Print this Page

When I read about Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, I had two immediate reactions: this guy looks like my cousin Brendan and this guy is a hero.

At great personal risk, Mr. Snowden broke the law in order to expose a much larger criminal enterprise: The Defense Department’s outrageous and unconstitutional mass-monitoring of domestic civilian communications. To my mind, his willingness to be branded a criminal and live as a fugitive makes his actions all the more heroic. And the irony that a champion of civil liberties was forced to seek refuge in the shadow of totalitarian China is more damning and embarrassing to us than to him.

So, as the news broke, I impulsively reached for my iPhone to tweet my support. Then I hesitated. Why take sides on such a divisive issue? Why not wait and see what happens? It’s not as if the media were beating down my door for a comment. There’s no hurry. And a tweet is forever. But then I was caught by surprise by a flash of embarrassment at my own lack of courage.

So, I tweeted:

The reaction from my small Twitter following was instant and almost universally disapproving. In short, it seemed that most of my progressive tweeps had gone all state security on me. People whose tweets were ordinarily peppered with terms like “choice,” “equality” and “civil rights” were now throwing around words like “treason,” “security” and “homeland.” It sounded like their accounts had been hacked by G. Gordon Liddy. I was getting a few messages of support – from Republicans.

What was going on? Why were so many of my fellow Democrats flaking out on civil rights? What happened to being a card a carrying member of the ACLU? I’ve entertained a few theories. Maybe in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Democrats are still so irrationally terrified of being viewed as soft on terrorism that we feel the need to overcompensate, jumping at any opportunity to prove we’re just as mercenary as anyone else. But the real explanation turns out to be more obvious; and less disturbing than it is depressing. Though initiated under President Bush, PRISM was expanded (and exposed) under a Democratic administration. The backlash I experienced was probably just a case of Democrats protecting a Democratic administration. This theory is supported by the numerous emails I received from Democrats telling me to cool it on the hero talk because I was playing right into the hands of the Republicans.

As Democrats, we should not be trying to minimize the seriousness of genuine misconduct when it happens under a Democratic administration. On the contrary, Democrats – not Republicans – should be the most ardent critics of a Democratic administration that operates in a manner inconsistent with our values. After all, it’s our brand that’s being tarnished.

Unfortunately, the political landscape is so poisoned and polarized that many of us – in both parties – aren’t even aware we’re part of the problem. Too much time spent in the echo-chamber of partisan group-think has made us unbelievably smug and complacent. Demonizing the other side is easy, and seeing a good idea for what it is becomes impossible when it originates from someone with the wrong political credentials. A liberal number of my liberal Twitter followers unfollowed me after my controversial tweet – a pretty illiberal thing to do if you ask me. Even if you do disagree with someone, why cut off the conversation? The Southern Poverty Law Center follows the KKK and I’m pretty sure they’re not fans.

I’m as frustrated as anyone with GOP political theater, the faux outrage surrounding non-scandals like Benghazi and other transparently cynical attempts to hobble the President’s second term agenda in advance of next year’s mid-term elections. But lets not sink to their level. If we view important issues through the lens of partisan self-interest, we are playing the game by their rules. We may gain momentary advantage but in the long term, we’ll be viewed as intellectually dishonest, we’ll lose credibility and we’ll end up defeating our own cause.

It’s like PRISM itself; it may have seemed clever at the time but the blowback just isn’t worth it.

Jay Stamper is a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate held by Lindsey Graham (RINO-S.C.).