Over the past 100 years Americans have experienced an explosion of individual rights. When President Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office in March 1913, there were no meaningful protections of freedom of speech or press, or of equal protection or due process. Racial segregation prevailed in the South, birth control information was banned from the mails, and homosexuality dared not publicly speak its name.
Today, we enjoy arguably the broadest range of formal protections of civil liberties of any country in the world. While it is true that racial justice and many other rights remain a dream, our achievement is truly impressive and can properly be called a “rights revolution.”
How did we get these rights? The principal theme of my new book, Presidents and Civil Liberties From Wilson to Obama, is that our presidents have not been leaders in the growth of American liberties. Indeed, several chief executives committed the worst violations of civil liberties. Wilson suppressed freedom of speech and press in World War I; Franklin D. Roosevelt placed 117,000 people in concentration camps; Richard Nixon set in motion spying and burglaries directed against his critics, and then conspired to obstruct justice; Ronald Reagan violated federal laws in the Iran/Contra affair; the abuses of George W. Bush are too fresh in our memory to need reciting here.
Harry Truman was the only president ever to risk his political career in the support of individual rights. His position on civil rights between 1946 and 1948, including the first national civil rights commission and his order to desegregate the armed services, was far in advance of public opinion, including the attitudes of whites outside the south.
To be sure, since the 1970s Democratic Party presidents have supported women’s rights, reproductive rights, racial justice, and more recently LGBT rights. But with the exception of Jimmy Carter, who criticized discrimination against homosexuals in the 1976 election, they did not take the lead on these issues. Rather, they followed, and that is the point. Even sympathetic presidents support civil liberties issues only when a substantial constituency presses for it.
In short, we got our rights over the past 100 years because people and groups thought about what a freer society might look like and then embarked on the long and arduous task of making it come true. Grassroots activism was responsible for bringing the landmark court cases that we typically use as short hand for rights progress—championing the issue, finding the clients, drafting the legal briefs.
Which brings us to the present moment. President Barack Obama has greatly disappointed civil libertarians, particularly on national security issues. His opponent Mitt Romney is beholden to a Republican Party that is waging a war on women and an assault on voting rights, is indifferent to the rights of people of color, particularly immigrants, and is opposed to constitutional limits on national security powers. Vote as you will this November, but if the past is any guide we need to look beyond presidents and our warped political debates. Our challenge is to build the broad support for rights that politicians cannot ignore. A pipe dream? It happened before on the rights we enjoy today—and it can happen again.