The politicization of the FBI has been swift and extreme. According to Reuters polling, just two years ago, 84 percent of Republicans viewed the FBI favorably. By February 2018, 73 percent agreed that “members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations,” according to a new Reuters poll. Thanks to a president eroding long-standing norms and America’s extreme political polarization, the FBI may not be alone. We are at risk of becoming more similar to struggling democracies, where most security and law enforcement institutions are simply assumed to be aligned with a political party.
It is not difficult to imagine a near-future in which the American public sees Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, sheriffs, many police forces, and the military as “Republican” institutions. In other words, the public would expect these institutions, as a matter of course, to tilt their analysis and actions towards helping their preferred party. Meanwhile, the public could come to see the FBI, more cerebral intelligence agencies such as that of the State Department and CIA, and big city police as “Democratic,” with the same politicized lean to their actions and public pronouncements.
Start with the FBI. Trump’s recent attempts to undermine faith in the agency, and congressional Republicans’ willing collusion to go along with it, followed years of creeping partisanship in the public’s views of the country’s leading law enforcement agency. While the polling numbers differ, Republicans gradually started to distrust the FBI over the Obama years, just as Democrats’ trust increased. Trump played on this polarization, so that by the time conservative commentator Kurt Schlichter wrote that the FBI had become “just another suppurating bureaucratic pustule” of the liberal elite, the right-wing had long since abandoned the idea of the FBI as a neutral defender of the nation’s laws.
When one party is politicizing institutions, it’s nearly impossible for the other side to refrain from similar tactics – pushed by political opportunism or the demands of base voters who want to see their party fight with the same strong tactics they see being used against them.
But Democrats are in a no-win situation. When I used to run trainings to help progressives understand defense institutions, I often asked audiences what the word “security” connoted for them. Ten minutes would pass with terms like “overreach,” “surveillance,” and “military-industrial complex” being mentioned before anyone said something positive like “protection” or “safety.” Given that history, and in the current polarized climate, Democrats simply defending the independence of what’s supposed to be a neutral institution ironically further fuels the perception that the institution is, in fact, beholden to one party.
The problem is not confined to the FBI – as bad as that is on its own. ICE is ripe for being perceived as a Republican entity. ICE agents made no secret of their hatred for Obama-era restrictions on immigration enforcement. Their union spoke out in increasingly partisan tones against the policy. Freed by a new administration, Customs and Border Protection agents “aggressively applied” deportation orders in the chaos of President Donald Trump’s changing immigration laws, according to Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General, which charged the agency with disobeying two court orders in their zeal. When President Barack Obama was enforcing deportation, ICE was disliked by many on the left – but that anger had no clear political outlet, since Republican enforcement was likely to be harsher. Yet as immigration becomes more politicized, ICE may be viewed by much of the public as an inherently conservative entity carrying out the policies of a party, not a nation, in the same way that increased politicization of environmental issues have led many on the right to view the Environmental Protection Agency as an agent of the left rather than an apolitical institution charged with serving the public.
Policing could also break down along partisan lines. Sheriffs, who tend to be located outside of big cities and broadly more supportive of Trump’s immigration policies, have been embraced by the Trump administration. Both Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at the National Sheriffs’ Association’s annual meeting. Sessions applauded sheriffs as “a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.” The Association has taken a strong second amendment stance on gun control. A subgroup of sheriffs have pledged not to enforce federal gun control laws.
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to energize the progressive base, it would be easy to assume that policing in general could become identified as Republican, as began to occur in the late 1960s. That historical legacy continues: Democrats are far more critical of law enforcement performance generally, even controlling for race. But the possible politicization of policing is more nuanced.
Police chiefs within the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents 63 mostly large police departments from Orlando to Houston and Los Angeles County, have spoken against enforcing immigration policies that they fear will make it harder for immigrant victims to share information, serve as witnesses, or report crimes. They are arguing with Republicans who wish to allow concealed carry gun permits to cross state lines. And they have fought Session’s attempts to replace successful policing techniques based on a mix of hard data and positive relationships with communities that encourage reporting and intelligence, with unproven or failed tactics from the past.
