"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.