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Libertarians Are Trying to Co-Opt an Anti-NSA Rally for Their Own Agenda

Hard-right, anti-government ideologues make poor coalition partners, even if they're right on surveillance

On Saturday, a coalition of critics of the U.S. surveillance establishment will gather in Washington D.C., under the banner  Stop Watching Us for a rally asking Congress to “stop the NSA’s unconstitutional mass surveillance.” Participants will gather in front of Union Station and march to the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol.

Some of the biggest names in civil liberties and digital freedom of information will be there, including the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, FreePress and FreedomWorks. Sponsoring individuals include a great number people I admire (and in some cases, know very well), including Tim Berners-Lee, Daniel Ellsberg, Xeni Jardin, Eli Pariser, Anil Dash, Dan Gillmor, Rebecca Mackinnon, Glenn Greenwald, John Cusack, Molly Crabapple, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, and Andrew Rasiej. Companies backing the effort include Reddit and Ben & Jerry’s.

“We demand the U.S. Congress reveal the full extent of the NSA’s spying programs,” is the basic demand of Stop Watching Us.

This is a vital cause, and I agree with it.

Yet I cannot support this coalition or the rally. It is fatally compromised by the prominent leadership and participation of the Libertarian Party and other libertarian student groups; their hard-core ideology stands in direct opposition to almost everything I believe in as a social democrat.

The Libertarian Party itself – inaccurately described by Stop Watching Us as a “public advocacy organization” – is a right-wing political party that opposes  all gun control lawsand public healthcaresupported the government shutdowndismisses public education,opposes organized labor, favors the  end of Social Security as we know it, and argues in its formal political  manifesto that “we should eliminate the entire social welfare system” while supporting “unrestricted competition among banks and depository institutions of all types.”

Yet my progressive friends would take the stage with the representatives of this political movement? Why? The loss is much greater than the gain. Organizers trade their own good names and reputations to stand alongside – and convey legitimacy to – a party that opposes communitarian participation in liberal society, and rejects the very role of government itself. And their own argument for privacy is weakened by the pollution of an ideology that uses its few positive civil liberties positions as a predator uses candy with a child.

This is an abandonment of core principles, in my view, out of anger over Edward Snowden’s still-recent revelations about the National Security Agency and its spying activity, particularly domestic access to telephone and online networks and metadata. It represents trading long-held beliefs in social and economic justice for a current hot-button issue that – while clearly of concern to all Americans – doesn’t come close to trumping a host of other issues areas that require “the long game” of electoral politics and organizing. Going “all in” with the libertarian purists is a fatal and unnecessary compromise; reform is clearly needed, but the presence of anti-government laissez-faire wingers at the beating heart of the privacy movement will surely sour the very political actors that movement desperately needs to make actual – and not symbolic, link bait – progress in its fight.

I speak of the progressive movement and the Democratic Party, of course.

For those whose feet still touch the ground, the path to NSA reform so clearly lies inside the Democrats’ big tent – and runs through its liberal wing. And because we are a liberal republic, whose central government is not leaving the landscape anytime soon (the libertarians’ fondest goal), change must also run through an elected Congress.

Indeed, Stop Watching Us explicitly acknowledges that fact – on the same  page it proudly lists the Libertarian Party along with two libertarian youth groups, Young Americans for Liberty and Students for Liberty, as sponsoring partners.

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