Below is a slightly expanded version of my column in the Washington Post on increasingly McCarthyite conduct evident in this election. I am particularly interested in the new trend toward boycotting other states that do not share your “values” in a given area.
Here is the column:
In 1950, columnist and civil libertarian Max Lerner penned a chilling prediction in the New York Post about the Red Scare: “There is a hate layer of opinion and emotion in America. There will be other McCarthys to come who will be hailed as its heroes.”
Almost 70 years later, Lerner’s political prophecy appears to be coming true.
On one side is GOP President Trump, who routinely describes the news media as the “enemy of the people” and has attacked political adversaries such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), along with government whistleblowers at the center of the current impeachment inquiry, by saying that they might be guilty of “treason” for challenging him.
On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nominee, just tried to tag a current Democratic presidential candidate, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), as a “Russian asset.” Last month, meanwhile, the left-leaning San Francisco city council unanimously passed a resolution calling the National Rifle Association a “domestic terrorist organization.” Although nonbinding, the resolution sought to “limit those entities who do business with the City and County of San Francisco” from doing business with the NRA.
San Francisco has also issued a blacklist of 22 states that its municipal employees are banned from traveling to as part of their jobs. Or, reports the Los Angeles Times, from entering into “any new contracts with companies headquartered” in any of those states if the laws of those states do not comport with California’s approach to reproductive rights.
What is most striking about these pronouncements is the acquiescence that accompanied them: A recent New York Times account of Clinton’s comments seemed to praise her as a “master troll” and speculated on her possible return to politics, rather than addressing the gravity of her attack on Gabbard (who first drew Clinton’s ire by endorsing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries).
Leading Democratic contenders such as former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) stayed mum when it came to supporting Gabbard or condemning Clinton. Even on the outrageous NRA “terrorism” measure or the blacklisting, leading Democrats have been largely silent. It is doubtful they would be so quiet after a similar attack by a right-leaning city against, say, Planned Parenthood.
Trump has similarly accused a couple dozen people and organizations of “treason.” And when he has, Democratic leaders have been quick – and justified – in denouncing such declarations as inimical to our protections of free speech and the free press. Yet, when a prominent Democrat suggests that another Democrat is a Russian asset or a staunchly Democratic city punishes whole states for adopting opposing policies, the reaction is muted, if discernible at all. The reason is obvious: It’s unpopular to be seen as defending the right of others to hold opposing views, particularly if those others are members of groups like the NRA.
In the same way politicians once failed to speak out against Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) until his popularity waned – and his damage to U.S. democracy had already been done – many Democratic leaders have now gone silent. For years, even President Dwight D. Eisenhower avoided publicly confronting McCarthy’s red-baiting. It fell to Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), then a freshman, to break the silence, when she took to the Senate floor, beseeching her colleagues to stop “thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections” and start thinking about “individual freedom.” That’s the thing about crying Russians! If others hesitate or object, they join the list of fellow travelers.
It was only a matter of time before someone such as Clinton used this sort of cudgel against another Democrat. The “vast right-wing conspiracy,” it seems, is now a vast Russian conspiracy that just happens to include her political foes.
In the case of San Francisco’s blacklists, the approach is sadly ironic: Hollywood, one of California’s cornerstone industries, has done countless movies about the Red Scare period and the targeting of artists for their political beliefs. In the infamous 1947 “Waldorf Statement,” major studios pledged not to do business with any of the listed individuals as they sought to “eliminate any subversives” from the movie business. Now, almost three-quarters of a century after the creation of the Hollywood blacklist, a major California city is blacklisting whole states and the NRA for their stances on hot-button issues.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Vallie Brown have been lauded in some circles for their move to bar business associations with nearly half the states in the nation due to their “severe anti-choice policies.” Brown tweeted: “Our +$12 billion budget should be spent on what we stand for and reflect our values.” Breed declared: “We have to fight back. Just as we restricted spending with states that have laws that discriminate against LGBTQ people, we are standing up against states that put women’s health at risk and that are actively working to limit reproductive freedoms.”
