Recent revelations by Edward Snowden, former NSA contractor come whistleblower, are deeply disturbing vis-à-vis the continued legitimacy of American democracy. While the War on Terror has most certainly created a context in which Americans are increasingly willing to make sacrifices in the name of ostensible security; the scope of the information collected by the NSA defies belief. What is perhaps most surprising, in a political context where both the right and left wings of the domestic political spectrum are increasingly clamoring for constitutional rights, from those pertaining to guns to those pertaining to abortion, is the fact that public outcry regarding this surveillance has been minimal. Indeed, some polls have shown that a majority of Americans support the continuation of this surveillance, in spite of the Fourth Amendment, as long as it provides them with this all-too-quixotic notion of security.
Back when I used to teach, it was important for me to emphasize to my students that a significant difference exists between “procedural” and “substantive” democracy. The former, premised on little more than the holding of elections and the relative freedom of the act of voting itself, represents something that we all take for granted, and which does not truly embody the egalitarianism and ethical governance which we must associate with democracy. Rather, true substantive democracy is somewhat akin to a vessel, in which rights, themselves derived from the social contract, are provided to all, regardless of subjectivity, and held as absolute standards beyond which government cannot and should not stray. If this is indeed what democracy should be, and there is no indication to suggest that it should not aspire to this, America has failed.
From the questionable invasion of Iraq which occurred under Bush 43 in 2003, to the targeted extra-judicial assassinations which have been embraced by President Obama in the current day, this ongoing NSA surveillance is nothing but an additional nail in the coffin of substantive and substantial American democracy. In this context, what is even more surprising is the lack of outcry on the part of the people. If a nation is made up of nothing more than sheep, blindly following the lead of an unknown and unknowable vector promising security; how is it possible for critical or rational thought to take place? Indeed, America is adrift. In the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s television program “The Newsroom,” protagonist Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, cries out that “America is not the greatest country in the world… but it can be.” Based on the mass’ recent response to these revelations about government spying, America’s potential is no longer clear. How can a nation be great if it does not aspire to see the Constitutional protections afforded to it by its own founding documents respected by its government?
Beyond this, the scorn which has been reserved for Snowden himself, from cries of treason to calls for his death, are anathema to the spirit of democracy, and to the tradition of whistleblowing, emblematized by men like Bernstein, Woodward, Manning and Ellsberg, which lay at the core of recent American history. With the American government having taken significant and dubious action from the period right prior to the Vietnam War until the current day, American is dependent upon whistleblowers, and the Fourth Estate more broadly, so as to ensure that its government officials are held to account. With the Presidency becoming more imperial every single day, men like Snowden are necessary if America’s democracy is to be more than procedural.
In the end, America may very well have lost its way. Adrift in a War on Terror with no clear endgame, killing its own citizens via drone strikes, and now spying on its own citizens, the idea of America has clearly become more than the sum of its parts.