Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Right You Are If You Think You Are

Ross Douthat’s column in yesterday’s New York Times contended that in the matter of enhanced airport screening by the TSA, now that there’s a Democrat in the White House, the Democrats are all quiet on the freedom front whereas they were outraged at the assault on their rights under the Bush administration. It was all politics.

But people who follow politics closely — whether voters, activists or pundits — are often partisans first and ideologues second. Instead of assessing every policy on the merits, we tend to reverse-engineer the arguments required to justify whatever our own side happens to be doing.

Except, as James Fallows explains, that’s not exactly the case.

There are many instances of the partisan dynamic working in one direction here. That is, conservatives and Republicans who had no problem with strong-arm security measures back in the Bush 43 days but are upset now. Charles Krauthammer is the classic example: forthrightly defending torture as, in limited circumstances, a necessary tool against terrorism, yet now outraged about “touching my junk” as a symbol of the intrusive state.

But are there any cases of movement the other way? Illustrations of liberals or Democrats who denounced “security theater” and TSA/DHS excesses in the Republican era, but defend them now? If such people exist, I’m not aware of them — and having beaten the “security theater” drum for many long years now, I’ve been on the lookout.

The assumption by Mr. Douthat, backed up by scant evidence, that the liberals would reverse poles on this is based on his own assumption that because one group does it, the other must as well. It isn’t based on the reality that those who are opposed to the enhanced screenings have been against them since the outset and it has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with the fact that they believe that the system is ineffective or that it is traumatic for a large number of people who are survivors of sexual assault and who rightly have an aversion to being touched by strangers. They were against the procedures during the Bush administration, and they’re against them now.

So once again we’re up against the false equivalency wall: both sides do it and do it at the same level of outrage. The Tea Party may be all intractable and illogical, but so was ACORN; there’s no difference between MSNBC and Fox News except which side they’re on; Democrats and Republicans are both the Party of No on Capitol Hill. Each one of those is demonstrably false, and yet Very Serious People like Ross Douthat and David Brooks and Mika Brzezinski and Cokie Roberts can go on TV and say a pox on both your houses. It’s a classic case of transference; if you’ve got it, the other guy must have it to. But it simply isn’t the case, and as Mr. Fallows concludes, “[r]ecognizing that is part of facing the reality of today’s politics.”