September 11th Echoes Continue to Shape American Politics

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Today marks the 16th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the United States. Like many veteran teachers, I spent that fateful morning and the weeks that followed making sense of these tragic events with my students. For Millennials, Sept 11th was the defining event as the Challenger explosion had been for mine and the Kennedy assassination for my parents.

More recently, as I’ve written here on the blog, November 8, 2016, has a similar feel for today’s students, and its connection to the events of September 11, 2001, is closer than you might think.

The political debates of sixteen years ago were centered on what to do with federal budget surpluses that emerged during the technology boom and end of the Cold War. Democrats argued for further investment in the social safety net, while Republicans pushed for supply side tax cuts.

A Republican President, George W. Bush, facing his own legitimacy challenges given his loss of the popular vote and Electoral College victory secured by Supreme Court decision, positioned himself as a “compassionate conservative.” This entailed, for example, support for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the ten million-plus undocumented individuals residing in the country at the time.

Twin Towers-NYC

The events of September 11th changed the course of the Bush presidency and history itself. It placed the country on a war footing, with entanglements in first Afghanistan, and later Iraq, which continue to this day. An outright defense of civil liberties took a backseat to homeland security, yielding a Cabinet-level agency in this name and the infamous U.S. PATRIOT Act. Entitlement and immigration reform took a back seat to prosecuting the War on Terror at home and abroad.

The 2004 and 2008 presidential elections were essentially fought on this terrain. In 2004, Bush, benefiting from residual support as a wartime leader, proved that he was tougher on terrorism (in the eyes of voters) than his Democratic opponent John Kerry. Four years later, then-Senator Obama based the premise of his campaign on ending the now unpopular Iraq War, and successfully tied his challenger, Senator John McCain, to the toxic incumbent president.

Many political biographies of the aftermath of September 11 end with Obama’s victory and pivot towards addressing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. His re-election in 2012 highlighted these Herculean rescue efforts, but also his order to have 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden assassinated by U.S. Navy Seals.

President Obama campaigned twice on the promise of comprehensive immigration reform, but never built sufficient support or found enough willing partners in Congress. Republicans moved decisively to the right on this and other issues, with 2012 nominee Mitt Romney calling for “self-deportation,” and Donald Trump’s signature promise in 2016 and beyond to “build a wall” along the entirety of the Mexico-U.S. border. Trump also called for, and attempted to institute a Muslim ban. Echoes of 9/11 reverberate.

Funds for the wall have yet to be appropriated, and the Muslim ban is tied up in our federal courts, but last week’s announcement that President Obama’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) executive order would be rescinded after six months unless Congress fails to act in the interim sent chills down the spines of the vast majority of Americans. Optimistic signs of bi-partisan compromise have since emerged, and Trump’s potential signing of any form of progressive immigration reform would be the historical equivalent of Nixon going to China.

Regardless, the implications of the September 11th attacks remain with us today, and the Trump presidency is a natural culmination of the reaction and counter-reaction to this fateful day.

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