Why is it so unlikely that Americans will take action to stop the outrageous electronic surveillance programs of the National Security Agency? The answer, to a depressing extent, is that our basic freedoms are threatened today because our political system and our very culture make it nearly impossible for us to act.
Back in 2005, when the New York Times reported that the NSA was engaged in probably-illegal wiretapping, it ignited a nationwide firestorm. When my progressive friends thought about the subject, it all fit a pattern: These thuggish Republicans, with their stupid militarism, their disregard for the Constitution, their disgusting certainty that God was on their side, of course they were also tapping peoples’ phones! It all made sense given what we knew about the Bush Administration. “Warrantless wiretaps” were one of a string of outrages —the others being “Katrina incompetence” and “Scooter Libby justice”—that Senator Barack Obama used to denounce in his campaign speech as a sort of incantation when he was running for the presidency in 2008. And that’s why, for a certain sort of idealistic liberal, this man Obama was the most desirable presidential candidate imaginable, and why so many greeted his election as something like a deliverance from evil.
Remember how statesmanship is practiced, American-style
And today it is Obama himself who countenances something very similar to “warrantless wiretaps.” It is not enough today to say that the president has disappointed his core supporters, or to point out that he and his top advisers today seem to regard idealistic liberals as something of an annoyance. With the NSA spying programs that he has overseen—and with his “kill list,” and with his drone strikes, and with his war on journalists, and with his war on leakers—Obama has actually done far worse than that. He has flown in the face of what he seemed to stand for—of what he promised in fact: open government, a respect for privacy and for the rule of law.
Those who wonder why a politician would do such a thing must remember how statesmanship is practiced, American-style. To snub and even to wound your most zealous supporters, as Obama has done, is regarded as a mark of maturity in Washington. This is not because snubbing or wounding them is a brave thing to do, but exactly the opposite: Because the righteous attitude of the idealist is repugnant to the men of power, who know that idealists are, in fact, men of weakness, entitled to neither courtesy nor respect.
What it's like to be treated as a foolish idealist
What makes them weak is the structure of the American political system. When the public’s choices are limited to one of two parties, idealists have, as the Washington saying puts it, “nowhere else to go.” Since they aren’t about to defect to the other party, their claims on a Democrat’s attention are negligible. Their role is to shut up and cheer.
I say a “Democrat’s attention” because this is preeminently a dynamic of the Democratic party. Oh, it happens in Republican-land as well, especially to the evangelical army that mobilizes so faithfully every election day. But among Democratic leaders it’s a rite of passage: Snubbing the base and accommodating themselves to the demands of the powerful is simply what Democratic leaders do. It’s in their charter. As the owners of the righteousness of the historical left, they feel they can spurn liberals however they damn well please. Our job, as believers in equality, or privacy, or whatever, is simply to get in line.