Bob Ehrlich: How the Left Is Making Sure We Can't Keep Our Republic
Sometimes life’s hard truths come around to smack you in the mouth.
A big one hit me recently as I attempted to make sense of the unnerving events post-Nov. 3. It was a realization I had postponed for years.
I refer to our national speech problem – exacerbated by the 2020 presidential campaign and its aftermath. It is an issue far larger than Trump vs. Biden, Republican vs. Democrat, right vs. left. This problem encompasses a fundamental value – one that has been cherished by Americans from the very beginning of the republic and seen as the very foundation of our democracy.
The framers made speech the very first amendment for a reason. Henceforth, Americans could indulge their more contrary opinions, going so far as to say nasty things about their own government.
A cultural understanding was thereby struck in which all parties (and the courts) recognized that limits on speech should be rare and that even ugly and hateful speech must be protected. Wise defenders of liberty have always understood that transparency was the best way to flush out false and hurtful speech.
Back to hard truths. As a child of the ’70s, I had viewed the great protest movements of the prior decade as strengthening this most sacred shared value. I thought we would be a better country after an era of social protest and (at times) civil disobedience led to real progress on issues such as civil rights for all, women’s equality and no more wars to nowhere.
What I did not understand at the time was the advent of a new campaign that had just begun on college and university campuses – fostered by leftist professors and administrators.
Ironically, it was a movement supporting speech control and specifically aimed at dissenters on the right. Early on, the issue was mandatory student fee schedules that required undergraduates to fund campus speech with which they disagreed.
As the desire to control dissenting speech accelerated, the campus intelligentsia adopted — really invented — rhetorical constructs such as speech codes, trigger warnings and safe spaces whereby official sanction was given to limits on speech. As a result, conservative speakers (especially commencement speakers) were increasingly made the target of a new cancel culture.
Here, schools began to refuse to pay for increased security required for right-leaning speakers when they allowed them at all — a not-too-subtle way to shut down opposing voices on campus. All the while, the tiny remaining minority of right-leaning professors was instructed to toe the line — or else (loss of position, promotion or advancement to tenure).
That this campaign of intimidation was occurring on the very same campuses that had exulted in free speech just a generation prior was thick with irony.
And so for the past 40 years, generation after generation of our college students have been taught that free speech is more optional than sacrosanct. That unfettered speech is dangerous and must be curtailed. That everyone has a right to proceed through life free from contrary opinions since generally such opinions were “wrong.”
The mainstream media, always left-leaning, have expressed little outrage at the increasingly virulent attack on free expression. This was especially true during the Obama era, in which the IRS was employed to shutter conservative nonprofits and a revised “fairness doctrine” was discussed with the intent of silencing conservative talk radio.
Of course, the Trump era brought it all home. The usual suspects (academia, the media, Hollywood, Big Tech) were unhinged in their disregard for Mr. Trump from the jump – an attitude that morphed into an unapologetic call for censorship of 74 million Trump voters after the events of Jan. 6.
Today, the news is full of demands for the “reprogramming” of conservative voters, “re-education camps” for the “brainwashed” Trump supporters, a campaign of public shaming and even a proposed blacklisting of those who dared work for a duly elected president of the United States.
Hence, the hard truth: There is an alarming number of Americans who wish to crush dissent. National disgust at the Capitol riots has provided them additional cover. They accordingly now seek to push a value system that not so long ago was far outside the mainstream — into the red zone of our politics, if you will. It is a dangerous move, one that will most assuredly serve to further divide the country.
Ben Franklin’s famous admonition comes to mind. When asked what the framers had created at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he remarked, “a republic — if you can keep it.”
Keep it, indeed.
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