How Bush’s "War on Terror" Unleashed a Flood of Corporate Political Dollars and Undermined American Democracy

Last week’s release of thousands of documents detailing the horrors of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, and the torrent of corporate campaign dollars unleashed by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision are the two hottest stories of the day. Most people don’t connect them, but when the history of the 21st century is written, the Iraq war may prove to be a crucial nail in the coffin of our democratic system.

“History,” wrote Chalmers Johnson, “tells us that one of the most unstable political combinations is a country – like the United States today – that tries to be a domestic democracy and a foreign imperialist.”

Johnson added that the reasons why that is can be “a very abstract subject.” But a concrete example is about to play out during the 2010 midterms. Because the flood of campaign cash unleashed by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision can be at least indirectly traced to the Bush administration’s response to the attacks of September 11.

That story begins in April 2003. Bush, a divisive president, was enjoying a surge in popularity as the commander-in-chief during a time of “war.” According to Gallup, Bush’s approval rating shot from just 36 percent to 60 percent in the month of the Iraq invasion, confirming “the well-established phenomenon of Americans rallying behind their leaders and the country in times of crisis.”

A year later, as the presidential primaries were underway, public opinion of the war had fallen dramatically, and Bush’s popularity had taken a tumble along with it.  In May 2004, Gallup found that over half of the electorate disapproved of the job Bush was doing, compared with an approval rate of just 46 percent. In the April Gallup poll, John Kerry, the eventual Democratic nominee, was judged favorably by 54 percent of likely voters.

It’s safe to say that the prospects of Bush being re-elected looked iffy at best as the summer began. But from that point through Election Day, the GOP hit one message again and again. Borrowing a powerful pitch from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 campaign, the administration and its proxies urged Americans not to “switch horses in midstream.” John Kerry’s campaign responded with the charge that re-electing Bush would be merely a matter of “staying the course” in a war that had become increasingly unpopular. "When your horse is drowning, it's a good time to change horses in midstream," Kerry would tell voters that September.

In an election that most analysts agreed would be decided first and foremost on foreign policy -- on Iraq and the larger “war on terror” -- the dueling narratives couldn’t have been clearer. And in democracies at war, populations not only generally choose to “stay the course,” but they also tend to favor more authoritarian candidates. They look to a strong father figure to protect them from the marauders at the gates. Historically, all five presidents who had run for re-election during wartime had won — from James Madison during the War of 1812 to Richard Nixon at the height of the Vietnam conflict.

And that November wouldn’t prove to be the exception, as Bush squeezed out a narrow victory over his Democratic rival. According to exit polls, Bush won the votes of 85 percent of those who approved of the invasion of Iraq. Kerry took just 14 percent. Among those who believed that things were going well with the adventure at the time, Bush won by a whopping 90-9 margin.

That November, Bush’s approval rating rose to 55 percent. By the eve of the 2008 election, it was a dismal 25 percent, but his political legacy had been cemented by, among other events, the chance to appoint two hard-right judicial activists to the Supreme Court in Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Counter-factual histories can be tricky, but it would be hard to imagine that, had Kerry won in 2004, his picks for the Supreme Court would have joined justices Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy in ruling for Citizens United.

The decision, which overturned parts of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, was rendered based on an argument that Citizens United had itself abandoned during the first round of arguments in March of 2009: the claim that the relevant portions of the law violated Citizens United’s right to free speech.  It was the conservative justices themselves who ordered the case re-argued fully a month after a ruling had been expected, asking the lawyers for both sides to present the arguments that they’d earlier abandoned.

In his dissent, Justice Stevens noted that it was a highly unusual move, and that the court had further ruled on a Constitutional issue that it didn’t need to consider in order to decide the case before it -- the diametric opposite of the principle of “judicial restraint.” He charged that the conservative majority had "changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law." Stevens called the decision “a rejection of the common sense of the American people,” and noted that it was “a strange time” to so. “While American democracy is imperfect,” he wrote, “few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

Senator John McCain said he wasn’t surprised by the decision. "I went over to observe the oral arguments,” he told the Washington Post, and “it was clear that Justice Roberts, Alito and Scalia, by their very skeptical and even sarcastic comments, were very much opposed to [McCain-Feingold]."

He added that justices of the past that supported financing limits, despite their usual conservative positions, had experience in politics and knew the ramifications of their decision.

"I would point out that both Justice Rehnquist and Justice O'Connor, who had taken a different position on this issue, both had significant political experience," McCain pointed out. "Justices Roberts, Alito and Scalia have none.”

It’s yet to be seen whether American democracy, already threadbare before Citizens United, can withstand the flood of special interest ads that are likely just beginning to emerge in full force in this election cycle. As I wrote back in July, the reality of the threat was spelled out in no uncertain terms by Rep. Alan Grasyon, D-Florida, at a conference on Citizens United. “We’re now in a situation,” he told the crowd, “where a lobbyist can walk into my office…and say, ‘I’ve got five million dollars to spend, and I can spend it for you or against you. Which do you prefer?’”

If that kind of coercion should become routine on Capitol Hill, it’ll represent another example of the Chalmers Johnson’s “abstract subject” -- empire’s inherent incompatibility with democracy. The decision to invade Iraq -- the very idea that the appropriate response to terrorism is to wage shooting wars against nation-states -- may prove to be our system’s undoing. But not because our politicians spent the nation’s treasure securing our assets overseas, neglecting our needs at home and causing domestic unrest that required a heavy and anti-democratic hand -- the focus of most historic critiques of empire. In this case, it was simply a matter of an unpopular and notably inept administration holding on to prevail in an election it wouldn’t otherwise have won at a crucial juncture in the history of the Supreme Court.

This November, we may tragically reap what the American electorate, cowed into thoughtless submission by the specter of international terror, sowed in 2004.


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