Continuing his lonely quest to get liberals to pay attention to President Obama’s horrendous record on civil liberties, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald today challenges ThinkProgress’ Matt Yglesias, who excuses Obama’s actions on the grounds that the president is just following public opinion. Greenwald has the better case.
But the more I watch Obama endorse and expand the Bush administration’s claims of essentially unlimited presidential power, the more I conclude that we have essentially one hope at this point.
Civil libertarians should hope, perversely, that Obama will abuse the powers he’s claimed — and which, given Congress’ craven acceptance, appear to be a bipartisan Washington consensus. Moreover, we have to hope that he’ll abuse them broadly, against people who support him as well as those who don’t.
In the Clinton years, a significant number of Republicans hammered what they believed (accurately in many cases) was the White House’s tendency to claim executive powers that they were certain would be abused. For a time it was the GOP that defended civil liberties — hypocritical in the extreme in many cases, as it was mostly reflexive anti-Clinton paranoia, but useful nonetheless for those of us who were glad to see someone, anyone, pushing back.
Republicans and Democrats alike seem to have concluded that Obama won’t abuse his power, at least in ways they or their major supporters will find objectionable. In the case of Republicans, it’s unclear whether they figure he’s a wimp or naive about the “real world,” but the taunting by the right-wing pols and people like Limbaugh about “the regime,” and all the other alarm-ringing, is hollow at its core. Sure, it’s demagogic fear mongering, but I don’t believe most of these people really want their gun-laden supporters to actually use their weapons; that would harm their cause. Rather, they want these folks to get organized at protests and political meetings and ultimately in voting booths. Their goal is for Obama to fail, in ways that have historically led to right-wing surges, so they can get back all three branches of government again. Actual violence by their supporters would make that much more difficult.
If the Republicans don’t really fear Obama, the Democrats, have turned cowardice into an art form, seem to figure it’s okay to pander to fear and expand presidential power because a good person is in charge at the moment — and, as many have suggested, because lots of Democrats have deeply authoritarian impulses as well. The latter may actually be the more important motivation. But the Democrats’ hypocrisy — Patrick Leahy’s beyond-craven performance as one of Obama’s chief enablers in Congress is especially shameful, given his rhetoric during the Bush years — should surprise no one at this point. They demonstrated their total spinelessness during the Bush years. Why should we have expected them to change now?
But the political right is surely licking its chops, confident that when it returns to power there will be absolutely no constraints on their pro-authority (except for the 2nd Amendment) agenda. And Obama will have given them cover. He, as much as George Bush and Dick Cheney, will have laid the groundwork for a regime that goes all the way to the edge, if not over it.
Most depressing of all, the majority of the American people would probably welcome such a government. Our preference for the illusion of safety over the recognition and acceptance of risk has only grown. We are a society too afraid of our own shadows to confront reality, I fear. Someday, perhaps as soon as the next successful terrorist attack, we’ll get what we seem to want.
Which is why I come back to my perverse hope that Obama will abuse his powers enough to pull enough scales from enough eyes, especially in Washington, that people understand what history teaches again and again: Untrammeled executive authority only seems like the easier road — until you’re in the way of the bulldozer.