Digesting the news about women and men, policy and politics.
President Obama watches as students from Roxbury, Massachusetts, perform Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, February 28, 2012. (Flickr/Pete Souza)
Liberals seeking affirmation for their faith in President Obama believed they found it in his second Inaugural Address, with his passionate invocation of Stonewall and Seneca Falls, his soaring rhetoric about government “of, by and for the people” and an American creed forged “through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword.”
But amidst the warm words for equality and collective action, one sentence stood out:
“We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
However much we might like to imagine otherwise, a little girl born into the bleakest poverty will never have “the same chance to succeed as anybody else.” If you take a step back, could anything be more obvious? And yet this notion is so thoroughly woven into the “American creed” that we barely notice how misleading it is.
The Horatio Alger story was always a myth, of course, as class at birth has always shaped the life outcomes of Americans, just as it does for residents of Sweden, Siberia or anywhere else. But in today’s America—where the richest 1 percent have doubled their share of national income since 1980, according to Oxfam—an individual’s fate is truly forged by the circumstances of her parents. It’s easy to lose sight of this fact when the inspiring stories of Sonia Sotomayor, or the president himself, show us extraordinary individuals beating the odds. But that’s the thing about odds—most people don’t beat them.
Consider that, according to a Pew report released last July:
* More than 40 percent of Americans raised in the bottom 20 percent remain mired there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle.
* Among those born in the bottom 20 percent, only 4 percent make it to the top as adults.
* Being African-American makes it more likely for someone to be stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder if that's where they are born.
There’s plenty more where those statistics came from.
In June 2010, the Urban Institute published a report based on a longitudinal survey of 1,795 people, followed between 1968 and 2005. It found that those who are born poor are far more likely to experience poverty as adults. “While 4 percent of individuals in non-poor families at birth go on to spend at least half their early adult years living in poverty, the comparable number for individuals born into poverty is 21 percent,” the report noted.
Meanwhile, people born poor are three times as likely not to finish high school. Only 8 percent of children born into poverty graduate from college by the age of 25.
With these grim numbers in mind, it’s truly depressing to think about the long-term effect of the Great Recession, with the spike in child poverty it caused, on a new generation of Americans.
Certainly, there is much that can and must urgently be done by government to restore some of the equality of opportunity that has been lost as wealth has concentrated at the top. Truly investing in public education—not just a few charter schools—is arguably most vital. But given the chasm that now separates rich from poor, improving conditions in schools or preserving Medicaid and other existing social programs is not going to give a hard-knocks Bronx kid the chance to compete with his Park Avenue counterpart on a level playing field. Suggesting otherwise is not only dishonest, but by making it seem like his struggles arise from his own weakness, it places yet another hurdle before him.
For more on President Obama’s inauguration speech, read John Nichols’s analysis.
It’s been well established by now—in outlets from the New York Times to PolitiFact to the Washington Post—that the Romney campaign’s ads accusing President Obama of gutting welfare reform by waiving its work requirement are invented out of whole cloth (and it’s been noted, widely, that this cloth has an insidious racial design). Not only has Obama maintained the deeply flawed TANF program created by President Clinton’s 1996 reform law; it was Republican governors who requested the technical waivers their party now finds so deplorable. While the liberal media droned on about such pesky realities, Rick Santorum gleefully played up the welfare theme at the RNC podium—accusing Obama of fostering dependency and letting laziness reign while undermining hardworking families.
The “Barack Obama, Welfare King” attack line is beyond absurd. It’s downright perverse when you consider how Obama failed, during the crisis of the Great Recession, to fix the “reformed” welfare system bequeathed to him by Clinton. Thanks to its block-grant structure, TANF couldn’t respond to the sudden dire need gripping the country. As the number of unemployed people doubled, TANF caseloads increased just 13 percent; in twenty-two states, caseloads responded very little or not at all to the downturn, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBBP). Poverty rates have spiked to a fifty-year high, with one in five American children now living in poverty, but welfare reaches fewer and fewer of them. In some states, like Georgia, as Peter Goodman vividly documented in the Huffington Post, it’s become next to impossible for desperate families to obtain any relief from the welfare system.
Meanwhile, what little Obama did do to help those suffering most from the recession has been distorted beyond recognition. The president’s 2009 stimulus package, dismissed by Republicans as a big-government boondoggle, contained a provision, in fact, that was directly aimed at helping people on welfare to get jobs—the supposed goal of welfare reform. It’s worth revisiting the story of this initiative, crafted in the spirit of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration rather than the get-tough work requirements beloved by the GOP—because it’s the story of a government program that was succeeding before Republicans set out to destroy it.
