On Spying, Obama Just Isn't That Into the Democratic Coalition

His alliance with House Republicans proves that partisanship isn't as all-encompassing as is sometimes implied.
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"People who understand how representative government works," Matt Yglesias recently argued, "are going to remain fundamentally comfortable with our basic partisan commitments and there's nothing even a little bit hypocritical about it." Is he correct? I don't believe that partisan commitments are hypocritical or that Yglesias is a hypocrite. Lots of people try to change their party as best they can, but support it as the lesser of two evils even when they fail.

But Yglesias and Robert Farley miss something important about coalition politics and how change happens. They're savvy, informed observers, and often change occurs exactly as they understand it. But they write as if U.S. politics always pits a Democratic coalition against a GOP coalition.

On many vital issues that isn't true.

What few liberals want to acknowledge or grapple with is the fact that, on issues like drone strikes abroad and surveillance in the United States, President Obama is not actually in a coalition with fellow Democrats. Rather, the coalition that sustains his ability to kill U.S. citizens without trial and to spy on the phone calls of all Americans is composed largely of Republicans. GOP legislators disproportionately support these policies, former Bush officials staff the apparatus, and it's all grounded in neo-conservative theories of executive power. It is all irredeemably illiberal.

Wednesday's vote on NSA phone surveillance exposed one of Obama's coalitions for all to see.

The Obama Administration put together a winning majority of surveillance state apologists. It included establishment Democrats, like Nancy Pelosi, who joined far-right conservatives like Michele Bachmann. Overall, Obama's position prevailed with 134 Republicans supporting it and 94 opposed. 111 Democrats voted against the president's position, with just 83 for it.

As I said, coalition politics isn't as simple as Republicans versus Democrats. But if it were, Obama would effectively be part of the Republican coalition on surveillance issues, sharing more in common with the positions of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney than a majority of his fellow Democrats. And Justin Amash and Rand Paul would be joining a majority Democratic coalition. People "who understand how representative government works" and regard challenging the surveillance state as a top priority know an alliance that transcends party lines is the most likely way to succeed. And they know that tribal partisan forces* are trying to stop that alliance.

Says Glenn Greenwald:

What one sees in this debate is not Democrat versus Republican or left versus right. One sees authoritarianism versus individualism, fealty to The National Security State versus a belief in the need to constrain and check it, insider Washington loyalty versus outsider independence.

And he's basically right.

The notion that American politics is reducible to the Democratic coalition and the Republican coalition is a pernicious illusion. That isn't to say that those coalitions aren't extremely important or that it's irrational to ally with one. But on issues like drones, comfort with law-enforcement brass who favor ethnic profiling, or warrantless surveillance on Americans, I don't know what it means for a Democrat to say that he or she is fundamentally comfortable with his or her basic partisan commitments. The party itself is, in fact, irrevocably divided.

Either you're comfortable with drone strikes or the position taken by an influential faction in the Democratic Party makes you uncomfortable. Either you're comfortable with NSA surveillance or the position taken by an influential faction in the Democratic Party makes you uncomfortable.

If you possess the beliefs of Jonathan Chait, there might not be anything uncomfortable about any of that. But many liberal Democrats ought to be less comfortable with their basic partisan commitments than they are, given their beliefs. That isn't to say that they should sever them -- just that, rather than reveling in their own savvy at having chosen what they regard as the obviously more moral and enlightened coalition, while casting aspersions on the coalition they regard as hopelessly retrograde, they should grasp how frequently their tribe and the tribe they abhor collude.

There are all sorts of creepy, indefensible things about both major political coalitions in America, which isn't to say they're equivalents, or that it makes sense for large numbers of people to switch -- just that reflexive comfort within either is unjustified and is more tribal than rational.
 
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*I am very opposed to political tribalism, and there may be times when that bias skews my judgment.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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