John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.
Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and dozens of other newspapers.
Nichols is a frequent guest on radio and television programs as a commentator on politics and media issues. He was featured in Robert Greenwald's documentary, "Outfoxed," and in the documentaries Joan Sekler's "Unprecedented," Matt Kohn's "Call It Democracy" and Robert Pappas's "Orwell Rolls in his Grave." The keynote speaker at the 2004 Congress of the International Federation of Journalists in Athens, Nichols has been a featured presenter at conventions, conferences and public forums on media issues sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Consumers International, the Future of Music Coalition, the AFL-CIO, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Newspaper Guild [CWA] and dozens of other organizations.
Nichols is the author of The Genius of Impeachment (The New Press); a critically acclaimed analysis of the Florida recount fight of 2000, Jews for Buchanan (The New Press); and a best-selling biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, Dick: The Man Who is President (The New Press), which has recently been published in French and Arabic. He edited Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), of which historian Howard Zinn said: "At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems, and songs from throughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country."
With Robert W. McChesney, Nichols has co-authored the books It's the Media, Stupid! (Seven Stories), Our Media, Not Theirs (Seven Stories), Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (The New Press), The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books) and, most recently, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (Nation Books). McChesney and Nichols are the co-founders of Free Press, the nation's media-reform network, which organized the 2003 and 2005 National Conferences on Media Reform.
Of Nichols, author Gore Vidal says: "Of all the giant slayers now afoot in the great American desert, John Nichols’s sword is the sharpest."
After President Bush's "win this war" speech to Congress Thursday night, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and Senate minority leader Trent Lott strode to a podium where Lott declared, "Tonight,
Oklahoma pushes yet again for 'right to work' legislation.
It is not too early to devise a progressive strategy for the 2004 election.
If they connect well with voters in 2002, they'll have an edge in a weak economy.
Most Americans are probably
unaware that "the Dark Ages were not all bad and the Enlightenment
not all good." Or that "homosexuality [is] a sin worthy of death." Or
that one of the greatest threats to the country is "the Feminization
of American Life." Or that we should still be debating the question:
"Who Was Right in the War Between the States: the Union or the
If you are active with the Christian
fundamentalist organization American Vision, however, this is
mainstream thinking--or, more precisely, the thinking you hope to
force down the throat of the mainstream. The Georgia-based group's
president, Gary DeMar, preaches about "the necessity of storming the
gates of hell" and cleansing public institutions of "secularism,
atheism, humanism, and just plain anti-Christian sentiment." He may
soon be dispatching a prominent foot soldier to do just that. J.
Robert Brame III, American Vision's board secretary, reportedly tops
President Bush's list of likely appointees to the National Labor
Relations Board, the five-member agency that determines the fate of
workers seeking union recognition and helps define how federal law
protects women, gays and lesbians, and others seeking representation
in the workplace.
Brame, a management lawyer, previously
served on the board from 1997 to 2000. Technically appointed by Bill
Clinton, he was actually a choice forced upon the former President by
Senate Republicans who refused to act on Clinton's appointments
unless he gave Brame the job. During those three years, Brame was the
most frequent dissenter from the board's pro-labor decisions. He
opposed moves to make it easier for temporary workers, graduate
students and medical interns and residents to unionize. He was a
lonely advocate of steps to limit the ability of unions to use dues
money to pay for organizing. Brame even complained about NLRB rulings
that "facilitate union organizing in the modern work
Brame's record, his association with American
Vision and the very real prospect that he could end up chairing a
Bush-appointed NLRB majority by the end of the year have energized
opponents. Taking the lead is the gay and lesbian labor group Pride
at Work, which aims, says interim executive director Marta Ames, "to
make enough noise so that Bush decides it's not worth it to appoint
someone who is associated with the viewpoint that LGBT people are
'monsters' who should be stoned."
"Gays and lesbians,
women, people of color and young people are harassed on the job all
the time, and that harassment becomes vicious when we're trying to
organize into unions," says Sarah Luthens, a Seattle union organizer
active with the Out Front Labor Coalition. "To think that someone
like Brame would be in a position to decide whether that harassment
represents a violation of labor laws that are already too weak is
Nine hundred days to go, and Democratic presidential hopefuls are jockeying for position.
Representative Nancy Pelosi is poised to become Congress's most powerful woman.
