Democrats and Republicans and Our Liberties at Home and Abroad
I. Obama and Bush
As the country reels from yet another revelation of spying on American residents, it might be useful to look at what the spokespersons for our two major political parties have to say on the matter. In the wake of the revelations of internet spying carried on by government agencies such as the National Security Administration (NSA) against the email and cell phone accounts of average American residents, liberal Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein of California hastened to defend the spying. The June 10, 2013 edition of the New York Times reports that the senior senator from California defended the government surveillance program. She was joined in this defense by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Congressman Mike Rogers of Michigan, who chairs the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. Congressman Rogers directed much of his anger against the British paper, The Guardian, which first broke the story about the surveillance program at NSA. So is current bipartisan support for spying on American citizens the exception to the rule? No, it is very much the rule. Let’s look at some recent examples from American history.
We all remember the almost unanimous passage of the Patriot Act in October of 2001 (the Senate vote was 98–1). This law had overwhelming bipartisan support of both Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress as it authorized a wide variety of new intrusions into the private lives of American citizens as well as forcing public institutions, like libraries and schools, to turn over records on students, library users and employees who had previously been protected by privacy laws. The Bush-era also featured the forced internment, without trial, of men and women suspected of terrorism for more than ten years at the U.S.-owned Guantanamo Naval Base on one end of the island of Cuba. Now, as the inmates — desperate and angry at their long incarceration — employ hunger strikes to protest their condition, U.S. officials have sanctioned the use of forced feeding. Six years after presidential candidate Barack Obama pledged to close Guantanamo, the prison on the island of Cuba remains open and functioning.
As we look back on the past five years of President Obama’s tenure, we see that he and Congress extended almost all of the Bush-era violations of civil liberties plus an expansion into new areas as exemplified by the NAS revelations leaked by Snowden. However, these were not isolated examples in an otherwise laudatory record of support for the civil liberties of American residents as we shall see.
II. Woodrow Wilson and the First Red Scare (1917–1924)
Let us now turn to earlier examples of bipartisan support for the abridgement of the civil liberties of Americans. During World War I and the administration of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921), the United States experienced the first Red Scare. In 1918, the Wilson Administration pushed for passage of the Sedition Act which was approved in Congress with bipartisan support. The law infringed on the free speech of American citizens and recent immigrants. Socialist orator and labor leader Eugene V. Debs and other Americans were sent to prison for speaking out against the War. President Wilson also ordered the opening of mail of citizens and political organizations and some labor unions. Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, oversaw the roundup and deportation of immigrants whose political views were deemed “subversive” by the intolerant Wilson. This official policy of intolerance and repression encouraged thousands of ad hoc vigilante actions by local police, the American Legion, and gun thugs in the pay of employers, to raid, beat up, and sometimes murder dissenters and labor union organizers. It is no mere coincidence that the employers’ anti-union drive of the early 1920’s, called the Open Shop drive, came alongside bloody suppression of strikes of textile workers in New Jersey and North Carolina, as well as strikes by steelworkers, miners, and tenant farmers. In a few cases, such as the Mingo County War in the coal mining regions of West Virginia, pitched battles were fought as state militia and private gun thugs attacked striking miners and their families.
III. Truman, Eisenhower and the Second Red Scare (1947–1955)
Thirty years later, following World War II, the United States underwent its second Red Scare. This time the symbol of repression was Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin. While the Wisconsin senator made headlines accusing government officials and diplomats of being disloyal, the Democrats were also heavily involved in actions designed to limit civil liberties in the interests of “security.” Democratic Senator Pat McCarron of Nevada authored and obtained passage of the McCarron Internal Security Act which established a list of “subversive organizations.” Democratic President Harry Truman introduced, by executive order, a loyalty oath program for Federal employees. Both Democrats and Republicans supported the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 which required unions to sign anti-communist affidavits and generally eroded the rights of workers and their unions to run their own affairs. Support for many of the features of McCarthyism came from a variety of intellectuals once associated with the left of the 1930’s. Walter Reuther, Arthur Schlesinger, Norman Thomas and others associated with the newly-formed Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) attacked radicals as Communists and called for the expulsion of leftwing unions from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In addition, although Senator Joseph McCarthy was embarrassed during the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954–1955, many of those who attacked McCarthy (like President Dwight Eisenhower) did so primarily because McCarthy’s grabbing headlines and lying about his “lists of known Communists in government” cast a bad light on their own planned more “respectable” red-baiting activities.
