Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sunday Question for Everyone

Sorry, on the run, so I'm going to do just one question today and I suspect it's one that I've asked before. But it's newly relevant now, and so: during the 2016 election, are civil liberties/surveillance issues important in the nomination battles? In one party, the other, or both? Are they important in the general election?

By "important" I'm just talking about what the candidates talk about and what the press talks about. No matter what, these types of issues are extremely unlikely to move votes, but there's more to elections than what moves votes.


  1. These issues are objectively very important.

    But, alas, they will be irrelevant during the election process.

    Lo siento.

  2. They won't be important. There's no mileage in them for Republicans; to the extent that Rand Paul's "libertarianism" means something to primary voters, it's in regard to taxes and regulations, so that's what he'll emphasize, not war, drones or domestic spying. There might be some mileage in civil-liberties issues for an "insurgent" Dem running against Clinton or Biden, but not much -- first, because even Dem candidates from outside the administration are going to run on a platform broadly supportive of Obama's policies, and second because Clinton and Biden will both be able to tap-dance around the issue, claiming to have been "out of the loop" on the NSA and/or promising some sort of internal review or new executive order as a sop to the Dem left. And that's assuming all this hasn't long since blown over, which is the most likely scenario anyway.

    1. I disagree, I think that Rand Paul will run for President in 2016 and civil liberties/surveillance issues will be a major part of his debate with more mainstream conservatives. I think Rand Paul will run as a strong libertarian conservative, that Rick Santorum will run as a strong social conservative, and that Governor Chris Christie will run as an electable moderate conservative, and of course several others will run with somewhat different platforms. So to the extent that Rand Paul gains some traction in his campaign, I think that there will be significant discussion of surveillance issues during the Republican primaries.

  3. I don't think they will be very important, because like Jeff I think these issues will totally blow over by then. My reasoning may be different from Jeff's (or others'), but here goes:

    Sports Illustrated has a weekly feature called "Sign of the Apocalypse". About a decade ago, the sign of the apocalypse was that 9/11 plotters had been communicating in sports internet fora, as I recall it was something unexpected like obscure baseball chat rooms, instead of something more stereotypical such as soccer. I think when that story broke we all sort of wished that the NSA or similar had been checking on those obscure chat rooms.

    Which illustrates the pragmatic problem with the extreme libertarian view of this kerfuffle: follow the most hard-core civil liberties approach to online communication, and it becomes incredibly easy for plotters of bad deeds to find locations such as obscure baseball chat rooms to privately plot terrible acts.

    We may find the NSA activities distasteful to our libertarian sensibilities; the alternative is unworkable on the slightest reflection, and thus the issue will inevitably disappear.

    1. Actually, we don't know that the NSA wasn't snooping on baseball chat rooms in '01. It's not like they would tell Sports Illustrated either way. It could be that they knew there were coded messages being passed there but couldn't read the code -- they thought "steroids" meant steroids, not high explosives, and "I tell you, Ahmad, by September New York will be on fire" meant the Yankees looked strong for their pennant run, and Ahmad was underestimating their starting rotation. Or it could be that like the CIA and FBI, the NSA was failing to share key information with other agencies. Or that they did put it all together and sent Bush another memo, which Bush didn't ignore this time but did mistake for a postseason tip sheet. Anyway, we don't know.

      But that's a quibble. I’m actually posting this to agree that as things stand, “the alternative is unworkable” as CSH says. But I would qualify this by adding that this is a contingent, non-inevitable definition of “unworkable” at which out political culture happens to have arrived. One could imagine a different country, one in which what was really unworkable, for government officials, was getting caught spying on citizens, even if incidentally. In that country, a term like “Patriot Act” would be applied to laws that limited surveillance rather than extending it; politicians would angle for high ratings from the ACLU instead of the NRA; and a question like “Why do you hate America?” would get thrown at those who seemed soft not on terrorism but on the First and Fourth Amendments. And if the terrorists took advantage of all this and blew up the occasional building, powerful forces would mobilize to argue that this is an inevitable cost of freedom, the way they currently mobilize around that message in the wake of school and theater massacres.

