For decades – indeed, centuries – American politics has been a rough game. The Adams-Jefferson contest of 1800 was notably ugly, when the Federalists and their media constantly attacked Jefferson for being a pro-French revolutionary, a religious heretic, and the secret lover of “Dusky Sally”.
Abraham Lincoln was mocked as a “baboon”. In 1884 a prominent minister backing Republican James G. Blaine (“the continental liar from the State of Maine”) attacked the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion”. (That backfired; Cleveland won.)
In 1971 Richard Nixon’s notorious “enemies list” came to light. As Nixon’s counsel later testified, “This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly—how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”
That revelation, coupled with the activities by the FBI, CIA, IRS and the White House itself, led to Nixon’s forced resignation in 1974, on the eve of certain (and well deserved) impeachment.
But Nixon’s misdeeds pale in comparison with what we are seeing in national politics today: the vast power of the national government itself mobilized to crush the voice of any opposition. This is “The Intimidation Game: How the Left is Silencing Free Speech”, the title of a new book by Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal.
The book is an exhaustively detailed 376 page indictment of the Left’s unrelenting campaign to hammer down free speech. Those forces are led, directly or indirectly, by President Barack Obama, and include his Democratic supporters in Congress and an astonishing range of well-coordinated Leftist organizations.
Strassel is conservative but even-handed. In fact, she begins her book with the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act” of 2002, also known as “McCain-Feingold”. BCRA was a sweeping measure to limit political spending and deny people freedom to speak out on issues and candidates. Eighty percent of Republicans in Congress opposed it on First Amendment grounds, but the Democrats had the votes, and John McCain’s bipartisan cover, to push it through.
The Citizens United case brought BCRA before the Supreme Court in January 2010. At issue was the airing of a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton. The five conservative justices held that BCRA’s “prohibition on corporate independent expenditures is an outright ban on speech, backed by criminal sanctions. The government may not suppress political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity.”
The Left went crazy. In Vermont, Senators Leahy and Sanders, Rep. Welch, and Gov. Shumlin all called for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and restrict the First Amendment’s freedom of political speech. A Democratic Senate mustered 54 votes to advance it in 2014, but fell far short of the required 67 votes.
Strassel documents the astonishing range of attacks from the Left on their opponents’ freedom of speech. These include the Obama IRS targeting and stalling Tea Party applications for exempt classification, punitive IRS auditing of known opponents of Obama and the Left, and an effort by the staff of the Federal Election Commission to force issues advocacy groups to register as political action committees. There were shocking threats and personal attacks by Leftist groups on business and trade organizations, and especially on the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which the Left fantastically claimed was responsible for the death of Trayvon Martin.
There were the partisan “John Doe” prosecutions, including SWAT team assaults of the homes of aides to Gov. Scott Walker, to repay Walker for ending most public sector union bargaining in Wisconsin. (Finally the courts threw out the cases.)
There were orchestrated personal attacks, including vandalism and death threats, on persons who supported California’s Proposition 8, that affirmed traditional marriage, and similar attacks on scientists and others who didn’t buy into Al Gore’s version of atmospheric physics (“climate deniers”). And of course the Left, led by Bernie Sanders, almost daily pillories billionaires Charles and David Koch for supporting libertarian causes.
The key to this strategy, Strassel says, is forcing disclosure of names of the supporters and donors to causes the Left opposes, so they can be attacked by the Obama agencies, Democratic politicians, and a host of organizations with little commitment to the truth , to the Bill of Rights, and to basic decency. She sees the Left’s demands for disclosure as equivalent to the (unsuccessful) attempt by the Alabama attorney general, in 1957, to force disclosure of the names of NAACP members, so white segregationists could intimidate them, or worse.
Yes, money in politics is a legitimate concern in a democracy. But so is the corruption of the national government and the destruction of free speech by the President and his allies on the Left. Strassel convincingly argues that forced disclosure to allow vicious retaliation by the Left is the essential ingredient of The Intimidation Game. If it succeeds, the First Amendment will become an empty shell.
- John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).