TSA and the Limits of Partisanship

Right and wrong don't depend on who's doing them.

The New York Times brings us the startling and unprecedented news that we're a somewhat polarized nation:

Imagine, for a moment, that George W. Bush had been president when the Transportation Security Administration decided to let Thanksgiving travelers choose between exposing their nether regions to a body scanner or enduring a private security massage. Democrats would have been outraged at yet another Bush-era assault on civil liberties. Liberal pundits would have outdone one another comparing the T.S.A. to this or that police state. (“In an outrage worthy of Enver Hoxha’s Albania ...”) And Republicans would have leaped to the Bush administration’s defense, while accusing liberals of going soft on terrorism.

While technically not "news" in the sense of being anything that we don't already know, this article does illuminate the awesome power of the partisan mindset.  Republicans, whom one would expect to defend any weapon in the fight against terrorism, criticized the strip-search scanners as violating citizens' rights, while Democrats, who had complained bitterly against Mr. Bush's activities as intolerable violations of the Constitution, defended them as necessary to public safety.  Perhaps Democrats are more willing to follow Bill Clinton's example and doff their duds?

The prison at Guantanamo Bay is an even more cynicism-inducing example.  A few short years ago, imprisonment of terrorist illegal combatants on a military base in accordance with five hundred years of international military procedure was all the evidence needed to indict Chimpy McBushitler as the Worst President Ever.  Now that there's a Democrat in the White House, all of a sudden Democratic leaders and most of their pundits have realized that it's OK to keep really dangerous bad guys locked up anywhere convenient as long as it takes.

No Principles, Only Partisanship

It often seems that our politicians and media have no principles at all.  Whether a government policy such as Guantanamo or the strip search scanners is a good idea or not, is Constitutional, violates human rights, or even works or not, the idea is accepted or rejected based purely on the letter after whoever proposed it (D, R).

When Daniel Ellsberg released the "Pentagon Papers" in 1971, liberals were glad to embarrass President Nixon (R) while conservatives bemoaned the loss of military secrets and betrayals of Vietnamese who had cooperated with Americans.  Mr. Ellsberg remains a liberal icon to this day.

Wikileaks just gave us an even clearer example.  When Sen. Kerry was asked about the first Wikileaks release of classified Department of Defense documents, he said, "However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan."  When asked about the latest batch of classified State Department documents, Sen. Kerry said that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is guilty of "a reckless action which jeopardizes lives."

There were fewer names in the second batch than in the first, so there were fewer lives put at risk.  Why did Sen. Kerry react so differently?  Most of the material in the first leak dealt with the hated Bush (R) administration so it was OK, the second leak revealed what Mr. Obama (D) had been doing which made it an outrage.  Do we see a pattern here?

The Complexity of Being Unprincipled

Being unprincipled makes it hard to form opinions - you have to know who proposed the idea before you can figure out what you think about it.  Occasionally mistakes can get you in trouble or cause whiplash - some on the left still can't make up their mind about Obama's missing birth certificate, given that the concern was first raised by the Hillary (D) campaign but since then has been taken up predominantly by the right.

While there may be microscopic traces of principle floating around out there for dissection by determined academics, the strongest idea of all seems to be the conviction that the other party can't be trusted with anything or even to believe in anything.

How potent is the psychology of partisanship? Potent enough to influence not only policy views, but our perception of broader realities as well. A majority of Democrats spent the late 1980s convinced that inflation had risen under Ronald Reagan, when it had really dropped precipitously. In 1996, a majority of Republicans claimed that the deficit had increased under Bill Clinton, when it had steadily shrunk instead. Late in the Bush presidency, Republicans were twice as likely as similarly situated Democrats to tell pollsters that the economy was performing well. In every case, the external facts mattered less than how the person being polled felt about the party in power.

Republicans were far more accepting of violations of the Constitution by Homeland Security when it was run by a Republican like Tom Ridge, and Democrats were much happier when the exact same outrages were committed by a Democrat like Janet Napolitano.