That’s a slippery slope: What happens when other groups say their values are just as important, and therefore call for the blacklisting of states, too?
LGBT rights, environmental protection, immigration and other areas of the law are all ground for sharp differences between states. Colorado may not be on the blacklist for having “severe anti-choice policies” but it is a major coal producing and oil fracking area. It is not hard to envision an environmentalist group seeking to blacklist Colorado for its “severe anti-environmental policies.”
States could find themselves in the same unwinnable position of actors in the Hollywood blacklist era who lamented: “Every time I thought I was off the list, someone new named me.” And the San Francisco blacklist could easily result in retaliatory listings from right-leaning states over its pro-choice or other “severe” policies.
It’s not about the underlying issues – I’m more inclined to agree with left-leaning jurisdictions on environmental protection. Rather, it’s about some parts of the country punishing others for supporting opposing views, or coercing states to “reflect our values.”
A democratic nation allows, even encourages, disagreement when it comes to policy choices. Indeed, different state approaches are protected in our system of federalism. San Francisco looks to punish states because of their policies on abortion or gay rights. But most of the state laws in question are currently constitutional and, until the Supreme Court declares otherwise, these states are exercising their right to take a different path.
For example, it would have been equally wrong for Alabama to ban doing business with California when it recognized same-sex marriage. States differed on the interpretation of the constitutional protections for same-sex marriage. I shared the view of California that such marriages are protected. Yet, states had a right to reach their own conclusions on that constitutional question until the Supreme Court finally resolved the question in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.
To be sure, there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about a state or city exercising its right to limit state contracts or purchases. But that doesn’t make it right, or wise, to set off this type of interstate economic warfare. By cutting off fellow states, these blacklists risk creating a new patchwork system of state-by-state barriers reminiscent of the Articles of Confederation period. That period, before the adoption of our Constitution, left the country balkanized by predatory and punitive state measures directed against other states.
Ultimately, boycotts like San Francisco’s are not designed to change minds. They are designed to thrill local voters while punishing those who fail to conform to a mandated view. Before a new war between the states escalates, people of good faith can act to support the right of self-determination in these states and to end a cycle of boycotts and counterboycotts. States should enact reciprocity laws that impose boycotts on any state that boycotts other states or cities for policy disagreements. States should consider measures banning their municipalities from taking this type of action.
Ironically, California has taken an anti-boycotts positions on other issues. Three years ago, California passed a law barring government contracts or business with companies supporting the boycott of Israel. Israel is the only country mentioned by name, but, under pressure from the free speech community, the law now includes boycotts against any sovereign state. Thus, some of the same politicians who support a bar on the boycotting of countries like Israel are in support of boycotting U.S. states for not sharing their values.
San Francisco has already banned roughly half of the nation for not adhering to its views of acceptable state policies. The only deterrent is to boycott San Francisco, which relies heavily on business generated by hosting conferences. The key to such measures is that they must be content-neutral. If a city or state engages in economic boycotts against other states over policy differences, that act should trigger immediate isolation from other states – not the particular issues at stake. This type of boomerang boycott law would be based on the common democratic values in our system, recognizing the right or states to have differing policies.
During the McCarthy period, Julia Child was pressured by the sister of conservative firebrand William F. Buckley Jr. (a McCarthy supporter) to boycott Smith College (Childs’s alma mater) until five suspected communists were fired from the faculty.
Childs responded with a profound letter that read: “In the blood-heat of pursuing the enemy, many people are forgetting what we are fighting for. We are fighting for our hard-won liberty and our freedom; for our Constitution and the due processes of our laws; and for the right to differ in ideas, religion and politics. I am convinced that in your zeal to fight against our enemies, you, too, have forgotten what you are fighting for.”
So, it seems, have many on the left in the “blood-heat” of our contemporary politics.