The 2012 presidential candidates' perspectives on civil liberties

Note: The Bill of Rights Defense Committee is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and does not endorse particular candidates for public office. Nothing in what follows should be construed as an official endorsement for any candidate, but we do hope that you'll find it both informative and provocative.

With only a few days remaining until the 2012 presidential election, the candidates are sprinting around the country to secure support from voters. Behind the distractions of their legitimate policy differences, however, lie quietly critical issues that truly test their dedication to upholding the laws of the land and preserving the protections of We the People. While the national economy dominated discussion during the 2012 presidential debates, this year's election also affords an opportunity to scrutinize the candidates' perspectives on civil liberties.

Obama vs. Romney

On many civil liberties issues, neither Obama nor Romney have taken positions consistent with American values, choosing instead to support authoritarian measures adopted in the name of security. According to BORDC's Shahid Buttar:

While the 2012 presidential debate has involved many issues of legitimate national concern, those with the most enduring legacy have been excluded entirely from the debate -- and with good reason: There is no meaningful daylight between the candidates. Despite an increasingly vicious electoral contest between the presidential campaigns, and wide-ranging conflict between the two major political parties in Congress and the state legislatures, with respect to national security and human rights (and to be fair, a range of other equally ignored issues), America is a one party state.

On the one hand, Romney may bring back into the White House the discredited coterie of advisers that dragged our country into a constitutional abyss under the Bush administration. On the other hand, President Obama has made policy choices in counterterrorism, immigration enforcement, surveillance, and police accountability that outflank the Bush-Cheney administration's worst abuses.

Noting the Obama administration's support for domestic surveillance, government secrecy, a national biometric ID scheme, prosecuting whistleblowers, and executive accountability for torture, Buttar notes that:

Despite campaigning to restore liberty in the face of Bush & Cheney's blind pursuit of a brutish (and ultimately foolish) vision of security, President Obama has not only continued their constitutional abuses but even pioneered new ones. Two looming, especially large, ones are the powers to militarily detain -- or even kill -- anyone (even American citizens, and their children) with neither evidence nor any judicial review.

The 2012 presidential debates also gave rise to a discussion on the candidates' immigration policies.  President Obama and Governor Romney both consider America a "nation of immigrants", and both advocate a "streamline" approach to acquiring citizenship.  The candidates also share ambitions to remove non-resident criminals and encourage an influx of educated immigrants .  Although the President and former Governor both support reforming the 'legal' immigration system, their respective programs differ significantly.

One aspect of President Obama's immigration agenda entails some constuctive reforms.  The President has promised that his administration will "go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families."

Though President Obama's rhetoric is laudable, its execution seems at odds with his words.  Enforcement protocols such as Secure Communities, which purports to identify and eject immigrants who commit serious crimes, tend to victimize immigrant communities and essentially turn local police stations into extensions of federal immigration agencies.  In the name of immigration reform, the administration has essentially terrorized productive members of American communities.

Considering immigration from the perspective of economic reconstruction, Governor Romney's agenda entails identifying 'illegal' hires and imposing penalties on employers who knowingly hire 'illegal' workers.  Romney also suggested that even if the breadwinners of a family face deportation, their children may enlist for military service as a pathway to citizenship.  But a state that accepts immigrants into its armed forces while rejecting them from its workforce defies the ideals of justice and equality that America once signified.

Romney's vision for the future of immigration policy also contemplates a self-deportation system.  He explains:

[W]e're not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead let people make their own choice. And if they -- if they find that -- that they can't get the benefits here that they want and they can't -- and they can't find the job they want, then they'll make a decision to go a place where -- where they have better opportunities.

While seemingly humane, this soft description of self-deportation policies conflicts with Romney's own stated immigration objectives.  Though he determines to penalize employers who hire 'illegal' workers, he neglects to reveal possible repercussions for individuals found ineligible to work.

Without a clear path to citizenship or opportunity to work, Romney will not have to "round up [and remove]12 million...undocumented illegals," because a lack of livelihood will force them to leave.  Ultimately, Romney's immigrant agenda represents a selective exclusion process with the potential to deport the very individuals it ought to protect; people  who simply want to work hard to provide for their families.  He proposes a return to policies of exclusion that unfortunately taint our nation's history.

Though President Obama's immigration agenda seems more benevolent than Governor Romney's, both major party candidates support potentially prejudicial policies and further fortifying the border industrial complex.  True immigration reform cannot exist with vulnerable communities under state surveillance and families facing separation because of an inefficient system.

Third Party Candidates on Civil Liberties

While neither Obama nor Romney can plausibly claim to defend the Constitution, many third-party presidential candidates have expressed profound opposition to national security policies that abuse civil rights and civil liberties. On October 23, four candidates on the ballot in enough states to win the presidency (Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Libertarian Party candidate Gov. Gary Johnson, Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode, and Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson) gathered at the Chicago Hilton to debate each other, drawing attention to many policies on which neither Romney nor Obama have promised real leadership.

Domestic indefinite military detention under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA), for instance, drew fire from several of the minor party candidates.  Rocky Anderson, former Mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah and previous recipient of BORDC's Patriot Award for outstanding public service and grassroots advocacy, denounced the NDAA as the most "anti-American Act in our history."  Jill Stein, as well as former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, also voiced antagonism towards the NDAA.  Their transpartisan solidarity to defend our Constitution against its erosion by the major parties offers hope, even if the top two candidates support a police state.

The minority candidates also condemned the government's surveillance of American citizens under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FISA), which effectively reversed the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 enacted to protect Americans from unwarranted domestic surveillance. The 2008 amendments not only authorize the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct dragnet warrantless wiretapping, but also granted retroactive criminal immunity to telecommunications companies that participated in the illegal surveillance.

In response to these secret, yet widespread injustices, the Obama administration denies government accountability for illicit exploits, persecutes its own agents who advance transparency, and continues to contest its citizens' right to recourse.  In sharp contrast, Jill Stein exhorted Americans to oppose our government's infringements, inviting supports, "Let's take back our liberty."  Rocky Anderson has also spoken forcefully against the NSA's domestic spying under FISA, arguing that:

[President Obama] promised us before he received the Democratic nomination that he would join the filibuster in opposition to Congress providing retroactive immunity for the telecom companies for their illegal participation in the Bush [FISA] surveillance program....But in the classic American way, the corrupt way that has developed in our system of government, three telecom companies spend some twelve million dollars on lobbyists during the course of three months...Congress passed legislation providing for the retroactive immunity and among those voting for the immunity, now after he received the Democratic nomination, (sic) was then-Senator Obama, completely betraying those that he had promised to join the filibuster.

A Step Back to Look Forward

Ultimately, the 2012 presidential debates demonstrates the diversity of our American political spectrum.  Disturbingly, however, the disparities in debate topics between the top-two candidates and their minority party counterparts suggests that critical civil liberties issues remain entirely absent from the mainstream national discourse.  Presidential not-so-hopefuls from minor political parties might espouse justice and transparency, and renounce extrajudicial killing and totalitarianism, but they lack equal access to the electoral arena, and our rights suffer as a result.

Today, when national security interests routinely override the Constitution and social apprehensions  justify retrogressive policies, we need leaders who will not only unify Americans, but also provide solutions to preserve our rights. Unfortunately, the 2012 election offers slim prospects, given the alignment of our two leading candidates with the national security state of which President (and previously General) Eisenhower warned us.

After the dust from the election clears, our freedoms as Americans will continue to erode until we, as a united people, take action.

Add comment

Log in to post comments