The History Of Dissent In American Political Life

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tags: Dissent, Trump, Ilhan Omar

SHAPIRO: We're going to spend the next few minutes digging into the history of political dissent and debate in the United States. Professor Khalil Muhammad of Harvard University joins us to discuss this. Welcome to the program.

KHALIL MUHAMMAD: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So this idea of dissent is baked into American democracy. Take us back to the earliest days of the country and trace this thread for us.

MUHAMMAD: Sure. Well, the very founding of the nation was predicated on an idea that was not the newest idea in the world, the idea of democracy, but most certainly in the Republican form in which it took in this country. And built into that were competing visions of various roles of government - the size of government, who would in fact be a citizen of the nation. And you can't really describe American democracy outside of the core principle of debate, and with that comes dissent, disagreement, fierce, fierce battles. Ratification debates were just steeped with intense personal acrimony over the basic legal infrastructure of the United States of America.

SHAPIRO: Right. To pursue an ever more perfect union, you have to point out the imperfections and disagree about what's working and what's not, right? So, I mean, I think about the antislavery movement, the suffrage movement - all critical pivot points in American history, founded on somebody saying, this is a flaw in the country. I know you key into the labor movement of the early 1900s as one pivotal example. Tell us about why that seems so important.

MUHAMMAD: Well, if you think about the labor movement, if we go back to the turn of the 20th century, a moment that precedes the basic notions of big government that we have today, you've got a lot of losers in American society. And by that, I mean people are not getting anything close to a reasonable share of the economic pie, and America is growing extremely wealthy in what we call the Gilded Age.

And out of that blossoms this massive labor movement, a lot of it taking place in big cities, and in those cities are millions of immigrant workers. And they were just castigated as not only being unworthy of full citizenship, but that their basic notions of challenging the market, challenging owners' rights to decide the pay of other people, was branded not only as anarchistic or socialistic but as a foreign menace. And African Americans, within that context, would eventually bear the burden of both their own desire for economic inclusion and racial citizenship but then be red-baited as being essentially pawns of a foreign menace in the United States.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I think about President Trump running his entire presidential campaign on criticizing the country and then saying to these four Democratic women of color in Congress, if you don't like the country, you should leave. Throughout American history, do you find that people of color are permitted to criticize what's wrong with America less than white people are?

MUHAMMAD: I think the short answer to that, Ari, is absolutely. The most obvious example would be looking across the long civil rights era, going back to the 1930s, when you really began to see African Americans organizing in northern cities, some of the civil disobedience of the Congress of Racial Equality, down through the emergence of Dr. King and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as well as SCLC. All of these organizations were essentially defined by a kind of recognition that they could not represent the true heart and soul of black Americans who were accepting of segregation, that these had to be people who were influenced in this case by communist ideas.

And so the civil rights movement itself, for nearly three decades before its successes in 1960s, was basically red-baited, defined as someone who was influenced by a foreign government - in this case, the great irony of our moment is the Soviet Union.

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