The TANF Emergency Contingency Fund was a small measure tucked into the Recovery Act with little fanfare. But it managed an impressive feat during its year and a half of existence: it placed more than 260,000 low-income parents and youth in paid jobs, at a time of painfully high unemployment, all for the modest price tag of $1.3 billion in federal money, according to a study by the CBBP and the Center on Law and Social Policy. By subsidizing jobs for the poor—actually paying part of their wages—the program helped small businesses, nonprofits and local governments get through the recession, and offered low-income parents the chance to build new skills. The Emergency Fund provided an additional stimulus to local economies by putting money in the pockets of people most likely to spend it immediately. At a most basic level, it gave jobs to people who needed them—and showed how government can help when the market isn’t meeting human needs. States were given lots of flexibility to implement it as they saw fit, and more than thirty eagerly took advantage, including the reddest of the red—South Carolina and Mississippi. Even Governor Haley Barbour was a fan.
It reached its most ambitious scale in Illinois. Put Illinois to Work became the country’s largest subsidized employment program. With an infusion of $200 million in federal funds, it employed over 27,000 people and involved 5,000 businesses over the course of the program. Participants were paid $10 per hour for up to forty hours per week—not a lot, but more than most would have received from unemployment benefits, and far more than a stingy welfare check. (In other states, the subsidized jobs paid less.)
A survey of the Illinois program’s participants taken by the Social Impact Research Center makes for moving reading. Ninety-two percent expressed very high levels of satisfaction. Eighty-two percent said it helped them make ends meet. Seventy-eight percent said it put more money at their disposal than they’d had before. The same number said it had given them new skills and helped them make contacts that would help them in future job searches.
Pundits of left and right like to talk about ladders out of poverty. This really was one.
But House Minority Whip Eric Cantor didn’t like it. In fact, in May 2010 he singled out the program as “the “New Non-Reformed Welfare Program” designed to “promote welfare dependence” because, in addition to the subsidized jobs, the program also offered things like emergency housing assistance and money for back to school supplies.
After receiving 280,000 text messages and online votes on the issue from his ardent Tea Party constituents, solicited through his so-called “YouCut” initiative, Cantor, joined by his GOP colleagues, formally called to abolish the Emergency Fund. Groups like Jobs with Justice staged scattered protests, and Democrats tried to save it, but they couldn’t muster the votes and the ECF was allowed to expire the following September—thereby depriving 100,000 families of their livelihoods at a moment when the recovery was stalling and unemployment was breaking, again, into the double digits.
Aside from a column by the now-retired Bob Herbert in the New York Times and a spot on NPR, the catastrophe that befell these Americans received no national media attention—leaving history to be written, in more ways than one, by Republicans.
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich take part in the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
What a satisfying, if self-indulgent, pleasure it has lately become to read the conservative press. As Newt Gingrich whacks Mitt Romney with brickbats furnished by Occupy Wall Street, the voices of the GOP establishment are rising in anger and consternation. In some quarters, a certain delicacy on the subject of Gingrich persists, for fear perhaps of offending a man who stands a slim chance of fulfilling his most grandiose dream, and also of inflaming the Tea Party base that thrills to his racially inflected rhetoric. So Newt’s vaunted erudition is commended before words like “unstable,” “risky,” and “zany” are introduced. In other quarters, the gloves have come off. This so-called outsider shared a couch with Nancy Pelosi; he’s “William Jefferson Gingrich,” a purveyor of pork and threat to free markets—he is no Ronald Reagan.
What’s striking, at this stage in the GOP primary, is that most serious discussions among conservatives appear to revolve around one question: Which of these men would be worse at the top of the party’s 2012 ticket? The erratic, philandering, thrice-married megalomaniac, a demonstrable hypocrite on nearly every score, who compared his own failure to get on the ballot in Virginia to Pearl Harbor and announced that he wants to colonize the moon; or the tin-eared, blow-dried candidate who seems unhinged when a hair falls out of place, a flip-flopper on hot-button issues from abortion to Obamacare, with his Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Islands tax shelters and fat-cat discount 13.9 percent tax rate—a candidate who in all of his particulars could have been drawn up as a cartoon target by the artists of Zuccotti Park?
The establishment answer is, of course, the former: Newt would be much worse. Haunted by memories of Gingrich’s role in the 1998 midterm debacle, GOP strategists too nervous to be named in news articles say they would regard a Newt nomination not only as a blown opportunity to dethrone Obama but as a looming “down ballot disaster” for the party. Former Senator Bob Dole went public with this concern, declaring, "If Gingrich is the nominee it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state and federal offices." Many rank and file Republicans either don't agree or don't care, with a January 26 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finding GOP voters nationwide preferring Gingrich to Romney by a nine point margin (37-28 percent, respectively). Florida voters seem finally to be harkening to the words of establishment scolds, with Romney surging ahead in the polls in the weekend before the vote. But as McCain strategist Steve Schmidt remarked on MSNBC, “[I]f Newt Gingrich is able to win the Florida primary, you will see a panic and a meltdown of the Republican establishment that is beyond my ability to articulate in the English language.”
