I’ve done a bit of reading on the initial reactions of conservative (National Review) and liberal (The Nation) articles on the NSA spying issue. The Guardian published the Snowden leaks about the extent of the domestic spying on June 6th, and I’ve looked at the first seven or so editorials from these two publications. So far, there are some interesting, but not entirely surprising distinctions.
First, a slightly surprising similarity: both left and right consistently condemn the spying. There are some minor caveats, as the one or two authors at the National Review try to offer support for some more limited level of domestic spying (interestingly by an attempt to define “public” and “private”), but generally both sides object. This is a bit of a surprise from the right because they had previously been fierce defenders of Bush’s domestic spying through the NSA, and from the left because the person in charge of the spying is a Democrat. This fact alone suggests that the right is particularly concerned with attacking the political opposition, while the left is quite willing not to defend “its own.” (Or, perhaps that the left does not see Obama as particularly representative of the self, I suppose).
The key difference between the groups is the way in which they frame the issue, not surprisingly. The right brings all of its attacks back to Obama and to “government” in general. The authors use incredibly strong language (the end of freedom, a “sinister merging of party and state”), and make continual connections previous political issues they’ve been discussing (the Ohio IRS targeting of Tea Party, Benghazi, etc) to promote a narrative of evil villains and innocent victims. The left, on the other hand, seems to focus on the legal issues, removing the focus on Obama as the agent, and discussing instead the framework of laws and policies, as well as the extensive involvement of non-governmental groups such as certain corporations and private firms. Of course this has the effect of reducing the perceived agency of Obama in particular. From a dramatistic perspective, one could argue that the left adopts a primarily scenic perspective, with some focus on agency. The right adopts an almost totally agent & act perspective.
Moving to the issue of publics, what strikes me is how distinct these two publics are. Habermas of course didn’t see these multiple publics (and was appropriately brought to task for it), but despite the common topic (politics, the NSA, privacy), the entirely different approaches to motives as seen by the differing dramatistic emphases implies these authors are participating in surprisingly (depressingly?) distinct publics. It may even be the case that the narratives adopted by each make the two publics almost incommensurable (in a Kuhn-ian sense), though I would hesitate to make such a claim, if only because it would mean the end of real political discourse insofar as it undermines hope for a truly inclusive public space.
My last thought is that the right (or again, the few authors from the right that I read) might be seen as a counterpublic, existing primarily to oppose Obama rather than to support any particular policy, while the left is not so focused on pure opposition to the right. If this is so (and I certainly don’t have anything close to enough to support such a claim now), then the next question would likely be how much these roles are determined by political context. Is the out-of-power public innately a counterpublic? And then, what does it mean to be out of power? (Republicans certainly retain quite a bit of political power, despite holding only the House.) And finally, to what extent can we get an accurate sense of a public by looking only at media? Given the need for media to respond to existing publics I think this is not a totally crazy approach, but one certainly needs to be mindful that this is only one piece of a larger conversation. I suppose this is a problem in trying to “explain” any public, though.