News & Politics

Dems and Privacy Politics

Americans will vote Democrat to protect their privacy -- by huge margins, even in red Republican states.
Do you want Karl Rove rummaging through your personal files? The NSA perusing printed copies of debates with friends abroad over who is most likely to emerge victorious in this summer's World Cup in Germany? As the enormous scope of the National Security Agency's wiretapping scandal and the ongoing saga of Karl Rove's double supersecret background conversation with reporter Matt Cooper keep the pundits merrily pontificating about the future of this republic, the Democratic Party, often accused of not forging a coherent message stating its core principles, has been presented with a historic opportunity.

Rove and the indicted Scooter Libby's blunder, which was worthy of "Animal House" hero Bluto Blutarsky, George Bush's burgeoning Republican police state and growing corporate abuse of private records provides Democrats with an opportunity to define themselves. They should support a thematic concept that, ironically, has been a central philosophy Democrats have embraced for years to protect the rights of women: a Constitutional right to privacy. Only now, Democrats should not only support this idea in the abstract but push for it to be codified as an amendment to the Constitution.

Why privacy? Because Rove's loose lips aside, a combination of the big government conservatism and corporate cronyism displayed by Washington Republicans has rightfully made the public, including those on the right and left of the spectrum, wary of a group of ideologues and grafters who seek to stick their collective noses into every aspect of their lives. This, in turn, has given Democrats the chance to not only define themselves but also tap into the growing populist indignation of moderates, independents, libertarians and even many traditional conservatives for the current GOP matrix.

Election results over the past year, and both elite and public reaction to GOP policy and rhetoric, provide ample evidence that privacy is a burgeoning concern across ideological lines. The special election that almost saw the election of Iraqi Freedom veteran Paul Hackett in a cherry-red Republican part of Ohio was nothing short of staggering. Hackett's compelling biography and deficient opponent were certainly a large part of his winning 48.3 percent of the vote in a district President Bush won with a 63 percent average in 2000 and 2004, and former Rep. Rob Portman won in 2004 by 44 percent. Yet, equally as important was Hackett's message, summed up neatly in one of his campaign advertisements:
I'm for limited government. I don't need Washington to tell me how to live my personal life, or how to pray to my God. And I don't need Washington to dictate to my wife the decisions that she makes with her doctor, any more than I need Washington to tell me which guns I can keep in my gun safe.
Hackett is not alone in speaking the language of privacy, however. A newly minted Democratic celebrity, Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, won the governorship in that blood-red state in 2004 by stressing that people should be protected from the vagaries of government and business. In speaking about abortion as early as his 2000 U.S. Senate race against Republican incumbent Conrad Burns, Schweitzer said, "The government should not intervene in a woman's right to make health care decisions. Those decisions should be left up to the woman and her doctor." According to David Sirota, a Schweitzer campaign strategist who wrote a piece on the governor for Washington Monthly magazine, this theme extended to personal land rights:
Schweitzer drafted a nine-point plan to protect cherished hunting and fishing access rights on public and private lands. Among other things, Schweitzer called for keeping public lands in the state's hands, for spending more money to maintain them for hunters and anglers, and for using fees from hunting licenses to buy easements from private property owners to give sportsmen easier access to fields and streams.
The right of hunters, anglers and fishermen to land usage without the interference of government or corporations looking to buy public lands from cash-strapped local governments goes to the heart of the issue of privacy. In fact, property rights landed on the front burner after the Kelo v. New London, Connecticut court decision, with many reasonable Americans resenting the possibility of being forced off their land for mall rats searching for that perfect slushy. With 89 percent of Connecticut residents opposing the use of eminent domain to confiscate their land, you could say we have a bipartisan issue here.

The public reaction against invasive legislation and maneuvering by the GOP has been equally as enthusiastic. The hastily passed post-9/11 Patriot Act is a useful example. The president and a Republican Congress moved quickly to thwart early attempts by U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to permit the sun to set on Patriot Act provisions currently allowing the Justice Department to browse through your Amazon preferred list, sans judicial warrant. Yet, the public clearly finds these extrajudicial searches troubling. An ABC News poll on June 9, 2005, showed that, by a 68 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans oppose the FBI's right to demand records without prior judicial approval. Only 42 percent of Republicans and 32 percent of independents not opposed.

This may have something to do with the fact that a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold on the left and NRA board member and Republican Sen. Larry Craig on the right, recently blocked the permanent reauthorization of most Patriot Act provisions. They also blocked temporary permission (2009) to continue two more controversial measures, roving wiretaps and secret warrants for books, records and other items from businesses, hospitals and libraries. The news that the FBI had been spying on such known Al Qaeda front groups as the Quakers and PETA may not have strengthened the administration's position.

