Opinion: Parties face voters’ wrath when they try to suppress dissent

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Woodstock, VT — Ain’t politics grand? So, now Virginia GOP chairman, Rich Anderson, wants long-celebrated University of Virginia political pundit and all-utility analyst Professor Larry Sabato to shut up.

Well, good luck on that. Over the decades, a lot of pins and voodoo dolls have been expended by pols hoping to do in Sabato, a Norfolk-native. None of it worked. He’s not going to keel over — and he’s not going to clam up, either.

Here’s my suggestion to Chairman Anderson. Next time you feel one of these urges, slap on a Napoleon-hat, grab a bottle of liquor and storm around your neighborhood howling at the moon. At least, there would be an outside chance of feeling better about life.

It’s not like we’re running a surplus of informed perspectives these days. Sabato’s a walking encyclopedia of minutia and insight. He knows what numbers mean and how dramatically this state has changed politically since the late 1970s, when I became one of his first graduate students.

As I recall, Larry conducted that seminar in the rec room of a colleague’s house and we were ordered to bring high-calorie snacks. All that sugar ranks as one of Sabato’s least-useful ideas, but it was wonderful to sit around, pull things apart and do so by drawing on the past.

History can be revealing about real-time human nature when it comes to political involvement. If it makes the complaining Anderson feel any better, he might have found a sympathetic ear in John Adams, second president of the United States, along with the rest of the Federalists of the late 18th century.

This was not a bunch who took public criticism well. To disparage them was to undermine the country or so they believed.

Here’s a piece of summer reading for you. Published last year, it’s a doorstop of a book called “Criminal Dissent: Prosecutions Under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798,” by Wendall Bird.

It’s not light reading, I grant you, but Bird gets deep into the details of these prosecutions, which were enacted by Federalists to shut down Republican newspapers and seal the lips of their opponents.

Bird also found, by rooting around, far more prosecutions than had been previously documented.

Good grief, this was the party of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, as Bird points out, and this notable exercise in opinion-stifling did them no good. The Federalist Party went into steady decline after the national elections of 1800, never to recover.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were not in the same category as the Nuremburg Laws, but they were grotesquely undemocratic, rendering it illegal to “write, print, utter, or publish ... any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings” against members of the executive branch, including the president.

As a result, Americans — including just ordinary people — were indicted, fined, jailed and, in some cases, deported. This was unabashed political repression.

One prosecution involved a man — one Luther Baldwin, a former member of the Continental Army — standing outside a Newark, New Jersey, bar as President Adams passed by in a carriage.

A cannon salute was heard, and Baldwin made an inebriated crack about the exposure of the president. Or, more specifically, the vulnerability of the posterior-in-chief.

For his witticism, Baldwin was turned in, prosecuted for sedition, fined and imprisoned for two months.

That sort of overzealous prosecution could scarf up most Americans, now and before. (Certainly it would my vocal family.) And that’s why the Federalists ultimately took it on the political chin in 1800. American citizens are entitled, by right, to express their dissent, even rudely.

Yes, that even includes state university faculty members.

As this was being finished, on Friday, reports came out that former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and Republican Glenn Youngkin, had together collected more than $40 million — an astounding amount — for their bids to be elected governor this fall.

You’d think with that kind of financing we might get a pretty good airing of the issues between now and November.

But we all know that’s hardly guaranteed. At this mid-summer stage of the proceedings, we have McAuliffe, a known quantity who says something about everything, competing against Youngkin, an unknown quantity who says little to nothing.

Youngkin prefers not to answer questions, too, it appears. Rather than turn away, he would have helped himself by bravely running straight at that Virginia Bar Association debate, a long-standing feature of the governor’s race.

Larry Sabato would have. Luther Baldwin, too, I’d bet.

After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co., the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is gordonmorse@msn.com.

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