Arguing About Civil Liberties

The blogosphere sure can be a weird place sometimes. A couple of days ago Matt Yglesias wrote a short post suggesting that, unfortunately, public opinion is broadly in favor of constraining civil liberties if that’s what it takes to fight terrorism. Since public opinion underlies a lot of what presidents do, this means that civil libertarians need to work harder to shift public opinion on this subject.

Glenn Greenwald fired back today, calling this the “Public Opinion Excuse” and arguing (among other things) that presidents don’t follow public opinon slavishly, they have the ability to mold public opinion themselves if they want to, and civil libertarians ought to be directly pressuring both Obama and the Democratic Party on this issue. Matt responded, “I just wanted to note for the record, officially, that I don’t believe any of the things he’s decided to attributed to me.”

WTF? There’s not even an argument here. It’s like asking whether ice cream is sweet or cold. It’s both. Of course public opinion plays an enormous role in shaping public policy in a democracy. It constrains presidents in what they can do, and it especially constrains them when the subject is one that opponents can fearmonger to produce big swings in public attitudes. That describes civil liberties and national security almost perfectly.

But yes, presidents can and do push back against public opinion — up to a point. Obama, for example, pushed back against failing public opinion to get healthcare reform passed earlier this year. Defending civil liberties in an era of terrorism is hard, but Obama could unquestionably have a better record on this regardless. Guantanamo may be a tough nut given public and congressional opposition to closing it, but Glenn is certainly right that, for example, public opinon didn’t force Obama to adopt a policy of allowing American citizens overseas to be targeted for assassination.

I dunno. Sometimes it seems like we’re all determined to invent arguments where none exist. The real question is: how do you feel about the actual merits of Obama administration’s civil liberties record? Do you want it changed? If you do, then you should work both on changing public opinion and on applying direct political pressure. They’re symbiotic. Neither one will work without the other. It’s crazy to think otherwise.

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