From authoritarian to libertarian: How the GOP is shifting

When a White House commissioned panel determined the National Security Agency’s metadata collection program to be unconstitutional last month, the Obama administration dismissed it as just “a liberal report.”

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A “liberal” report?

A member of that panel, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, said, according to Politico, “instead of our report being truly understood as a middle ground, based upon taking into account all of those perspectives on both sides of the spectrum, I think the White House got moved by thinking of our report as a liberal report.”

Politico added: “Stone, speaking during a panel discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, said intelligence officials were ‘pushing [Obama] and the White House generally more to what we can call the right.”

Obama on the “right?”

On the same day Stone made these statements, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution renouncing current NSA policy as an affront to the Constitution and “an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society…”

Had the hard left taken over the Republican Party? Quite the opposite. This resolution was promoted by the libertarian and tea party wing of the GOP, reflecting the position of conservative Senators Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz.

Slate’s Dave Weigel even said the resolution “basically endorses Rep. Justin Amash’s legislation in the House.”

Amash rose to national prominence last year as an influential conservative leader when his bill to end current NSA surveillance policy fell just twelve votes short of passing the House.

Last summer, former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove called Amash “far more liberal than any Republican,” even though Amash has a 100 percent rating from conservative groups Freedomworks and Club for Growth.

What’s going on here?

While definitions of “left” and “right” have never been static, a pretty significant redefinition of that paradigm is happening.

In the Republican Party and the larger conservative movement, there has always been a tension between a strict constitutionalism and an older, law-and-order sort of rightwingery.

Or more simply put, the libertarian and authoritarian wings of conservatism.

Conservatives of different types and in different eras have appealed to both libertarian and authoritarian impulses. If Barry Goldwater said that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” in 1964, Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew was advising law enforcement to treat war protesters as enemies of the state in 1970, precipitating the Kent State shootings that would leave four students dead.

Both were considered the hard right of their time. Just like Bush-Cheney in the 2000s and the tea party of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz today are considered the hard right of their respective eras.

But such labeling presents a problem. Authoritarian and libertarian conservatism are far more contradictory than they are complimentary.

bush cheney paul lee

Libertarian conservatives believe in strong national security, but balanced against the constitutional protections outlined in the Bill of Rights. They know that trading liberty for security is both unacceptable and unworkable and thus simply refuse the choice.

Authoritarian conservatives believe in strong national security at all costs, even at the price of liberty. For them, civil liberties infringements by the NSA or constitutional overreach by the president are not cause for alarm but signs that we must do more—bar the doors, tap the phones, spy on grandma—whatever it takes.

For authoritarians, the Fourth Amendment is often more nuisance than comfort—nothing, not even the Constitution, should interfere with “keeping us safe.”

The authoritarian view was perhaps most honestly expressed by Republican Senator Jeff Sessions in 2007, who said, “The civil libertarians among us would rather defend the constitution than protect our nation’s security.”

Sessions’ statement literally reversed Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death!” speech—get rid of the Constitution or we’re all going to die!

On Saturday, Congressman Peter King unintentionally explained this shift from authoritarianism to libertarianism currently happening in the Republican Party. Blasting the RNC’s anti-NSA resolution, Rep. King said “The NSA’s data-collection program is a legacy of three top Republican conservatives—George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Michael Mukasey…” King complained, “calling it spying and unconstitutional, that’s what you expect from ultraliberal Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union.”

King told Politico, “it’s basically repudiating the policies of the Republican Party over the last 12 years, policies that kept us safe.”

Exactly. The RNC resolution is indeed a repudiation of the Republican Party of the Bush-Cheney era and that is precisely the point. Whereas the 2004 RNC passed a resolution affirming that “The Patriot Act is used to track terrorist activity,” in 2014 the new RNC resolution calls the NSA metadata program (emphasis mine), “a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy and goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act.

Few Republicans were calling the Patriot Act too permissive in 2004. In 2014, Patriot Act author and Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner now joins Amash in leading the charge to end mass surveillance.

What used to be “left” for Republicans on civil liberties has now become “right.” White House intelligence officials who imagine they are pushing President Obama to the “right” on NSA surveillance are still working from a 2004 playbook.

This is not say that pure libertarianism or authoritarianism on civil liberties is ever the total answer—balancing security and liberty can be a tedious task depending on unpredictable situations and circumstances.

But that balance must never tip beyond what the Constitution allows. It is the ultimate bulwark against losing our liberties. That’s why the Founders wrote it.

Still, Peter King claims NSA mass surveillance is “highly constitutional.” Based on what, exactly? Because King wants it to be. One’s own preference is all the justification authoritarians have ever needed to get their own way.

President Obama is no different.

King now declares, “I’ll be damned if I let the party end up in the hands of Rand Paul or Ted Cruz.”

The tide of conservatism and the Republican Party on civil liberties continues to shift from authoritarian to libertarian. Authoritarians be damned.

What do you think?

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