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The GOP’s Democracy Double Standard

BY James Thindwa

When protesters at the Republican National Convention were arrested and prosecuted, it evoked nary a peep of remonstration from attendees.

The Republican Party’s recent passion for “democracy” in the Middle East has been on full display. Republican leaders have called for unqualified support for Iranian demonstrators, condemned the Iranian regime and castigated President Obama for not speaking out more forcefully.

Beating the drums for democracy can be inspiring, but, in international affairs, the credibility of the messenger is as important as the message itself.

Setting aside their foolish demands for direct U.S. intervention in Iranian elections, Republican leaders are the wrong messengers for democracy–especially in the Middle East. Their post-9/11 disdain for Arabs and Islam, complicity in the illegal war in Iraq, and profound disregard for Palestinian rights makes them ill-suited to champion democracy in the region. Another disqualifying offense is that Republicans have all but declared war on democracy at home.

Throughout the Bush era, the GOP freely indulged its leaders’ anti-democratic impulses. Unfazed by constitutional constraints, the party leaders rammed the Patriot Act through a cowed and compliant Congress. Now, as they call for more street protests in Tehran, Republicans seem oblivious to the restrictions that law has imposed on American protesters.

The Patriot Act’s “disruptor” crime category gives the Secret Service wide latitude to charge protesters for “disrupting major events including political conventions and the Olympics.” It also empowers the Secret Service to charge people with “breaching security” and for “entering a restricted area,” which is “where the President or other personnel are protected by the Secret Service [when they are] or will be temporarily visiting.”

This atmosphere of hyper-security has resulted in protesters being cordoned off in “free speech” zones, far away from the president and other possible government targets, thus rendering them invisible and ineffectual. Last year, at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, law enforcement invoked a state version of the Patriot Act when prosecuting political demonstrators. The “RNC 8” were charged with a felony concerning “conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism.” With the exception of then-presidential candidate Ron Paul, who criticized the Patriot Act and the extension of government power, this criminalization of protest evoked nary a peep of remonstration from the guardians of democracy assembled inside the convention hall.

While justifying these restrictions in the name of national security, GOP leaders now condemn Iranian leaders who make similar excuses for clamping down on protesters in Tehran.

“This [Iranian] regime is corrupt. … They’ve killed Americans in Iraq, innocent Iraqi people, now they’re killing their own people,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

It’s easy to be skeptical of the GOP’s newfound passion for democracy. After all, it is congressional Republicans who are fighting against expanding the right of U.S. workers to unionize.

Buttressed by big corporate money, the GOP has mounted an offensive to kill the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a bill that allows union certification with a simple card-check majority. A large majority of U.S. workers have told pollsters they would join a union if they could. Often they are unable to do so, due to threats and intimidation by employers.

Sixty million U.S. workers could join unions tomorrow if Congress passed EFCA. This would have untold implications for American democracy. It is a fact of American politics that unionization increases civic engagement among workers. Why isn’t this good news for Republican politicians who clamor for “freedom and democracy” all over the world? Why aren’t politicians who openly call for street protests, unbridled dissent and democracy in Iran more welcoming of American citizens trying to exercise their democratic right to form a union?

The Obama administration is trying to undo some of the damage done to civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. On labor, he supports EFCA and backed the Republic Windows and Doors sit-in, but he faces a recalcitrant GOP bent on limiting democracy at all costs.

As Republican leaders crow about “freedom and democracy” abroad, it seems apropos to remind the GOP of the elephant in its own backyard. 

James Thindwa is a member of In These Times' Board of Directors and a labor and community activist.

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