You may remember Sean Wilentz’s decision to invest his earned reputation as a historian into political punditry during the 2008 presidential campaign. This was profoundly unfortunate, since the underlying premise of said punditry seemed to be that Mark Penn was right about everything but was excessively respectful of the intelligence of his audience. Not coincidentally, most of this ended up attacking Obama from the right.
Well, Wilentz is now sort of defending Obama from the right and the results are equally horrible. Wilentz’s piece is essentially an update of Peter Beinart’s notorious 2004 essay arguing that liberalism should be a coalition of supporters of same-sex marriage and people who advocate killing hundreds of thousands of people and spending trillions of dollars to invade countries that pose no threat to the United States. (It’s as if he looked at Kennedy and Johnson’s marriage of liberalism to disastrously hawkish foreign policy and saw that as a long-term winner for the Democratic Party. I…interpret the history somewhat differently.)
Henry Farrell offers a definitive critique. One problem is that (nominal acknowledgements of differences aside) Wilentz’s conflation of Snowden, Assange and Greenwald allows him to tar the class with individual idiosyncrasies. I’ve obviously had some disagreements with Greenwald on electoral politics and his tendency to be more charitable to paleocons than mainstream liberals, but it’s a long way from there to “paranoid liberterianism.” Snowden, unlike Greenwald, does seem to be a flat-out fan of Ron Paul, but since nobody is praising him for his political commentary as opposed to his actions it’s neither here nor there. These conflations lead to a more pernicious one:
The three narratives are larded with minatory innuendo. That Snowden writes about liking his gun hints at his ‘developing affinities.’ That Glenn Greenwald took pro-bono free speech cases on behalf of a variety of unpleasant people shows that his “true passion [is] defending the civil liberties of extremists.” Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with defending these people’s constitutional liberties of course, as Wilentz grudgingly acknowledges after a few paragraphs of loving description detailing precisely how unpleasant some of Greenwald’s clients were. And of course, there’s lots of juicy stuff in the section on Assange, where Wilentz uses Assange’s dodgy alliance building to sort-of-sidle-up-real-close to the ‘it’s all a Russian plot, of course’ line that various cranks have been pushing on the Internet.
What is rather conspicuously lacking is any evidence that these people (and it is interesting, as an aside, that Chelsea Manning’s fate and motivation don’t even get a mention) are dead-set on their joint goal of “wound[ing] the liberal state.” Snowden, as you’d expect from a Paulite, doesn’t like welfare. Greenwald has made some very unfortunate statements about immigrants. Assange’s politics are whatever Assange’s politics are. But these do not, under any reasonable interpretation, add up to a sekrit shared agenda of trying to take down the liberal state as it’s usually understood. None of the revelations to date have had any relevance whatsoever to welfare or immigration policy, let alone dire implications for them. Somehow, I suspect that none of the future revelations will either. If imaginary-Edward-Snowden were running for the Senate, and I was thinking about whether to vote for him, I’d find his views on welfare very, very relevant. Since actual-Edward-Snowden is running from the government for leaking security information … not so much.
All this leaves Wilentz with the unenviable task of demonstrating that despite all the appearances, pushing back against the security state is an anti-liberal agenda. He accomplishes this through an intellectual sleight of hand, wherein the “liberal state” of the opening sections is magically transformed into the “national security state” that Greenwald et al. are setting out to “sabotage.”
That’s the core of Wilentz’s argument: trying to read critics of the national security state out of liberalism.
Will Wilkinson observes that “liberals ought to be able to stand their ground better than this.” I try to recommend this book at least once a year, but I such a defense was mounted by Stephen Holmes in The Matador’s Cape. The Bush administration offers the most compelling refutation of the Schimittian critique of liberalism imaginable. The lack of transparency and arbitrary executive authority too many people conflate with effective national security policy proved not only to be a human rights catastrophe but a notable failure at even advancing national security goals.
In other words, in the context of whisteblowing (as opposed to elections), opponents of the contemporary national security state are allies of liberalism even if they themselves aren’t liberals. Snowden may have all kinds of nutty and objectionable political views, but that doesn’t make him wrong about the NSA, and unlike Rand Paul he actually did something about it. As Henry says, until Snowden runs for Congress it’s those actions we should evaluate. Wilentz’s conflation of the national security state with the “liberal state,” conversely, does liberalism no favors.