Unfortunately, reality isn't like that - wrong is wrong no matter who's doing it, and right is right even if nobody's doing it or even arguing for it besides Scragged.

Halos: No politician has one.

The Simple, Principled Life

There is, however, a difference between politicians, pundits, and actual voters.  Politicians seek to retain power regardless of truth and pundits seek to get influence by whatever means; voters tend just to want to be left alone.

If all our voters have become so unprincipled that they'll follow the leaders of their respective parties blindly, we're in sorry shape indeed.

Fortunately, the recent success of the Tea Party activists in putting down some of the "Democrat lite" candidates nominated by the Republican establishment in favor of unknowns who agreed with Tea Party principles suggests that some voters have become convinced that deficits are bad regardless of who votes for the extra spending.  We don't yet know if enough voters have recognized that excessive spending will destroy our economy, but that concept seems to be gaining favor with time.

Partisanship is useful to a degree - it means that no matter what the ruling party proposes, someone will oppose it.  That's good - all ideas, even from Scragged, need to be tested by having as many people criticize them as possible.  Criticism need not be particularly insightful to be useful, it need merely force the person proposing the idea to justify it in more detail.  This is a purely good result.

Partisanship is harmful, however, when people stop thinking about ideas on their merits.  We at Scragged are convinced that individual liberty is a Good Thing and that government rules restricting it are a Bad Thing.  Thus, we were critical of many actions by the Bush administration which harmed the cause of liberty.  By the same principle, we oppose a great many Obama initiatives, but the letter after his name has nothing to do with it as our 2008 presidential endorsement illustrated.

Having principles makes it easier to decide what to support and what to oppose, not merely whom.  When someone proposes ideas like the "strip search" TSA scanners, we don't have to know that they were being promoted by X, even if he was the former head of Homeland Security, because our opinion of X personally is irrelevant.

We don't have to decide how we feel about the Obama administration.  If the scanners were effective in finding materials such as the explosives used by the panty bomber and all passengers, including Muslims, who didn't like being searched electronically were forced to use them, the loss of freedom might possibly be justified - though the technology would have to be a pretty darn certain for anyone to attempt to justify such an intrusion.

Given that the scanners won't find the most recent terrorist materials and given that they're not being applied in an evenhanded manner, our position is a no-brainer - we're opposed to them.  What's more, we would be every bit as opposed even if Mr. Bush were still President or if John McCain had won the election instead of Mr. Obama.  We'd have to think really heard and might have a different opinion if the scanners were effective, but since they can't see the really bad stuff, there isn't even an argument on their side.

This bright light of principle makes our lives, decisions, and article-writing easier.  It also illuminates those politicians who have principles, or at least share traditional American values with us, in this simple fashion:  Those that do, are just as incensed over the TSA as we are.  Those that don't... aren't.

Now wasn't that a simple way to separate the sheep from the goats?  If only America would take careful note for use at the next election!

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Partisanship.
Reader Comments

I enjoyed this article immensely.
I have long been a student of sociopolitical science,
and find that this phenomemum can be traced to the techniques of the Hegelian dialectic in social engineering.

Essentially it is a scientific method of divide and conquer.
It certainly has worked well in Amerika Inc.


December 7, 2010 12:30 PM

Unfortunately Bush II has no values other than the statist mentality that insures mediocrity: as the founder of the TSA his legacy is fear; that the Democrats emulate his tyranny? No wonder you are proud.
Thus we Amerikans have yet to learn our lesson, other than this Amerikan knows a lie.

December 8, 2010 12:53 AM

@ Moxy

Clearly someone has either tied you to a chair and forced you to visit this website and comment on it's articles, or you still dont understand that, like WWE wrestleing, politics in America is all just an act to fool you. Democrats, Republicans, its all a show to get us bickering amongst ourselves while they enslave their constituents and continualy work to destroy the constitution. The only difference between Dems and Reps is that the democrats will try to enslave you through reward of irresponsablity i.e. the welfare trap, and the republicans will try to enslave you with mediocrity and fear of what the democrats might do next.

December 8, 2010 7:45 AM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...