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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The insurrectionists vs the institutionalists

by digby

Chris Hayes appeared on Now with Alex Wagner earlier today and they had a fascinating discussion about American opinion relating to the NSA revelations:

In his book, “The Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy,” Hayes divides American thought leaders into two camps, arguing that figures like The New York Times’ Paul Krugman and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange are classic insurrectionists, distrustful of institutional hierarchies, while Krugman’s colleague at The Times, David Brooks, serves as the model institutionalist.

That prompted Alex to ask Hayes whether 29-year-old Edward Snowden was an insurrectionist bent on tearing down the system or an institutionalist looking to fix it.

“I think the most dangerous thing for authority are people who were once institutionalists who later became radicalized, and I think a lot of whistle-blowers are that,” Hayes said.
“The entire national security state constructed post -9/11 has been shrouded behind secrecy, and because it’s shrouded behind secrecy, people’s opinions about how it functions and whether it’s justifiable tend to fall along these polarized lines of how much you, by default, trust authority.”

The panel also batted around Jeffrey Toobin’s recent column in the New Yorker–an example of the institutionalist position–in which he argues that Snowden was neither a hero nor a whistle-blower.

Finally, Alex and Chris Hayes discussed the public’s confusion over the surveillance issue as evidenced by a new Pew Research poll that shows Democrats and Republicans have essentially switched positions on the issue since Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the White House. In essence, members of the public appear more inclined to believe government surveillance was okay if it took place under the party to which they felt most closely aligned.

“People don’t really have a lot of information to operate on,” Hayes said. “And so what they do is they take cues from people they trust.” It was easier for Democrats to be more skeptical of the national security state when they were not running it.”

There's more to the thesis, and you can watch it on the video.

I think he's on to something. This argument does seem to break on some very odd lines and it's more than just plain old partisanship. (And I agree completely with what he's saying about the partisanship that does exist --- it's an understandable way for busy people to shorthand these decisions.)

I've been skeptical of government power for decades. But that's a function of my age as much as anything -- I came of age during Watergate and I'm not sure I ever fully developed trust in any institution except the press and even that has been eroded over the past couple of decades. But as Hayes outlined in his book --- and has been proven over and over again in my opinion --- our institutions are failing more than ever, even to the extent that the people running them aren't capable of protecting the system that benefits them. (See: Wall Street.) So I'm obviously an insurrectionist.

I don't have the answer to how to fix institutions --- I think they are so corrupted at the moment that it's going to more than a few new rules --- but I do believe that we are probably better off relying on our messy, imperfect system of competing interests, at least until we figure this out. The press and the government should be antagonistic. The congress and the executive need to guard their prerogatives. The people need to be suspicious and push back on encroaching religious power and moneyed interests. It's important not to let any of these failing institutions, least of all the massive police power of the state, completely have the upper hand. That way rarely works out well for the folks.

The system is chaotic and doesn't lend itself to orderly progress. But that's how its designed and lately I've had a fuller appreciation for the enlightenment principles that informed it: self-determinism, consent of the governed, that the government's role is to protect the rights of its citizens as much as provide physical security. Also too, the social contract and all that jazz. There's just no way to have all that if the country is keeping massive amounts of secrets from its citizens while at the same time abandoning its commitment to provide for the common good. It is the worst of all possible worlds.

The secret government been eating away at this society since before Eisenhower warned us about the military industrial complex over 50 years ago. And it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger with no accountability and only the vaguest rationale for its ongoing existence. I can't support it.