CIVIL RIGHTS REFORM As House Republican leaders thwarted debate on the tepid Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill, the NAACP convention chose a radically different course by endorsing full public financing of campaigns. Noting that 95 percent of campaign contributions in excess of $200 come from white givers, the NAACP resolution declared that the current system "unfairly dilutes the political strength of African-Americans in participating in political parties, elections and the passage of legislation." Says Georgia NAACP state conference president Walter Butler, "We know that [campaign finance reform] is a civil rights issue that should be dealt with as other civil rights issues in the past." The NAACP vote came as Congressional Black Caucus members were questioning, and in some cases opposing, milder reforms. "There's a lot of skepticism, a lot of fear that campaign finance reform, if it's done wrong, could end up hurting black candidates," says Fannie Lou Hamer Project executive director Stephanie Wilson. "We've spent a lot of time arguing that only with public financing can African-American candidates really break through the barriers." In North Carolina the National Voting Rights Institute has sued the state on behalf of the NAACP and other groups, arguing that costly campaigns serve as a "poll tax," violating constitutional guarantees that economic status should not serve as a barrier to political participation.... An assist for the new drive comes from Adonal Foyle, center for the NBA's Golden State Warriors. Foyle founded Democracy Matters, whose fifteen coordinators will build support on college campuses for public financing. Foyle argues that if players had to buy their way into the NBA, people wouldn't take it seriously. Yet "that's what has happened in politics."
MASSACHUSETTS MISCHIEF Massachusetts voters in 1998 overwhelmingly endorsed a Clean Elections initiative designed to flush special-interest money out of politics. But public financing only functions when legislators allocate the money for it. The Massachusetts Senate did that by a 36-2 vote, but powerful House Speaker Thomas Finneran is balking, even as 2002 races for governor and other posts get under way. "I used to think Massachusetts was an initiative state before I met the Massachusetts legislature," says David Donnelly, of Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections, which has been organizing protests and rallies. Outside Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, who now heads Common Cause, urged legislators to "remember they were elected by the people, not by Tom Finneran." US Representative Marty Meehan said, "When I see Democrats playing games at the State House, I say that's the best weapon they can give the Republicans for the next election."
ALTERNATIVE POLITICS Campaign finance reform isn't the only electoral change on the agenda this summer. By a 10-1 vote the San Francisco Board of Supervisors set a March 2002 referendum on adopting instant-runoff voting (IRV) for local posts. IRV, devised as an alternative to winner-take-all elections, allows voters to rank candidates for an office. If a first-choice candidate is eliminated, the vote automatically transfers to the second choice. A San Francisco win "could put instant-runoff voting on the radar across the country," says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Vermont, Alaska and New Mexico are also considering IRV proposals.... Another alternative, cumulative voting, under which voters apportion their votes among candidates, has earned enthusiastic support from an Illinois task force chaired by former GOP Governor Jim Edgar and former Democratic Representative (and federal judge) Abner Mikva. The state once had a cumulative system, but it was scrapped twenty-one years ago as part of a move to downsize the legislature. Since the change, Illinois has witnessed dramatic declines in the number of contested legislative races and in voter turnout.
RELIGIOUS LEFT The Unitarian Universalist Association's new president, William Sinkford, left no doubt about what his promise of "radical fellowship" would mean for the 220,000-member denomination. "During my presidency, our Unitarian Universalist voice will support racial justice and gender justice and equal rights for our bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender brothers and sisters," Sinkford announced in a speech following his election as the predominantly white religious group's first African-American leader. "We will speak for responsible stewardship of the environment. And we will work to redress the economic injustices that plague our society." The denomination's Cleveland general assembly voted to make economic globalization a primary issue for 1,050 UU congregations, following an appeal from Chuck Collins of United for a Fair Economy and strong support from the convention's large youth caucus. With Congress expected to act this year on granting President Bush fast-track authority to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community is gearing up a grassroots education and lobbying push to challenge trade policies that Collins says "are about profits, not values."
SENATE SHUFFLE It was a remarkably different Senate that convened following Vermonter Jim Jeffords's switch from Republican to Independent status. The Jeffords jump did more than put a spring in the step of new majority leader Tom Daschle; it put a number of progressive players in a position, if not to pass all the bills they'd like, to use their control of key committees to alter significantly the tenor of the debate. "There's been a general view that you're only doing something when you are actually passing a piece of legislation," says incoming Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee chairman Paul Sarbanes. "I think you can also perform a very important service if [committees] exercise a careful oversight over the government departments and agencies and over the economic sectors for which they're responsible." Sarbanes plans hearings on predatory lending and perhaps credit-card-company abuses. While Daschle and Edward Kennedy continue to counsel caution and bipartisanship on the part of Democrats, other senators are leaping into action. Days after taking over as chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, Russ Feingold, the Senate's most ardent death penalty foe, convened a hearing that gave supporters of his bill seeking a death penalty moratorium a rare forum on Capitol Hill. On the same day that Feingold grilled aides to Attorney General John Ashcroft regarding discrepancies in their statistics on bias, the Justice Department announced it would initiate a comprehensive review designed to answer the question Feingold asked at his hearing: "How did we end up with 90 percent of the people on [the federal] death row minorities?"