Wherever they may stand on the Newt-Mitt divide, most conservative commentators seem to wish that there were some way out of their lesser-evil dilemma. They cast longing glances at Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie. Rather than strain to go positive for their chosen one, they go negative on the other one. As a Gingrich sympathizer put it in National Review Online, describing his Romney-supporting foes, “Their basic pitch is: Mitt Romney—he’s not as crazy, irresponsible or unethical as the other guy.”
It’s astonishing that a party with nearly limitless financial resources has such paltry human resources. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently wrote a column titled, “A Good Candidate is Hard to Find,” in which he did his best to come up with excuses for this sorry state of affairs: “The problem, perhaps, is that a successful presidential campaign calls on a trio of talents that only rarely overlap. Being a master politician in a mass democracy, in this sense, is a bit like being a brilliant filmmaker who’s somehow also a great economist, or a Nobel-winning scientist who writes best-selling novels on the side.” Which is, at best, a generous metaphor to use in reference to the two candidates leading the Republican pack today. It also evades the key issue, which is that the party has lurched so far to the right that a candidate like Romney, with some moderate positions on his record, must become a shape-shifter to survive the primary, leaving him badly compromised for the general election.
All of this naturally delights the Democrats, who are gleeful that Gingrich is relying on sources like ThinkProgress to saddle Romney with the mantle of the One Percent Candidate, and who salivate at the thought that it might actually work—Gingrich, whose embarrassing open-book past renders opposition research nearly unnecessary, and whose base of support lies far to the right of the mainstream, might actually be the GOP nominee.
Robert Reich warns that they should be careful what they hope for. “No responsible Democrat should be pleased at the prospect that Gingrich could get the GOP Nomination. The future of America is too important to accept even a small risk of a Gingrich presidency,” which he puts at 10 percent, versus 49 percent for Romney.
Well, maybe. It’s true, President Gingrich is a scary thought. Also disturbing is the prospect of a general election campaign filled with race-baiting that lingers long after Obama sends Newt scurrying back to his job as K Street’s most handsomely compensated historian. At a time when one in seven Americans, and one in four children, depend on food stamps to stave off hunger—and when funding for the program is being slashed—an election season flavored with Newt’s bashing of the “food stamp president” is not something to savor, whatever the outcome might be.
For now, though, it’s hard not to derive some enjoyment from the Newt vs. Mitt slugfest, if only as a temporary distraction from the grim reality that Washington is still owned and operated by and for the 1 Percent.
Everybody has a piece of advice for the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. They should put their clothes on. They should stop raising their fists. They should fact-check their handwritten signs. They should appoint leaders who can give pithy quotes to reporters. They should get with an electoral program. Nicholas Kristof even offered to help them out with a neat list of demands, in case those holding signs saying “We Are the 99%” just needed to have the unfairness of the carried interest rule explained to them.
Indeed, their failure to present demands is the most frequently heard criticism of the OWS protesters, not just in the mainstream press but from veteran leftists as well. What do these wan, angry young people want, anyway?
If you spend an hour or two down at Liberty Plaza, as I did with my 8-year-old daughter this past weekend, it’s clear enough. She got the point, at least: especially from the signs that read, “You should teach your kids to share,” and, “Give my mom her money back!! A single working mom…not fair!”
It’s not that the demands being suggested by OWS’s volunteer policy advisors in the blogosphere are not worthy ideas. At a time when we desperately need to rein in financial speculation and change the incentives on Wall Street, a financial transactions tax is a terrific policy proposal. Dean Baker has been talking about it for years. The thing is, we on the left don’t have a scarcity of policy ideas. We are positively bursting with them. Create a housing trust fund! A national infrastructure bank! And, yes, sure, eliminate the carried interest loophole so fat cats don’t get a bigger tax break than working people. (Some even have more radical ideas, which are quite sensible too.) But at best, we get a polite hearing for these ideas, which then fade away or are hopelessly watered down. We simply lack the power to put them into practice.
