Updating our democracy

Democracy is a process, not an endpoint. 

 Things change in a democracy. The business cycle, war, demographics, pestilence, plague, disease and technology all change perspectives over the years. 

Conservatives at times love the state and at other times hate it. Liberals see government as the salvation but then again distrust it deeply. 

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 We are going through an interesting transition period in American democracy, and the politicians are having a hard time keeping up. 

 Some conservatives believe that the National Security Agency is doing all of the right things to keep America safe, while others believe it is the tip of the spear of an evil and overbearing government. Some liberals have strong misgivings about the PRISM program, but others see it as an important weapon in the fight against terror. 

 Right-wing commentators who have long railed against the liberal media now aggressively defend The Associate Press from an over-aggressive Obama Justice Department, while left-wingers believe that some oversight of Fox News is probably a good thing. 

 Things change in democracy, and long-held values come under attack when circumstances dictate that the old principles simply don’t apply anymore. 

 In wartime, governments have a responsibility to protect both the state and the people who live in it, civil liberties be damned. That is why Abraham Lincoln could get away with suspending habeas corpus protections and declaring martial law, why Franklin Delano Roosevelt could impose food rationing and strict censorship policies, and why George W. Bush and now Barack Obama could expand the power of the state to monitor extensively the electronic communications of millions of Americans without the knowledge or specific consent of the people. 

 Are we still in wartime? Do Americans still feel the same threat that they did in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks? Will American citizens give the state everything it can to make the people as secure as possible, damn the Constitution? 

 It’s a good question, and part of a “healthy” debate, as President Obama put it. And that “healthy debate” is one of the most enduring aspects of our democracy.

 Whether you love or hate him, whether you think he is a traitor or a hero, Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee, has certainly provided that American people plenty of fodder for that debate. By giving details of the electronic surveillance techniques used by the NSA, Snowden has either deeply compromised the national security of the American people or he has provided the people a valuable service by blowing the whistle on an overly aggressive security state that must be reeled in to protect freedom in this country. 

 The government is an imperfect institution populated by many good people and more than a few who aren’t so good. Giving the government unbridled power to protect our security is a fool’s errand, and a dangerous one at that. But it sounds so seductively easy. Let the government handle it, and let us live our daily lives. 

 Surveys show government doesn’t poll well at the moment, so it might be a mistake for our elected representatives to put too much trust in it to protect us from the bad guys. But polls also show that most Americans don’t have much of a problem with drones flying overhead or with the CIA and NSA monitoring electronic communications. And I suppose that is why we have to continue to have an active debate about these issues. 

 I would caution against giving government too much leeway. A government bureaucracy that could unfairly target certain Tea Party groups could just as easily harass budget-cutters who are a threat to the military industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned us about. 

 Democracy is a process, and things change. And sometimes, it is hard to keep up. 

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com.