So, inauguration day happened not too long ago, and it hit me all over again that we'll have dubya for four more years. In the days following the election, I and others like me complained bitterly about the outcome. Some asked how the electorate could choose so poorly while others threatened to leave the country. Soon many began to say that it was time to drop the subject, because someone always wins and someone always loses and there will be other elections in the future. Yet I couldn't let this election go like those in the past, because to me this election was very different.
For me, and many others like me, this election transcended ordinary politics and the ordinary rhetorical wars between the dueling think tanks of Washington. That was what the republican revolution of 1994 was about or the elections of 1992 and 1996. Before the voting problems and court cases, that is what the 2000 election was about. I remember the "republican revolution" pretty vividly. I was only in high school then, but I was quite upset about the fact that the country seemed to me to be turning its back on tolerance and progress and regressing toward some misguided fantasy of "the good old days". Being liberal was out of fashion and being conservative was the next big thing. Newt Gingrich was the man of the hour, with his Contract with America (or as I was fond of calling it at the time, the "contract on America"). Though I felt strongly about that election and wished dearly that it would have come out differently, I figured that there would be other elections and new chances to debate ideology. I could be disappointed, but at the same time I could kind of let it go.
When George W. Bush ran for reelection, however, it was about a man who is incompetent to be president running for reelection. He had demonstrated his incompetence clearly in the last four years, trampling constitutional freedoms and sending American solders to die based on false information. Those are political sins that should be unforgivable no matter which side of the ideological divide you are on. Honestly, if some Monty Hall-like God had come to me and said that I could choose to ensure that Bush would lose but I would have to take Newt Gingrich as president instead, I would take that deal in a second. I may strongly disagree with someone like Gingrich, but I don't have reason to think that he's incompetent, and I expect that he would respect basic constitutional rights and respect American servicemen enough not to send them to die based on falsehoods and speculation. So, you see, to me this election was not about the ideology of conservative versus liberal, but about the basic principles of truth an liberty. It's not so much that I mourn the loss of the Kerry campaign, but that I feel those two principles lost in this election.
In March of 2003, George W. Bush led the country to war against Iraq based on a series of false assertions. The primary justification for the war at the time was to deal with WMDs and the terrorist threat posed by Iraq, as can be seen in the letter he sent to congress justifying the war. Many, if not most, of the "facts" to prove the existence of such a threat have subsequently been shown to be false. Some, such as the documents claiming that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium or was procuring aluminum tubes for isotope refinement were known at that time by the intelligence community to be highly dubious and likely false (this would only come out in news papers well after the invasion). Others were based upon faulty sources that should not have been trusted in retrospect, while still others were just the result of guesses based on insufficient data. According to a recent report in the Washington Post, the US is now giving up on the search for weapons of mass destruction and will not significantly alter the conclusions of the Dulfer report. The conclusions of that report refute most of the substantive "facts" about WMD used to justify the war, finding neither WMD stockpiles nor the capability to produce WMDs. There has likewise been no substantive proof of significant terrorist activity in Iraq during the time leading up to the war.
I saw that the truth lost this election because here we had an administration that took our nation to war based on false information and was reelected. The facts were there to tell the government that a lot of that information was doubtful or wrong, and, whether the administration outright lied or just negligently didn't make sure to get the facts straight, they demonstrated a complete disregard for the truth. That disregard has cost the lives of over 1,000 US servicemen and injured many more, not to mention from 10,000 to 100,000 Iraqi civilians. There has been no satisfactory explanation of why relevant facts were ignored, nor has there been an admission that they made many factual errors. To the contrary, many in the administration have continued to make the same, unjustified claims.
Certainly, politicians have lied and misled before and will do so again, but this is the most serious and brazen example of disregard for the truth that I have experienced in my lifetime, and it is compounded by the inability to admit the truth or admit fault. Usually the truth is revealed and then there are consequences, but instead Bush was reelected. An interesting survey done by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland shows that the majority of the public simply do not know the facts about the conclusions of the Dulfer report (they gave incorrect answers on objective true/false questions) and still believe the false claims made by the administration. So it seems that the truth did not just lose this election, it lost in a landslide. I suppose this means falsehood has a mandate. As I said, there will always be lies in politics, but in a democracy truth must still be dominant in order for it to function. If truth falls out of power, then how long until democracy follows?
About two months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act. This was the most serious assault on civil liberties in the US for at least the last few decades, vastly expanding the authority of the government to search the homes, bank records, medical records, and library records of citizens and surveil them, online and IRL. And that was only the beginning. Next came Operation TIPS, the idea of which was to recruit and train truck drivers, mail carriers, cable men, and the like to spy on the people they passed or whose homes they entered and inform on them if anything seemed suspicious. Then there was the Total Information Awareness system (later renamed Terrorist Information Awareness), a database composed of all public and private records of each citizen that would continuously be searched to determine which people are terrorists. During the tenure of the Bush administration, many people labeled terrorism suspects were "detained" indefinitely without trial. It was arranged that secret courts using secret evidence (not known to the defendant) would be setup to try non-citizens, and even citizens would be held indefinitely without trial or access to legal council. Growing up at the end of the cold war, these were the sort of things I was taught we don't do in a free country.
In some ways liberty did not lose so badly in the last few years. Operation TIPS was scaled back after it hit the press and there was a negative reaction. Total Information Awareness was scrapped entirely for similar reasons. However, the USA PATRIOT act is still alive and well and they're working on a "Patriot Act II". In other ways it seems that liberty is, perhaps, the bigger loser. The Patriot Act passed overwhelmingly in both houses of congress and has met with surprisingly little resistance from the public at large. When it passed, I decided I would vote against anyone who had supported it. But in each election I've voted in, every major candidate voted for or supports the Patriot Act. Indeed, in the recent presidential race the choice was between the president whose administration pushed it or a senator who both voted for and wrote part of it. So while on the issue of truth there was some meaningful choice for voters across the US, on the question of liberty it seems that most voters were confronted by a one party system.
The USA PATRIOT act was passed during the hysteria immediately following September 11th, during the days when office workers in high rise office buildings were buying parachutes to keep by their desks and many people were too frightened to take a flight. The bill was rushed through both houses of congress with rules that virtually eliminated debate. In that atmosphere and with the name of the law being "USA PATRIOT", it's easy to see that many politicians would either not calmly consider the bill or would not want to risk being on the bad side of public opinion. In fact, due to the length of the bill and the speed at which it was pushed through, some didn't even read it in its entirety. When it came up for a vote in the US Senate, the patriot act was passed by a vote of 98-1. The one vote against came from Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who seems to have been one of the few to carefully consider the implications this act would have for the land of the free. Some of his remarks are recorded the USA PATRIOT act node. Feingold was up for reelection in 2004, and I saw one of his campaign t-shirts. It was a plain, solid color with something like "Feingold 2004" on the front, and on the back there was simply the image of a back bone.
I found that terribly appropriate.