The Case for Civil Libertarianism

Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States.

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If you follow civil liberties news very closely, there’s a decent chance you didn’t have the best day yesterday. That was when the New Yorker released Jane Mayer’s chilling new exposé on warrantless domestic surveillance, government secrecy, and the attendant crackdown on whistleblowers. It was also when the United States Supreme Court ruled that police officers can break into your home without a warrant if they suspect that you’re in the process of destroying evidence.

Meanwhile — in not exactly breaking, but nonetheless disturbing news — the White House is scrambling to put together a “plausible theory” under which it will be legal to continue our don’t-call-it-a-war with Libya even after Congress misses the deadline for authorization under the War Powers Resolution. Lucky for the president that by the time our next humanitarian intervention rolls around, bypassing Congress could be even easier; the House is preparing to grant his office virtually unchecked power to deploy the US military at home and around the world.

Some of this is precedented, some of it is not. In the latter category: one of Mayer’s sources says that “Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history.” And Section 1034 of the National Defense Authorization Act would cede the presidency warmaking powers beyond Dick Cheney’s most audacious hopes. But for some reason none of this is news.

Sure, sure. Mayer holds some of the most prized real estate in journalism, and her article has been dutifully passed around Twitter. But will it register as more than a blip? Will Sec 1034 even reach blip status before formal debate starts? I very much doubt it.

As much as I hate playing the counterfactual thought experiment game, it’s worth asking ourselves what would have happened if comparable news had broken during the Bush administration. I’m so old I remember when civil liberties and checks and balances were the rallying cries of the left, so I can’t help but suspect that the netroots would be losing their shit hard enough to crash the servers of our mid-aught forefathers’ pre-Twitter communication tools.

But now? Crickets, mostly. Sure, there is a handful of crack progressive commentators who talk about this stuff, but by and large they’re civil liberties specialists. Adam Serwer, Marcy Wheeler, Glenn Greenwald, et al put out good work on the margins while policy generalists and mainstream tastemakers mostly keep away. And since the right-wing critique of Obama tends to vacillate between, “You’re not abusing civil liberties enough,” and “I am very confused right now,” that means we’ve got the worst kind of bipartisan consensus on our hands: one in favor of abetting, through act or through silence, unconscionable behavior.

We need to do better. Diffidence — or, worse, apathy — is nothing less than a betrayal of the entire liberal project. Liberalism, progressivism, whatever you want to call it, should be about non-domination. It should be about the fight against all forms of dominating, coercive power, whether that power is concentrated in state or in capital. Indeed, one of the key insights of liberalism is its recognition of the close bond between these two forms of coercion. Because of that bond, granting the state more coercive power than private enterprise is only justifiable under these conditions: when doing so promotes liberty, when the state is answerable to the people, and when it must demonstrate that it is behaving in their best interests.

When state power fails to meet these conditions it is not just a problem for the opposition party. Nor is it just a problem for libertarians, or the left’s civil libertarian niche lobby. It is a problem for everyone. Because regardless of whether a state chooses to exercise its power over you, that power still exists. A government can wholly dominate you without ever interfering in your affairs.

That’s why it doesn’t matter whether you think Obama has exercised his vast power with wisdom and restraint. Nor does it matter if you don’t feel personally affected, or if you just plain don’t want to undermine your team’s agenda. This is our problem. This is supposed to be our fight. We need to do better.

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5 Responses

  1. A minor quibble: civil libertarianism and checks on presidential war-powers are two great things that go together well, but they’re distinct issues.

  2. Great line: since the right-wing critique of Obama tends to vacillate between, “You’re not abusing civil liberties enough,” and “I am very confused right now,” that means we’ve got the worst kind of bipartisan consensus on our hands.

    Got any ideas how to push this into the heart of public policy discussion? Make common cause with Tea Party/Ron Paul libertarians? Head for the hills and hunker down? What?

    • You know, I’m really not so good at advocacy strategy. I’m not sure how much really can be done. Mostly I’m just resolved to go around telling as many people about this possible.

  3. Great post. Here’s the question that really bothers me: Let’s assume that push-back on this area of Obama’s policies reached a critical mass. And in turn, he vigorously defended what he has done in all these areas. (While he has defended these things in practice, through the DOJ and elsewhere, these issues haven’t received much national attention, and Obama hasn’t doubled down on them speaking to the mainstream.)

    What would happen? And would that be better or worse than the status quo?

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