For guidance on the first of these we have found fundamental standards from a number of iconic sources: the Bill of Rights, of course, but also others, including some with international standing, and all with uniquely American origins.
The more recent freedom benchmarks begin in 1941, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech explaining the United States’ entry into World War II to defend freedom everywhere in the world– freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.” The four freedoms idea eventually became the foundation for the Atlantic Charter – precursor to NATO — the United Nations Declaration and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Subsequently the United Nations established two “covenants” extending its human rights Declaration — one on civil and political rights and one on economic, social and cultural rights.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is one of the few UN instruments the US has actually signed. Among its provisions we find most relevant to the current US political scene are examples that would protect citizens:
- from interference with privacy or attacks on honor or reputation,
- in holding opinions and expressing them freely through any media,
- from incitement to violence hostility or discrimination based on race or religion,
- with the right to freedom of association, including the right to join unions
- with the right to vote without unreasonable restrictions
The most ambitious and best respected evaluation of countries’ practices is done by Freedom House in its annual publication Freedom in the World. Its analysis and methodology, which categorizes country practices with respect to “civil rights” and “political liberties,” also take guidance from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
So, with this brief foundation in mind – and without setting forth our own complicated set of standards and methodologies — we will simply do our best to take note of actions, statements, incidents and proposals we think threaten or, more likely, might be signs of impending threats, to basic freedoms and, by extension, to our democracy. If reference to a Declaration, Covenant or report we have mentioned seems necessary to make our case, we will offer it. While our emphasis is the United States, we will occasionally add trending developments abroad that may make a difference here.
Moving to Today’s U.S. Freedoms
Since our hope is to implement this “watch,” we will not go through a lengthy summary of what political developments have brought us to the point. But, we will mention a few of them – putting the emphasis on threats or potential threats to individual freedoms: the resurgence of voter suppression practices, political attacks on religious groups, personal attacks and threats leveled at political opponents, incitements to violence, incitements to spying, intimidation and accusations levelled at representatives of the media, denigration of those in the arts and entertainment industry for freely expressing their views, etc., etc.
Today we itemize some of the most recent examples of events, statements or developments that deserve to be monitored going forward, with potential losses of, or threats to, freedoms in mind. A letter signed by a number of law professors cites most warning signs up until December 8, 2016, as does this insightful op ed by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt from the New York Times. We add:
- Attacks on the honor and reputation of intelligence professionals by President-elect Donald Trump accompanied by threats to slash budgets, reorganize, etc.
- Put the above point together with the House of Representatives’ reinstatement of the Holman Rule, which allows Congress to punitively cut funding for individual programs and employees. The rule effectively guts civil service protections for individuals and denies them union-negotiated due process. So, could those who present intelligence that is not welcome to the Administration lose both funding and their jobs? The Trump transition has also requested the names of Environmental Protection Agency employees involved in negotiating climate change or establishing carbon caps in the US. Why? What will happen to them?
- Fake facts, “alternative facts”, a post-truth society, rigged polls and elections, propaganda and kompromat. We are witnessing a surge in the spread of unsubstantiated, denigrating charges against institutions and individuals for using “fake facts,” and “rigged” polls when they are trying to get things right. But then, there also is the real use of fake facts and blatant untruths to press political positions. A Trump surrogate has even said there are no such things as facts when talking about Trump’s unsubstantiated charge that 3 million votes in the last election were fraudulent. As a New York times story says in the kompromat link cited above, this is not such a far cry from the kompromat collected in Russia (compromising material, which may or may not be true, laced with fake facts, contrivances and falsities). Some of this kompromat is cited in unsubstantiated intelligence information, believed to be collected by a former British intelligence agent, on Trump and his campaign.
- Rand Corporation has made a science of studying the broader Russian propaganda machine aimed at this country. It is huge and effective. Our colleague and subscriber, Arch Puddington, has done an excellent op ed for the Washington Post that discusses the connection between propaganda and the loss of freedom. Eric Chenoweth, another friend, wrote in the Washington Post about the impressive scope of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. It was the first such analysis in a major newspaper after the election. A citizenry that does not know what to believe will have a hard time sustaining a system of law and justice and its own democracy. Simon Critchley’s prescient pre-election piece in the New York Times conveys his fear that we will lose our commitment to push back. He says, “The distinctions between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood seem quaint and impossible to parse. Reality has become unreal.”
- But, this is not just about falsehood, it’s about what people want to know. As Bill Keller, former editor of the New York Times puts it is an intriguing interview: “I believe the need for impartial journalism is greater than it has ever been, because we live now in a world of affinity-based media, where citizens can and do construct echo chambers of their own beliefs. It is altogether too easy to feel “informed” without ever encountering information that challenges our prejudices.” It is also about, unfortunately, what a media searching for market share wants to report.
- Voter suppression is on the march. Six states previously covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act have passed new restrictive laws. Section 5 had required that states with a history of past discrimination had to have changes in their voting laws approved by the Justice Department. In 2013 the Supreme Court negated that section of the law. Altogether 20 states have passed restrictive voting laws since 2010. An excellent briefing paper from the Brennen Center for Justice (which has a wealth of information on this issue) tells the story. The Center also discusses the likelihood that a Trump Justice Department will cut the budget of the Civil Rights Division which monitors voter suppression. See also Matt DiCarlo’s comparison of U.S. registration and voting performance with that of other democratic countries, most of which either automatically register eligible voters or make an effort to track them down. Two kinds of state laws – some restrictive and some expansionist – are up for consideration in 2017. We will try to keep an eye on them.