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“Strange Bedfellows” Are Rolling Back NSA Surveillance

Commentators short on descriptive idioms often deploy the phrase “strange bedfellows” whenever cross-ideological coalitions arise out of mutual concern for civil liberties. Saturday’s “Stop Watching Us” rally in Washington, D.C., endorsed as it was by organizations both left and right, represented the latest such occasion.

Fresh off a leading role in forcing the partial government shutdown, “Tea Party” group FreedomWorks shared billing with (among many others) the ACLU, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the “Anonymous” hacktivist collective. One MSNBC reporter deemed rally-goers a “strange political hodgepodge,” portraying their heterogeneity as a bizarre phenomenon that never would have materialized but for the uniquely broad-based outrage spurred by Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s mass unchecked surveillance on American citizens.

The rally’s marquee speaker was Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and though a tad tentative in presentation, he detailed with vigor the quickening movement in Congress to restore Americans’ civil liberties. This summer, an amendment Amash co-authored with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to defund the massive NSA phone record collection program nearly passed the House, much to the shock of the intelligence community and conventional wisdom. “When the vote came down, it was close. It scared people,” he said. “It scared the establishment in both parties.” The crowd exulted. Amash later told me he regarded anti-surveillance activism as an “important” step toward lasting transpartisan cooperation, and reported that the USA FREEDOM Act—legislation to curtail the NSA’s powers—would pass today if brought to the House floor. These developments were buoyed by grassroots activism, Amash emphasized.

Perhaps the burgeoning coalition of technologists, traditional conservatives, stalwart liberals, and myriad others receives scorn precisely because it is starting to get results.

In the run-up to the rally, journalist Tom Watson wrote a widely-circulated essay [1] at Salon positing that the operational involvement of the Libertarian Party and kindred organizations “infected” the event irreparably, and the left should therefore withdraw its support. Progressives and libertarians might occasionally find common cause on narrow issues, this argument went, but establishing anything like a formal alliance is indefensible given the standard libertarian positions against abortion rights, social welfare programs, and so forth.

No office-holding Democrat addressed the crowd, but Dennis Kucinich, the former representative from Ohio and eager forger of counter-intuitive alliances, preceded Amash with a rousing speech. Afterwards, I confronted him with Watson’s challenge: ought the robust presence of libertarian groups, some expressly affiliated with the GOP, taint the rally and its message in the eyes of progressives? Kucinich was unmoved. “The Constitution belongs to everyone, whatever their political party, whatever their ideology,” he said. “Everyone deserves the protection of the first and fourth amendments. I said it today—we’re not here as partisans. We’re here as Americans.”

The modern Democratic Party itself is a diffuse coalition of interest groups and factions bound together by little beyond raw political expediency. Why is it defensible for “progressives” of Watson’s ilk to work within a party structure dominated by pro-military intervention corporatists—yet working with libertarians is considered a nonstarter?

Throughout U.S. history, nascent populist-oriented coalitions have always been cobbled together messily, and the left-libertarian anti-surveillance lobby is of course no exception. “Part of what we’re trying to do is set out a new model,” said rally organizer JJ Emru when asked to react to Waston’s line of thinking. “To say, if we overcome some of our differences, we can definitely achieve this.”

If nothing else, efforts like Stop Watching Us have the effect of scrambling party allegiances and creating room for unorthodox coalition-building that can challenge the status quo. In the world of Washington commentary, bipartisan cooperation is lauded as healthy and serious, if it involves “compromises” to expand the national security state or cut spending on entitlements. An alliance featuring the likes of Amash and Kucinich is little more than a fleeting convergence of “strange bedfellows.”

With today’s formal introduction [2] of the USA FREEDOM Act by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), the convergence appears to be more than fleeting. Beyond just reining in the NSA, these “strange bedfellows” are redefining what it means to work across the aisle.

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#1 Comment By spite On October 29, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

So Tom Watson does want to get “infected” by “libertarian idealogues”, no doubt he is the kind of guy will that will so easily accuse others of being purists though.

#2 Comment By WorkingClass On October 29, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

I have considerable experience trying to get progressives to see the advantage of cooperation with Libertarians where they have common ground. Some can see the light. Most would prefer death. I’m proud to say that Kucinich was my candidate in the 2008 primaries. In his absence I supported Ron Paul in 2012. I’m an American first and a lefty second.

Left and Right are slowly waking up to the fact that they both have been forced off the playing field by the corporatist Democratic and Republican political duopoly that Ralph Nader (my candidate in 2000)so clearly warned us about.

If we would restore the rule of law and regain our freedom we must work together to throw off the corporate oligarchy that owns the legacy parties. When that is done we can settle our differences through honest elections.

