Imagine, for a moment, that George W. Bush had been president when the Transportation Security Administration decided to let Thanksgiving travelers choose between exposing their nether regions to a body scanner or enduring a private security massage. Democrats would have been outraged at yet another Bush-era assault on civil liberties. Liberal pundits would have outdone one another comparing the T.S.A. to this or that police state. (â€?In an outrage worthy of Enver Hoxhaâ€™s Albania ...â€?) And Republicans would have leaped to the Bush administrationâ€™s defense, while accusing liberals of going soft on terrorism.Okay, but what happens when elites of both parties are in favor of a bad idea? To return to air security, President Bush campaigned in 2000 against ethnic profiling of Arabs and Muslims by airport security and Al Gore immediately said "Me, too!" Bush's Transportation Department had been running a big program in 2001 to crack down on profiling of passengers who look like Arab terrorists at the time that 19 Arab terrorists got on their flights on 9/11. (See my 9/11/2001 article for UPI, "Bush had called for laxer airport security.") Did the Democrats rush to denounce Bush for making it easier for Mohammed Atta to board? Did Republicans turn on Bush?
But Barack Obama is our president instead, so the body-scanner debate played out rather differently. True, some conservatives invoked 9/11 to defend the T.S.A., and some liberals denounced the measures as an affront to American liberties. Such ideological consistency, though, was the exception; mostly, the Bush-era script was read in reverse. It was the populist right that raged against body scans, and the Republican Party that moved briskly to exploit the furor. It was a Democratic administration that labored to justify the intrusive procedures, and the liberal commentariat that leaped to their defense. ...
Is there anything good to be said about the partisan mindset? On an individual level, no. It corrupts the intellect and poisons the wells of human sympathy. Honor belongs to the people who resist partisanshipâ€™s pull, instead of rowing with it.
But for the country as a whole, partisanship does have one modest virtue. It guarantees that even when thereâ€™s an elite consensus behind whatever the ruling party wants to do (whether itâ€™s invading Iraq or passing Obamacare), there will always be a reasonably passionate opposition as well. Given how much authority is concentrated in Washington, especially in the executive branch, even a hypocritical and inconsistent opposition is better than no opposition at all.
At the very least, the power of partisanship means that there will always be someone around, when Americans are standing spread-eagled and exposed in the glare of Rapiscan, to speak up and say â€?enough!â€?
No, what happens is largely that the issue disappears down the old memory hole.
I've largely devoted my career to raising unwelcome questions about bipartisan elite consensuses. It's not a wise career choice.