Public wariness over the Bush administration's intentions should only increase with the recent revelations by New York Times reporter James Risen that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been running a covert program of spying on Americans who choose to be so bold as to speak with someone not living in this country. While the president has trotted out the usual sycophant defenders, the uproar over this abuse of power has been quite bipartisan. The administration has been admonished by Republican senators such as Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe. Sen. Arlen Specter has called for hearings when Congress reconvenes.

Add ardent conservatives such as former House impeachment manager Bob Barr, Reagan Justice Department official Bruce Fein and former Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist William Safire to those who have called the program "dangerous" and/or "illegal." An institution on the right, the libertarian CATO Institute has used similarly critical language, and now it has become clear that the deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft, James Comey, refused to endorse its continuation in 2004 because of questions about its "legality." The people have spoken about this issue in the past as well, as shown in a September 2003 Gallup Poll, where 67 percent of Americans opposed having their basic civil liberties violated, even to prevent terrorism.

While it almost seems to have occurred a life ago when surrounded by the current firestorm over the NSA spying on Americans, the decision of the fire and brimstone crowd to insert themselves into the personal tragedy of Terry Schiavo's family was less menacing to many Americans. From the ominous threats of Tom DeLay to the pronouncements of telesurgeon Bill Frist that Mrs. Shiavo was essentially in perfect health to sit up, eat cookies and play scrabble with James Dobson, if her husband would only let her, the public saw this episode for what it was: government intrusion into the personal decisions of a grieving family. According to an ABC News Poll taken at the time, 70 percent of respondents opposed Congressional involvement in this issue, including 67 percent of moderates, 61 percent of independents and 57 percent of conservatives.

Last fall, with Democrat Tim Kaine's stunning 6-point defeat of Republican Jerry Kilgore to become the next governor of Virginia, I know of efforts by at least one unaffiliated group, through the use of direct mail, to directly link Kilgore to the Shiavo affair by reminding voters of his support for Congress's decision to intervene. These efforts were concentrated on the Washington, D.C., suburbs, and while other issues came into play, most notably public education and transportation, it is worth noting that this particular group determined that the Schiavo case merited top-three issue attention. On election day, furthermore, Tim Kaine won one of the fastest-growing suburbs in the country, Loudoun County, by 51 percent to 46 percent, a feat the outgoing and very popular Gov. Mark Warner failed to achieve. He also ran up a huge margin of 60,000 votes in Fairfax County, far outpacing either Mark Warner or John Kerry.

Finally, no invasion of privacy party would be complete if big business didn't show up with a Bordeaux. So not surprisingly, when it comes to gleaning personal information for magisterial profits, big business has acted like a rapacious tiger on the Serengeti plain, yet once obtaining these records, has often resembled nothing so much as Inspector Clouseau. According to a June 18, 2005, account by the New York Times, more than 40 million credit card accounts were exposed to potential identity theft because of a computer security breach at a payment processing company. Bank of America also got into the act, losing data tapes containing the personal information of 1.2 million federal employees. The public is clearly anxious about this issue, with constant reports on major news outlets and Newsweek deeming it worthy of a cover story. Yet, when Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla., sponsored a bill to protect consumers whose financial woes were caused by identity theft, he was voted down largely along party lines by Republicans protecting the interests of you guessed it -- big business.

There are numerous additional concerns that can fit neatly under the rubric of privacy. In fact, if Democrats would only remind them, many voters would also be none too pleased about the effort of Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., to use hidden legislation to access their IRS records or House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's use of the Homeland Security Department as his own personal police force.

In his great work "American Populism: A Social History 1877-1898," historian Robert C. McMath, Jr., discussed how populist reformers "understood that old rules and values were crumbling, and that powerful new economic institutions buttressed by the state threatened their independence." There could be no more apt description of the way many Americans feel today about big government, big business and its new co-equal partner, big faith.

The ability to build a new coalition of the more-than-willing-to-be-left-alone may not be a panacea, but for Democrats it certainly would be one step towards defining themselves and appealing to swaths of the electorate already disgusted with the heavy hand and corruption of the GOP and waiting for a reason to abandon them. Recent elections and public opinion have provided a shining path to success for Democrats.

It is time to take out the issue of privacy as a constitutional guarantee for a spin, as the perfect storm has created an atmosphere ripe for protecting the rights of a diverse group of Americans from a group of authoritarian and profits-at-any-cost-minded Republicans. They might even want to get Samuel Alito on the record as to what he thinks about codifying privacy rights. Should they pursue this issue, they will most likely find themselves emulating the success of the aforementioned "Animal House" hero Bluto Blutarsky, who as you may remember, reached the hallowed halls of the U.S. Senate once his days at Faber College were over.
Clifford D. Schecter is Graduate Honors Fellow at American University, receiving his doctorate in American History. He writes a periodic political debate column for Knight-Ridder News Service, blogs for The Gadflyer and writes a satirical weekly roundup of political events for Americablog.
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