Subscriptions to South Dakota Magazine make great gifts!
Subscribe today — 1 year (6 issues) is just $25!
Jun 18, 2013
When I arrived at Northern State University in the late 80’s, my department consisted mostly of folks older than myself and well to my left on the political spectrum. I liked all of them but when it came to policy, foreign or domestic, we could scarcely agree on the time of day.
We did agree emphatically on one thing. We respected one another not in spite of but precisely because of our disagreements. Each of us valued the freedom of thought and speech that we enjoyed and we recognized that such freedoms are impossible unless everyone is willing to allow his or her cherished beliefs to be challenged. I can’t imagine any of my colleagues would accept the use of institutional powers at any level to stifle dissent. That is what a liberal culture looks like, if one means by liberal the same thing as liberty.
The President has been caught up of late in (at least) two kinds of scandal. One of them is due to the fact that the culture of the administration is decidedly illiberal. There is no doubt that the IRS used its powers to discriminate against conservative organizations and especially against groups with “Tea Party” associations. Such groups were subject to special scrutiny. Their applications were delayed and they were subject to unreasonable and unprecedented demands. This heavy-handed abuse was clearly motivated by a desire to chill dissent. Only the right was subject to such treatment.
It wasn’t just the IRS. The Environmental Protection Agency regularly waived fees for Freedom of Information Act requests coming from traditionally left wing environmental groups. It did not extend this generosity to free market-based organizations.
Was all this directed by the White House? That only matters if it becomes a matter for a court of law. The President is the Chief Executive. He is by definition responsible for what the executive branch agencies do. Moreover, it is hard not to think that this illiberal culture did not flow from the very top. Recall the President’s petulant war against Fox News. The administration attempted to push Fox out of the White House press corps.
If it weren’t for all of this, the other set of scandals would be much less scandalous. As Steve Coll puts it at the New Yorker:
It has been apparent for several years that the Obama administration has departed from the First Amendment norms established during the seven Presidencies since Branzburg. [Attorney General Eric] Holder has overseen six prosecutions of government officials for aiding the press, more than were brought by all previous administrations combined.
That alone is cause for concern. Perhaps the administration’s conduct is justified. Like most Americans, I can see why the administration wants to store a massive database of phone records. If some terrible mischief is afoot or already committed, I hope that the good guys can tell who the bad guys called and when. But that kind of surveillance can easily be abused. If we are going to trust the Executive Branch with that kind of power, we have to be able to trust that they will not abuse it. President Obama’s Executive Branch has forfeited that trust.
The root cause of the problem is that a lot of contemporary liberals are not at all like my colleagues mentioned above. When the Tea Party movement emerged, the American Left did not engage it in discourse; they went on a full court press to discredit it. They accused the Tea Party activists of racism, which was bitterly unfair, and of encouraging violence, which was blatantly false. That is how an orthodoxy responds to heretics, not how genuine liberals respond to dissent.
Editor's Note: Ken Blanchard is our political columnist from the right. For a left-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Cory Heidelberger every other Wednesday on this site.