Ferguson brings the libertarians: Why a new coalition has everyone confused

After Mike Brown's shooting, an alliance of left and right emerged to demilitarize police. But here's what it's not

By Heather Digby Parton


Published August 19, 2014 6:22PM (EDT)

One of the most misunderstood elements of American politics has to be the fact that legislative coalitions are very different from voting coalitions. The most obvious case in point is the erroneous assumption that the coalition that often forms around civil liberties, featuring elements of the most ideologically committed members of the left and the right, means that these groups are in agreement as to the goals they wish to obtain. It's not essential that everyone who signs on to a bill is doing so for the same reason, but it's vitally important that people not misinterpret the joint action as a sign that we are entering a moment of bipartisan kumbaya that will heal the nation's wounds and bring us together once and for all.

In the wake of Michael Brown's death and all that's followed, we are seeing this play out in what Jim Newell accurately described as a potential coalition of right and left on the demilitarization of the police. In this case it's the hardcore wingnuts at the Gun Owners of America joining in with the ACLU to demand an end to the Pentagon program that encourages police departments to buy surplus military equipment at bargain basement prices, both of whom have endorsed a bill by Democratic congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia to do just that. But it's important that we distinguish that the liberty concerns driving this particular joint endorsement are not coming from the same place or seeking the same end.

Gun Owners of America president Larry Pratt is not concerned about the police harassing and shooting young African-American men or using military tactics and equipment against peaceful protesters exercising their rights under the Constitution.  He has never before expressed any concern for these issues in the past. What he is worried about is something else entirely.  Just a few weeks ago he appeared on Alex Jones' conspiracy show and articulated exactly what it is he fears the most. Right Wing Watch captured the moment:

Jones asked Pratt about a Washington Times report about a 2010 Pentagon directive — an update to a series of similar directives crafted under previous administrations — outlining how and when the military can use force to quell domestic unrest “in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the president is impossible.”

Jones, of course, read this to mean that it is “official and has been confirmed” that the military is “training with tanks, armored vehicles, drones” to “take on the American people, mainly the Tea Party.”

“Well, he’s certainly not thinking that Muslims are a threat,” responded Pratt, “so he’s turning to his political opponents, declaring that they’re the enemy and ignoring the fact that Muslims from time to time have a tendency to go ‘boom.’”

Pratt then cited the 2009 DHS report to claim that the Obama administration has “fingered veterans as potential terrorists, people who believe in the Second Amendment, who are pro-life, who want to work for limited government.”

“I guess the idea of limited government really would terrorize a socialist,” he said, adding, “The enemy is freedom and they really are doing what they can to extinguish it.”

It's fair to assume that the ACLU is worried about something else entirely. In fact, we know they are:

Our neighborhoods are not warzones, and police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies. Any yet, every year, billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment flows from the federal government to state and local police departments. Departments use these wartime weapons in everyday policing, especially to fight the wasteful and failed drug war, which has unfairly targeted people of color.

As our new report makes clear, it’s time for American police to remember that they are supposed to protect and serve our communities, not wage war on the people who live in them.

In fact, Larry Pratt's concerns about the federal government are very, very different from the ACLU's in that regard. Responding to some comments by Attorney General Eric Holder regarding Trayvon Martin assailant George Zimmerman, Pratt explained that Holder just wanted to “intimidate the rest of the country so that we don’t think about defending ourselves against attacks by black mobs on white individuals.”

But, despite Pratt's odious views, it is still useful to have him in a legislative coalition on the issue of police militarization. It's impossible to cobble together enough votes for this sort of congressional initiative without a bipartisan coalition. (Even then, it's usually impossible.) And just because his reasoning is repulsive doesn't mean Johnson's bill isn't reasonable legislation on its own terms. In any case, the demilitarization of police is completely meaningless to the pursuit of his goals since they are based on fantasy. But the ACLU's concerns will be addressed.

The fact is that defending civil liberties almost always requires strange bedfellows for the simple reason that it rests on the principle that they must protect everyone, even people who say and do things you do not like. Especially people who say and do things you do not like. It does not mean there is a meaningful alliance on goals or a meeting of the minds beyond the basic rules of the road, which require us to respect each other's freedom. There is no hope for an ideological alignment that "breaks the two party system " and liberals will not be singing the same tune as Larry Pratt and his gun-toting extremists any time soon.

When it comes to civil liberties it's often the case that civil libertarians of the left will find themselves holding hands with the far right (as well as their noses) to ensure that the Bill of Rights is kept safe for both of them. And then they'll go back to fighting each other with everything they have. It's not a perfect system but it's all we've got.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton