Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The NSA spies and Democrats look away

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:02 AM EDT, Tue July 9, 2013
Activists demonstrate on July 4 in front of the German Chancellery in Berlin in support of granting Edward Snowden asylum.
Activists demonstrate on July 4 in front of the German Chancellery in Berlin in support of granting Edward Snowden asylum.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: There's less emphasis on NSA spying than Snowden's whereabouts
  • Zelizer: Democrats silent on intrusion of the surveillance program; some defend it
  • Zelizer: Partisans are harder on the opposition, but this can be dangerous
  • He says liberal critics of NSA will probably remain silent as excesses in security grow

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- During the weeks of debates triggered by Edward Snowden and his release of information about a classified National Security Agency spying program, the story has moved further and further from the actual surveillance and centered instead on the international cat-and-mouse game to find him.

What has been remarkable is how Democrats have expressed little opposition to the surveillance program. Many Democrats have simply remained silent as these revelations have emerged while others, like California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have openly defended the program.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

President Barack Obama, while initially acknowledging the need for a proper balance between civil liberties and national security, has increasingly focused on defending the government and targeting Snowden. When former President George W. Bush offered comments that echoed much of the president's sentiment, some of his supporters couldn't help but cringe as these two one-time adversaries came together on the issue of counterterrorism.

The loss of a Democratic opposition to the framework of counterterrorism policy has been one of the most notable aspects of Obama's term in office. Although Obama ran in 2008 as a candidate who would change the way the government conducted its business and restore a better balance with civil liberties, it has not turned out that way. Obama has barely dismantled any of the Bush programs, and sometimes even expanded their reach in the use of drone strikes and the targeting of American citizens. He has also undertaken an aggressive posture toward those who criticize his program.

Opinion: Why we're all stuck in the digital transit zone with Snowden

Equally notable has been how silent many liberals, who once railed against Bush for similar activities, have become in recent years. Whenever Obama has encountered conservative pushback for minor efforts to change national security operations, there has been little pressure from liberals for him to move in a different direction. If there was any moment when liberals might use a scandal to pressure the president into reforms, this was it. But there is little evidence that this will happen.

Where is the outrage? Where has the Democratic opposition gone? Part of the story simply has to do with political hypocrisy.

Whether or not we like it, partisans tend to be harder on the opposition party than their own. This was clear when Republican opponents of a strong national security system, who gave then-President Bill Clinton trouble when he went after home-bred white extremists in 1995 and 1996 in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, remained silent when President Bush took the same steps against terrorism after 9/11 -- such as in the use of roving wiretaps on cell phones.

Snowden adrift in Moscow airport
Snowden remains a headache for Putin
What will Edward Snowden do next?
Two countries offer Snowden asylum

Democrats have been reluctant to weaken a president who has moved forward on domestic policies they care about by giving him trouble on an issue where their party has traditionally been vulnerable.

The silence on national security is also a product of presidential leadership. One of the functions of a president, as party leader, is to send strong signals about what the party should focus on. When Obama backed away from closing Guantanamo early in his first term, and has been reluctant to do much about the issues of interrogation and aggressive use of American power, he made it much harder for Democratic liberals to do this on their own. By embracing so much of President Bush's national security program, Obama has forged a bipartisan consensus that further marginalized the left and made it harder for them to gain much traction.

Opinion: Edward Snowden, want my advice?

Finally, liberals have been split on this issue. The intense animosity toward Bush created the appearance of unanimity, but, in reality, divisions loomed all along. Now that Democrats have been able to debate national security with their own president in the White House, it is clear that many liberals, like Feinstein, believe the government needs to take these steps. Efforts to attack the United States, ranging from the failed plot to bomb the New York City subways to the Boston bombings, have offered a reminder of the chronic risks the nation faces.

"What do you think would happen if Najibulla Zazi was successful?" Feinstein asked, referring to his effort to bomb a New York subway. "There would be unbridled criticism. Didn't we learn anything? Can't we protect our homeland?"

But Democrats must also remember that too much consensus can lead to bad decisions. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, many liberal Democrats feared being seen as "soft on communism," and allowed reckless and random attacks on Americans accused of allying with the Soviets. This dangerously eroded civil liberties and destroyed many lives.

During the early 1960s, Lyndon Johnson's refusal to listen to the many critics of his Vietnam policies led him deeper and deeper into the quagmire of that war. And during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Democratic fears of being seen as weak on defense led to a ratcheting up of concern about Iraq that helped give Bush the political space he needed to send American troops off to war.

It is possible that further revelations supplied by Snowden to The Guardian newspaper's Glenn Greenwald will energize liberal opponents of national security policy and build pressure in Congress for serious investigations and possible reform. But the odds are slim.

Opinion: U.S. intelligence community is out of control

It's more likely that most liberal critics of the administration will remain silent and our equivalent of what President Dwight Eisenhower in 1961 called the military-industrial complex -- the intricate web connecting defense contractors, the military, members of Congress and the executive branch -- will continue to grow.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT