Where are the tea partiers when we need them? For a year now, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and their minions have been warning that America is morphing into a police state. If government more heavily regulates insurance companies, they insist, or if it puts a price on carbon, personal freedom will soon be a distant memory. America will become Amerika, a totalitarian dystopia where citizens can’t even walk the streets without their government-issued identity papers, a place where police can detain people who have committed no crime just because they left their wallets at home. America will become, in other words, Arizona.
So where are Palin and Beck, those latter-day Paul Reveres, now that Governor Jan Brewer is doing to the southwest what President Barack Obama supposedly hopes to do to the nation? They’re blissfully unconcerned; they don’t see any threat to liberty at all. After all, it’s not as if Brewer is regulating the derivatives market.
Where was Sean Hannity when the Bush administration eavesdropped on Americans without asking the FISA court? Where is Sarah Palin when Arizona writes harassment of the swarthy into state law?
Ain’t it always this way. For the better part of a century, American conservatives have declared that if you allow the government to raise your taxes and regulate your business, you will eventually find the secret police at your door. It’s an old argument, and there’s a certain logic to it. When the government taxes and regulates, it does impinge upon personal freedom. And if it taxes and regulates so massively that people can’t enjoy any of the fruits of their labor, then you may well be on the road to serfdom. Progressives have never believed that America’s comparatively puny welfare state threatened anyone’s basic property rights. And they have stressed the way in which government—by widening access to health care, for instance, or strengthening labor unions—can actually enhance freedom as it intervenes in the economy. But there’s a reasonable debate to be had. Theoretically, there’s no reason why the fight against higher taxes could not spur someone to champion individual liberty in every aspect of life.
Except that when the civil liberties tests come, the leaders of the American right usually fail. If opposing taxation and regulation is really the best preparation for battling oppressive government, then where was Henry Cabot Lodge when labor activists and German-Americans were brutalized during World War I? Where was William F. Buckley during McCarthyism? Where was Barry Goldwater during the struggle for civil rights? Where was Antonin Scalia during Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court case that tested the constitutionality of a ban on gay sex? Where was Sean Hannity when the Bush administration eavesdropped on Americans without asking the FISA court? Where is Sarah Palin when Arizona writes harassment of the swarthy into state law?
None of this is to say that when it comes to protecting personal liberty, American progressives have always been on the side of the angels. From Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, they have committed, and tolerated, terrible abuses as well, especially in wartime. Nor is it to deny that there are principled libertarians like Ron Paul who are as committed to keeping the government out of America’s bedrooms as out of its wallets.
But the harsh truth is this. More often than not during the last century’s great struggles against government abuse, conservatives have married economic libertarianism with political authoritarianism. And the reason has been simple: Their ox wasn’t being gored. If conservatives were right that when government infringes upon your property rights it inevitably tramples other rights as well, you might expect the people who pay the highest taxes to be ones most likely to have their phones tapped or their doors broken down or their relatives detained without charge. But that is not the way it works. Historically, the Americans who find their civil liberties most frequently trampled are new immigrants, or political radicals, or religious minorities, or sexual nonconformists. And the people who defend them are not the people who most despise higher taxes; they are the people with the most inclusive conception of national identity, those who can see these despised and victimized aliens as equally deserving of America’s promise of liberty. That’s why Palin and Beck flunked the Arizona test. Championing liberty doesn’t require hating Washington; it requires empathizing with the most vulnerable people in society, the people government is most likely to abuse. And those aren’t the people being invited to the tea party.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.