When Local Governments Protested the USA Patriot Act

Mass Protests over Federal Government Policy

The US Presidential of 2016 election sparked protests across the nation. There were mass demonstrations over immigration and refugee policies, pro-Trump rallies, town hall debates over health care, the Women’s March on Washington, and declarations of support for sanctuary cities, to name just a few. We have not seen such mass protests since the Tea Party in 2009.

The US has a long history of protests. Yet, local government protest (this is when city, town, or village governments vote on resolutions to symbolically denounce a federal policy) has not occurred on a large scale.

What Is Local Government Protest over federal policy?

In an article published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, we investigated local gov’t protest over the USA PATRIOT Act (United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001). The Patriot Act came as a direct response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and signed into law a little over a month later.

Patriotactsigning
President Bush signing the Patriot Act into law (photo by Eric Draper)

The scale of local government protest of the USA Patriot Act after 9/11

On January 7, 2002, the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, passed a resolution condemning aspects of the Patriot Act and, among other things, urged local law enforcement officials to not enforce parts of the law that seemed in violation of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. The resolution stipulated that a copy be distributed to President Bush, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Michigan’s members of Congress.

Two and a half months later, the city council of Denver, Colorado passed a similar resolution.

Within four months of Denver, seven local governments from a diverse group of states, including Massachusetts and North Carolina, took similar actions. As of March 2005, close to 300 places (as defined by the US Census), 45 counties, and four states passed some form of resolution regarding perceived negative aspects of the Patriot Act.

This was one of the largest-scale local government protests against a singular federal action in US history.

What is Contentious Policy?

The intergovernmental relations literature discusses how relationships within the governmental system functions under particular conditions. These relationships can be characterized as conflict or cooperation. The nature of the relationship depends on what policy is being discussed and the social, political, and economic conditions of the discussion.

Protests performed by governments within the federal system is rare. Local government resolutions express, in a symbolic manner, policy stances. As a nexus of protest and policy, local government protest invites social scientists to extend the research on protest behavior, traditionally defined in terms of open conflict with state structures, to conflict within the state.

The practical impact of local government action on federal policy is debatable. At its core, this action is mostly symbolic; it expresses public displeasure and a sense of political efficacy with respect to a contentious policy.

A History of Local Government Protest over federal policy in the USA

The last three decades has witnessed profound instances of local government protest.

—  In the 1980s, 368 city and county councils, 444 town meetings, and 17 state legislatures endorsed principles of the Nuclear Freeze Movement (see Zinn 2003, p. 604); over 40 local governments across the United States, helped along by the religion-inspired Sanctuary Movement, passed ordinances and resolutions opposing federal immigration law.

—  During the 1990s, in direct opposition to the federal government’s refusal of the Kyoto Protocol treaty, over 950 cities endorsed resolutions affirming their desire to reduce greenhouse gases (see Krause 2010).

—  There were several in the 2000s. In 2003, the city of Pittsburgh condemned the Gun Industry Immunity Bill being debated in the U.S. Senate (the bill was later defeated). In April 2007, the state of Vermont passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush because of his foreign policies. With regard to the War on Terror, in 2002–2003 over 150 local governments passed resolutions that criticized the federal government’s policy of pre-emptive war in Iraq and called for diplomatic solutions.

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee Data

To investigate the conditions of protest, we need good data. And information on protests depend on individuals and organizations who spend the time to carefully document them.

In our Patriot Act study, we focused on the resolutions about the Patriot Act between 2002 and 2007. Our data came from the website of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC).

The BORDC was born out of opposition to the Patriot Act, and is still around today as a social movement organization concerned with the state of civil liberties in the United States. The BORDC provided free, public, and continually updated information on the list of places, counties, and states that opposed the Patriot Act. Without the BORDC, we would not have the crucial data on the who, what, when, and where of these local government actions.

Who protests? Urban places, with greater than average proportions of the college-educated and located within liberal-leaning states were the most likely. After state governments protested, the local cities, towns, and villages within that state’s borders were less likely to protest (the ‘state-suppressor effect’).

