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One area where partisan divide really does hurt us

Monday, June 17, 2013 - 8:37 am

We have to agree on the line between security, civil liberties.

If this nation is to be kept safe, the government has to have enough information to stay one step ahead of the terrorists. But in collecting that information, officials must be careful not to violate the basic rights of all Americans.

It’s Patriotism 101 – a common search for that elusive line in just the right place between security and liberty. Surely that is something Red State partisans and Blue State partisans can agree on, even if they are bitterly divided on everything else.

Apparently not. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, there has been a “large partisan shift” in the way Americans view the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, specifically the secret tracking of millions of phone calls. “Partisan hypocrisy, it would seem, infects members of both parties,” says The New Times in stating the obvious.

In 2006, when George W. Bush was president, only 37 percent of Democrats found such surveillance acceptable, and 61 percent said it was not. Now, those numbers are 64 percent and 34 percent respectively. In 2006, 75 percent of Republicans approved of the program and only 23 percent did not. Today, with Barack Obama as president, only 52 percent find it acceptable and 47 percent do not.

This is something our founders, who did not have political parties in mind when drafting the Constitution, would not have understood. They carefully created a complex system of checks and balances meant to diffuse power rather than letting too much of it accumulate in one place. They did this because they understood that it is in our nature to misuse power. Power naturally corrupts because more and more of it is needed just to keep control at existing levels.

So the solution seeking to prevent abuse of the NSA’s snooping power, while still maintaining our security, has to be a solution built into the system, not dependent on our faith in the trustworthiness of whoever’s running the system at any given time. There must be something like a court – however secret it is – that does more than rubberstamp surveillance requests. And Congress must be diligent in keeping watch on the court instead of just trusting it to do the right thing.

Sometimes our political commentators make too much of the partisan divide. Americans really do have fundamental differences of opinion about profound issues, and it’s silly to pretend common ground will be easy to find. But shame on us if we cannot even search for the best way to keep both our security and our civil liberties. We could end up losing one or both of them.