There’s been a lot of outrage over the recent revelations of NSA surveillance of US citizens with no reasonable suspicion of any particular individual of any particular wrongdoing. And there should be. In 2008 Obama presented himself as the anti-Bush, but between Guantanamo, drones, and domestic surveillance, he’s possibly more Bush than Bush!
While some are grappling with whether the program is legal, I view that as simply not the point. That’s not to say that assessing the legality of governmental action isn’t important, of course. But there are at least three standards by which a government action can be judged: legal, Constitution, and acceptable. Regardless of whether the program is legal, it’s simply not acceptable—and I’m very certain a majority of Americans would agree with my poorly articulated argument here. (I’ll leave the Constitutional argument for when I’m not studying for the bar exam and have sufficient time to go through the relevant case law in order to make a reasoned analysis. But our Colbert gut tells us this doesn’t feel Constitutional within the spirit of the 4th Amendment.)
I’d venture to guess that there are several areas of dissatisfaction a majority of Americans have with the federal government, which has been unresponsive to public opinion. But this grievance, I think, crosses party lines most easily. Because of the gradual decline of civil liberties since the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act—which has continued regardless of the partisanship of either the legislative or executive branches—many want drastic change in our federal government’s power to unilaterally collect information on citizens without individual suspicion. Such change can either occur inside the system or outside the system. The problem is that to work within the system, we must repeal all these laws and court decisions. This would need to be an act of Congress to be either signed by the president or popular enough to override a veto. (Technically a Constitutional amendment is available, but that is harder still). But we’ve had the problem, best exemplified by Obama himself, of electing people who say they’re against such programs, but vote for them anyway. Namely, any libertarian, progressive, or small-government conservative should not be supportive of such programs on ideological grounds. And yet here we are.
So what’s the other option? A full-scale change of the status quo—that is to say, work from ‘outside the system’. Yes, some voices have asked about a new American Revolution or an American Spring. For better or worse, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The governmental transitions academic literature tell us that GDP-per-capita is one of most strongly correlated variables to whether transitions actually occur. That is to say that wealth is a factor in whether full-scale revolt can actually lead to change. Why? Simply because extra-systemic change, especially full-scale revolt, questions the whole system itself. We know that when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose, but most of us have something, and so we feel we have something to lose in the event of real revolution. Sure, if you’re unemployed, have broken spirits, or have more debt than you can ever hope to repay, you’re fixin’ for a revolution—because you might feel you have more to gain from a possible victory than you have to lose from either a victory or defeat. But when you own property, or have a family to feed or have a pension, often that status quo protects you more than exposes you to risk. This is the force of moderation. The idea of being jailed for a short time as a political activist might be romantic to those with few responsibilities, but for many that means no food on the table for their children.
As such, only when a plurality of Americans feels there's more to gain in overthrowing the status quo than to lose from the attempt, will something extra-systemic actually happen. We’re a far road from Tahrir Square. Evidence of this assertion being true might be as recent as the Tea Party and #OccupyWallSt movements. While there are many other important variables I won’t consider here, note that the Tea Party worked within the structures of governance, whereas #OccupyWallSt questioned them to the core. One was strategic, the other radical. Which has had more effect on American politics, I think, is clear. (Pssst! The Tea Party.)
The tragedy, of course, is that we have been jaded by the idea of change from within. That was the actual mantra of Obama, and now he’s the exact thing we want to change.