In the first flush of stories about how the National Security Agency is surveilling American citizens, one stomach-turning revelation hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves: we get the surveillance state we deserve because rank political partisanship trumps bedrock principle every goddamn time on just about every goddamn issue.
The journalist Glenn Greenwald, who jump-started this overdue conversation on civil liberties and the war on terrorism, has promised that the revelations are just getting started. But nothing that comes out can be more dispiriting than the simple truth that Democrats and Republicans are both happy to love Big Brother as long as he’s got the right party affiliation.
In late 2005, The New York Times and others exposed broad-based, constitutionally dubious NSA surveillance programs of American citizens. If memory serves, there was a Republican in the White House, and the GOP held both houses of Congress too.
In January 2006, Pew Research asked whether it was OK to collect info on “people suspected of involvement with terrorism by secretly listening in on telephone calls and reading emails between some people in the United States and other countries, without first getting court approval to do so.” A slim majority of all respondents—51 percent—said yes while 47 percent said no.
The partisan breakdown, however, was vastly different, with 75 percent of Republicans finding it acceptable and just 23 percent dissenting. When it came the Democrats, only 37 percent of Democrats signed off on NSA snooping, with a whopping 61 percent saying screw off.
Fast-forward to June 2013, when a Democrat occupies the Oval Office after an easy reelection and his party controls the Senate. Pew asked respondents whether it’s OK that the NSA “has been getting secret court orders to track telephone calls of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” This time around, it’s Democrats who overwhelmingly support collecting collecting yottabytes and exabytes of metadata on us all, with 64 percent saying they are totally fine with NSA surveillance programs and a measly 34 percent disagreeing. Among Republicans, enthusiasm for eye-in-the-sky surveillance has taken a major hit, with only 52 percent agreeing and 47 percent saying no.
(Don’t let the constitutional fig leaf about “secret court orders” in the newer version of Pew’s question fool you. To the extent that anyone knows anything about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, they know it’s a freaky hybrid of a kangaroo and a rubber stamp that even Dr. Moreau couldn’t have conceived at his most demented. In roughly 34,000 requests spanning 33 years, FISA courts have turned down applicants for surveillance orders a total of 11 times.)
The same predictable, partisan-fueled march of the lemmings shows up in questions about monitoring email. In 2002, when wisps of smoke still rose silently from the World Trade Center’s wreckage like lost souls in search of some beggared form of heaven and Attorney General John Ashcroft still attacked anyone who “would scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,” Pew asked, “Should the government be able to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks?” To our credit as the Land of the Free, more Americans said no (47 percent) than yes (45 percent). In the latest tally, the nos have increased by 5 points, to 52 percent while the yeses have stayed at the same level.
Among Republicans and Democrats, however, situational ethics runs the show. Fifty-three percent of Republicans said yes and 38 percent said no. Now, 45 percent say yes and 51 percent say no. Democrats present a mirror image. Back in 2002, just 41 percent said yes and 51 percent said no. Now, the corresponding figures are 53 percent and 43 percent.
Such inarguably party-fueled reversals are nothing new—go Google the ideological contortions related to changing views of pols and pundits on whether Bush’s predilection for indefinite detention is worse than Obama’s fondness for presidential kill lists if you’ve got enough Prevacid in your medicine cabinet.
To be fair, sometimes partisans really do have a Damascus Road experience and change their ways of thinking. By all accounts, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), who grabbed headlines a decade ago by rechristening Congress's spuds as "freedom fries," really has scrapped his interventionist positions despite a strongly negative effect on his electability. But for the most part, reboots are little more than cynical ploys that are hard to take seriously even when they are as entertaining as postcoital pressers by fallen ministers. That includes the recent and largely unconvincing repudiation of the Patriot Act by its original sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI).
More to the point, though, the virtually unyielding preference for partisanship over principle explains why regardless of which party controls the government, the surveillance state continues to grow. It’s totally different, don’t you see, when my guy is running the show!
That same dynamic also helps to explain what is arguably the single-most important political trend over the past 40, 50, or even 70 years: the rise in the percentage of voters who flatly refuse to identify with either the Republican or Democratic Party. In 2012, more voters—38 percent—called themselves independent than admitted to being Democrat (32 percent) or Republican (24 percent).
And it points to the only place from where actual relief from an ever-bigger, ever-more-intrusive surveillance state is going to come: oddball, ad hoc coalitions formed not by party apparatchiks but by rogue elements that somehow sneak into power and are buoyed by the plurality of Americans who refuse to be cowed by party politics. It is characters such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rand Paul (R-KY.), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mark Udall (D-CO.) and Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI.), Thomas Massie (R-KY.), and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) who are lobbying for more government transparency, accountability, and restraint.
This crew has virtually nothing in common other than an inspiring streak of ideological independence that mirrors the plurality of American voters. (Paul, who has co-sponsored legislation with Wyden, did not even thank the Republican Party on election night in 2012, choosing instead to thank the “Tea Party.”) They will doubtless find themselves on different sides of the barricades when it comes to questions of taxes, regulation, and spending. But it is impossible to imagine any of them shifting their positions on ubiquitous surveillance of Americans or kill lists or torture simply based on which party controls the White House or Congress. Which, sad to say, is a relief in the current political climate. And the reason their efforts deserve not just our sincere thanks but our vocal support.