SHOOTING DOWN STAR WARS With the Senate shift, few activist groups have seen prospects for lobbying success improve more dramatically than those opposing President Bush's National Missile Defense scheme. Senator Robert Byrd, the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman, is promising tough scrutiny of the bloated Defense budget, while Star Wars skeptics Joe Biden and Carl Levin now chair the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively. Biden and Levin showed up at a session organized by the Council for a Livable World, where, according to Chris Madison, director of the CLW Education Fund's National Missile Defense Project, "They both made clear their extreme skepticism about where the Administration is going." Peace Action stepped up its "Star Wars Is a Lemon" campaign with a June rally at the Capitol and a lobbying push that included 115 meetings with legislators and their staffs. Peace Action's twenty-six state chapters are following up with an effort to deliver 300,000 "Star Wars Is a Lemon" postcards to Congress.
ELECTION INSPECTION Election reform initiatives that were expected to be unavoidable following last fall's Florida fiasco got buried in Trent Lott's Republican-dominated Senate, but that's likely to change now that Chris Dodd has taken over the Rules and Administration Committee. Dodd and Representative John Conyers Jr., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, have proposed the sweeping Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act, designed to help states adopt uniform systems to assure that voting is easy and accessible, and that all votes are counted. Dodd is expected to arrange hearings not just on his bill but also on the broader issue of electoral disfranchisement. The opening comes just as activists are stepping up the pressure on the issue. A US Commission on Civil Rights draft report--characterized by the stark observation that "it was widespread voter disenfranchisement, not the dead-heat contest, that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election"--has given new impetus to a Democracy Summer campaign backed by groups ranging from the Institute for Policy Studies to the NAACP Youth and College Division and the Fannie Lou Hamer Project. More than 100 young people from around the country gathered in Tallahassee in mid-June for a Democracy Institute at which Representative Maxine Waters urged them to re-create the "freedom rider" energy that led to passage of the original Voting Rights Act. Just prior to July 4, a Pro-Democracy Convention will bring activists to Philadelphia to make what IPS's Karen Dolan calls "the move from outrage to action." The groups are campaigning for an agenda that addresses problems that came into focus during the Florida recount, including bad ballot designs, outdated voting technologies and the denial of voting rights to ex-prisoners.
MAKING MUD The Bush Administration's energy plan may be DOA in a newly Democratic Senate, but real alternatives to utility company excesses are the province of the grassroots, especially in energy-strapped California. San Francisco activists launched a campaign in June for MUD, a proposed Municipal Utility District that could use eminent domain to take over Pacific Gas & Electric Company's electricity transmission and distribution systems. A November ballot initiative to create MUD has been endorsed by five San Francisco Commission members, California State Senate leader John Burton and the San Francisco Labor Council. "If we are able to take the power away from PG&E and put it in the hands of the people of San Francisco," says Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin, "we will send a louder signal regarding the answer to power problems than anything you hear coming from the Bush Administration."
Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. And for much of the spring it seemed possible that America's second-largest city would elect as its mayor a progressive Latino who at one time had a tattoo that read, "Born to Raise Hell." Antonio Villaraigosa hailed from the barrio, marched with striking workers, replaced municipal bromides about economic development with a call for "economic justice" and asked the right questions about the drug war, immigration and a tattered safety net. The high school dropout who parlayed a second chance into the Speakership of the California Assembly sought to build a rainbow coalition of the left in a rapidly diversifying city.
So Villaraigosa's 53-to-47 loss Tuesday to City Attorney James Hahn, the colorless scion of the city's best-known political family, was more than just another municipal dream deferred. It was a reminder to progressives in LA and nationally that coalition politics is always easier said than done. Villaraigosa's army of 2,500 union volunteers tripled Latino turnout from just eight years ago, but African-American voters--many loyal to the moderately liberal Hahn because of his father's long advocacy for communities of color, and others worried about losing political clout in a city that is 47 percent Hispanic--gave Villaraigosa barely one-third of their votes. And suburban Anglo voters were scared off in droves by a relentlessly anti-Villaraigosa campaign that portrayed the former president of the Southern California ACLU as soft on crime. Last-minute Hahn mailings to suburban neighborhoods sought to link Villaraigosa to a cocaine dealer and warned, "Los Angeles just can't trust Antonio Villaraigosa." Shelly Mandell, president of the LA National Organization for Women, said, "I've never seen anything worse done to a good person."
The viciousness of the final phase of the campaign was not typical of Hahn, whose record and rhetoric suggest he will be a more liberal leader than outgoing mayor Richard Riordan. But Hahn will never be the movement mayor Villaraigosa would have been.
The election was "a gut check," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute. LA didn't quite have the guts to embrace what the Los Angeles Times described as "the audacity of [Villaraigosa's] aspirations for the city." (Nor, if a close unofficial tally holds, did it have the guts to elect the audacious Tom Hayden to the City Council.) But in a year when New York, Detroit, Cleveland and other major cities--all experiencing their own demographic and political shifts--will elect mayors, opportunities remain for progressives to make the rainbow real. The challenge, and it is a big one, will be to recognize that the rainbow does not just appear; it must be created. And it must be strong enough to withstand the politics of fear and division that can dash even the most audacious aspirations.