The public could begin to perceive law enforcement as a partisan patchwork, with some forces seen as enforcing “Republican” laws, and others as backing “Democratic” policies – not because they are upholding differing laws of their states, but because of the ideological convictions of the forces themselves.
Last but far from least, America’s traditionally apolitical military is a bulwark of our democracy that Trump has been actively working to erode. The president not only speaks of “My generals,” but has given the military a freer hand in numerous arenas, such as reduced oversight on rules of engagement and targeting decisions. He joined those policies with a request that service-members lobby Congress for a budget increase.
Andrew Exum, former Army Ranger and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East policy during the Obama administration, worries about the U.S. military becoming a political-economic entity focused mainly on its own interests, a reality that has skewed politics in Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan.
Creeping partisanship, however, is an equally imaginable future. The U.S. military, particularly its more outspoken officer corps, leans Republican, and more recent veterans even more so. Regulations, such as DoD Directive 1344.10 on “political activities by members of the armed forces” and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Section 888, Article 88 , which allow for some circumspect individual political activity but prevent partisan activity while in uniform or more overt political endorsements, have long prevented politicization. However, Alice Friends of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that military members have moved from broad abstention from politics to greater comfort taking political positions. As younger service members increasingly voice those opinions on social media, the possibility that the public could begin to view the military as aligned with a political party grows. Given that the military is the most trusted institution in America, it would be in the interest of any party to cultivate such an impression.
I feel some personal responsibility for this last form of politicization. When I founded the Truman National Security Project in the mid-2000s, we hoped to bridge a chasm that had opened since the 1960s between progressives and the military. Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan joined our membership. Wanting to continue their mission after shedding their uniforms, many viewed it as an ongoing form of public service to alter national security policies they saw as counterproductive. We organized military veterans to talk to members of Congress about foreign aid, sponsored their appearance at NASCAR rallies and town halls to support cleaner forms of energy, and otherwise engaged them in policy advocacy.
We taught politicians, candidates, and staffers a military 101 course intended to enhance familiarity while preventing politicization. But when progressive candidates needed trusted validators, they knew where to go. Inevitably, in retrospect, the right reacted with their own trusted military messengers. Now there’s an arms race between the two sides trotting out retired officers for political purposes, according to J. Peter Feaver.
I remember watching the contested 2000 presidential race from England, noting with some marvel that despite the most powerful position in the world being up for grabs, no one on the planet expected the U.S. military to take a side in the contest. That apolitical assumption is an achievement.
Authoritarian regimes, of course, are marked by political interference in military and law enforcement. In Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, a deep politicization of the police and military abetted authoritarian rule in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to cast a pall over their democracies.
Elected leaders who wish to make their democracies more authoritarian often start with their country’s security apparatus. Kristin Harkness found that having a politically supportive, ethnically aligned army triples the chances that a leader can roll back term limits in Africa, for instance.
Meanwhile, differential politicization of security agencies is par for the course in many democracies around the world. In Colombia in the late 1940s, a virtual civil war pitted the police, who were aligned with more liberal, poorer citizens against the military, which associated with the conservative ruling class. The ensuing bloodshed killed hundreds of thousands and ongoing violence created the world’s greatest refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere. Colombia’s DAS, its main intelligence agency, was discovered to have been meddling in elections and colluding with paramilitary groups in the ensuing decades until it was disbanded in 2011. In modern Turkey, a movement of religious police and military officers aligned themselves with the ruling AK Party against the dominant secular military force. After a political falling out, these more religious security factions attempted a coup that pitted the police against the military, turned elements of the military against each other, and destroyed the nation’s deep belief in its armed forces as apolitical upholders of the country’s secular, democratic republic.
The politicization of America’s security sector may seem far-fetched. But many U.S. cities at the turn of the 20th century had police forces beholden to a party’s political machine. My great-grandfather, a New York City police detective, had to take part in political rallies and get out the vote efforts in order to keep his job. Political fixers hung around New York City police stations to ensure that party-connected criminals wouldn’t be convicted.
