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Criminalizing Politics

Kimberly Strassel has written a timely, bold, and important book explaining why a great many people are supporting Donald Trump for President. You wouldn’t know it from the book’s title, however, because the title — The Intimidation Game: How the Left Is Silencing Free Speech — reflects Ms. Strassel’s mission, which is to reveal the full extent of the threat to free speech and small d democracy brought on by the coordinated efforts of the political left since 2010 to silence conservative opposition.

In accomplishing her intended mission, Strassel, in meticulous detail, ties together a number of stories to make a damning case about the political left’s efforts to shut down political opposition in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United and the political backlash to Obamacare, the 2009 stimulus package, and the Obama presidency in general. Collectively, these assaults on the First Amendment, and on political dissent, are as dangerous as anything the country has seen at least since the Nixon years, and probably longer.

Yet the press, and following it, the public, have never fully engaged the enormity and radicalism of what is occurring, in part because of the failure to turn up a “smoking gun” directly tying these activities to the White House. One of the best elements of Strassel’s narrative is to point out that common sense, not a smoking gun, is all that is needed. “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” asked King Henry II, and within days the Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered by Henry’s knights. It wasn’t necessary for the King to address a memo to his minions demanding action. Similarly, Strassel shows how it was President Obama, along with a number of high-ranking Democratic senators, who set in gear this assault on political dissent, by targeting their opponents as dangerous enemies of democracy, to be stopped at all costs.

The most sweeping and best known of Strassel’s stories is the use of the Internal Revenue Service to harass tea party and other conservative groups. Incredibly, six years after its start, three years after its public revelation, this harassment is still going on.

The most frightening of Ms. Strassel’s stories may be the use of a secret criminal investigation by a Democratic prosecutor in Wisconsin to harass conservative organizations and donors. The investigation involved armed, pre-dawn raids to seize books, papers, and computer records of Americans whose sole offense was engaging in organized political activity. The investigations, conducted in a manner more suited to a futuristic Ray Bradbury dystopia than an American democracy, proceeded for years on the flimsiest of legal rationales before finally being halted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The most horrific may be the harassment of donors to a ballot initiative in California that prohibited legal recognition of same sex marriage, such harassment was made possible by mandatory “disclosure laws.” Here donors of as little as $100 found their businesses and employers boycotted, their property vandalized, and their lives upended in ways big and small, ranging from foul, abusive social media swarms, to strangers urinating on their property in the night.

In between these examples are tales of abuse by the Federal Election Commission, efforts to pressure the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Communications Commission to silence pro-market and pro-business voices, attempts to limit political speech through legislative action, and action by the Democratic attorneys general of New York and California of to gain information on memberships and political affiliations of ordinary citizens. There are organized campaigns by members of Congress, notably but not limited to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D. Mass.) and Representative Raul Grijalva (D. N.M.), to deprive professors and researchers of their livelihoods if their research on matters of public interest goes in the wrong direction, and the materialization of mysterious government audits and harassment of the administration’s political opponents.

There is little point in trying to summarize here the particular tales that Strassel tells, which are alternately horrifying, outrageous, and depressing. Strassel’s service, beyond simply compiling these stories, is to connect the dots, allowing the reader to make sense of a series of complex scandals and to see the pattern in apparently disjointed attacks on political participation.

I owe it to the reader to note that I am a supporting character in parts of the book, and thus hardly an unbiased critic. But there has been no serious defense against the tales Strassel tells. The shocking thing about this attempt to intimidate is how little those playing the game offer any defense of their actions. Rather, they attack others for not seeing the greater morality of their cause, and hope that the worst of their abuses fall down the memory hole, while the silence they aim to create lives on. Strassel is determined not to let that happen.

But while Strassel’s aim is to expose and make sense of the various abuses of power and position aimed at silencing conservative speech, as I read The Intimidation Game it was the rise of Donald Trump that, again and again, came to mind. For what we see in this book are many of the things that have fueled the frustration with politics as usual that has so propelled Trump’s unlikely campaign for president.

There is the simple bureaucratic ineptitude. It is bad enough that after a tea party activist writes the IRS a $400 check for “expedited service” on a routine application that usually takes three to six weeks, she hears nothing for 473 days, and then receives a six-page request demanding answers to over 100 detailed questions and thousands of pages of documents going back three years. That’s the harassment. That after the agency has taken over 15 months to get back to her, she is given just 21 days to respond, is just typical bureaucratic arrogance.

Then there is the shameless, constant maneuvering to hide wrongdoing. For example, when the IRS discovered its harassment of the tea parties was about to be exposed by its own in-house watchdog, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, it spent days plotting how to “get out in front” of the revelations in such a way as to bury the entire episode.

There are the recurring abuses of power, such as Senator Dick Durbin (D. Ill.) using his perch as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to demand that over 300 businesses and organizations provide him with legally protected donor information, and either cut ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council or face congressional harassment.

Most of all, there is the lying: The constant, shameless, bald-faced lying. Over and over, officials within the IRS and elsewhere in the administration lie to dodge responsibility, such as fabricating the excuse that the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups was due to rogue employees in the Cincinnati office, when in fact the decisions were being made at the highest levels in Washington.

There is lying for political advantage, as when Obama re-election Campaign Manager Jim Messina sent out fundraising emails with statements—not tendentious statements of opinion but alleged facts—about Charles and David Koch, and Koch Industries, that he knew were not true.

There is the lying that consists of making things up when one simply doesn’t know,  as when the aptly-named leftist hit man Lee Fang—like, it should be noted, Obama advisor David Axelrod and, indeed, the President himself—simply accused the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups of funding their political advocacy with foreign money.

There is lying to smear one’s opponents personally, as when Obama economic advisor Austin Goolsbee alleged that Koch Industries paid no taxes (the alternative explanation to a lie, as Strassel points out, is that Goolsbee had illegally accessed confidential tax information).

