With the election over, we need to discuss one of the most troubling developments this election cycle – the demonization of those who lawfully participate in the political debate that is the foundation of our system. This demonization is part of a wider effort to discourage people from participating in the political process.
Questioning who supports politicians has a long, rich history in American politics. 2010 saw this tactic taken in a different direction at the federal and state levels. On the national level, President Obama used his State of the Union address to attack the Supreme Court for its ruling in the “Citizens United” case which ruled the First Amendment allowed US corporations to exercise free speech rights and support or oppose political candidates, a ruling which doesn’t allow corporations to directly donate to candidates.
The president didn’t stop there, but continued the attack and had his senior staff join the effort, even going as far as alleging criminal violations by the US Chamber of Commerce. Even more egregious was the attack leveled against brothers Charles and David Koch for funding conservative groups. One attack possibly involved the use of private IRS information by senior White House personnel. This sort of personal attack, potentially involving private information, is reminiscent of the worst of Nixon era politics.
It would be one thing if these attacks were just part of the rough and tumble political dialogue that occur every campaign season, but unfortunately they appear to be part of a larger effort to silence debate. During the 2010 campaign, media exposé articles appeared on the very same Koch brother attacked by the White House. Media outlets publishing exposé pieces and columns included the New Yorker magazine, NPR and the New York Times, as well as online. These pieces coincided with preceded or White House attacks on the Koch brothers and Koch industries, the second largest privately held company in the country.
By attacking groups like the US Chamber and individuals like the Koch’s, the White House was not just targeting them, it was sending a message to other groups or individuals – don’t participate in the political dialogue in opposition to us; we will attack and demonize you if you do. When the President of the United States and his senior aides assail individuals and groups who are lawfully exercising their First Amendment free speech rights it has a chilling effect on free speech. Lurking in the background are the excesses of the Nixon era and things like an “enemies list” and the implied threat that the resources of the federal government can be turned against you.
There are very few individuals, businesses or groups willing to engage in a public fight with the President and the federal government. Equally troubling is how these attack tactics made their way from the national stage to the state level. States across the country saw coordinated attacks on businesses and individuals who supported Republican candidates.
In North Carolina they targeted a member of the Civitas Board of Directors, Art Pope. Art is a member of our board and through the Pope Family Foundation a major benefactor of our educational non-profit and numerous other charitable organizations such as Hospice, the Boy Scouts and the NC Theater. Unfortunately for Art and his business, Variety Stores, Inc, they became targets of the same vicious political attacks we saw used at the national level. Left leaning organizations released exposé hit pieces and those attacks made it into the mainstream media. Their complaint – he used his money to lawfully support causes and candidates he believed in.
Not content to stop there, the North Carolina Democratic Party and elected democratic politicians, in the closing days of the 2010 election, launched a public effort to boycott stores operated by Variety Stores and attacked Art personally. Variety, a regional retail chain, operates hundreds of stores, including such well known names as Roses and Maxway, employs thousands and pays millions in taxes to government.
Why, in the middle of a recession and plunging tax revenue, would a political party spend the final days of an election attacking an individual not on the ballot and a major employer? Was this a strategy to win the 2010 election? No, it is a strategy to intimidate others who might choose to use the freedoms guaranteed in the US Constitution to express their opinion. For the sake of free speech and healthy political debate I trust the effort will fail.