A number of libertarians and conservative populists have found data collection by the National Security Agency(NSA) to be the final confirmation of their worst fears about Barack Obama and modern government. It is an attempt, according to Ron Paul, to “deliberately destroy the Constitution.” To radio talk show host Mark Levin, it reveals “the elements of a police state.” To Rush Limbaugh, it is part of a “coup d’etat” by the Obama “regime.”
Some on the right believe, as they say in the intel business, that they have connected the dots. All the scandals are really part of one big scandal. For Levin, it encompasses abuses by the Internal Revenue Service, the collection of DNA by policemen, Obamacare’s centralization of medical records and the use of domestic drones. “The Transportation Department, people forget, has proposed black boxes in all of our automobiles to track how they function,” Levin adds.
Limbaugh presents a similar list, demonstrating what he calls “the totalitarian nature or the authoritarian nature of this administration,” and homes in on the NSA revelations: “The main question is, why is such a gigantic surveillance operation even necessary? What is really going on here? Who is the enemy? The tea party, we know, is an enemy of the administration. We know that conservative Republicans — and I could give you names — are enemies of this administration.”
Let me stipulate that the IRS targeting of tea party groups is deeply disturbing and Eric Holder’s Justice Department is politicized, swaggering and incompetent. Distrust of government is deep in the American DNA, and the Obama administration has often managed to justify it.
But asserting that U.S. intelligence agencies are part of a conspiracy that somehow includes a national gun registry, drone surveillance and Lois Lerner crosses a line. It is one thing to oppose the policies of the administration; it is another to call for resistance against a “regime” and a “police state.” It is the difference between skepticism about government and hatred for government. And it raises the question: How is it even possible to love such an Amerika?
This distinction between opposition and resistance is illustrated in attitudes toward the leaker Edward Snowden. If our country is being run by a regime, then those who expose its machinations are heroes, as some on the right have called Snowden. If the U.S. government is a fallible institution doing its best to protect citizens from terrorist violence, then a libertarian loner who reveals classified material (including U.S. cyberwarfare plans) and bolts for a communist country might be viewed in a different light.
Some libertarians and populist conservatives are not merely attacking Obama; they are slandering U.S. intelligence services. There is no evidence, or even a serious allegation, that the NSA has made political use of data it has gathered. This is not a rogue operation. The NSA, with the permission of a court and under the supervision of Congress, built a searchable digital database. Listening in on phone calls still requires a warrant, based on probable cause.
The continuity of anti-terrorism efforts across two administrations, with the bipartisan support of congressional leaders, is an achievement, not a scandal. The introduction of extreme political polarization into this debate could be debilitating. “Do I want somebody in charge of this kind of surveillance,” asks Limbaugh, “who doesn’t like this country as it’s founded?” Partisans on the left will make the same case against the next Republican president. In these charges and countercharges, the objective security requirements of the country could get lost — until the next major terrorist attack.
This type of conservative argument is not recognizably conservative. Traditional conservatism recognizes the balancing of principles — in this case, security and privacy — rather than elevating a single ideal into an absolute. That balance may need occasional readjustment, based on shifting circumstances. But this requires prudence, not the breathless exaggeration of threats for political purposes.
And larger things are at stake. Questioning the legitimacy of our government is the poisoning of patriotism. It is offensive for the same reasons it was offensive when elements of the left, in the 1960s and 1970s, talked of the American “regime.” Because it distorts the United States into something unrecognizable in order to advance a partisan ideology. Because this is still the “last best hope of earth,” not a police state. Because Americans have fought and died for this country, and to turn on it in this way is noxious. It is dishonest. And it is dishonorable.