Outrage Toward Edward Snowden Shows the Intertribal Warfare at the Heart of American Politics


Josh Marshall

In a revealing column at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall (pictured) voices doubts about Edward Snowden (and Bradley Manning before him) less for the details of their leaks of government information than for why he thinks he did it. To Marshall, Snowden is "some young guy I've never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don't agree with." That philosophy, he believes, is one that views that state as "essentially malevolent." That's enough to put the columnist and the whistleblower in different tribes, and it's a good start at explaining why so many Americans have lined up behind government officials on the matter of leaks and surveillance, while many others have cheered leakers and denounced the peeping-tom state.

Writes Marshall:

Here is I think the essential difference and where it comes back to what I referred to before—a basic difference in one's idea about the state and the larger political community. If you see the state as essentially malevolent or a bad actor then really anything you can do to put a stick in its spokes is a good thing. Same if you think the conduct of US foreign policy is fundamentally a bad thing. Then opening up its books for the world to see is a good thing simply because it exposes it or damages it. It forces change on any number of levels.

From that perspective, there's no really no balancing to be done. All disclosure is good. Either from the perspective of transparency in principle or upending something you believe must be radically changed.

On the other hand, if you basically identify with the country and the state, then indiscriminate leaks like this are purely destructive. They're attacks on something you fundamentally believe in, identify with, think is working on your behalf.

Adds Marshall, "[a]t the end of the day, for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support."

Marshall's argument is essentially tribal. We certainly don't know the details of Snowden's political views (though we have some hints), but it's obvious that Snowden is horrified by the U.S. government's surveillance schemes, calling them "an existential threat to democracy," and wants them exposed and stopped. He also utterly distrusts government officials, warning The Guardian that "the government will demonise me," and fretting that "I could be rendered by the CIA." That, obviously, is why he fled to Hong Kong, where he told the South China Morning Post, "I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality."

This is all too much for Marshall, who complains, "he's not just opening the thing up for debate. He's taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that's a betrayal."

Joseph Sternberg at the Wall Street Journal agrees, tut-tutting, "[t]he Founding Fathers in their wisdom intended that the policy questions that so trouble Snowden should be hashed out chiefly by the elected branches of government."

Those would be the same founders who unloaded musket balls at the government officials of their day when they had enough.

Snowden clearly doesn't trust "the elected branches of government" and believes that debate is smothered by them. That's a perfectly credible position to take when Senators and Representatives including Al Franken, Dianne Feinstein, Saxby Chambliss and Mike Rogers assure us they knew all about the surveillance, approved of it, and kept it secret from the rest of us. Perhaps Americans can be forgiven if, as a result, many of them no longer view the beast on the banks of the Potomac as "a political community I identify with and a government I support."

And many of us applaud Snowden not just even if, but especially if, it turns out "he's taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do."

In truth, the recent revelations of NSA surveillance are only the latest in a long line of reasons to "see the state as essentially malevolent." I certainly view it that way. And I strongly believe that "anything you can do to put a stick in its spokes is a good thing." In recent weeks, the headlines have been full of inappropriate IRS scrutiny of conservative organizations — a political hit man role the tax agency has filled for both Republican and Democratic presidents. The Justice Department has secretly investigated the Associated Press and accused Fox News reporter James Rosen of criminality, because they reported inconvenient stories about the government. We discovered that the CIA killed people in Pakistan, without knowing who they were. I could go on, but where would I stop? There is plenty of reason to "see the state as essentially malevolent."

But Americans are thoroughly divided on this issue, it seems. A Pew Poll found that 56 percent of respondents approve of NSA surveillance while 41 percent disapprove. A differently worded CBS poll found 58 percent disapproval of collecting ordinary Americans' phone data and 38 percent approval. The same poll found 60 percent believe Snowden's leaks will do no harm, while 30 percent disagree.

In those numbers, very likely, is revealed the political division to which Marshall attests, between those skeptical of state power and those who identify with the state. It's not a bright-line division — most people will generally lean one way or the other rather than taking an absolute stance. But it's a division that lies at the heart of our political debats, and it's one that makes those debates intractable, because it renders them tribal.

Edward Snowden isn't of Josh Marshall's tribe, Neither am I, for that matter, along with millions of other Americans. Our political discussions over NSA surveillance, health policy, taxes and drone strikes aren't just policy discussions; they're inter-tribal warfare.