The 2004 presidential election was the first to which I paid close attention. Among the key issues of that cycle was civil liberties.
Though Democratic candidate John Kerry rapidly became known as a flip-flopper, he also sought to make a name for himself as a civil libertarian, claiming that then-president George W. Bush had infringed on constitutional protections, and pledging to restore respect for the Bill of Rights.
“If we are to stand as the world’s role model for freedom, we need to remain vigilant about our own civil liberties,” he wrote in a campaign book. There’s “a big difference between giving the government the resources and commonsense leeway it needs to track a tough and devious foe and giving in to the temptation of taking shortcuts that will sacrifice liberties cheaply without significantly enhancing the effectiveness of law enforcement.”
Though his actual voting record on civil liberties was hardly exemplary—libertarian magazine Reason called it “monstrous”—he talked a good talk. He also reflected the perceived alignment of the two major parties at that time: generally speaking, Republicans erred on the side of security at the expense of liberty, while Democrats chose the opposite route.
Oh, how times have changed.
As the response to the horror of the Orlando nightclub shooting made clear, the party that once at least paid lip service to freedom, privacy, and restraint in domestic security policy has been utterly remade. In its eagerness to enact new gun control measures, the Democratic Party has thrown due process out the window.
The good news is that this has not gone unnoticed on the left.
Writing at left-of-center explainer site Vox, Dara Lind observes that Democrats’ “no fly, no buy” gun ban would run roughshod over due process, facilitate discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and drown the intelligence community in superfluous data.
“What you need to remember,” she argued, “is that this isn’t a separate system getting created for gun control—it’s giving more power to the existing surveillance system. That surveillance system has shifted over time depending on what it’s being used for, and giving it the power to ban gun sales would probably lead it to evolve again.”
Meanwhile, at Gawker, Alex Pareene pulled no punches, calling the gun legislation a “bad, stupid bill” that, if enacted, would be “a civil rights disaster by every conceivable standard.”
“It is secret, it disproportionately affects Arab-Americans, it is error-prone, there is no due process or effective recourse for people placed on the list, and it constantly and relentlessly expands,” he said. It is, in short, “a measure that isn’t just ineffective but also actively offensive.”
But the tour-de-force came from The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, who used more than 1,600 words to excoriate Democrats’ devolution into Orwellian oppression.
“For eight years, this mentality was the driving force behind the worst Bush/Cheney war-on-terror abuses,” he recalled. “No matter what the extremist policy was—indefinite detention, warrantless eavesdropping, torture, no-fly lists, Guantánamo, rendition, CIA black sites—Republicans would justify it by saying it was merely being done to ‘terrorists’ and would accuse their due process-advocating critics of wanting to ‘protect terrorists.’”
Now, Greenwald continued, “That is exactly the warped, Orwellian formulation Democrats embrace: As is extremely obvious, the Democrats’ definition of ‘terrorist’ is ‘anyone whom the U.S. government suspects of being a terrorist.’”
It is encouraging to see this critique launched so boldly from Democrats’ own base—though with their nomination of the anti-civil libertarian Hillary Clinton, it seems unlikely that the party will reverse course in the near future.