Sen. Rand Paul: Ideologue-in-Chief

by Michael Sean Winters

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Senator Rand Paul showed again this weekend why he is such a frightening politician. He is the most quintessential ideologue in American politics since Huey Long.

Sen. Paul delayed Senate consideration of a program to continue the surveillance programs conducted by the National Security Agency. He does not have the votes to prevent the extension from passing but he was able to use Senate rules to delay passage of a bill.

President Obama was wrong to paint Sen. Paul’s delaying tactics as mere politics. For starters, expressing shock when politicians act in a political manner is rich. I wish Sen. Paul was merely interested in jump starting his otherwise flagging presidential campaign. I fear he actually believes what he is saying.

What Sen. Paul says rests on a particular and highly idiosyncratic reading of American history. He is at least frank about this. He said in Iowa this weekend, “This is what John Adams said we fought the revolution over.” It is true that John Adams highlighted the American objections to writs of assistance as one of the touchstones of the revolution. Then, the British government used these writs to enable local officials to search for smuggled goods and the warrants were, like some NSA warrant, general rather than specific. The American answer to this infringement of personal liberties was the Fourth Amendment and its guarantees against unreasonable search and seizures.

John Adams, of course, can be forgiven for his lack of familiarity with cell phone technology. Similarly, our nation’s second president never opined on the threats of international terrorists with access to highly sophisticated communications technology. Invoking Adams, as Sen. Paul did, is a bit like those Second Amendment literalists who thing the right to bear arms is unconditional, while I would argue that the Second Amendment only confers an unconditional right to bear a musket. And, Sen. Paul should at least note that this same founding father was quite willing to suspend civil liberties when he became president and signed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The key word in the Fourth Amendment is unreasonable. No one is thrilled by NSA spying programs. No one is thrilled by the need to remove shoes and belts before boarding a plane. We all forfeit a bit of our individual privacy in order to protect us all against common threats. Mr. Paul has a suspicious cast of mind, however, and always presumes the worst about government interference with personal liberties. He is, after all, a libertarian and libertarians routinely compare taxation and government regulation to violence.

Government officials, including Sen. Paul, take an oath to protect the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Anyone familiar with the long, troubled career of J. Edgar Hoover knows that the government has, at times, taken this oath to extreme and unconstitutional lengths. But, it would only take one more terrorist attack on American soil to convince the American people to adopt yet more intrusive means of government interference. People who do not feel safe – people who are not, in fact, safe – will often adopt bad remedies.

I would also like to register a different concern. We all recognize the need for government surveillance. I would prefer a wide and light surveillance, in which all of our phone records are subject to some sort of review, to a more specific and targeted approach, which would undoubtedly fall more heavily, with greater levels of intrusion, on our Muslim citizens. Better the NSA apply algorithms widely and lightly to all of us than engage in more focused examination of U.S. citizens who recently traveled to Cairo to visit family.

We can debate the particulars of the NSA spying program. A person in Iowa told the Washington Post that he approved the spying, saying, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, what are you worried about?” That attitude, though common, is a tyrant’s dream and does not reflect a necessary concern for personal liberties. But, Sen. Paul represents the opposite extreme and, sticking to his prepared ideology, which makes perfect sense once you accept his premises, he has made the nation less safe today than it was at this time yesterday. I hope that the seams in our surveillance system will not be exploited by people who wish us ill. Sen. Paul better hope that too. But, ideologues are always inalert to history and nuance and context. That is why they are scary. 

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