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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Andrew Kolin, State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of George W. Bush

Welcome Andrew Kolin, and Host Marjorie Cohn.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. -bev]

State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of George W. Bush

Marjorie Cohn, Host:

This compelling book traces the history of the assault on democracy and the rise of a police state that reached its zenith in the George W. Bush administration. From the war on communism, to the war on labor, to the war terrorism, our government has used surveillance, preventive detention, torture, and a climate of fear to consolidate its power and neutralize dissent. Under the guise of nurturing democracy at home and abroad, the U.S. government has actually undermined it.

After the American Revolution, members of the economic and political elites believed that America had become “too democratic,” especially on the state level. After the Constitution was adopted, they set out to diminish mass democracy through state repression.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw state repression against organized labor, especially against labor-socialist parties and organizations. Unions, socialists and communists were perceived as political outsiders who had formed an alliance with an external threat, which led to the adoption of emergency measures.

U.S. exceptionalism has led to empire-building. Throughout much of the 19th century, this took the form of genocide against Native Americans and the exploitation of the labor of African-Americans. Slavery became increasingly important to the economy and to the expansion of state power. American Indians and slaves were the earliest groups defined by the government as political outsiders.

Domestic unrest in the United States was considered to be the work of foreigners, so laws targeted non-citizens. The Alien and Sedition Acts, Foreign Agents Registration Acts, Alien Registration Act, and Internal Security Act were enacted to outlaw unorthodox political thought and alternative viewpoints.  [cont’d.]

The red scare was a response to an increasingly progressive labor movement that stressed economic democracy. The House Un-American Activities Committee linked the New Deal to Communism. The government used the Cold War to identify the Soviet Union as a threat to global democracy.

As assertions of executive power have increased, presidents have become more and more willing to work outside the law. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the FBI engaged in surveillance of political outsiders. By the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, state repression accelerated during the Truman administration with the passage of the National Security Act and the growth of the CIA.

Cointelpro paved the way for a police state, targeting the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the New Left, the Puerto Rican independence movement and the American Indian Movement.

Beginning in the 1950s, the CIA used a clandestine torture program through MKULTRA. This provided the basis for the Bush administration’s later program of torture and abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody.

Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans targeted outsiders identified as an internal and external threat. As mass democracy was being crushed in the U.S., the United States became a major colonizer. The government, through the CIA, formed alliances with dictatorships to help suppress democracy and dissent overseas as well. The Reagan doctrine supported repressive right-wing military dictatorships in Guatemala, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola and El Salvador.

The military industrial complex was based on the premise of permanent war-making. As the arms race accelerated during the Cold War, the United States established military bases throughout the world.

Kolin calls Watergate “a dress rehearsal for a police state,” where political repression was extended to the Nixon administration’s internal enemies.

A permanent state of emergency has led to preventive detention, a “hallmark of a police state,” where people are held in custody without criminal charges against them. The so-called war on terrorism was used during the Bush administration to justify an ongoing state of emergency. As Kolin points out, “in the name of national security, all state actions are justified.”

The American police state developed as the government tried to establish a link between internal and external terrorist threats in times of national emergency. Policies during the Clinton administration laid the groundwork for the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and the transformation into a police state.

As the Bush administration violated international law, extreme secrecy was essential to cover up the government’s criminal behavior. For example, they manufactured reasons for going to war, which led to the commission of war crimes, including a policy of torture.

“In Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration created a system of rule based on detention and interrogation, the justification for which was to confront these ‘aliens’ identified as terrorists,” Kolin writes. The system of extraordinary rendition globalized the police state.

“The so-called war on terrorism would end what remained of democracy in America,” according to Kolin. The Patriot Act blurs the line between criminal and terrorist acts, and undermines the right to engage in political dissent. The 2006 Military Commissions Act attempted to eliminate habeas corpus for Guantánamo detainees until the Supreme Court stepped in and declared that to be unconstitutional. And Bush’s Terrorist Surveillance Program expanded domestic spying by partnering with corporate telecoms.

The book ends in the early days of the Obama presidency, when Kolin predicts that the American police state will be modified, but not eliminated.

Indeed, Obama has discontinued Bush’s policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” – aka torture and abuse. But Obama signed an executive order legalizing indefinite detentions, and has stepped up illegal targeted assassinations – of Osama bin Laden – and his unmanned drone attacks against “suspected terrorists” have killed untold numbers of civilians. Obama has also gone beyond the Bush administration by reserving the right to assassinate U.S. citizens. And Obama refuses to allow the investigation and prosecution of Bush officials and lawyers who developed and carried out the policy of torture and abuse.

Throughout U.S. history, there has been a tug-of-war between the rise of political movements and the assault on democracy, the latter often reacting to the former. The rise of the Right has resulted in the repression of progressive movements. The book traces different forms of resistance, including the Abolitionist and Feminist movements. State repression of organized labor generally occurred during time of economic downturn.

Andrew Kolin is Professor of Political Science at Hilbert College. His books include The Ethical Foundations of Hume’s Theory of Politics, One Family: Before and During the Holocaust, and State Structure and Genocide.

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Marjorie Cohn

Marjorie Cohn

Marjorie Cohn
Professor of Law
J.D., Santa Clara University School of Law;
B.A., Stanford University, with departmental honors
in Social Thought and Institutions
Phone: (619) 961-4219

Professor Cohn is immediate past president of the National Lawyers Guild. She lectures throughout the world on international human rights and U.S. foreign policy. A news consultant for CBS News and a legal analyst for Court TV, she also provides legal and political commentary on BBC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR, Air America and Pacifica Radio.

In addition, Professor Cohn is the author of Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law and co-author of Cameras in the Courtroom: Television and the Pursuit of Justice and Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent. Her latest book, The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration and Abuse, was published in January 2011 by NYU Press.