Oh, the irony, cont’d: more on the Left-Right alliance

Glenn Greenwald is thinking along the same lines as I did in my previous post, on the alliance of Democrats and Tea Party Republicans that (temporarily) defeated the proposed extension of Patriot Act provisions:

[W]hile it shouldn’t be overstated, there is a real significance here that also shouldn’t be overlooked. Rachel Maddow last night pointed out that there is a split on the Right — at least a rhetorical one — between what she called “authoritarian conservatives” and “libertarian conservatives.” At some point, the dogmatic emphasis on limited state power, not trusting the Federal Government, and individual liberties — all staples of right-wing political propaganda, especially Tea Party sloganeering — has to conflict with things like oversight-free federal domestic surveillance, limitless government detention powers, and impenetrable secrecy (to say nothing of exploiting state power to advance culture war aims). Not even our political culture can sustain contradictions as egregious as (a) reading reverently from the Constitution and venerating limits on federal power, and then (b) voting to vest the Federal Government with extraordinary powers of oversight-free surveillance aimed at the American people. […]

There is precedent for this type of alliance on this and other issues. Early on in the Bush years, a bill to repeal Patriot Act abuses was co-sponsored by Kucinich and Ron Paul, and supported by the ACLU. A bill to audit the Federal Reserve was opposed by most of official Washington but enacted by a left-right alliance. Some of the earliest and most outspoken opposition to Bush civil liberties radicalism — and the war in Iraq — came jointly from the Left and from the Cato Institute. Religious Right groups scared of federal government oppression have long joined with the ACLU and others in opposing some civil liberties incursions, such as the Patriot Act. Controversy over things like TSA patdowns and the corrupt way the Wall Street bailout was manufactured came from both the Right and the Left. The fact that it’s Tea Party Sen. Rand Paul willing to question the value of American financial and military assistance to other nations (including to Israel) — while Democrats attack him for that brave position — further underscores the potential here. And in other nations — such as Britain — one finds a genuine left-right alliance against the political establishment’s relentless assaults on civil liberties.

Both liberal and conservative ideology can and should sustain popular opposition to ongoing reductions in civil liberties. It’s the political establishment — regardless of the party to which it belongs — that is incentivized to seize always-greater levels of power in the name of Security. So many (though not all) of our most consequential political disputes are far more about insider v. outsider than they are Democrat v. GOP: a simplistic dichotomy used to keep the populace divided over trivial disputes and thus too fractured to resist the corruption and repression of the bipartisan ruling class.

He’s not that optimistic, however, about the viability of such left-right alliances, at least with the current bunch in Congress:

In those rare cases when there has been real opposition on the Right, it has been grounded in a fear that they will be subjected to the abuses they oppose. […]

Worse, other impulses in that movement render support for civil liberties abuses inevitable as long as they’re directed at other people. The nativism, the anti-Muslim bigotry, the blinding American exceptionalism, the fear-based eagerness to support anything in the name of Security, and the instinctive reverence for GOP political authority all ensure widespread support among the Right — even those factions incessantly marching under the banner of “limited government” — for the vast majority of authoritarian assaults on civil liberties. There has been some principled, strong opposition among some libertarian and “paleoconservative” factions on the Right, but those factions are far too small to make much of a difference. For the vast majority of American conservatives — including the self-proclaimed limited government Tea Party movement — the instincts that generate support for authoritarian policies easily overwhelm the instincts against it.

In fact, he concludes, “the very weak status of civil liberties in the U.S. is compellingly illustrated by the fact that an alliance with this deeply unprincipled and authoritarian movement is one of the few viable means for stemming the tide of the erosion.”

The hypocrisy of establishment Democrats in both Congress and the White House doesn’t go unnoticed either:

Yesterday, on the very same day that the Obama White House demanded that Egypt repeal its 30-year-old “emergency law,” it also demanded enactment of the House GOP’s proposal to extend America’s own emergency law — the Patriot Act — for three more years with no new oversight (the White House actually wants a longer extension than the House GOP is willing to support). Meanwhile, in the Senate, Pat Leahy has introduced a bill to impose some very mild and inadequate safeguards on these Patriot Act powers (some of which the DOJ has voluntarily accepted), but those efforts are being thwarted by the Democrats’ Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Dianne Feinstein — easily one of the most implacable enemies of civil liberties in the Congress and one of the most loyal servants of the National Security State which enriches her husband; just as she did last year, Feinstein has demanded a full extension of the Patriot Act with no reforms of any kind.

Put another way, the reform-free extension of the Bush-era Patriot Act is jointly assured by the most important Democratic power brokers (the Obama White House and Feinstein) and the Congressional GOP leadership. That’s the same bipartisan dynamic that has repeated itself over and over for the last decade as civil liberties in the U.S. have steadily eroded.

Greenwald’s post is highly worth reading in full, dispiriting as his conclusions are.

Bob Herbert at the Times — in an op-ed focusing on economic inequity rather than the erosion of civil liberties, though I’m sure he’d agree with Greenwald — ends on this note:

The Egyptians want to establish a viable democracy, and that’s a long, hard road. Americans are in the mind-bogglingly self-destructive process of letting a real democracy slip away.

I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”

Throughout his own presidential campaign, Barack Obama constantly said the very same thing: change doesn’t come from the top down, but from the bottom up. And he spurred on his supporters by reminding them that “power never concedes.” The blindingly obvious irony of this is that, if we accept this notion (as I increasingly think we should), it means that we can never trust those in power to enact significant reform — even if those in power are the ones we sent to change the system.

Real change comes from the bottom up. That’s an idea the Egyptian people have certainly embraced. And in light of that recent revolution, I can’t help but wonder what it would take to reform our politics, to bring a truly vigorous defense of civil liberties back into the national conversation. We hear it said, repeatedly and from all quarters, that our system is broken; the Egyptians certainly thought that theirs was, and took matters into their own hands. Is our situation quite as dire? Can we still reform the system from within? Would electing “better” people to Congress and the White House (if such people are even available) ever put an end to what Greenwald calls “the National Security State, the Surveillance State, and the endless erosions of core liberties they entail”? And if not, what other recourse do we have? We justified revolution once, over two hundred years ago; what conditions, exactly, would justify it again? And how would such a people’s uprising play out in the United States of America?

(via The Daily Dish)

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1 Comment

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One response to “Oh, the irony, cont’d: more on the Left-Right alliance

  1. I agree with the phrase, real changes comes from the bottom up. It should start from the people but I think the “up” portion would be the hardest part to change.

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