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The History Of Dissent In American Political Life


There's a refrain that we've heard a lot this week.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If you're not happy in the U.S., if you're complaining all the time, very simply, you can leave. You can leave right now.

SHAPIRO: That's President Trump talking about four freshman Democratic lawmakers, all women of color. And here is a response from one of those lawmakers, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.


ILHAN OMAR: We tell people that here in the United States, dissent is patriotic; here in the United States, disagreement is welcome, debate is welcome.

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.

SHAPIRO: Russia, yeah.

MUHAMMAD: Is Russia, that it was destroying the minds of black people, causing them to expect things of America that were simply not reasonable or that were embarrassing the country in ways that distorted the actual true treatment of African Americans.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to play you a cut of tape from Dr. Martin Luther King. It's a sermon that he delivered in 1967. And he's talking about the Vietnam War and dissent over the war here.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: There are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It's a dark day in our nation when high-level authority will seek to use every method to silence dissent. Something is happening, and people are not going to be silent.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Khalil Muhammad, what do you hear in that tape?

MUHAMMAD: Oh, it's an incredible reminder of how important any notion of American democracy that we can actually take credit for today as a model for any part of the globe comes by way of dissent. Dr. King himself embodied in the highest sense and noble purposes of challenging democracy to make it real and meaningful to people who had been excluded from the very beginning. And the necessity of that ongoing work of challenging the nation to live up to her ideals is exactly what he's articulating in that moment.

SHAPIRO: What do you think is lost when dissent, especially dissent from people of color, is dismissed as un-American or illegitimate?

MUHAMMAD: If we imagine that we've reached a kind of democratic Promised Land where we no longer can question America, then we lose the very basis of the country, which is an evolving idea, and we lose the protections that we've gained for people who have been on the short end of history. And it is a frightening possibility in my mind that this country could be moving into a dark chapter that will not have the benefit of the possibility of change but in fact will be going backwards. We will have retreated to something that will make this situation even worse than it's been in the past.

SHAPIRO: That's Khalil Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard.

Thanks for speaking with us today.

MUHAMMAD: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUZANNE KRAFT'S "FLATIRON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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