It must have felt fresh the first time a political figure equated civil rights with national-security crises. Perhaps it was when Frederick Douglass told Abraham Lincoln that by keeping the Union Army all white, he was “fighting rebels with only one arm,” or more recently when advocates for women’s rights competed for who was quicker to endorse World War I — depicting the conflict as a ‘watershed moment’ for women’s liberation.
Today, this kind of discourse has evolved into its own genre. International relations experts define such rhetoric as securitization: the attempt to turn an issue that is not obviously a matter of national security into one. The crux of the message is essentially: if you don’t toe my preferred line on this issue, you will be putting yourselves or your loved ones at risk — and providing comfort or aid to our enemies.
For instance, Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris recently argued that“Russia was able to influence our election because they figured out that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are America’s Achilles heel. These issues aren’t only civil rights — they’re also a matter of national security. We have to deal with that.”
Of course, Harris literally premised her career on securitization. She won her first public office, San Francisco District Attorney, by unseating one of the most progressive criminal justice reform advocates in the country at the time. Harris’s basic argument was that a commitment to sentencing reform and diversion programs was making San Francisco less safe; it was putting criminals before ‘the people.’
Her bid to shift the conversation — from discussions about social justice to concerns about public safety — paid off. She decisively won the election decisively , despite the reality that violent crime had actually dropped precipitously in San Francisco under her rival’s tenure (perhaps due to the very reforms she sowed public distrust against).
Politicians rely on securitization because it is effective: When people come to view something as a security issue, they tend to become more supportive of the person who is promising to keep them safe, and less skeptical of the measures deployed to ensure that safety.
Yet, while a politics of fear is often effective at helping politicians win office, it is typically devastating to liberal democracy: when people are in a fearful state of mind, they become much more susceptible to tribalism, authoritarianism and myopic militancy. They also grow much more willing to tolerate “states of exception” against those whom they deem a threat.
For instance, it is a very short jump from the sort of rhetoric Kamala Harris was deploying to what queer theorist Jasbir Puar dubbed “homonationalism.”
In a homonationalist arrangement, already vulnerable or disenfranchised populations (typically Muslims and/or immigrants) are held up as posing a threat to our enlightened norms, values, and way of life by in virtue of being insufficiently woke on issues related to gender and sexuality. We have seen this play out in countries across Europe – uniting many on the left and right against Muslims, and migrants from Africa and the Middle East, in the name of feminism, LGBTQ rights and other ‘Western’ values.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, a similar dynamic could easily take hold in the United States. Indeed, there have been moments when it already has (for instance, when the left and right were united on terraforming Afghanistan in order to liberate Afghan women from their ‘regressive’ culture). This is what makes Kamala Harris’s rhetoric so dangerous. Indeed, within weeks of Harris’s attempt to securitize social justice, Trump himself announced a new ‘global effort’ to decriminalize homosexuality in ‘dozens’ of nations – starting with Iran – even as his administration has renewed calls for regime change in the Islamic Republic.
This is the typical way these things go: because perceptions of security are so intimately bound up with political legitimacy, rather than challenging the securitization of a given issue, political rivals usually try to outflank their opponent within the securitized framework instead, rather than challenge the securitization narrative of a given issue.
It is unlikely that a political rival would respond to Harris by saying, “We reject your premise, and find it non-constructive that you are trying to conflate civil rights, civil liberties, and national security (especially given how often the former are undermined in the name of the latter).”
No. Many on the right would likely respond, “You’re absolutely right – identity politics has become a threat to our national security, and must be dealt with accordingly.” In other words, they would double down on the securitized framing, and merely argue that it is Democrats who are making us unsafe by their approach to these issues.
Meanwhile, a Democratic rival would be more likely to say, “You’re absolutely right, this is a matter of national security. And that’s why it’s so important that I have a better record (or plan) on these issues than you.”
One may hope that the media could play a role in resisting these dynamics. Unfortunately, Michael Stohl, Benjamin Smith and I have done research that by Michael Stohl, Benjamin Smith and I shows that media they tend to reinforce them instead: outlets tend to adopt the preferred security framing of the candidates they lean towards. So, unless politicians do the right thing first, media outlets are unlikely to do so either. After all, stoking fear is usually good for their business too.
This leaves it up to voters to reject this nonsense – and to respond with hostility to politicians and media outlets when they try to securitize issues — especially when it is “our” team that is doing it.
For instance, when Donald Trump declared a ‘national emergency’ over the border wall, Bernie Sanders responded, “Mr. President. Do you want to know what a real ‘national emergency’ is? The scientists tell us that if we don’t combat climate change aggressively, the severe damage done to our country and planet will be irreversible. Now that’s a ‘crisis.’”
First-term Freshman Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar took it to the next level, explicitly calling for the next Democratic president to declare a national emergency over climate change “on day 1.”
Elizabeth Warren sought to expand the range of crises even further, declaring: “Gun violence is an emergency. Climate change is an emergency. Our country’s opioid epidemic is an emergency. Donald Trump’s ridiculous wall is not an emergency.”
That is, rather than flatly rejecting the politics of fear D.J. Trump was trying to spin, the main critique — even from the most progressive Democratic politicians — seems to be that Trump was trying to instill panic over the wrong issues.
For Elizabeth Warren, this approach is particularly ironic. Her DNA test debacle should have powerfully underscored to her that attempting to beat Trump at his own game is a mistake.
Indeed, even if Dems could squeak out a win by leaning hard on securitization, it would almost certainly be a pyrrhic victory for historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups. Kamala Harris’ record as a prosecutor is a telling indicator of to expect when Democrats take office by these means (see also: the Clintons). It isn’t great.
Politicians: If you are for civil rights, be for civil rights. If you are for more securitization, civil rights and civil liberties are probably not your a top priority.
Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University. Researchers can connect with his other research, and social media, via his website: musaalgharbi.com.
This article was introduced to us by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. The author and our editors then broadened it from versions you might have seen elsewhere.