      Would that country be a better one? I’m not passing judgment (for the moment), just saying again that it’s not foreordained that we live in the one instead of the other. I think a key to this has been the government’s relative lassaiz-faire toward the content of communications. Yeah, people figure the government might be listening in on the chat room, but (almost) nobody seriously worries that they’ll be investigated, harassed or arrested for what they post there as long as they avoid certain very specific threats. And yeah, there were dark chapters when the FBI was spying on Martin Luther King and the like, and you’re obviously more in danger of this if you’re a member of certain less-powerful groups -- but even then, it’s not like King got the same treatment as Nelson Mandela. Basically, the government has demonstrated to the satisfaction of most Americans that it’s respectful enough of their rights; what it still struggles to prove, within our political culture, is that it’s doing enough for their safety.

      But that, too, was not inevitable; it presumably reflects that fact that pressure has been kept up on the government over the generations to let Americans have their goofy opinions, to let leaders of political movements walk about unhindered, etc. The scrutiny we’re now seeing brought to bear on NSA surveillance is part of that kind of pressure. The issue itself will blow over, but that’s largely because there’s been just enough such scrutiny, albeit in fits and starts, to keep from shifting the balance of citizen’s anxieties the other way.

    2. Jeff, that's a great comment, because it adds two important points, one I thought of (but regretted not making) and one I didn't.

      The point I didn't make was that its precisely the pressure of folks like Couves that make this system viable. Expanded NSA surveillance may be the best solution, but if so its the best among several non-ideal choices. As you note, it is helpful that citizens keep the pressure on their government, and so my endorsement was not a blanket one but instead implicitly included the vocal displeasure of ardent libertarians.

      The second argument, an interesting one I hadn't thought of, was that this state of affairs is peculiar to the US, that a different country might have valued additional freedom in exchange for more risk. That makes me think of Kahnemann and Tversky's famous risk modelling that showed that 'losses loom larger than gains'; applied to public safety I wonder if Kahnemann and Tversky prove that the current state of affairs is more or less inevitable.

      I mean, the shocking loss of Sandy Hook didn't quite unravel our nutty gun culture, but it got pretty close, no? I also suspect that most folks reading your post, and pondering the trade-off of 1) 'more freedom' for 2) a 9/11 every 5 to 10 years were unwilling to make the trade.

      Which all suggests that, as is so often the case, we may have arrived at the best solution, through conflict and disagreement and in spite of ourselves.

    3. CSH, I agree -- although this is putting it tautologically -- that we've probably arrived, through the various cross-pressures, at (more or less) the best answer for America, given who Americans are and what they value. And so, yes, the cross-pressures need to be kept up; we're currently in a (rare) moment when the pressure is pushing things slightly back toward the civil-libertarian position. I think that's good, and I do think it's partly an achievement on the part of this guy Snowden. Mission accomplished there, I guess.

      As to Kahnemann and Tversky, I don't know their work in detail (and didn't know their names, although I've heard of that particular finding), but I suppose the caveat I would offer on that point is that the term "loss" doesn't necessarily mean "successful terrorist attack." Again, that's a historically contingent definition. Another citizenry, in a different country with a different political culture, might define "loss" to mean "loss of assurance that my communications aren't being monitored." In fact, in a way, that is the more intuitively likely definition, since successful terrorist attacks inflict actual "losses" on very few people, while NSA-type snooping potentially leaves everyone exposed. We know if we've been victims of a terrorist attack, but none of us can know if we've suffered the loss of privacy represented by government surveillance. Therefore, we have ALL, by definition, suffered a loss of assurance over this. Rephrased without the triple negatives: None of us is as sure of our privacy as the people of my hypothetical alternate-universe USA would demand to be.

