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Economic Stagnation and Political Turmoil Test Our Civil Liberties

Police attempt to control a crowd in 1927 labor action
Police attempt to control a crowd in 1927 labor action
Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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December 15, 2015

Our economy is in bad shape. Many economists are saying that the United States is in the midst of a prolonged economic slump. Although the so-called “Great Recession” that began with the economic crisis of 2008 has officially ended, many observers are saying that the nation hasn't been able to properly shake it. A discussion has arisen among economists over the possibility that the United States has entered a period of semi-permanent economic doldrums, known in policy circles as “secular stagnation.”

If these economists are correct, history suggests that we could be in for a period of sustained political instability. And that, in turn, will have big implications for our civil liberties.

Bad economic times and economic inequality tend to generate political instability. One of the reasons the U.S. has been one of the world’s most stable democracies is that it has always had a stable middle class—and when it hasn’t, such as between the growth of the industrial age in the second half of the 19th Century and the middle class society that emerged in the wake of World War II, tumultuous strife was the rule. Americans in that period often referred to “the Labor Problem,” a reflection of the constant unrest of the times driven by economic instability and inequality.

Economic conflict and inequality also are commonly viewed as driving years of European strife, from the French revolution (which came on the heels of a major economic crisis) to the revolutions of 1848. Of course the economic travails of Weimar Germany (starting with the hyperinflation of the 1920s, followed by the deflation of the early 1930s) have often been cited as an explanation for the Nazi takeover of Germany.

In the United States during the Great Depression in the 1930s, a number of radical political movements and figures came to the fore. The “radio priest” Father Coughlin appealed for sweeping economic measures to help workers—and began to launch vaguely anti-Semitic attacks on Roosevelt and on “international financiers.” Huey Long came to nationwide prominence with radical economic proposals. A group called the Townsendites launched a populist campaign for a broad new government program to help ordinary people. Historians have argued that these “voices of protest” played an important role in pushing Roosevelt to the left and nudging the New Deal toward some of its biggest changes to American life.

Today, it certainly looks like we are seeing an upswing in similar political discontent. Prominent presidential candidates are pushing the parameters of debate. The Occupy movement has agitated for reform of economic inequality, and Black Lives Matter activists are working to build a “nascent civil rights movement” advancing a “broader critique of American society.” At the same time, poisonous anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment appears to be spreading on the right. Commentators are speaking of a “Weimar America” and “a New Protest Era.” In times of unrest, it’s always up for grabs whether dissatisfaction with the status quo will be channeled in healthy directions to actually make the world a better place, or toward destruction and hate.

If we do continue to see increased political instability in coming years, it is likely that our civil liberties will be in for a stress test. Those who push political debate beyond accepted limits and engage in protests that challenge the current social order are the people most likely to find the hammer of local, state, and federal level security forces coming down hard on them (as I’ve discussed before). They are the people most likely to find that civil liberties are no longer an abstract issue, but a matter of crucial protections against abuses of power. Historically, even peaceful agitation for radical change has elicited repressive reactions from our security agencies, which have taken sides in those political battles, conflated violent and non-violent agitation, and used their powers to repress movements for change.

Our law enforcement institutions are supposed to be part of a system of content-neutral “ordered liberty.” They are not supposed to take sides in the political debates that take place around them, and they are supposed to maintain order while allowing room for peaceful protest and other agitation for change. The first part of ordered liberty is order. No society can tolerate widespread violence or property damage. Law enforcement needs to be there to protect the Muslim or gay person who is the victim of thuggery, for example. At the same time, that order must come in a context that respects liberty—law enforcement and security agencies must not only offer room for, but actively protect people who are peacefully advocating for change, no matter how radical their proposals are.

Unfortunately the record of our security apparatus in staying within its proper role is very poor. In the 20th century, the police and other government agencies often took the side of business against labor protests, and sided with conservatives against the anti-war and civil rights movements. The police and security agencies have too often confused their important role in preserving order with the role of preserving the current order. And this confusion has continued into our new century.

A lot of what the ACLU fights for is a system of civil liberties that is robust enough to withstand the pressures generated by turbulent times: well-established principles that clearly set the boundaries for ordered liberty, along with institutions built to protect that liberty. Take privacy, the issue I work on. When social movements face the security apparatus and possibly hostile corporations, invasions of privacy become a significant lever by which repressive forces seek to impose power. And the potential for invasions of privacy today is far greater than it was in the past, when arms of law enforcement were keeping paper files on protesters and planting wires (connected to hidden reel-to-reel tape recorders) in activists’ hotel rooms for use in blackmail.

It can be hard trying to warn about the dangers of bad privacy policies, but part of why we do that is our institutional memory (and personal understandings) of what happens when deep social conflicts elicit strong passions that make people want to hit the streets—and fill others with revulsion at those who do. Unless corporate and government powers to invade privacy are subject to strong checks and balances, the pressures of turbulent times will produce abuses not seen in more placid eras.

Maybe things will settle down in this country, but if they don’t, a lot of privacy and other civil liberties issues that have seemed abstract and remote could suddenly get a lot more real for a lot of people.

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