Scary how fear is being used to keep us in line
By COREY ROBIN
Since Sept. 11, many on the left have accused the Bush administration of manipulating the fear of terrorism for political gain. Democrats denounce Karl Rove for drawing from a slush fund of popular anxiety to bankroll the president's re-election. Liberals decry the USA Patriot Act, arguing that Attorney General John Ashcroft has exploited widespread feelings of vulnerability to reverse decades of progress in the realm of civil liberties. Progressives generally agree the White House has tried to turn national security into a mute button, muffling criticism with charges of insufficient patriotism and warnings about demoralizing the troops.
But fear in the United States is not a government-run monopoly. It's a joint venture between the public and private sector. Sometimes employers benefit from this collusion, cashing in on the fear of terrorism to restrain combative unions and dissident employees. Other times the government benefits, for employers can do what public officials cannot: punish men and women for their political views. Like so much else in the United States, fear has been outsourced, and the price is paid in freedom.
While color-coded alerts have little effect on most people's lives, fear can have a real impact when leveraged by an employer. In spring 2002, for example, shipping companies on the West Coast braced for a bitter showdown with their dockworkers' unions at the negotiating table. Hoping to blunt labor's ultimate weapon -- the strike -- the shipping companies joined forces with the Gap, Mattel and Home Depot, which rely on imports from East Asia, and met with officials from the Office of Homeland Security and the departments of Commerce, Labor and Transportation.
Sympathetic to their concerns, the Bush administration declared the impending strike a threat to security and threatened the unions with a declaration of national emergency and the use of federal troops. Though Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld failed to cite any evidence that stopping imports of children's toys from the Philippines would harm the nation's safety -- and the dockworkers' unions promised to load and unload military shipments even if the ports were closed -- the invocation of national security worked. Talk of a strike ceased, and the unions eventually capitulated.
While in that instance the government mustered the public's fears on behalf of private interests, it has also relied upon private fears -- in the workplaces of even the most high-minded employers -- to pursue its goals. In August, the New York Times reported that the American Civil Liberties Union had signed an agreement promising the government not to employ anyone appearing on official watch lists of suspected supporters of terrorism. Not convicted or even suspected terrorists, but terrorism's suspected supporters, whose only crime might have been to donate money to humanitarian groups alleged to support terrorism -- or to share a name with someone who had. (Both Sen. Edward Kennedy and Georgia congressman John Lewis found themselves on the list at one point. In one of those bizarre moments when Kafka becomes comedy, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero discovered he was on the list, too.)
Why had the ACLU made this promise? It wanted to participate in a government program allowing federal employees to make charitable donations to nonprofit organizations through payroll deductions, and the Bush administration had made refusing to hire anyone on the watch lists a condition of the nonprofits' participation.
As soon as The Times exposed the agreement, the ACLU rescinded it. But that didn't end the matter. As Romero said later on National Public Radio, some 2,000 nonprofit organizations -- including NPR -- receive money through the same contribution program and were expected to sign the same agreement to police their employees.
Though some might take delight at seeing the nation's premier civil liberties organization hoist on its own petard, the ACLU's collusion with the government reveals the dark side of American freedom. For all the legal constraints the Constitution puts on the government, we rarely recognize the ironic byproduct of those constraints: the subcontracting of coercion to the private sector. In its search for those who might be conspiring to attack the United States, the government lacked the evidence required by the Bill of Rights to prosecute individuals with suspicious associations and beliefs. So what did the government do? It asked private employers to use their power of hiring and firing -- which is not subject to the Bill of Rights -- to punish these individuals instead.
It's not just the war on terrorism that drives coercion into the workplace. Employers punish their employees for all sorts of political opinions. Just ask Lynne Gobbell. Last month, Slate reported that Gobbell's boss, Phil Geddes, owner of an Alabama company that makes insulation, fired her for driving to work with a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker on her car.
Gobbell never proselytized on the job, but Geddes was a Bush supporter who had distributed a flier to his employees explaining why they should re-elect the president. Geddes wasn't bothered by his double standard, which allowed him but not Gobbell to campaign. The work site, after all, was his private property. Nor was he legally in the wrong, although bad publicity apparently led him to offer, through an intermediary, to rehire her. (Gobbell declined.) Strange as it may sound in the land of free speech, employers are generally entitled by law to hire and fire people on the basis of their political views.
At the dawn of American democracy, Alexander Hamilton acknowledged that economic sanctions could be a powerful weapon for suppressing unpopular views. "A power over a man's subsistence amounts to a power over his will," he wrote in the Federalist Papers .
More than two centuries later, Hamilton's insight still applies. And all of us suffer: When we aren't allowed to voice their heterodox beliefs without fear of retribution in the workplace -- according to the latest polls, only 22 percent of Alabama's voters support John Kerry -- we are deprived of the information and diverse views that are critical to democratic deliberation.
There's nothing really new or particularly Republican about this collaboration between the public and private sector. In the 1830s, as Alexis de Tocqueville traveled around the country, he asked a distinguished physician in Maryland why his colleagues publicly professed their belief in God when they so obviously had "numerous doubts on the subject of dogma." The man replied that if any doctor admitted he was an atheist, his "career would almost certainly be broken." Local ministers would warn parishioners that their doctor was an "unbeliever," and his practice would soon be finished.
In the early years of the Cold War, employers regularly used the fear of communism to stifle unions. Company supervisors kept track of the political beliefs of millions of employees (about 40 percent of the work force) and liberal groups swapped political information about their members with the FBI. So routine -- and bipartisan -- is this collusion between the public and private sector that we can give it a name: Fear, American Style.
Fear, American Style is neither part of a nefarious conspiracy nor a diabolical plot, but the result of people pursuing their interests. It's just business as usual, another day at the office, Adam Smith's Invisible Hand quietly -- and perversely -- at work.