The BORDC is now now Rights and Dissent, and they are still providing data on local protest and bill passages across the USA.

Does local government protest over federal policy matter?

There isn’t much research on the effects of local government protest against federal policy, or for the protesters, for that matter. At best, we can say that this protest is a political symbol. It signals solidarity with a limited band of constituents and like-minded local governments.

Thus far, there have been few such large scale protests, and none since the early 2000s. With renewed anger toward the federal government by urban, college-educated liberals, the conditions may be ripe for another round of local government protest on a large scale.

This article is based on, Tomescu-Dubrow, Irina, Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow, and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski. 2014. “Ecological Determinants of Local Government Opposition to Federal Policy.” Journal of Urban Affairs 36, no. 3: 401-419

Notes on Winters and Page’s “Oligarchy in the U.S.?”

 In this post, I summarize the article “Oligarchy in the U.S.,” by Winters and Page (2009).

Winters and Page: Oligarchy in the USA

Winters and Page (Hereafter, WP) argue that all modern democracies, regardless of level of democracy, can be oligarchies.   Oligarchy and democracy can, and do, “coexist comfortably” (731).  WP ask whether the U.S. is an oligarchy.

WP want to “advance the research agenda” of the APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, and goad political scientists to “treat power… more seriously” (732).

Defining Oligarchy


Citing Aristotle, WP argue that wealth is the primary power resource.  WP define oligarchy as a “type of political system” in which “the wealthiest citizens deploy unique and concentrated power resources to defend their unique minority interests” (731).  WP argue that oligarchy is a form of extreme political and economic inequality: “Oligarchy refers broadly to extreme political inequalities that necessarily accompany extreme material inequalities” (732).  Oligarchs, due to their wealth, are a powerful minority that dominates policy in modern democracy. 

Why wealth? 

Wealth is “a material form of power that is distinct from all other power resources, and which can be readily deployed for political purposes” (732).  (Material, as opposed to other types of) wealth is an individual power resource for three main reasons: (1) It is concentrated in the hands of the few; (2) it is easily used as a means of political influence; and (3) it implies a set of political interests: specifically, the desire to protect the wealth they have and get more of it.  The core political interest is in property and income defense.  Concentrated wealth is both power and a motivation to use power.  WP acknowledge other sources of political power: position within government, full political citizenship, position within organizations, personal capacity to mobilize people, and access to the means of violence.  In their view, wealth is the most consistent major political power source.

WP acknowledge that oligarchs do not control all political life: just the major ones concerning property and income.  Oligarchs do not have to exhibit “explicit coordination or cohesion” (731).  Their common interest in wealth protection is enough to bind them and coordinate their actions.  This common interest also insulates the oligarchal system from radical changes resulting from circulation of elites. 

How do oligarchs use wealth? 

Wealth is a gateway to purchasing the means of control and furthering their political interests.  They command large organizations.  They hire “armies” of skilled professionals.  They are “denizens of foundations, think tanks, politically connected law firms, consultancies, and lobbying organizations” (732). Oligarchs do not have to have extensive engagement in political participation to be oligarchs.  They argue that oligarchs do not have to hold formal government positions to wield power: rather, “indirect influence is sufficient” (731). 

Masses do not rebel against this state of affairs because of a stable “oligarch-mass” settlement.  In exchange for extreme inequality, masses receive universal suffrage.  The masses are divided in terms of their interests.  Oligarchs operate within a — limited — pluralistic environment. 

WP argue that oligarchy became a muddled concept in the hands of the classic elite theorists of Mosca, Pareto and Michels, who included resources other than wealth in their lists of what constitutes power resources for oligarchs.
  

How Winters and Page Measure Individual Political Power?


WP argue that there are many possible political power measures, and they encourage empirical investigation into them.  Their measure of political power is based on indices of income and wealth.  They note (endnote 21) that income and wealth does not necessarily have a 1:1 relationship with political power, such that twice the wealth equals twice the political power.  They argue that such relationships are open for empirical investigation.  Yet, in Table 1, this is exactly how they calculate “individual power index.” 

