Fallows on Douthat

Commenter Geoff Arnolds points us to this James Fallows piece. Fallows takes issue with the Douthat column I linked to earlier. Interestingly, in the entirety of the arguments laid out by Fallows, he somehow manages to forget about the actual politicians in charge in Washington these days. You know, Obama and the rest of the hope-and-change-gang who set out to change the world, and who many liberals and civil libertarians hoped would reverse the terrible policies of the Bush administration. Fallows writes:

There are many instances of the partisan dynamic working in one direction here. That is, conservatives and Republicans who had no problem with strong-arm security measures back in the Bush 43 days but are upset now. Charles Krauthammer is the classic example: forthrightly defending torture as, in limited circumstances, a necessary tool against terrorism, yet now outraged about "touching my junk" as a symbol of the intrusive state.

But are there any cases of movement the other way? Illustrations of liberals or Democrats who denounced "security theater" and TSA/DHS excesses in the Republican era, but defend them now? If such people exist, I’m not aware of them — and having beaten the "security theater" drum for  many long years now, I’ve been on the lookout.

Really? Because I’m fairly certain a lot of voters sort of expected Obama to be better on civil liberties than his predecessor. I’m quite certain that Obama did not in fact run on expanding the scope and intrusiveness of the TSA to include naked scanners and groping. I’m quite certain that many of the people defending the TSA and Obama’s various security efforts – from assassinations to drone attacks – would not be defending them were a Republican in the oval office. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure Obama himself wouldn’t support Obama policies if he were still a Senator rather than the Commander-in-Chief.

It would be one thing for Fallows to argue that folks like Krauthammer are hypocrites, or that Republicans in general are acting like hypocrites over this issue. That would hold water! But to exonerate liberals and Democrats – the very people who for years criticized the Bush administration’s overreach and security theater, and who are now directly responsible for the expansion of these policies – well, this strikes me as rather one-sided and biased on Fallows’s part. Accusing Douthat of false equivalency here doesn’t work. Both sides are responsible for this mess. If they weren’t, then the Democrats would have scaled back the security state. They haven’t. And now liberals are defending them in spite of that inconvenient fact.


Tony Comstock points to this passage in the Fallows piece:

A harder case is Guantanamo, use of drones, and related martial-state issues. Yes, it’s true that some liberals who were vociferous in denouncing such practices under Bush have piped down. But not all (cf Glenn Greenwald etc). And I don’t know of any cases of Democrats who complained about these abuses before and now positively defend them as good parts of Obama’s policy — as opposed to inherited disasters he has not gone far enough to undo and eliminate.

But what Fallows misses or dodges is the fact that it’s not just pundits at issue here. Democratic politicians and elected officials were vocally critical of the self-same programs they now run or have ramped up themselves. Obama was a critic of the Bush excesses that he ‘inherited’ and has now added to them. The TSA under Bush was a rather benign force compared to the TSA under Bush-critic Barack Obama.

Update II.

I think Glenn Greenwald is – as usual – pretty much spot-on in his take on all of this:

The one objection I have to this is that liberals in general have been far more willing to criticize Obama’s excesses than conservatives — certainly the dominant Fox News/right-wing-talk-radio faction — were for Bush.  But other than that, what Douthat describes is exactly true, and it is one of the most destructive toxins in our political discourse.

Quite right. Liberals don’t have the conservative movement to keep them in lock-step, so they’re less prone to this sort of thing.

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20 thoughts on “Fallows on Douthat

  1. “A harder case is Guantanamo, use of drones, and related martial-state issues. Yes, it’s true that some liberals who were vociferous in denouncing such practices under Bush have piped down. But not all (cf Glenn Greenwald etc). And I don’t know of any cases of Democrats who complained about these abuses before and now positively defend them as good parts of Obama’s policy — as opposed to inherited disasters he has not gone far enough to undo and eliminate.”

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  2. Yeah, Fallows is definitely stacking the deck here — he’s arguing against a straw Douthat that supposedly claimed total 180-degree turns from 100% of liberals, rather than the actual Douthat who spoke of many/most rather than all (and specifically identified one of the same exceptions that Fallows offers to counter him, i.e. Greenwald) and who discussed what the partisan can “live with” under the appropriate administration.

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  3. Sorry, ED, but I need names in order for this to be credible. Fallows singles out Krauthammer, probably the most hypocritical of the bunch, but his point was explicitly that Douthat makes all of these equivalencies without any citations. Which political commentor on the left has been as bad as Krauthammer? Or even close? Without names, you’re just blowing the same smoke that Douthat was.

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  4. Meanwhile, Larison is typically incisive. Money quote:

    There are other ways to test Ross’ claim. PATRIOT Act renewal came up for a vote earlier this year. If the “partisan mindset” is indeed awesomely powerful, it should have been the case that Republicans voted overwhelmingly against renewal. Instead, renewal passed the House 315-97 with 90% of the nays coming from the Democratic side. The measure passed the Senate by unanimous voice vote after privacy reform amendments were stripped out at the insistence of some Senate Republicans.

    Game, set and match, I think.

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    • If I follow you [and Larison] correctly, Mr. Arnold, the next sentence reads

      That tells me that aside from a handful of honorable exceptions, including Ron Paul, Walter Jones, and Jimmy Duncan, there simply aren’t very many Republican representatives who object to intrusive and authoritarian anti-terrorist legislation no matter which party controls the White House.

      meaning the GOP isn’t partisan about national security issues, certainly contra Fallows’s gratuitous attack on the right and even contra Douthat’s typically vanilla “both sides do it” fuzzywuzzy.

      The opposition to the latest TSA [and this would include Karauthammer] isn’t ideological, “but because these procedures have simply underscored for them how silly it is to screen all passengers at airports,” as Larison writes. Indeed, that’s all Krauthammer is saying if you actually read him, not that Obama’s a fascist, but that “everyone knows that the entire apparatus of the security line is a national homage to political correctness.”

      ” Don’t touch my junk, you airport security goon – my package belongs to no one but me, and do you really think I’m a Nigerian nut job preparing for my 72-virgin orgy by blowing my johnson to kingdom come?”

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      • Actually, no, that sentence does not mean that the GOP isn’t partisan, but rather that their current objections to intrusive and authoritarian practice ring hollow in the face of the fact that they are usually gung-ho for that sort of thing as evidenced by the legislation they continue to support. That is the very definition of partisan.

        On the other hand, you have it right about where Krauthammer’s discontent is coming from. He’s upset that the intrusive and authoritarian practices are being applied to him and his. (He’d have been upset about the Patriot Act, if he was the one using the computers at the library, too.)

        Larison’s best point is one of his last: “…one of the reasons that there are so few members of Congress willing to cast votes against excessive anti-terrorist legislation is that their constituents do not value constitutional liberties as highly as they claim they do. More to the point, when it does not directly affect their constituents it is clear that there is even less concern for the constitutional liberties of others. Indeed, what we might conclude about a significant part of the backlash is that the slogan of the protesters is not so much “Don’t Tread On Me” as it is “Why Won’t You Leave Me Alone and Go Tread On Them?””

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        • I really don’t have patience for this contentious paraphrasing anymore.

          Sorry, 62across, I don’t buy your characterization that the GOP’s “current objections to intrusive and authoritarian practice” are anything more than an objection to silliness and political correctness. As Krauthammer explicitly wrote.

          Larison’s final point is speculative, if not slanderous, but that’s OK, and to be expected. Paleo Pat Buchanan’s rag “The American Conservative” is taken more seriously by the left as a cudgel against the right than as anything particularly relevant or important.

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    • More Larison, and here I think he really does get at the confusion driving all of this:

      There are fair-weather friends who might have mouthed some slogans about Bush-era policies and now say little or nothing, and that can be attributed to misguided partisan “team loyalty,” but on the whole these are not people who were speaking out much against the Bush administration on civil liberties. It is also fairly difficult to find as many active defenders of Obama’s most outrageous security policies on the left. If there are “centrist” Democrats defending Obama’s authoritarian policies against progressive critics today, it is probable that they defended these policies against those critics in years past, because “centrists” already favor these policies and use that support as proof of their “credibility” on national security.

      The politics of these issues really never have lent themselves to an analysis by crude liberal-conservative sorting. There have always been liberals who were far less vocal than others about them (indeed, there are some who were broadly supportive of much if not all of Bush’s actions) and there have always been some conservatives (like Larison) who have aligned with civil libertarians. There have also, obviously, been some political opportunists. But Douthat, as far as I can tell, wants to extend the charge of opportunism across broad swathes of both political persuasions as he sees them, in an almost presumptive way. I’m not sure I see where this isn’t just unnecessarily negative and degrading to nearly everyone involved. Perhaps it’s his Catholicism – cast us all as sinners and be done with it. But these are complex issues, and, as much as there are certainly policies that are unchanged or worsened compared with Bush, there are others where improvements have been made. It oversimplifies to say that Obama is simply worse or no better than Bush – there is a panoply of issues across which people have to make those determinations. It should be no wonder that attempts to make their efforts in doing so fall across a simple model of universal binary partisan cravenness should fall on the rocks of reality.

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