02 April 2014

He's lost his voice since, but the best thing John Kerry did at the
Democratic convention was to challenge the bullying. He talked of the flag
belonging to all of us, and how "standing up to speak our minds is not a
challenge to patriotism [but] the heart and soul of patriotism." By doing
this, he drew the line against the pattern of intimidation that the Bush
administration has used to wage war on democracy itself.



A former Air Force Colonel I know described the administration's attitude
toward dissent as "shut up and color," as if we were unruly eight-year-olds.
Whatever we may think of Bush's particular policies, the most dangerous
thing he's done is to promote a culture that equates questioning with
treason. This threatens the very dialogue that's at the core of our
republic.



Think of the eve of the Iraq war, and the contempt heaped on those generals
who dared to suggest that the war might take far more troops and money than
the administration was suggesting. Think of the attacks on the reputations
and motives of long-time Republicans who've recently dared to question, like
national security advisor Richard Clarke, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, weapons
inspector Scott Ritter, and Bush's own former Treasury Secretary, Paul
O'Neill. Think of the Republican TV ads, the 2000 Georgia Senate race,
which paired Democratic Senator Max Cleland with Osama bin Laden and Saddam
Hussein-asserting that because Cleland opposed President Bush's Homeland
Security bill, he lacked "the courage to lead."



In this last case, it didn't matter that Cleland had lost two legs and an
arm in Vietnam, while the Republican who eventually defeated him had never
worn a uniform. Nor that Republican strategists nearly defeated South
Dakota Senator Tim Johnson in the same election, with similar ads, although
Johnson was the only person in Congress whose child was actually serving
with the U.S. military-and would see active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.



It's hard to talk about such intimidation without sounding partisan or
shrill, but we need to make it a central issue, because if it succeeds, it
becomes impossible to discuss any other issues. Remember after the 9/11
attacks, when Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly declared that anyone
who disagreed with administration policy was an ally of terrorism. We were
still stunned and reeling at that point. Yet Democrats and honorable
Republicans should have had the courage to say that this definition was
unacceptable. Instead they capitulated to the tactics of Republican
strategists like Grover Norquist, who proudly quotes Lenin's motto, "Probe
with bayonets, looking for weakness." And a message of intimidation has
dominated since, amplified through the endless echo chamber of O'Reilly,
Rush, Hannity, and Drudge.



Some who've embraced this approach believe they're on a divinely sanctioned
Crusade. Others simply love the game-like Karl Rove, who got his start by
destroying the reputation of a fellow contender to head the national Young
Republicans, and helped Bush first take office by spreading rumors that
then-Texas governor Ann Richards was a lesbian. My friend Egil Krogh, who
worked in the Nixon administration, hired G Gordon Liddy, and went to prison
for Watergate, did things he knew were morally wrong, wanting to be loyal.
He watched Nixon's administration frame everything in terms of national
security, then identify that security as whatever consolidated their power,
while branding those who challenged them as traitors. Bush's administration,
to Krogh, seems even more ruthless.



The resulting rule of intimidation and manipulation grinds into the dust
traditional conservative ethics of honesty and fair play. In the 2000
election, while the Florida ballots were still being counted, a mob of a
couple hundred people, pounding on doors and windows, succeeded in
permanently stopping a count of 10,000 Miami-Dade County ballots that were
expected to favor Al Gore. As The Wall Street Journal reported, this mob was
made up largely of Republican Congressional aides, organized by future House
Majority Leader Tom DeLay and flown in by the Bush campaign. In a tight 2002
race for the New Hampshire Senate seat that Republican John Sununu
eventually won, a Virginia-based campaign consultant group, GOP Marketplace,
hired an Idaho telemarketing firm to jam the phone lines of Democratic
"get-out-the-vote" call centers. More recently, Michigan and Oregon
Republicans have gone all out to get Ralph Nader on the ballot, to siphon
off votes from John Kerry.



The United States is an experiment, whose outcome can be in doubt on any
given day. But when our leaders embrace the ethics of Don Corleone, they
undermine the very terms of our democracy. Go back to Richard Nixon's
"Southern strategy," where he deliberately used racially polarizing language
and images to lure White southerners into the Republican Party. Or the
Willie Horton ads overseen by Karl Rove's mentor, Lee Atwater. Or the
Iran-Contra scandal, when the first President Bush and key members of the
current president's administration, then working for Reagan, crafted and
enacted secret foreign policies that defied the will of Congress-while
collaborating with dictators and terrorists. Or the illegitimate purging, in
the 2000 election, of 94,000 largely poor and minority voters from the
Florida rolls. Recently, the same five Supreme Court justices who installed
Bush prevailed by a single vote in upholding Tom DeLay's midnight
redistricting in Texas and Pennsylvania--where Republicans broke all
conventional rules about redistricting only after a census, and instead
gerrymandered as many Congressional seats as they could, just because they
held the reins of power.



Whatever our party identifications or stands on particular issues, which of
course will vary, we should be profoundly troubled by these developments.
Since the United States was founded, neither major political party has
exercised a monopoly on deceit, venality, or political abuse. Dead people
voted in Chicago. Lyndon Johnson closed an air base in a Congressional
district that dared to vote against him. No administration since the World
War I Palmer Raids, however, has so systematically attempted to silence its
critics.



But just as a culture of silence is contagious, so is one of courage. And
citizens are beginning to stand up and question, from Republican
conservationists questioning Bush's environmental policies, to career
foreign service officers decrying the rift our unilateral actions are
creating between us and the world, to cities across America challenging the
Patriot Act.



The challenge now is to make the issue of bullying the central theme of the
election, linking the intimidation of all questioners with the blind
insularity that leads to debacles like Iraq. If we can do this, Bush will
lose. As old-fashioned as it may sound, the demand that our political
leaders play fair still resonates. And in a democracy, we should expect
nothing less.



Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A
Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, just published by Basic Books,
and of Soul of a Citizen. Barbara Ehrenreich writes, "For anyone worn down
by four years of Bushism, The Impossible Will Take a Little While is a
bracing double cappuccino!" And Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller
writes "Paul Loeb brings hope for a better world in a time when we so
urgently need it."



See www.theimpossible.org.