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Illiberal Liberals

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.

Dr. Ken Blanchard is a professor of Political Science at Northern State University and writes for the Aberdeen American News and the blog South Dakota Politics.


01:16 pm - Tue, June 18 2013
larry kurtz said:
Gee Ken: you'd think your side was losing national credibility by your tone. If only Bill Napoli could be your party's nominee for the US Senate.

Nice of you to plow the road for free...or are you? Have a nice day.

10:51 pm - Tue, June 18 2013
Dennis Pluth said:
Ken, Well articulated. I believe that the right of ALL citizens is warranted by the constitution. Which in fact the executive officer (The President) is sworn to behold.

What we have here is a potential egregious effort for our executive to expose this data mining to use to his benefit....

Please keep up your "Eye or Sauron" (sp) effect on this topic.

My first time reading your column and damn proud of you.
10:35 am - Wed, June 19 2013
Bruce Tucker said:
As an NSU alum, and loyal Wolves supporter, I admit that I was worried that Northern had gone ALL LEFT. It is very refreshing to hear that is not the case.
The hubris of this president and his constant assertions of plausible denial truly astound me.
Thanks, and Go, Wolves!
Bruce Tucker, B74
09:10 am - Thu, June 20 2013
Bernie said:
Based on history (Hoover, etc.) I don't think the public should trust ANY administration, Dem or Republican. There's a pretty sorry track record through the decades regardless of the party in power. Probably buried in all this is a good lesson that the unelected bureaucracy is really in power and the presidents only nibble away at the edges of policy? That's something that should concern Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike.

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