In the part of the Tucson metro area where I live — the same part where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was nearly assassinated in 2011 — anti-Obama sentiment has been strong since he first became a viable Presidential candidate. I take it for granted that I’m going to hear people disparaging him on a daily basis. I know that many cars on the road will be decorated with stickers of a hostile and sometimes overtly racist nature.

But when I was walking through the parking lot at a nearby resort, where my sister and her family had traveled to take advantage of the too-hot-for-tourism summer discounts, I caught sight of this vehicle out of the corner of my eye and stopped short. It was a classic “A-ha!” moment, in which I could feel my whole worldview being reoriented. Because, even though the likelihood was great that the owner of this car was a traditional conservative, I realized that it could just as easily belong to one of the Southwest’s hard-to-pigeonhole libertarians or perhaps even a progressive.

Some of this had to do with the kind of car it was. This type of Audi is frequently spotted in places where the liberal intelligentsia is most densely rooted. In that context, it sends a complex social message, simultaneously indicating that the owner doesn’t take material goods too seriously — the car isn’t close to being new, after all — but still wants to be identified with the sort of “European” sensibility that Rupert Murdoch’s American agitprop bureau, Fox News, is forever mocking.

Since Tucson is home to the University of Arizona, one of the nation’s largest educational institutions, it’s fairly common to spot this kind of car in the places frequented by its professors, staff and the kind of former students that hang around town for a decade or two. Where I live, by contrast, the most common vehicles are SUVs and trucks, the latter being divided into the recently purchased — favored by the well-off people who desired the vehicle because it communicates their political and cultural inclinations — and the beat-to-hell sort driven by the area’s blue-collar population: contractors, self-employed electricians and plumbers, and, particularly down by the freeway where the cotton fields commence, the farmers who unselfconsciously display the trappings of the cowboy lifestyle.

In other words, this car seemed out of place, even if the message conveyed on that orange bumper sticker fit right in. The more I thought about it, though, the more I started to see its presence at the resort as further confirmation of a political shift I’d been perceiving since Obama’s second term began. Because, while conservatives and progressives continue to inch towards a “cold” Civil War over women’s rights, gay marriage and other hot-button social issues, they have been discovering, to their surprise and discomfort, that they are frequently in agreement in their baseline assessment of the President’s failings.

The Executive Branch of the United States government has become too powerful, they argue, and insufficiently responsive to the checks and balances that the Legislative and Judicial Branch are supposed to provide. Obama — like George W. Bush before him, as most progressives and even a few conservatives emphasize — acts too often in the shadows cast by the Patriot Act, opting to decide now and consult later, whether in situations that may truly justify this level of secrecy, such as the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, or ones that could almost certainly be managed effectively through traditional channels.

This critique is a familiar one to me, because it constituted the foundation for my very first encounters with politics. Back when I was in pre-school, in the early 1970s, I used to hear my mother and grandmother excoriating “Tricky Dick” for his imperial tendencies. By the time Congress conducted the hearings on the Watergate break-in, I had a clear sense of both the dangers that Richard Nixon posed to democracy and the counter-measures that needed to be instituted to prevent future Presidents from following in his footsteps. All this, mind you, before I’d reached the age of six.

While my experience may have been a little unusual in this regard, I’ve talked to many people over the years who absorbed similar lessons in the aftermath of Nixon’s fall from grace, lessons which younger generations are now going to have to learn firsthand for themselves. It continues to strike me as strange — and not a little suspicious — that Watergate has not become a trending topic as the excesses of the post-9/11 Presidency become more and more clear.

Although the much-ballyhooed death of journalism is a factor — there’s no doubt that investigative reporting at dailies is now an endangered species — I’d venture that the biggest reason for the failure to make this crucial connection is that our expectations where privacy is concerned have shrunken drastically. The Nixon White House’s misdeeds, building on the dubious legacy of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, upset people so much because it was still possible in the early 1970s to maintain some semblance of privacy. Rebels young and old were dropping out and disappearing, despite the strengthening of trends — such as the use of credit cards — that would eventually lead to forms of passive surveillance we take for granted today.

Edward Snowden’s flamboyant “treason” ultimately may not prove to have taught us much that we didn’t already know. After all, the Patriot Act explicitly enables the type of data collection that so many people are now, belatedly, up in arms about. But the coverage his tale is getting, the way he has been fashioned as a folk hero by both the libertarian Right and anarchist Left, is making more politically timid people take stock of their lives and the government’s presence in them. Even if their indignation seems naïve to those who already took it for granted that they were subject to surveillance by the authorities at any time or place, the reinvention of the wheel that may come about as a result matters deeply.

When a significant percentage of people at both ends of the political spectrum start to regard their own government as the chief obstacle to freedom, when they channel their feelings of marginalization and powerlessness into a charge of tyranny, something major is underway. It’s a scary time for anyone versed in the history of totalitarianism, since precisely this undermining of the government’s legitimacy is what led to illegitimate governments coming to power between the world wars. The whiff of Late Weimar is hard to suppress.

And yet, there’s something exhilarating about this sort of tectonic shift. Yes, things ended badly in Italy, Germany and Spain, not to mention the Soviet Union. But the conditions that eventually made it possible for totalitarianism to prevail were also the conditions that allowed a tantalizing glimpse of other potential outcomes. The anarchists of Barcelona, the experimenters in sexual freedom from Berlin, the artists finding new ways to bend form to politics in Moscow — all took inspiration from cracks in the status quo, that sense that it was no longer possible to take anything for granted.

When I walked up to this car, I noticed that the orange bumper sticker was accompanied by a smaller, white one for Wounded Warriors, an organization dedicated to helping veterans reintegrate into society. It would be nice if support for this cause were evenly distributed across the political spectrum, but experience suggests that the people willing to promote it usually fall on the conservative side of the fence. The same goes, more obviously, for those who order Arizona’s custom “In God We Trust” license plate.

My conclusion, in light of this evidence, was that the owner of this vehicle is no progressive. But I was also able to get a peek, however brief, at a world where the defense of freedom wouldn’t dominated by right-wing discourse; a world in which the devotion to the Constitution that conservatives are always professing could be expressed, not by efforts to turn back the clock to a time when white, Protestant men could run everything without resistance, but by a provisional coalition dedicated to restoring the delicate balance which the government of the United States was established to maintain. Because, at a time when the power to surveil and punish is amplified by technology that few of us can do without, the separation of powers sounds like a very good idea indeed.

 

Photograph and commentary by Charlie Bertsch