      But we live in this universe, not the other one! So we are where we are. And in 2016, to get back to the original question, nobody (I don't think) is going to care about any of it in a way that makes a difference politically.

    4. I've argued before that it's important for liberals to push the sunset of the Patriot Act. It was a bad law to begin with, and letting it lapse, or even cutting it short, is not likely to affect our security.

      Perhaps this will help.

    5. Edward Snowden is especially brave given how "leakers" are being treated these days. Snowden basically accepts that he will be punished and that his life will quite possibly be ruined. But he's willing to make the sacrifice for his country.

      And anon on ending the Patriot Act: "Perhaps this will help."


  4. I agree with anonymous. Paul's convictions on this issue are real, and he will try to make an issue of them. Bedsides, its the only hope he has of attracting his father's supporters.

    I hope a Democratic candidate makes an issue of it, but I don't know who it would be, and I doubt it will threaten Clinton enough to make her pay more than lip service to reform.

    1. Rand is going to get near 100 percent of his father's supporters, no matter what. And that's going to be his ceiling, I think.

      He might make a big issue out of the NSA stuff, but he'll get torn up by mainstream GOPers and the other candidates. If he's smart, he'll avoid the issue as much as possible during the primaries and focus on abolishing social services and taxes and corporate welfare.

      On the Dem side, the issue might give Martin O'Malley something to hammer Hilary about... but I think there's not enough passion or clarity on the issue among liberal-leaning Dems to make it a serious issue. I bet that Hilary can still win the nomination pretty easily.

  5. For the Republicans, I think it probably comes down to how much they perceive this hurts or helps Obama (and whoever is running for the Democrats). At the moment, it seems to be hurting him, at least in their calculus, thus we see them actually acting like they care about it (aside from the Rand Paul types, who probably do actually care about it). The Republicans have been using this as a bludgeon for years. First, attacking the Patriot Act was unpatriotic. Now, supporting it is unpatriotic.

    This will get some play in the Democratic Party, but I don't really know that it'll be that much.

  6. I don't see them being more important than economic issues. Perhaps early on in the primaries they will get a lot of attention if someone like Rand Paul runs. I don't see Democrats making them a focal point, unless someone comes along like Obama did to try and differentiate themselves from Hilary or Biden.

    Once the general roles around I would expect a similar campaign to what 2012 was. There's just too much convergence with the GOP and the current Democrat administration on those issues for them to do what they probably should from a getting votes point of view and offer people an opposition.

  7. Rand Paul is already polling at the head of the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire, thanks to the attention he got from the drone filibuster. So assuming Rand runs, there will be significant attention paid to civil liberties. Rand also understands that this is an issue that does best with independent voters, so expect him to target the message at them, along with tea party constitutionalists.

    As for liberal democrats, they seem to have made their peace with the security state, at least for now. Which is unfortunate, because they have tremendous power to move their party on these issues (even if they're not important to the average voter). A liberal friend of mine places her hope in the power of voters to push Hillary to the left more than Obama moved to the right. But it's not going to happen spontaneously without party actors being more vocal on the issues (setting aside whether the Dick Cheney of the left could possibly govern in a way that civil libertarians will find acceptable).

    1. I don't know. I think it's pretty likely that the GOP establishment will dismantle Rand Paul before '15. He'll be left with his father's supporters, and not much else.

      Look at the folks running against Rand for the nomination. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Paul Ryan are all much more viable candidates than Rand, IMO.

    2. If the establishment decides that Rand is unacceptable, then it will be very difficult for him to win the nomination. Unlike his father, Rand is trying to prevent this, but I really don't know how likely it is.

      Whatever the case may be, Rand's candidacy will guarantee that civil liberty issues will get talked about.

    3. @Couves: How so? His dad's candidacy did no such thing.

      I think the issue will die a quiet death in the Republican primaries for the same reason it did in 2008 and 2012: there simply isn't a big enough audience within the GOP tent for it to matter.

      One could say something similar about the Dem tent, of course. I think the constituency is somewhat larger amongst the Dems, but there's this inherent belief among many (almost all?) Dems that anyone from the Dem side would be better than anyone on the GOP side on this question. Part of that is nice, pure partisanship, but part of that is reality: one party jokes about the next invasion (Iran), one party really doesn't seem to want another shooting war (drones aside) and is generally associated with peaceniks.

      If I'm wrong, I think the likely entry point is from the leak investigation/AP stuff. That is: moderators are SOMEHOW going to find the question of the relationship of the security state with the media compelling. So, that really could be the hook. Rand Paul can sound off on drones until he's blue in the face, and he won't get covered. But, if he says something provocative about journalist shield laws in the week before a debate, magically, he'll get some air time.

      I don't think it's likely; it's a trick his dad never learned. Libertarianism is about big pie-in-the-sky ideals; journalists don't really care about that stuff.

    4. Ron Paul's presence in debates gave moderators an opportunity to raise all sorts of civil liberties issues (Remember the South Carolina audience cheering for the legalization of heroin?). The same will happen when Rand is debating. And to the extent that Rand is seen as a top tier candidate, these issues will be more likely to make headlines.

      Most ACLU-types are going to favor Democrats, but it's not clear to me that the overall Democratic electorate is more concerned with civil liberties. It really depends on the specific issue and perhaps who's in the White House at the time that the question is asked:

      It's sad that just following the Constitution could be seen by anyone as a "big pie-in-the-sky ideal" exclusive to libertarians. I'm a bit more optimistic than you are about the potential for the average voter to care about this stuff. Who wants to be spied on by their own government? Or hauled off to gitmo without trial?

    5. Couves, I think I generally agree with you on the substance of this issue, but the problem is that almost no Americans think it's really possible that they could be "hauled off to gitmo without trial." Because most Americans are not brown-skinned Middle Eastern Muslims, y'see. So this just doesn't become a concern for them that influences voting.

      And as to being "spied on by their own government," I refer you to my comments above -- most Americans probably know that such spying is possible, but they also feel fairly certain that even if some NSA spook is listening in, this won't result in harassment, arrests or any other tangible consequences. So, again, it becomes a back-burner issue -- people might prefer no such surveillance, in an ideal world, but they're not going to prioritize that over concerns about GDP and the unemployment rate.

    6. Jeff, that's a very good point. I think this came up in another conversation -- that few white people who live in the suburbs fear their government, because it's very unlikely that they will be victimized by it. As long as that's the case, these will be backburner issues. But that doesn't make them irrelevant to the electoral process. People will often act based on idealism alone (recycling, for example). Nor does it mean that there aren't democratic ways to change the system outside of elections themselves.

    7. "few white people who live in the suburbs fear their government....."

      Yeah, this reminds me of another point. There are plenty of people who live in cities, too, who fear their government -- I'm constantly reading about the controversy in New York over NYPD stop-and-frisks -- but the particular government agency they fear is the local police, not the feds. What we've done in this country is perfected the art of dividing up responsibilities among government(s) so that different ones oppress different people in different ways. Which probably also divides the opposition. Neat trick, huh?

  8. I totally think that this will have blown over by 2016. Right now there's a lot of knee-jerk reaction because the news surprised people. Over time, folks will realize that the NSA actions are pretty minor compared to the privacy invasions by unaccountable organizations like Google or Amazon EVERY DAY.

  9. It is one of the issues I often use to choose.

    Which is why I rarely voted for Feinstein in the Primary.

  10. I'm going to make a bold prediction and say that the Drug War/Marijuana Legalization will have more impact on the 2016 race than any surveillance issue. The surveillance issue is complicated to explain, currently enjoys support from a majority of Dem elected officials and voters (if recent polls are to be believed), while legalization is moving towards becoming the official Democratic position. I also haven't heard any 2016 potentials weigh in on the issue (presumably because there's more downside to rebuking a sitting Dem president than in winning potential voters/donors who care about the issue).


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