There Was No Civil Liberties Mandate
Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic has a widely read explanation of why he cannot, on moral grounds, do as he did in 2008 and vote for Barack Obama. It’s a long piece and it’s not structured as an essay so much as a series of interrelated but independent criticisms; in general, Friedersdorf is outraged by Obama’s use of drones as well as his unilateral commitment of US forces in Libya. He calls these “deal-breakers.”
In different ways, each of these transgressions run contrary to candidate Obama’s 2008 campaign… Obama ran in the proud American tradition of reformers taking office when wartime excesses threatened to permanently change the nature of the country. But instead of ending those excesses, protecting civil liberties, rolling back executive power, and reasserting core American values, Obama acted contrary to his mandate. The particulars of his actions are disqualifying in themselves. But taken together, they put us on a course where policies Democrats once viewed as radical post-9/11 excesses are made permanent parts of American life.
I’m not sure what “proud American tradition” Conor is referring to here; I’d guess he’s thinking of the Jeffersonian rollback of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the post-Palmer Raids slackening of WWI’s most authoritarian strictures, and the relative clipping of the CIA’s wings that resulted from Vietnam as well as Watergate. In all of these cases, however, the “roll back” was more obvious in historical retrospect than at the time. With the possible exception of the reaction to Watergate, none of these issues became determinative, electorally, or particularly important outside of elite circles. And as the post-WWII Red Scare as well as the post-9/11 hysteria showed, the authoritarian, security-first sensibility has never been exorcised from America’s political soul.
What I’m trying to say is that the health of civil liberties in the United States ebbs and flows; and it does so along a timeline that’s much longer than a single presidential term. Further, Conor indulges in something of a fantasy, one that I’ve previously fallen victim to myself, that Barack Obama was elected in no small part because of his beliefs about civil liberties. In this case, the fantasy is manifested in Conor’s accusation that Obama has presided “contrary to his mandate.” Sorry, but no. Once again we’re seeing a conflation of elite attention with that of the public at large — and at the risk of belaboring the point, an electoral “mandate” is axiomatically more about the public at large than elites. Recent polling shows clear majorities — including three-out-of-four liberal Democrats — favor the President’s counterterrorism policies.
Conor might say that such poll results are a testament to the intellectual worthlessness of partisanship. OK, sure; but whatever the particular motivation happens to be, the end-result is clear: those voters who like Obama overwhelmingly do so for reasons other than his civil liberties beliefs. He changes, and they either change with him or shrug their shoulders and then ask about the economy.
None of this is to say Conor should vote for the President. We all have our “deal-breakers” and while drone strikes and the expansion of the Imperial Presidency are not mine, they are for many others. If these are the issues from which you decide how to vote, then Gary Johnson, who Conor endorses instead, is indeed a better candidate than either Obama or Romney. Still, when decrying Obama’s civil liberties record, we should keep ourselves cognizant of the political realities of terrorism and civil liberties in America today. The American story is not as rosy — and Obama’s contribution not as shameful — as we might believe.