising that nearly defunded the NSA’s domestic dragnet, while Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has moved legislation through the Intelligence Committee that essentially offers a veneer of reform while entrenching that dragnet.
This co-optation of Democrats by the national security state undermines the party’s electoral prospects. Even if Texas turns blue as the state’s voting population shifts, Republicans could find an electoral life line by rallying a transpartisan base opposed to dragnet surveillance under its political flag. If the GOP becomes the party of civil liberties, it could essentially claim the same position that won Obama the White House in 2008.
Beyond the Democratic Party’s electoral interests, the co-optation of congressional Democrats by the domestic surveillance regime threatens the very ideology of progressivism.
Rendering a philosophy incoherent
Liberals and libertarians share an intellectual legacy grounded in a commitment to liberty principles. That connection may seem etymologically obvious, but many progressives forget how liberty relates to their own stated principles.
Progressives favor state intervention in the economy, and equality as a social norm, precisely because, in the 19th century, some libertarians recognized (after accepting the market as a check on centralized political authority, of the sort held by monarchs) that the market itself can pose a threat to liberty. They, inspired by figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, care about equality of opportunity because they recognize that lacking basic needs (like healthcare, or education, or food and shelter) can undermine freedom.
Other progressives focus on environmental sustainability, which is also based on the liberty: the liberty of future generations to make their own choices, free of crises imposed by the climate change and resource depletion to which current generations doom them with every passing day.
In other words, Democrats who sacrifice liberty principles (by accepting and defending NSA surveillance) undermine the philosophical basis for progressivism. And by rendering progressivism incoherent, the co-optation of congressional Democrats by the national security agencies threatens not only a political party, but even the very ideology that animates it.