Polarization Theater
May 24, 2011

President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group ...

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Last week I wrote that, regarding civil liberties and executive overreach, “we’ve got the worst kind of bipartisan consensus on our hands: one in favor of abetting, through act or through silence, unconscionable behavior.” Now Glenn Greenwald has again made much the same observation:

So when they were out of power, the Democrats reviled the Patriot Act and constantly complained about fear-mongering tactics and exploitation of the Terrorist threat being used to stifle civil liberties and privacy concerns. Now that they’re in power and a Democratic administration is arguing for extension of the Patriot Act, they use fear-mongering tactics and exploitation of the Terrorist threat to stifle civil liberties and privacy concerns (“If somebody wants to take on their shoulders not having provisions in place which are necessary to protect the United States at this time, that’s a big, big weight to bear,” warned Feinstein). And they’re joined in those efforts by the vast majority of the GOP caucus. Remember, though: there is no bipartisanship in Washington, the parties are constantly at each other’s throats, and they don’t agree on anything significant, and thus can’t get anything done. If only that were true.

To be sure, partisan polarization is a real phenomenon. But it is also theater, and our willingness to accept its more theatrical qualities at face value has had dire consequences for civil liberties.

The beauty of polarization theater is that it paradoxically asserts and reaffirms a holistic political consensus. You probably already know one of the ways in which it does this: oftentimes both parties will implicitly accept the same basic premises but become “polarized” over the implications. In this way they make the premises established fact, so that challenging them lies outside the parameters of acceptable debate.

But polarization theater also serves as a crucial distraction. The fights of polarization theater dominate the news to such a degree that they almost entirely crowd out those issues on which both parties agree. Which is why, as Greenwald writes, another four-year extension of the Patriot Act just managed to whisper through Congress on the wings of bipartisan sanction.

Pretty neat trick, huh? But don’t fret: we’ve still got a debt ceiling to squabble over. So me and the rest of the political junkies can continue to pretend that this is about white hats versus black hats, instead of power versus everything else.

UPDATE: Turns out I was a little mistaken about the scope of the bipartisan consensus. From the ACLU’s official Twitter feed:

Inside baseball: Dem office tells ACLU Ds to vote YES on cloture b/c they want 2 debate #Patriot. Reserve right to vote NO on final passage.

h/t Dara

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