Make hay while the sun shines
No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post
I've been blogging for just about three and a half years now, and in the last week or so I have finally seen some movement on the subject of my very first blog post: an appeal for principled conservatives to push back on the civil liberties overreach of the executive branch. The right has generally had phenomenal ideological cohesion, so anyone who breaks ranks is usually an outsider to begin with (Andrew Sullivan, Daniel Larison) or quickly becomes one (Bruce Bartlett).
For most conservatives, the politics are the principle; that allows them to take contradictory positions over relatively short periods of time without recrimination. As Bartlett unhappily discovered, Republicans can cheerfully discard the pieties they mouth if it will help ensure a majority. Criticizing an expanding governmental role in health care will get you ostracized in an era of GOP rule, but it makes you a member in good standing during a Democratic one.
So the recent concern about the invasive and ineffective TSA search procedures is not surprising. Now that a Democrat is president there is flourishing concern over what the big, bad government is doing to innocent citizens. But as Adam Serwer writes, "This comprehensive assault on individual freedom didn't occur in a vacuum; it occurred because conservatives were successful in frightening Americans into choosing security over liberty every time the choice was before them, and because America's elected officials take being blamed for a terrorist attack more seriously than their oath to protect the Constitution." John Cole has been impatiently pointing this out as well. On this and other issues, right wing leaders tell their base what to believe.
Two aspects of it are surprising, though. The first is the way it has split, more cleanly than any other issue for the last few years, along establishment vs. outsider lines. DC newspapers have rallied (via) to support the government (via). It has not gone unnoticed. Both liberal and conservative commentators inside the Beltway - see Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein on the left, for example, and Marc Thiessen and the National Review editorial board on the right. See also Thomas Sowell if you need some comic relief. The Weekly Standard, bless its heart, did not have a single TSA item on its front page as of Wednesday.
In fairness, Andrew McCarthy has a nice take if you ignore the part on profiling, which not only does not work but does not even stand up to even basic scrutiny. Mona Charen has a very good article, too. Her call for screeners trained not to profile, check a laundry list or stare at a computer screen but in the more intuitive art of "how to detect things" strikes me as right on the mark.
That said, the tone from the capitol skews heavily towards defending the procedures. Which leads to the second surprising point: criticism is actually making its way to Republican leaders. For instance, when incoming House Majority Leader John Boehner skipped past the security checkpoint with his entourage, the most pungent response came from the right:
But maybe it was a good thing he didn't have to go through the scanner. From the way Boehner behaved, it's clear he faced a real risk that the TSA agents might have found a foreign object hidden in his rectum.
That would be his head.
(Note that the author is in New Jersey and not DC.) Bush-era authoritarianism has had a head-on collision with Obama-era loathing of Democrats, and it is causing many on the right to finally reject the "do what we say and shut up" attitude favored in the early years of the WAR ON TERROR.
There are caveats, of course. The biggest one, noted in Serwer's piece above and also by Glenn Greenwald, is that the real irritant on the right may be that the erosion of civil liberties has, inevitably, reached them. When it is used against Muslimy types this is fine, but when used against fine upstanding pillars of the community such as themselves it becomes insupportable vexation. Also, as Greenwald notes, the "solution" most energetically embraced on the right is no solution at all.
Still, for the moment there is a strong push back on unreasonable searches from the right, which is a real novelty these days. Those of us who have been calling attention to the issue in vain for years, hoping conservatives would rouse themselves to object, should make the most of this opportunity. I don't despair, as Greenwald seems to, of the purity of their intentions or even the effectiveness of their proposed remedies (provided they do not get implemented). Civil libertarians should instead seize this fleeting moment. The stars rarely align like this, and they do not stay aligned for long.