Republicans and Democrats are both to blame for the mess we’re in.

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Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash.

As journalist Matt Taibbi recently pointed out, most of the mechanisms by which we have- probably unwisely- strengthened the federal government over the past two decades can be traced to Republicans; the Citizens United ruling, and its lasting impact on campaign finance limits can also be traced to Republicans.

The true nature of the universe is to eventually be hoisted by one’s own petard. On a long enough timeline, everyone lives to see one impulse ossify and swing back into its opposite. The arc of the moral universe is long…on irony.

Now that dark money is transforming state and local races around the country in startling ways, now that Homeland Security’s domestic spying capabilities and all sorts of other forms of governmental overreach nastiness are potentially, and actually, being directed towards the ruling party’s political enemies, Republicans are naturally up and arms.

When concerned citizens like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange were trying to sound the alarm so many years ago, Republicans not only ignored them, but plotted to assassinate them as enemies of the U.S. government.Granted, the Obama Administration didn’t perform much better.

Yes, Assange and Snowden were and are enemies of the U.S. government in general and all organizations dedicated to maintaining strict secrecy in particular. That these courageous individuals were also friends to the American people is a fact that has been lost.

In the end, the American people didn’t care that the government was amassing huge amounts of searchable data about each and every one of us. Through social media companies, who are now entirely too cozy with world governments and intelligence agencies for anyone’s comfort, we willingly gave up all the personal information advertisers, politicians or budding dictators could ever want or need.

Now that “potential domestic terrorists”- and any potential threats they might pose- have become the #1 priority for federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, Republicans don’t like it. Not even everyone on the left likes it, either. It feels too much like a slippery slope.

Phrases like “potential domestic terrorists and any potential threats they might pose,” is- just like the term “potential enemy combatants”- intentionally vague. The vagary allows so broad a use, it could be applied to almost anyone. It is a designation designed to cast a much wider net than ordinary law enforcement agencies are legally able to cast.

The main distinction, and difference, is the elimination of the presumption of innocence. If your local PD wants to search your belongings and computer, they need a good case against you and a warrant.

For the U.S. legal system, and for the framers of the U.S. Constitution, the presumption of innocence was and is the cornerstone of a free society.

A police officer in an unmarked police car isn’t allowed to follow you around until they can catch you committing a crime. If this were allowed, we’d all be in trouble. The cop following you all the time would be bound to catch you doing something illegal, sooner or later. Speeding, illegal parking, inattentive driving; everyone breaks the law at times, if only accidentally.

Most working professionals break laws all the time- inadvertently. Most of the time it’s because the laws in question are so complicated, or constantly changing due to state and local ordinances, as to be impossible to get right all of the time.

Take tax law, for instance. Very important set of laws and codes; very complicated and complex in every way.

Years back, 20 of the top tax firms in the country were sent the same tax records to prepare for filling. What did the intrepid journalist and media company who conducted this experiment get back? 20 different returns, of course. According to some top tax attorneys, the family in question was due a refund; other, equally well-respected sources found the family owed money to the IRS.

As such, companies and their executives pay fines all the time for breaking the law.

If local law enforcement was so inclined, and were it allowed by law, they could prevent whomever they wanted from earning a living by following them around until- eventually- they broke the law.

Your government shouldn’t be allowed to sift through your every movement, every internet search and online interaction until they can find something to use against you on the presumption of your guilt, either.

Violence, plotting violence, including domestic terrorism in all its many forms, is already against the law.

What the War on Terror did, what Homeland Security did, was erode the standard of “breaking the law” to include things like assembly, association, and speech.

As long as it was “over there” and not for use against American citizens, we were ok with it. So the U.S. went from hunting for people who broke the law and committed acts of terrorism to hunting for anyone who might be planning same. That larger net, “might be planning” was meant to ensnare people who weren’t breaking the law- yet- but who were associating with people who were, or advocating from similar positions, or going to places frequented by lawbreakers.

That applying this net inside the U.S. might ensnare innocent people- like people with sincerely held religious beliefs, people expressing themselves via peaceful assembly and demonstration, people expressing dissent against the government or criticizing powerful corporations, parents complaining to their local school board- isn’t hard to imagine.

For example, just because some environmentalists are eco-terrorists, doesn’t mean all are. Under the guise of stamping eco-terrorism out of the movement-by say, letting the FBI loose on the lot of them- the entire environmentalism movement would be destroyed. People would be too afraid to demonstrate for fear their cell phone data would be traced to some stranger they marched next to in a crowd of thousands for less than 10 minutes who later went on to commit a crime.

In China, people don’t attend protests because they are afraid they will break the law; they are afraid someone standing next to them might break the law, and it won’t matter that they weren’t involved.

Preventing violence isn’t the point of these policies, public safety isn’t the point; keeping people too afraid to participate in the political process is the point. And it works.

As a wise man pointed out only today, censorship and the chilling of free speech and open discourse- even about contentious topics- is a deep well, and you never know where the bottom is going to be or what might be at the bottom.

But you can’t bet you’ll find out.

Back when President Barack Obama quietly expanded the U.S. drone program, beefed up Homeland Security and signed the NDAA which gives the U.S. government the right to detain anyone for any reason, even U.S. citizens, without due process of law- forever- Democrats never dreamed a Republican like Donald Trump would someday come to wield that power.

Donald Trump was a failure of Democratic Party imagination; the Democratic Party is making another such mistake now.

No political party stays in power forever. Personal liberties, once eroded, are not usually returned intact and Democrats may come to regret their wholesale embrace of unlimited, unchecked government power in the Information Age.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)