In countries such as the Philippines, Mexico and Nepal, portions of the military or police are beholden to different politicians, with political loyalty trumping competence in decisions regarding promotion and budgets.
This is the situation that the U.S. may be unwittingly heading towards. My forthcoming book, A Savage Order, traces the predictable pattern of violence that occurs in countries where this trend has taken hold. Agencies whose leaders rely on political benefactors to protect them tend to become less performance-oriented. Riddled with patronage and unable to remove low-performing or even corrupt members who are politically connected, such agencies gain a problematic mix of above-the-law impunity while being ineffectual at their jobs. It is no coincidence that politicized, turn of the century police were popularly portrayed as the Keystone Kops.
As forces politicize and are seen as connected to one party or another, the principle of equality before the law erodes. Agencies are viewed as protecting friends and punishing enemies, not upholding the laws of a nation. Security agents become increasingly distrusted by portions of the populace, who see these agencies not as enforcing justice, but as upholding a political order tilted against certain citizens. Distrust of the government grows, leading sub-populations to turn to gangs, vigilante self-defense, and militias to protect themselves.
In the United States, these trends have been manifesting in the growing right-wing militia movement, while on the left some are pledging to stop turning to the police for crime control, citing a criminal justice system they feel cannot bring their communities justice. These moves tend to increase citizen violence while leaving security agencies operating in an intelligence vacuum. With less community help to pinpoint violent offenders, they are more likely to engage in broader repression in a ham-handed attempt to do their jobs.
Historically, as crime among citizens grows, governments turn to their security agencies to fight back – often with support from portions of the public for more repressive tactics. Widespread crackdowns, frisks, or brutality, however, fuel greater distrust for the state, creating a vicious cycle of “self-defense” groups and citizen-on-citizen violence.
In the United States, there is still time to halt this path of politicization. The country is living through nearly 1950s-era levels of homicide, and despite the recent focus on police brutality, police killings are (probably) down significantly since the 1970s. Our apolitical military remains the envy of most of the world.
The courts have been a bipartisan bulwark against undemocratic tactics. Most recently, a three-judge panel of Republican appointees blocked Trump’s effort to withhold funding for cities that refuse to spend local resources on federal immigration enforcement. Another three-judge panel, which included a President George W. Bush appointee, struck down North Carolina’s electoral map on the basis of partisan gerrymandering.
Such bipartisan support for the democratic rule of law could protect the courts from accusations of partisanship. Alternatively, it could lead to a broad-brush denunciation of an “out of touch, elite judiciary” and fuel further politicization of the courts. The increasingly partisan divergence of views regarding the Supreme Court suggest this latter path is more likely.
So, other forces also need to come to the fore and make the case that our institutions are – and must remain – apolitical. The logic of polarization suggests that Democrats will increasingly defend nonpartisan security institutions. The ways that they frame that defense – and most importantly, whom they stand alongside — will make a difference to the politicization of these institutions. In South Korea, for instance, the movement to impeach a president strengthened democracy rather than polarizing the populace because protesters focused on demanding that their institutions work, rather than partisan critique. Thus, protestors came from across the political spectrum and used iconography and symbolism that supported democracy itself.
Similarly, in the United States, the fight for apolitical institutions should include patriotic, nonpartisan symbolism – and must incorporate prominent defenders from the right join and left. The conservative Koch brothers have been pressing for proven policing and criminal justice techniques, against many elected Republican leaders. Younger Federalist Society members are questioning the partisanship of that organization, asking for a return to conservative, not partisan, principles of legal thought. The senior leaders of the military need to make the case for an apolitical institution throughout their ranks – and also to the general public.
In 1644, Samuel Rutherford wrote the book “Lex, Rex,” reversing the traditional view that “the king is law” and instead made the law king. Our founders built on the Enlightenment philosophy further propounded by John Locke and others. In 1780, a few years before the writing of the American Constitution, John Adams enshrined “the rule of law, not men,” in his Constitution of Massachusetts. It has fallen on each generation since to uphold that promise. Now, it is our turn.