04/25/2012 06:28 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Where Did All the Liberal Civil Liberties Advocates Go?

It wasn't so long ago that liberals were denouncing President George W. Bush for his administration's violations of civil liberties. It wasn't that long ago that panic gripped civil liberties advocates about the possibility of a "PATRIOT ACT II," which would erode our freedom even more than the first did. From warrantless domestic wiretapping to the use of military tribunals instead of trials for detainees to its authorization of the use of torture ("enhanced interrogation techniques"), the Bush administration was devastating for American civil liberties and, arguably, the Constitution.

When then-Senator Obama began his campaign in 2008, we hailed his promise to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. President Obama, of course, has yet to do so.

Instead, we got what dubbed "kinder, gentler" military commissions.

Instead, we got President Obama's signature of the National Defense Authorization Act, which included provisions permitting the indefinite detention of American citizens and their rendition to military authorities. (In fairness, Obama did issue a "signing statement" essentially promising not to use these provisions. However, these is no legal mechanism to hold him to that promise, nor is there any assurance that future presidents will do the same.)

Instead of a president dedicated to the preservation and even restoration of civil liberties we had thought we voted in, we got a president who is now being criticized for not protecting our civil liberties by the lawyer responsible for justifying the Bush administration's authorization of torture. The Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed titled, "Obama: A disaster for civil liberties."

Yet for some reason, American liberals have fallen deafeningly silent about President Obama's failures when it comes to civil liberties. Most of my left-leaning friends will concede that this administration has been disappointing on civil liberties -- it is hard to argue otherwise. But while some may grudgingly concede the president's failures on protecting civil liberties, few do so with the passion and urgency they once did under our previous president.

Why? Certainly part of it has to do with the fact that the current president is a Democrat, and there is a degree of partisan loyalty at work -- just as, under President Bush, many Republicans remained close-mouthed about his violations of civil liberties (which were not few). But there is something else at work here. That is, many liberals are loathe to criticize President Obama for any failure, out of a fear that, if they do, we will have someone much, much worse come January 2013. The Obama administration has learned from this, and has realized that it can get away with nearly anything without worrying about still having to court the left. Jonathan Turley observed in the Los Angeles Times:

Yet the Obama administration long ago made a cynical calculation that it already had such voters [civil libertarians] in the bag and tacked to the right on this issue to show Obama was not "soft" on terror. He assumed that, yet again, civil libertarians might grumble and gripe but, come election day, they would not dare stay home.

This is a routine problem that liberals have. When I venture observations of failures of this administration among liberal friends, the response is more often than not, "Well, it could be worse." The president's failure to follow through on his 2008 campaign promise to ban discrimination against LGBT people among federal contractors, his nearly two-year "evolution" on marriage equality (now supported by a clear majority of Americans), his constant concessions to the radical right-wing Republicans in Congress, and the final product of his healthcare reform -- which was merely a Republican proposal repackaged a decade later -- are all met with the stirring observations that "at least he's not a Republican" and "this would be so much worse if Mitt Romney/Rick Santorum/New Gingrich wins."

This unwillingness to defect from a party or a president that fails to adhere to basic liberal principles is, I would argue, in part responsible for the gradual destruction of the social safety net -- which is being sold off piece by piece -- and what seems like the Democratic Party's eternal shift rightward. Charles Pierce of Esquire wrote, more eloquently than I could, that:

[The Democrats] became gifted at defense, surrendering bits of what was once fundamental to their party's identity as a bulwark against losing it all. This created a perennially discontented, but not mutinous, base because, at bottom, that base had nowhere else to go to exert its power. That is not the case with the Republican base, as we have seen. Armed with the power of its extraparty institutions, there is a strong element within the Republican base that does not care if the party loses one, two, or three elections as long as their ideology remains pure. There is nobody so powerful in politics as influential people who don't care if they lose. The Republicans have these in abundance. The Democrats don't have them at all.

If civil liberties mean anything to liberals, we need to start criticizing violations of those civil liberties regardless of who perpetrates them -- and that criticism must be done with the same urgency as always. We must be willing to sometimes accept the defeat of a liberal Democrat over the victory of a conservative Democrat. Some might argue that if this approach is taken, we may ultimately pave the way to the White House for a Republican. But, I would argue, if we do not take this approach there will be no motivation for Democrats to stand by liberal principles; it will always be easier to move to the right. The election of Democrats is not, and should not be, an end in and of itself. Rather, the implementation of the liberal program -- protecting civil liberties, funding comprehensive sexuality education, achieving marriage equality, securing the social safety net -- should be the goal; the Democratic Party should be only a vehicle to achieve that goal.

Because, ultimately, it does not matter the political affiliation of the president under whom we lose our liberties -- only that we have lost them at all.