#3 Comment By SDS On October 29, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

“given the standard libertarian positions against abortion rights”

..Just what standard libertarian is he referring to??

..Not this one….

OR maybe it’s just more ignorance….In any case; BRAVO, STOPWATCHING.US!!

#4 Comment By Johann On October 29, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

This is healthy bipartisanship, not the usual “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” bipartisanship.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 29, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

What ideologues like Watson don’t get is that once a secret unaccountable power has access to all the conversations, associations, financial information that goes on, it will use it in defense of and for the growth of its own power. J. Edgar never enjoyed this kind of STASI wish list horsepower when he was blackmailing elected representatives and any others who were useful to control for his own ends. Neither did the STASI for that matter, but their aim was the same – national security for those in power who wanted to act secretly and unaccountably for personal gain, whether of money or power. Powerful people’s careers have been derailed by national security spying on personal matters, when it suited those they might challenge.

How many people are willing to do other than cave in, when threatened? How many Snowdens do we have? Not many are willing to give up everything to do what is right.

#6 Comment By RadicalCenter2016 On October 29, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

SDS, you are right: what the Hell is he talking about when he refers to the “standard” libertarian position “against abortion rights”?

First, it is disingenuous loaded language, smuggling in the false premise that only the “pro-choice” position is “pro-rights.” The very argument on the other side is that the other human being in the equation, the unborn baby (or embryo and then fetus, if you prefer) has a right not to be killed which is not overriden by her mother’s rights.

Second, assuming that the reference was to “the standard libertarian position” against allowing the killing of pre-born human beings through induced abortion, there is no such standard libertarian position. The Libertarian Party platform has been and remains “pro-choice”, and the much broader libertarian movement also seems to be somewhat more “pro-choice” than “pro-life.”

The most realistic and workable compromise would be the approach that is consistent with the Tenth Amendment: let the people of each State decide their own State’s abortion laws, with no interference from the federal government one way or the other.

In other words, this libertarian doesn’t want federal candidates who are EITHER “pro-life” or “pro-choice” if that means centrally imposing one policy on the entire country. Return this issue, like so many others, to the States. My wife and I will lobby for more “pro-life” / abortion-restricting laws in our State, while “pro-choice” people would all be free to lobby for the opposite approach in their State.

#7 Comment By Claire On October 30, 2013 @ 2:00 am

The libertarian position on abortion is as follows:
1.4 Abortion

Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.

So,how do you figure that those scary libertarians are against abortion rights?

#8 Comment By Jim Blackwell On October 30, 2013 @ 8:15 am

More often than not on most issues there is a strong divergence of opinion and thus a dichotomy and impetus of grass-roots action between conservative populists and traditional leftists and that is especially true when comparing conservative populists verses the more radical Socialist nanny-state components of the left. However on some issues working class conservative populists are more closely aligned with the traditional left than people think. Two notable examples are matters of war and peace, and civil liberties. On matters of war and peace conservative populists shun the chicken-hawk establishment elites from both parties as well as the Neoconservative orthodoxy that still seeps from the Republican establishment. And on the matter of civil liberties obviously conservative populists shun the ultra-intrusive nanny-state and bloated welfare state theology preached about by the left that impinges more and more into the everyday lives of ordinary Americans. Now that more than the tip of the iceberg is beginning to surface concerning the scope and breadth of the surveillance that NSA and other government organizations have been doing on average everyday Americans over the past several decades many within the political elite community are running for cover. Thus it is with all political establishment elites. Once the full nature and intent of what they have foisted upon mainstream citizens (examples violations of civil liberties, Obamacare, etc.) become known to those same mainstream citizens that then in turn become rightfully agitated the elites run for cover every time. We are currently seeing that happen with civil liberties violations (elites from both parties wanting to rein in the NSA), as well as leftist Democrats now running away as fast as they can from the tragic results of Obamacare which they have pushed down the throats of the working class.

#9 Comment By Myron Hudson On October 30, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

The likes of Tom Watson contribute to the inevitable shrinkage and ineffectiveness of their movements through “purification’. No different than the Tea Party that he apparently confuses Libertarians with. He should have a clue, but obviously that’s too much to expect. Anyway, as Kucinich pointed out, the Constitution belongs to all of us. There are no strange bedfellows involved here, just us.

Our hyper response to 9-11 (as if we were the first and only country to experience a terrorist attack) is something we’ll be recovering from for a long time and we may never fully recover. The expansion of the state, the massive intrusion, the increased power of the executive branch, the secrecy – that ball never stopped rolling once it started.