Will Obama's Civil-Liberties Failings Cost Democrats in November?


In office, the president has only increased the power of the police state. Segments of the left may struggle to stay with him.


"I love my country but fear my government." It's a timely slogan that you can find emblazoned on assorted paraphernalia from bumper stickers and baseball caps to baby blankets. Professional Democrats tend to regard this fear and loathing of government as a right-wing pathology, but it's liable to intensify on the left as the Obama security state intensifies its attacks on Occupiers, anti-war and anti-globalization protesters, and animal-rights activists, among other left-wing dissenters.

The surveillance, harassment, entrapment, and prosecution of activists is becoming an alarming fact of life. The bipartisan war on terror has devolved into a bipartisan war on domestic dissent, especially dissent emanating from the left: Occupiers have endured police harassment and repression that Tea Party activists only imagined. (For regular, virtually daily updates on the nascent police state subscribe to Bill of Rights Defense Committee or Reader Supported News reports, or read Rick Perlstein's Rolling Stone posts.)

Fear-mongering and the demonization of activists as anarchists or domestic terrorists seems to have secured majority support for police-state tactics, or at least indifference to them. Still, it's remarkable that in this election year, an endangered administration is waging war on a segment of its own base.

Democrats should worry. They have consistently dismissed the Obama Administration's civil-libertarian critics, either taking their votes for granted or considering them excessively expensive electorally and ultimately expendable. But in a close election, it's not clear that party loyalists, Obama groupies, gay-marriage advocates, and swing voters wary of Romney and a Republican Congress will compensate for the outrage and despair of activists and civil libertarians on the left.

"I love my county and fear my government." It's a particularly dangerous sentiment for a party that envisions the election partly as a referendum on the virtues of government. Democrats extol civil-rights laws, economic regulations, public education, and infrastructure projects, all to liberal applause. But it's increasingly difficult to reconcile this image of a benign government committed to ensuring fairness with the reality of a thuggish government engaged in pervasive surveillance and the selective repression of dissent.

Who knows how many key votes Obama and House or Senate Democrats stand to lose if some former supporters stay home? In the presidential race, defections will matter mostly in the usual swing states, thanks to our anti-democratic electoral system. In my home state of Massachusetts, civil-libertarian Democrats can abstain from voting for president, or vote libertarian, to no effect: Obama won't need their votes and former Governor Romney had no chance of securing them. But this is risky business for Democrats, especially in states -- like Massachusetts -- with tight Senate races.

I don't want to exaggerate the number or influence of disenchanted civil libertarians or embittered left-wing activists. Indeed, the past 10 years might be seen as proof of their political irrelevance. But I do want to underscore the increasing viciousness and visibility of the administration's war on dissent and the profound alienation of Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters who love their country and fear their government. Mistrust of government may be turning into paranoia, but paranoia has rarely seemed so rational.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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