State repression from Bush to Obama

Article by Matthew Lyons.

With the happy exception of individuals like Glenn Greenwald and Alex Cockburn, the civil liberties Left has completely fallen apart under Obama just as the antiwar Left has done the same. I’d argue this has transpired for two reasons: first, the social phenomenon of having the first black president has psychologically disarmed the Left. Bush provided the Left with a symbolic demon-figurehead to attack. In the mainstream political culture, the election of the first black president is considered a watershed event in U.S. social and political evolution. Obama represents a narrative that depicts America gloriously overcoming its racist past to elect a man of color as head of state. It is no doubt emotionally crippling for Leftists to have to go up against this narrative.

The other reason why the Left has fallen apart on antiwar and civil liberties is more obvious: Those simply aren’t priority issues for most of the Left. The Left of today emphasizes social and cultural leftism over anything else. Opposing war, the police state, or Wall Street may be fine, but not if it gets in the way of the holy struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia, et. al. ad nauseum. The Obama administration is the most cultural left-friendly in history, so that automatically weakens and deflates the Left as an opposition force.

Interestingly, Lyons also links to an article indicating that deportations of illegal immigrants has actually increased under Obama. I haven’t researched that question enough to know if this is indeed true, but it would make perfect sense. After all, the primary beneficiaries of mass immigration are business interests seeking cheap labor and it’s not exactly a secret that business is the primary Republican constituency. On the other hand, mass immigration is most harmful to a number of important Democratic constituencies: blue collar workers, African-Americans and other traditional minorities, lower class women, low income workers generally, domestic welfare recipients for whom immigrants are competitors for social benefits, etc. Plus, research shows that a majority of Americans of all races are opposed to mass immigration, and Obama’s level of political savvy certainly surpasses that of the Republicans.

The bottom line is that the most consistent and unrelenting opponents of U.S. military aggression and the police state have been, at least in the last ten years and perhaps longer, the various manifestations of the “hard right”: anarcho-capitalists, paleoconservatives, and the alternative right. The reason for this is obvious: these are the factions whose cultural and political values are at present the most antithetical to those of the establishment and the mainstream society. These factions have less of a stake in the system in any of its particular aspects, and therefore have fewer qualms about rejecting the system in toto.


Only a few years ago, many people looked at the Bush administration’s authoritarian policies (mass round-ups, endorsing torture and assassination, shredding due process, etc.) as a major reason for supporting the Democrats. But in a recent LA Times editorial, George Washington U. law professor Jonathan Turley argues that “President Obama not only retained the controversial Bush policies, he expanded on them” — while almost completely neutralizing civil libertarians as an independent pressure group. Turley writes:

“Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised. He continued warrantless surveillance and military tribunals that denied defendants basic rights. He asserted the right to kill U.S. citizens he views as terrorists. His administration has fought to block dozens of public-interest lawsuits challenging privacy violations and presidential abuses….

“As Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. have admitted, waterboarding is clearly torture and has been long defined as such by both international and U.S. courts. It is not only a crime but a war crime. By blocking the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for torture, Obama violated international law and reinforced other countries in refusing investigation of their own alleged war crimes. The administration magnified the damage by blocking efforts of other countries like Spain from investigating our alleged war crimes.”

See also Turley’s recent NPR interview, in which he rebuts some of the common rationalizations for Obama’s policies (such as: he’s privy to information we don’t have, or the Republicans would be worse).

Paralleling Turley’s argument, Obama has dramatically accelerated deportations of undocumented immigrants over and beyond President Bush’s record.

I don’t think the point of all this is that Obama is “worse” than Bush, or even that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats on civil liberties. Rather, the two major parties have slightly different roles to play in the same oppressive system. Often (but not always!) Republicans are more aggressive than Democrats in expanding state repression. But just as often Democrats are the collaborators and consolidators — and the ones who coopt and defuse most opposition from the left. The growth of state repression in the U.S. is a structural change that goes beyond party politics, and won’t be solved by voting this or that official out of office.

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