Many people point with dismay to the fact that McCarthyism gave Richard Nixon’s political career a boost. However, they generally ignore the fact that McCarthy and the U.S. Senate labor rackets investigations were also the launching pad for the political career of 1960’s liberal Robert Kennedy.
IV. A Bipartisan Foreign Policy: The Suppression of Labor Rights Abroad…the Example of Colombia
Both the Democratic and Republican Parties have conducted almost identical foreign policy programs which feature alliances with local elites and reactionary regimes in developing countries, the sponsorship of counter-insurgency programs against popular movements for social justice, and lavish aid to the military of these countries so it can be used as an instrument of political repression. While there are many examples of this consistent foreign policy, let us look at only one country: Colombia. From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, United States administrations have maintained a consistent policy of military aid and counter-insurgency campaigns dressed up as support for the “war on drugs.” Since the late 1980’s U.S. money has directly aided the Colombian military which has the worst human rights and labor rights record in Latin America and which indirectly has helped encourage and arm paramilitary groups that have evicted four million campesinos from their land, murdered more than 500 union organizers in ten years, and assassinated journalists and opposition politicians. Today, Colombia has 5% of the population owning and controlling almost 80% of the country’s land. As a result of U.S. aid and our promotion of a multi-national corporate agenda in Colombia, the people of Colombia are poorer, less free, and more likely to be kidnapped or murdered for political reasons. Yet the Colombian oligarchy is living better than ever as are their corporate allies in the United States. Every U.S. administration has supported the policy of encouraging “free trade pacts” with Colombia and of arming the military and gangs of gun thugs to crush popular resistance to these policies.
V. Which Side Are You On?
So let us conclude by taking a look at our two parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. So often we are told that it is important to support Democratic candidates because the Republicans are worse. Define “worse?” Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party receive most of their funding from corporate sources. In the case of the Democrats, the figure is between 70 and 75%. In the case of the GOP, it is even higher. When both of our principal political parties get most of their funding from the same sources, it stands to reason that these parties will champion policies that reflect the economic interests of those who pay for their re-election costs. Yes, there are differences between the two parties on social issues such as Marriage Equality. However, this is because the corporate interests that fund both parties do not see issues like same sex marriage as threats to their company’s bottom line. As a result, there is room for different views on some social issues. However, on issues relating to labor, profits, taxes, and banking/finance, the corporate interests speak with one voice and pour money into the campaigns of both parties in order to get their way on these “core” interests, no matter who wins a given election.
So you might ask: what is the alternative? In its best year, with Ralph Nader at the head of its ticket, the Green Party polled only about 3% of the total national vote in the Presidential election of 2000. It has declined since that election. We need a party that is rooted in communities, factories, and shops across this country. The only type of party that can provide that kind of support is a labor party rising up out of the existing labor movement, along with all working people…those who keep the wheels of the economy and society moving. Also, central to this party will be the people who work daily to build community movements and who tirelessly struggle to meet the needs of those millions left out of the system, either deliberately or because they lack a voice.
But some might ask, “Isn’t the labor movement dying?” The labor movement, no matter its current condition, will never die. Yes, it has lost both members and power since the 1970’s But no matter how weak or strong, maligned or heralded, or how pristine or sullied, the labor movement is the only movement that can and must address the needs of the majority, those who diligently punch the time clocks, no matter the shift, work extra hours to better care for their families, and stand at the core of what makes a nation, makes any nation for that matter. These are the people who must be the base of a new political party, their own political party, one that works for their interests, one that will challenge the hegemony of the Democrats and the Republicans, and one that will put down roots in cities, neighborhoods, factories, and shops all over this country. The new party will speak for workers, teachers, communities of color, immigrants, poor whites, and others left out of the corporate agenda of the two major parties. For the first time in many years, there will be a genuine class line in American politics. The great question that all working people need only ask one another is the old timeless one from their own history: “Which side are you on?” It is the essential question upon which the party will be built, and the answer provides the essential solution to the two bankrupt parties and the present system which, year after year, fails to answer correctly this historic question.
In the meanwhile, we must struggle, fight and mobilize to protect, preserve and expand our diminishing civil liberties, which will better enable us to establish and build the workers’ party we need, with freedom, justice and the right to vote ensured for all.