Self-proclaimed NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Cold War communist-hunter Joe McCarthy have something in common. They both drove popular opinion among the American right wing into enemy camps.
That Snowden would have the movement taking sides against itself like Hatfields and McCoys ought to have been completely predictable. His recent hijinks in Hong Kong, like Senator McCarthy’s red-baiting fishing expeditions in the 1950s, gets to the core of what unites and divides the Constitution-loving conservatives.
The career of Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy offers an apt case study for understanding how Snowden split the Tea Parties into warring camps. “Bomber” Joe was the most visible and vocal voice for raising the alarm against communist infiltration and influence in the federal government, unions, Hollywood, and other corners of the American heartland. Flamboyant, controversial, and relentless, his tactics eventually earned him a censure from the Senate. President Dwight Eisenhower cheered the fall of his fellow Republican, snickering to his staff that McCarthyism had become “McCarthywas-im.”
To some, McCarthy was a tragic fallen hero who had fought to save the Republic from the enemy inside. Others saw the senator and his accusations, and the blacklists, and ruined lives, as a frontal assault on liberty, free speech and freedom of association.
No part of America parted ways over McCarthy more than conservatives. Peter Viereck attempted to organize an army of intellectuals to condemn him. In contrast, James Burnham declared concerns over McCarthyism were little more than an over-hyped “invention of Communist tacticians.”
Conservative icon Russell Kirk adopted a cautiously middle-ground stance, arguing McCarthy at worst was following “in the old line of destructive critics in the American Congress whose function it is to bedevil the executive arm of government for good or ill.” The only thing these commentators shared in common was that they stood in different corners of the American right wing.
A contemporary of McCarthy and his critics and defenders, Willmoore Kendall, best explained the taproot of the different branches sprouting out conservative intellectual tree. “Kendall attempted to explain the true meaning of McCarthyism,” wrote historian George Nash in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. “The clue to the proper explanation of McCarthyism…lay in the fact that each side was really accusing the other of ‘heresy.’”
On the one hand, the branch of conservatism growing out of the Edmund Burke (who railed about protecting society from the chaos of excess occurring in revolutionary France) tradition that fixated on government’s duty to protect freedom. It was heresy to declare democracy a suicide pact and allow the enemy’s infiltrators to hide behind the Bill of Rights.
On the other hand, others looked to Immanuel Kant defining a free society as “open,” as free as possible from any restraints by government. It was heresy to let Washington smear the innocent without incontrovertible evidence.
McCarthy put the two primary instincts of the movement—security and freedom—directly at war with one another.
Snowden has inspired a similar debate among the conservative brethren. Except where McCarthyism was a debate over an excessive exercise in security-mongering, “Snowdenism” is seen as a squabble over an overzealous expression of free speech.
Dick Cheney called Snowden “a traitor” (which Snowden declared “the highest honor you can give an American.”) Lining up on the other side, Andrew Leonard wrote in Salon that the NSA secret-stealer and -revealer is “a libertarian hero.”
The conservative movement will likely survive this round of partisan warfare much like it did the McCarthy-era—and by the same path—returning to the fusionist vision of conservative ideas that creates a space big enough both for Burkeans and Kantians.
The U.S. Constitution neither sought to create a state based on unfettered government nor anything goes, wide-open, do-your-own-thing “open society.” Instead, the American conception of ordered liberty holds that the exercise of power is derived from a contract with the people for limited governance, not an arbitrary self-appointed judge—either in or out of government. This fusionist vision is the only glue that keep conservatives from flying off in different directions.
As for what is to be done with Snowden and the NSA, the answer is simple. The case should be settled on its own merits, not the ideological propositions of libertarians and national-security conservatives.
In the end, the Snowden’s legacy may be as complicated as that of Bomber Joe. McCarthy was an ambitious, self-promoting, self-destructive man. But he was also right. Many communists had infiltrated the US government—and, yes, they and the Communist Party were working with Moscow.
Snowden is as wrong as Bradley Manning and Wikileaks. He should be punished for his crimes, just as McCarthy was censured for excess.
As for our government, well, the jury is out on that. It is clear that the NSA has sufficient legal authority to conduct legitimate counterterrorism surveillance. It cannot be determined, from what is publically available, whether the NSA faithfully followed the law or whether the surveillance, even if legal, was appropriate to the threats being addressed. It is, however, up to the instruments of ordered liberty to provide us satisfactory answers.
-James Jay Carafano is Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The National Interest