mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Jeffersonians Battle Jacksonians in GOP Civil War Over Surveillance


The GOP civil war is on: on Friday New Jersey Governor Chris Christie directed some sharp remarks in Sen. Rand Paul’s direction over national security strategy. NYT:

“This strain of libertarianism that’s going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought,” Mr. Christie said on a panel with other Republican governors here […]

“The next attack that comes, that kills thousands of Americans as a result, people are going to be looking back on the people having this intellectual debate and wondering whether they put.…” said Mr. Christie, before cutting himself off.

Many commentators have picked up on the fact that Christie’s words were inelegantly expressed. And yet, the basic point he was making is deeply aligned with what we see in American public opinion more broadly. In periods of relative safety—whether real or imagined—the public is zealous to guard its privacy and civil liberties. In periods of perceived danger—in the aftermath of an attack, for example—the people are less worried about ceding some power to the government if they think it makes them safer.

In the wake of the NSA revelations, and the meteoric rise of Rand Paul, the GOP is essentially seeing a resurgence of Jeffersonianism, a kind of stance towards politics that wants small domestic government, few foreign entanglements, and heavy checks against the abuse of national security power.

Jeffersonianism, with Rand Paul as its standard bearer, is more popular than ever in today’s GOP. Take, for example, the recent vote of GOP-controlled House to pass to a law limiting NSA surveillance. Though it failed, the vote was very close, closer than expected—205 to 217.

And yet, it did fail. Congress follows the polls. It seems that both the American people and their representatives are reaching for a middle way—a via media, if you will–between excessive invasions of privacy and excessive precautions that endanger American liberty. We think there is much wisdom in searching for this middle ground, and we hope that as Jeffersonians continue to snipe at Jacksonians, the American polity will quietly work its way towards a commonsense consensus.

[Photo courtesy Getty Images]

Features Icon
show comments
  • Tom Lindmark

    The article implies that support for the measure was largely GOP based. In fact Republicans voted against it 134-94 while Democrats voted for it 111-83. Essentially the GOP defeated the measure which President Obama opposed though he spent no political capital assisting in the effort and obviously didn’t rally his own party against it.

    The Jeffersonian impulses are strong and growing but they obviously aren’t strictly confined to the GOP. Given the strong bipartisan support for the measure, I think it’s debatable as to exactly where the American public stands on this issue.

    • Andrew Allison

      It’s not debatable at all where the American public stands on this issue: a clear majority are outraged. Unfortunately, most of their reprehensitives long ago gave up actually representing them.

  • cubanbob

    Do we really want or even need a super-spy national security state? True we do need an ability to find terrorists and criminals but as recent events the government has demonstrated an amazing ability to gather information on the citizenry coupled with an equally amazing inability to use that information for its supposedly intended benefit. I’m not to fond of the Paul’s but on this they are right. Apparently it’s lost on the public that the difference between a drug and a poison is the dosage.

  • David Bennett

    Do we actually know what the American People think most of the time? What we know is that people complain about government overreach but when something bad happens the government uses it as an opportunity to overreach. Most of the governments reaction to 9/11 has been useless or worse.

  • circleglider

    Via Meadia can’t even get its own typology right. Chris Christie represents Hamiltonians, not Jacksonians.

    Plus, the public support for the national security state that you see as a sensible middle way is nothing but reflexive partisanship on the part of rank-and-file Democrats. If a Republican president’s NSA had been exposed by Edward Snowden, the debate – and the votes in Congress – would have been very different.

  • Bruce

    The American people are willing to live with some security measures. However, they are beginning to realize that government over reaches on everything it does. Even if they are willing to endure some security (although not as much as there is now), the appetite for more wars is gone. They won’t be sold another war easily. Christie has become a tiresome buffoon. His candor used to be refreshing. Now it’s just boring, inelegant and unbecoming of a public official. There is a place for tact in the world.

  • Pete

    The government is giving the American people a false choice on security.

    Instead of creating an intrusive national security system (NSA surveillance, the absurd politically correct screening policies at airports, nation building wars, etc.), all that has to be done is to closely monitor Muslims, like is done with other hate groups (KKK), and curtail Muslim entry into the U.S.

    But you see, the true objective of the State is not to protect you and me. It’s to protect itself from you and me — the citizens — as it expands its reach over us..

  • ljgude

    There is a bipartisan reaction to the NSA’s perfidious behaviour. I find myself agreeing with both libertarians and self proclaimed bleeding heart liberals. Personally as a tech aware guy I have not been at all shocked by the revelations except that the fat lazy bureaucrats combined with political correctness made it possible to not tap the Tsaranev brothers after the Russkies fingered them. It is good to see bipartisan disgust with disgustingly degenerate government.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service