Ideological Wind Tunnels

Glenn Greenwald rebuts those who think his strident attacks on Presidents Bush and Obama for abusing their power make his blog “an ideological wind tunnel” and that he is “oblivious to the practical considerations policymakers must contend with.”

By the design of the Founders, most American political issues are driven by the vicissitudes of political realities, shaped by practicalities and resolved by horse-trading compromises among competing factions.  But not all political questions were to be subject to that process.  Some were intended to be immunized from those influences.  Those were called “principles,” or “rights,” or “guarantees” — and what distinguishes them from garden-variety political disputes is precisely that they were intended to be both absolute and adhered to regardless of what Massing calls “the practical considerations policymakers must contend with.”

We don’t have to guess what those principles are.  The Founders created documents — principally the Constitution — which had as their purpose enumerating the principles that were to be immunized from such “practical considerations.”  All one has to do in order to understand their venerated status is to understand the core principle of Constitutional guarantees: no acts of Government can conflict with these principles or violate them for any reason. And all you have to do to appreciate their absolute, unyielding essence is to read how they’re written:  The President “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”  “[A]ll Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.”  “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.”  “No person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  Even policies which enjoy majoritarian support and ample “practical” justification will be invalid — nullified — if they violate those guarantees.

Much more (of course) at the link.  And he’s right.

The advancement of technology have blurred some lines and simultaneously increased the potential costs to society of strict obedience to the Bill of Rights, and made it much easier for government to abuse its power.  I frequently disagree with Glenn as to precisely where the line ought be drawn on various matters but fundamentally agree with his insistence in the rule of law.  As Barry Goldwater famously put it, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  Less famously, in the same speech, he observed,

Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions of equality, ladies and gentlemen. Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.

Many seem to think this notion only applies when their party is out of power.  Greenwald, at least, recognizes that it’s just as true when his own guy is in office.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ggr says:

    Many seem to think this notion only applies when their party is out of power. Greenwald, at least, recognizes that it’s just as true when his own guy is in office.

    Which is the most interesting point about Greenwald – many of the democrats supporting Obama were up in arms against Bush when he did the same thing. Whether they’re practical or not, Greenwald at least seems to believe in his stated principles, which is more than many can say.

  2. Eric Florack says:

    Greenwald’s dedication to the constitution has traditionally been at best selective… and in more than just the point ggr makes. His leaning on it now is thereby suspect.

  3. Furhead says:

    You are probably right (although I’d be interested in seeing your ‘best’ example of such a case), but I tend to agree with JJ that GG seems much more consistent about his interpretations of the law than most people seem to be. In short, the law applies to *everybody*.

  4. Matt says:

    Greenwald’s dedication to the constitution has traditionally been at best selective… and in more than just the point ggr makes. His leaning on it now is thereby suspect.

    Naturally as anyone who dares disagree with you ever is suspect or “selective at best” lol..

  5. Eric Florack says:

    Matt, do a google search on the string “intelectually dishonest blogger”. Note the subject of the first entry.

  6. kth says:

    I think what happens on both sides isn’t completely unprincipled, though it no doubt has an aspect of convenience. If you’ve been railing for 8 years about the growth of government under Clinton, then Bush comes along and it’s just as bad or worse, your failure to criticize Bush as harshly perhaps represents resignation as much as hypocrisy. You begin to realize that the tendency you abhor is more intractable than you thought, you wearily conclude that it is a doomed cause, and you concentrate your efforts on things you think you can actually change.

  7. Here’s hoping that the blind squirrel finds a nut more frequently.