America has always been a libertarian country—and right now, the suspicion of authority that defines our culture and politics seems particularly strong. By huge margins, Americans say they do not trust the federal government. On both the left and the right, conspiracy theories abound regarding the nefarious designs of power-mad politicians, colluding with the rich and well-connected to steal the freedoms of ordinary individuals.
Yet, as we debate several issues that touch on privacy and disclosure—including the White House's response to Julian Assange and the rise of airport body-scanners—it's worth remembering that the American public doesn't necessarily value individual liberties at the expense of national security. The message sent by the limited public polling on Wikileaks is pretty clear, as illustrated by very recent findings from CBS/New York Times: When asked if there is a public right to know what government does, even in the defense of national security, nearly three-fourths of respondents said they did not have the right to know some things. Despite saturation news coverage of the Wikileaks controversy over an extended period of time, along with impassioned media debates about the implications, 52 percent of respondents said they knew little or nothing about it. And among the minority that had followed the story, by a two-to-one margin respondents were more concerned about the impact on U.S. interests than on individual rights.
The polling on body scanners shows a similar bias toward national security over individual rights. A USA Today/Gallup survey in late November showed respondents by a 71-27 margin accepting a “loss of personal privacy” in exchange for a perceived improvement in the ability to stop terrorists. And the public has consistently opposed, by a 60-39 margin in one March 2010 poll, Obama administration plans to close Guantanamo Bay and try terrorism suspects in civil courts.
Likewise, during the Bush years, few issues aroused the passions of the progressive blogosphere more than the administration’s pursuit of warrantless wiretaps. The public? Not so much. While polling on the subject varied according to the way questions were framed, a January 2006 CBS/New York Times survey was typical. At a time when George W. Bush’s job approval rating was an anemic 42 percent, respondents still favored the warrantless wiretapping program by a 53-46 margin, with only 22 percent saying they were following the story closely.
What explains this curiously illiberal libertarianism? I’d suggest two causes, neither of them things progressives much want to admit about their fellow countrymen.
First, while the concept of a global war on terrorism is treated as mildly ridiculous by most foreign policy wonks, a majority of Americans still seem to believe in it. Polls consistently show that Americans think of terrorism suspects as enemy combatants, and of terrorists as a major threat to the country’s national security. So they do not worry much about the risks of arguably illegal or even unconstitutional steps to fight, interrogate, or punish possible terrorists.
Second, despite a century of liberal efforts to encourage the idea that restraints on government at home and abroad should operate according to principles applied uniformly in all circumstances, many Americans simply don't buy the idea of universal human rights or the equality of nations and their citizens. Polls about airline security consistently show strong support for passenger profiling; a recent ABC/Washington Post survey found 70 percent favoring the general idea of profiling, with 55 percent supporting profiling based on nationality and 40 percent on race.
You could blame this on simple bigotry, but the truth is probably more complicated: As Walter Russell Mead wrote in a famous 1999 essay, the libertarianism of the American public is not the libertarianism of the ACLU. Instead, it reflects an ambivalent populist tradition that strongly values equality and liberty—but only among those perceived as productive, law-abiding Americans. When faced with security threats from people who appear to be "aliens" or "outsiders," however, many Americans are likely to favor a remorseless, take-no-prisoners hostility that takes precedent over liberal and libertarian principles. Even if you don't agree with everything Mead wrote, there is little doubt that this mindset has exerted a strong undertow throughout U.S. history.
Civil libertarians often tend to assume Americans are being brainwashed or turned against their own values on subjects like warrantless wiretapping and military tribunals and Wikileaks. Most of the available evidence, historical and contemporary, suggests otherwise. And when the Obama administration chooses—for example—to hunt down Julian Assange or limit disclosure of sensitive “national security” information, it’s tapping into a very strong tradition which Americans tend to support, even as they say they revere the Bill of Rights.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, and a regular contributor to TNR Online, with his own weblog. He is also Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, a well-known online publication, and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.