And there is the constant lying about intent and motivation, as when Bruce Freed of the Center for Public Accountability implausibly insists he is merely looking out for corporations’ best interest when he warns them that continued engagement in politics and failure to adopt his organization’s “best practices” may harm their bottom line. Censor if you must, but please quit claiming it has anything to do with “good government.” You don’t need to insult us, too.

A system in which average citizens know they are being lied to, and lied to constantly, arrogantly, visibly, and overtly by their elites, is not likely to remain stable. People must feel that someone will tell the truth, that error can be identified, and that there will be accountability. A bureaucracy that seems more dedicated to itself and its partisan masters than to the citizenry it is supposed to serve will breed anger.

Donald Trump may or may not be the best vehicle, or even a vehicle, for addressing these problems. (Ms. Strassel’s regular Wall Street Journal columns suggest strongly that she thinks not). But rightly or wrongly, Mr. Trump, who has been known to a tell more than a few whoppers of his own, appeals to many as someone who “tells it like it is,” because he appears to be willing to aggressively call out these government lies, big and small, in ways that the press will not do and Republican leaders, for whatever reason, seem unable to do (and, we should note, are probably unwilling to do when it is their turn to lie). Similarly, Trump may show little detailed knowledge of the workings of government, but he has apparently convinced many voters that he will bring a business acumen to government that will cut through the bureaucratic bias, stasis and muck that contributes to these abuses of power.

Many conservative opponents of Mr. Trump have argued that he will be equally prone to abuse power. That argument didn’t stick in the primaries, and reading Ms. Strassel’s book, one can see why many would find it unmoving. If most Americans haven’t put together the dots, as Ms. Strassel does here, they can nonetheless tell that something is very wrong. Is it shocking that many conclude that the solution is to “burn it all down?”

Ms. Strassel’s book features profiles of some of the grassroots tea party leaders who became embroiled in the IRS targeting, and it is impossible not to see in them the best of America—honest, hardworking citizens, engaged in their communities, conservative but not partisan, wanting the best for their country, trusting of their government, and in some cases, almost painfully naïve about Washington politics. For their trouble, they were verbally and physically bullied by leftist counter-protesters egged on by Democratic leaders, slandered and excoriated by the national press corps, and ultimately targeted for harassment by their own government. Is it shocking that after such treatment, more than a few might conclude that if those are the rules of the game, it is at least a good idea to get someone in office who might be on your side? Donald Trump is the only one claiming to be that man.

But the tea party hasn’t been a particularly strong source of support for Trump, and it is not just the tea party that the left has sought to intimidate. From sharp, middle-American businessmen like Frank Vander Sloot (audited twice by the both the IRS and the Department of Labor, and once by the Food and Drug Administration, within months after contributing $1 million to a pro-Romney “super PAC” and then being publicly targeted as a “less than reputable” and “on the wrong side of the law” by the President’s campaign website), to grizzled Washington veterans such as Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Bruce Josten, the victims of this assault on dissent show their shocked disbelief that their government, and their elected officials, would do what they are doing. Again, is it any wonder that at least some people would witness all this, and find themselves attracted to a bare-knuckled brawler who promises to be on their side (whatever that is)? The answer to the intimidation game, and the political and bureaucratic pathologies that spawned it, isn’t necessarily silence.  For many Americans, it may be Donald Trump.

Americans are rhetorically in love with the idea of “transparency,” but Strassel shows that whether the next President is Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton, it is mandatory disclosure that makes the intimidation game work. That is how the government and its private sector allies know who to target. Originally intended to help citizens keep tabs on their government, “the entire concept of disclosure has in fact been flipped on its head,” writes Strassel. “The American people know almost nothing about the workings of government. Instead, disclosure is trained on the electorate, allowing the government to know everything about the political activity of Americans.”

And with that knowledge, the government is harassing Americans who dissent from its views, and providing information to private actors who will use boycotts, harassment, and even violence to prevent opposing views from being aired. To true liberals, it is hard to imagine these events happening in America. But they did. And they still are. The stories are in this book.

Reader Discussion

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on July 11, 2016 at 14:59:48 pm

Americans are rhetorically in love with the idea of “transparency,” but Strassel shows that whether the next President is Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton, it is mandatory disclosure that makes the intimidation game work. That is how the government and its private sector allies know who to target. Originally intended to help citizens keep tabs on their government, “the entire concept of disclosure has in fact been flipped on its head,” writes Strassel. “The American people know almost nothing about the workings of government. Instead, disclosure is trained on the electorate, allowing the government to know everything about the political activity of Americans.”

A few of us get this. Transparency is critical to majoritarian control of governmental and elective bodies. The problem, as always, is that in a two party system such as ours majoritarian control translates in centralized control by the party leadership. Oops! The Framers understood the problem of majoritarian government and tried to architect to prevent it. Their attempts came up a little short. Votes need to be secret ballots otherwise the dominant political players are in control.

That goes for party leaders' heavy handedness against persons and against groups exercising their right to assemble peacefully for petitioning for redress. And it goes for the members of the legislature who cannot vote their conscience because the excess of transparency, introduced in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, establishes party discipline in place of conscience. Too much transparency is a bad thing because it leads to centralized party control over persons, groups and legislative bodies. Since parties are so deeply kudzued into the framework of government, and government has so many powerful instruments for creating yet more transparency, government ends up having excess control over everyone.

The answer of course is to reduce the amount of transparency across the board. The opponents of this kind of reform are the many folks who believe incorrectly in the goodness of highly transparent and highly majoritarian government.

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Scott Amorian
on July 12, 2016 at 17:23:28 pm

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Library of Law and Liberty: Criminalizing Politics (In the News)

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.