“The Individual Power Index for each income fractile is a ratio, calculated as the average income for that fractile divided by the average income of the bottom 90%” (735, Table 1).

Individuals in the top 1/100 of 1% with an average income of over 25 million dollars have 882.8 times as much “individual power” as an individual in the bottom 90%.  Due to this form of calculation, the bottom 90% will always have an individual power index score of 1.

WP also measure individual power based on the wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans and distributions based on estate tax and data from the Survey of Consumer Finances.

They do not have a threshold at which a certain level of political power (based on income or wealth) is oligarchy: “Any fixed quantitative criterion used to identify oligarchs is bound to be arbitrary… we would argue strongly against any mechanical rule” (737).  Yet, they argue that in the U.S., “a definitional boundary that identifies the top tenth of 1 percent of the wealthiest households as potential oligarchs seems fairly plausible” (738).
  

What Oligarchs Control


Oligarchs do not control all policy.  Rather, they control key policies that offer the best wealth protection.
Policy types that oligarchs exert over-influence are:

  1. International economic policy (important for a globalizing world)
  2. Monetary policy (important during economic crisis)
  3. Tax policy (which influences government spending and other government budgetary matters)
  4. Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies.

How Oligarchs Control

  1. Lobbying (which has got more professional and more expensive)
  2. Elections (campaign contributions influence who gets elected to office)
  3. Opinion shaping (media and more subtle ways that they do not specify)
  4. Constitutional rules (including the appointment of judges)

  

Critiques of Winters and Page


This is an interesting a provocative article.  I especially appreciate their attempt to measure political power.  I have some criticisms of their approach.

They do not consistently distinguish between “power” resources and “political” resources.  They refer mostly to political power, but their vocabulary is not precisely deployed.

Though they reference Aristotle in their claim that wealth is the primary power resource in democracies for oligarchs, they do not explicitly reference the deep roots their ideas have in Marxism and neo-Marxism.  Their thesis of why the masses accept this arrangement is very close to the Marxian theory of state compromise/class compromise.  In exchange for their larger monetary and political control, the ruling class grants concessions to the proletariat, including limited political influence and limited economic redistribution. 

Further, WP argue that masses are “persuaded” as a result of this settlement.  In Marxian terms, the settlement leads to false consciousness (they do not use the term “consciousness”).  Lacking wealth as a motivator for political action, masses are divided over their different interests.  This implies that wealth is the only thing in modern democracy that can successfully bind a group together and motivate each individual to act as if they have a common interest with their fellow group members. 

In their discussion of how wealth is used, they do not separate ownership from control over organizations.  For example, WP states that “the wealthy often control large organizations, such as business corporations, that can act for them” (732).  CEOs and boards of directors are the ones that usually control these organizations; while they are wealthy, it is not their material wealth that is used; rather, it is their position within a heavily resourced organization.  This fact undermines their argument that wealth is the key political force. 

A similar problem is with oligarchs relationship to think tanks, lobbying firms, and the like.  While funded by the wealthy, even the non-wealthy can be influential actors within these organizations.  These problems in their conceptualization are especially problematic because they operationalize political power solely on income and wealth indices.

While WP say that oligarchs do not control all political activities, their last form of control, “Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies” is vague enough to imply a much larger range of control than WP admit.  “Over-all” is far too imprecise to be operationalized.

What happens to WP ‘s theory when placed in a communist regime?  There, position within the state is more of a political power resource than wealth.  Clearly, the “wealth is most important” argument does not work there.  They do not discuss communist societies (which is understandable, if they concentrate only on putative democracies).

WP do not engage directly with the problem that oligarch influence is not directly observed.  They should do more to acknowledge that, in all such similar theories, influence is inferred, not explicitly seen.  This invisible hand argument has been troublesome for all elite theories.  Further, while they cite Domhoff and Mills (but not Parenti, surprisingly), they do not engage directly with their very similar theories.  Domhoff’s “upper class as ruling class” elite theory is substantively similar to WP’s oligarchy.

References

Winters, Jeffrey A. and Benjamin I. Page.  2009.  “Oligarchy in the United States?”  Perspectives on Politics 7(4): 731 – 751.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022