The NRA, the NSA and the Politics of Individualism

Much of the right-wing resistance to the post-Newtown gun control push was animated, not by gun owners’ commitment to hunting or personal defense, but by the idea that an armed society is a fundamental safeguard against government tyranny.

For example, in a hearing on gun control, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre told Congress that the Founding Fathers conceived of the Second Amendment because “they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again and have to live under tyranny.”

Writing in National Review, Kevin Williamson was more explicit: “There is no legitimate exception to the Second Amendment for military-style weapons, because military-style weapons are precisely what the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear. The purpose of the Second Amendment is to secure our ability to oppose enemies foreign and domestic.”

The current outrage over the NSA’s vast electronic surveillance programs is being framed in strikingly similar terms. Privacy hawks warn that while the programs might be harmless now, a subsequent, less scrupulous administration could use them to consolidate an authoritarian regime.

In a post called “All The Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need,” The Atlantic’s Connor Friederstorf argued that, if we tolerate NSA spying, “we’re counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devils.” Rand Paul declared that the NSA revelations illustrate the current administration’s “bent towards authoritarianism” while The Washington Post cautioned that NSA surveillance could be used as “a powerful weapon against democratic government.”

The argument is that we shouldn’t surrender any rights today, even if we trust the current administration, because the next one could be corrupt. Civil libertarians, rather than gun rights activists, are now the ones warning of a tyrannical government coming to power.

To be sure, there are distinctions between gun rights activists and civil libertarians. Champions of the “citizen militia” interpretation of the Second Amendment are more or less confined to the far right, while civil libertarians can be found in the liberal wing of the Democratic party as well. And in the 21st century, the idea of creeping citizen surveillance state seems more relevant than the old-fashioned tyranny of Second Amendment absolutists’ imaginations.

But these two wildly divergent political causes are bound together by their deep, often exaggerated fear of the government, their elevation of liberty over security and their view of individual rights as sacrosanct.

In other words, both civil libertarians and gun rights advocates are speaking the language of individualistic, or “rights-based” politics, which tends to give precedence to personal freedom over appeals to the collective. This type of politics has been ascendant for the last several decades, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in public support for gay marriage, marijuana legalization, gun rights and other issues of individual freedom.

That’s why I think civil libertarians might begin to make political inroads in the not-so-distant future. Even after the Boston marathon bombings, the percentage of Americans who said they were willing to give up some personal freedom to reduce the threat of terrorism was at its lowest level since 9/11, according to a Fox poll. The NSA surveillance program may not be as politically invulnerable as journalists are predicting.

The same rhetorical appeals and cultural trends that made gun control foes successful in the post-Newtown gun debates might just make civil libertarians a potent political force in the coming fight over federal surveillance and privacy rights.

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