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Ross Douthat, an Atlantic alumnus, contends in the NY Times that the recent controversy over "enhanced" TSA procedures illustrates the dominance of partisan reflex in today's politics. Liberals complained about excessive state power when Bush and Cheney were in charge -- but now they're happy, and it's conservatives up in arms about the excesses of Obama, Biden, and 'Big Sis.' EG:

>>But people who follow politics closely -- whether voters, activists or pundits -- are often partisans first and ideologues second. Instead of assessing every policy on the merits, we tend to reverse-engineer the arguments required to justify whatever our own side happens to be doing.<<

Sounds sensible, even-handed, and fairmindedly tut-tutting to all sides. But as it applies to the real world?

The TSA case, on which Douthat builds his column, is in fact quite a poor illustration -- rather, a good illustration for a different point. There are many instances of the partisan dynamic working in one direction here. That is, conservatives and Republicans who had no problem with strong-arm security measures back in the Bush 43 days but are upset now. Charles Krauthammer is the classic example: forthrightly defending torture as, in limited circumstances, a necessary tool against terrorism, yet now outraged about "touching my junk" as a symbol of the intrusive state.

But are there any cases of movement the other way? Illustrations of liberals or Democrats who denounced "security theater" and TSA/DHS excesses in the Republican era, but defend them now? If such people exist, I'm not aware of them -- and having beaten the "security theater" drum for  many long years now, I've been on the lookout.

The anti-security theater alliance has always included right-wing and left-wing libertarians (both exist), ACLU-style liberals, limited-government-style conservatives, and however you would choose to classify the likes of Bruce Schneier or Jeffrey Goldberg (or me). I know of Republicans who, seemingly for partisan reasons like those Douthat lays out, have joined the anti-security theater chorus. For instance, former Sen. Rick Santorum. I don't know of a single Democrat or liberal who has peeled off and moved the opposite way just because Obama is in charge.

A harder case is Guantanamo, use of drones, and related martial-state issues. Yes, it's true that some liberals who were vociferous in denouncing such practices under Bush have piped down. But not all (cf Glenn Greenwald etc). And I don't know of any cases of Democrats who complained about these abuses before and now positively defend them as good parts of Obama's policy -- as opposed to inherited disasters he has not gone far enough to undo and eliminate.

So: it's nice and fair-sounding to say that the party-first principle applies to all sides in today's political debate. Like it would be nice and fair-sounding to say that Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress are contributing to obstructionism and party-bloc voting. Or that Fox News and NPR have equal-and-offsetting political agendas in covering the news. But it looks to me as if we're mostly talking about the way one side operates. Recognizing that is part of facing the reality of today's politics.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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