Stone Discusses 2004 Election Terrorism Rhetoric

America's new McCarthyism; In the "war on terrorism," we once again see the manipulation of fear and the corruption of public discourse in pursuit of partisan gain
Geoffrey R. Stone
Chicago Tribune
October 18, 2004

As the rhetoric of the 2004 presidential campaign descends to the level of fear-mongering, and as President Bush pointedly accuses his challenger, Sen. John Kerry, of advancing policies that will "weaken America," it is important to recall other periods in our history when national leaders have similarly manipulated fear to serve narrowly partisan ends.

This autumn marks the 50th anniversary of the fall of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. During the decade we now associate with "McCarthyism," fear ran rampant in our national politics. The leap in the late 1940s and early 1950s from a reasoned fear of Soviet espionage to an unreasoned fear of "un-Americanism" was triggered by partisan exploitation. With the Iron Curtain, the fall of China, the Korean War and the fear of nuclear bombs raining down on American cities, the American public was ripe for opportunistic politicians. After the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, many communities in the United States issued dog tags to schoolchildren so their bodies could be identified after a nuclear attack, and newspaper editorials hysterically advocated an immediate pre-emptive war against Russia "before it is too late." For anti-New Deal Republicans trying desperately to regain political power after 16 years of Democratic dominance, it was, truly, the opportunity of a lifetime.

In the 1946 midterm elections, the Republicans first began to play the Red card. In California, a young Richard Nixon charged his congressional opponent with voting the "Moscow" line; in Nebraska, Republican Sen. Hugh Butler charged that "if the New Deal is still in control of Congress after the election, it will owe that control to the Communist Party"; and B. Carroll Reece, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, proclaimed that the "choice which confronts Americans is between Communism and Republicanism." The Republicans won a stunning victory, picking up 54 seats in the House and 11 in the Senate. Fear had proved a potent political weapon.

In February 1950, a little-known junior senator from Wisconsin entered the fray with his infamous "I Have a List" speech to a Republican Women's Club in Wheeling, W.Va. Although McCarthy's accusations were patently false, Republicans saw him as their ticket to power. He was soon the most sought-after speaker in the nation as he raged against political opponents determined "to reduce security ... to a nullity."

Over the next few years, a growing sense of national anxiety caused Americans to fear Americans and led millions of citizens to confuse panic with patriotism.

Of course, Joseph McCarthy did not invent the use of fear and invective for partisan political gain. As early as 1798, when the United States was on the verge of war with France, bitter political conflict buffeted the nation and called into question the very survival of the Constitution. Although supporters of Thomas Jefferson questioned the need for war, anti-French Federalists warned that "unless the nation prepared immediately for war," it could expect "nothing but bloodshed, slaughter, pillage and a complete subjection to France." President John Adams placed the country in a state of undeclared war against France, and a wave of patriotic fervor swept the nation. The Federalist Congress gave Adams everything he asked for, and the man who had won the presidency only two years earlier by only three electoral votes over Jefferson suddenly became a national hero.

When Jefferson's supporters questioned the president's call to arms, they were charged with dishonesty and disloyalty. Federalist congressman "Long John" Allen questioned whether they loved their country and Federalist congressman William Edmund charged them with being "so degraded" that they were willing to receive whatever "boon we can beg" from the French. In a pattern that has become all too common, Federalists blurred the line between dissent and treason. Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper charged Jeffersonians with attempting to prepare "the people for a base surrender of their rights," and Adams accused them of supporting measures that "would sink the glory of our country and prostrate her liberties at the feet of France." Such people, he observed, were deserving only of "our contempt and abhorrence."

In this crisis, the Federalists saw--and seized--the opportunity to strike a critical blow at their opponents. By discrediting Jefferson as weak in the face of a supposed external danger, the Federalists attempted to entrench themselves as the nation's dominant party. By leveraging a moment of high patriotism, they managed to enact the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 in an effort to cripple forever the party of Jefferson and Madison.

In the "war on terrorism," we once again see the manipulation of fear and the corruption of public discourse in pursuit of partisan gain. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush warned, in terms strikingly reminiscent of language used by John Adams, "You are either with us or with the terrorists." Although the president was referring specifically to other nations, the underlying message was unmistakable. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft underscored the point, castigating Americans who challenge the government's policies: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies."

As the election nears, the president, Vice President Dick Cheney, and many of their supporters have stepped up their use of the fear card. The vice president's recent assertion that a vote for John Kerry would endanger the nation was part of a cynical campaign to frighten and confound the American people. As former Ambassador James Goodby has written, in the Bush administration, as in the age of the Sedition Act and the era of McCarthy, fear has too often "become the underlying theme of domestic and foreign policy." The "bottom line has been ... 'You are scared--trust us.'"

In our history, such tactics may work for a time, but they always end badly. Joseph McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate and repudiated by the American people. In the election of 1800, Americans removed John Adams from office, put an end to the Federalist Party, and elevated Jefferson to the presidency.

Sometimes, Americans cannot passively count on judges and legislators to preserve their most fundamental values.

Sometimes, they must do it for themselves.

Geoffrey R. Stone is a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School and the author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime.

Copyright 2004 Chicago Tribune Company

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Geoffrey R. Stone