And in the recent past, even the most smoothly organized, expertly messaged mass demonstrations have not made a whit of difference in this regard. Consider the last big march on Wall Street this past May 12. The coalition behind it was admirably diverse, including unions like the teachers and SEIU’s 1199, as well as local community organizations such as Citizen Action NY, Coalition for the Homeless and Community Voices Heard. The “May 12 Coalition,” which turned out thousands of protesters on the appointed day, presented the Bloomberg administration with a proposal that exhibited great thoughtfulness in its rigor and detail, asking banks like JPMorgan, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley to take a 20 percent cut in their contracts to handle functions like child support disbursements or income tax remittances for the city. This would have saved $120 million, part of $1.5 billion that could have been extracted from the banking sector to prevent the city from having to slash education and social services, according to the coalition.
The May 12 marchers were many things the OWS protesters are not. They were orderly; they truly represented ordinary New Yorkers. They were concrete: they had a plan. But needless to say, the Bloomberg administration did not immediately recognize their plan’s superior logic and fairness and adopt it as a new template. In fact, it received no attention in the wake of the march. It was such a nonstarter that the city didn’t even bother to respond to it. And the media snoozed.
Or consider another very well thought-out mass action in the age of Obama: the “One Nation Working Together for Jobs, Justice and Education” mobilization, which brought throngs of protesters to Washington, DC, on October 2, 2010. Garnering a turnout organizers estimated at 175,000, the march won endorsements from 400 groups, including all the major national unions, the NAACP, environmental organizations, gay groups and progressive religious forces. Organizers were explicit that their goal was to fire up the liberal base and showcase the diversity of the progressive movement. They also came brandishing a plethora of proposals. Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told the Washington Post, “The truth is there is a lot of focus on the march itself, but a march without a plan of action … is simply a one-day event. What this is about is using this march as a launching pad for policy change.” Shortly thereafter, of course, would come the devastating midterm elections, and President Obama’s cave on the Bush tax cut extension. In terms of media impact, One Nation was almost entirely eclipsed by both Glenn Beck’s rage fest a month prior and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s jokey “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” later the same month.
Of course, we need policy ideas. And the progressive groups that have staged previous rallies—like the ones that are sponsoring the “American Dream Movement” spearheaded by Van Jones, convening in Washington, DC, at this moment—are the crucial building blocks of the coalitions necessary to make long-term campaigns around real policy proposals work.
But sometimes, you also need a spark. “Occupy Wall Street,” as an idea and an action, is a stroke of brilliance. It’s not poll-tested or focus-grouped, but it expresses perfectly the outrage that is the appropriate response to the maddening political situation we find ourselves in today. It succeeds as symbolic politics: taking back the square is just what we need to do. And it’s wonderful that unions and community groups that have been working in the trenches will be linking arms with the denizens of OWS this Wednesday.
Maybe this will go nowhere too. The odds are against it, after all. But what do we have to lose? We have to try something new.
So far, French complaints about the ritually humiliating (and admittedly tacky) perp walk aside, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape scandal has cast the American system of justice in a flattering light. When alerted to the incident, the New York City police were clever, trustworthy and efficient; the hotel managers reacted as humane and responsible employers; the alleged victim, a Guinean immigrant, showed courage in the most stressful of circumstances and her resolve was rewarded when prosecutors took her claim seriously. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “It’s an inspiring story about America, where even a maid can have dignity and be listened to when she accuses one of the most powerful men in the world of being a predator.”
But the feeling that it’s inspiring should not blind us to the fact that it is anomalous. Indeed, that a black female immigrant claiming to be the victim of a sex crime would fare so well in the US criminal justice system is one thing that DSK, a smart man, was perhaps not counting on. He would have had good reason to make that judgment. There is evidence that the majority of women immigrants in the United States experience some form of sexual harassment or coercion on the job, and very few of them come forward.
In one recent study of 150 immigrant women working in the food industry conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, titled “Injustice On Our Plates,” every single one—yes, that is 100 percent—reported some kind of workplace sexual harassment, and for the majority, this involved a sexual assault. According to SPLC’s Senior Staff Attorney Mónica Ramirez, most did not know they had any legal recourse. Only a handful dared to report the abuse. Ramirez says of the way the DSK case has been handled, “This is not representative for a couple of reasons. One, the fact that there was a report made—this is not common. Plenty of women who are victimized never come forward. Also, the response by law enforcement, which acted swiftly, and took it seriously, is not the situation most victims face. I am happy that it happened, but it is not the norm.”
One reason for the silence of most immigrant sexual violence victims is the fear, increasingly pervasive, that reporting an incident to police will prompt questions about the victim’s immigration status or that of her family members and friends. The alleged victim in the DSK case, according to her attorney, had been granted asylum and had become a legal permanent resident. But for undocumented women, who are legally entitled to have their claims investigated and prosecuted (and who may be entitled to immigration relief as crime victims), the risks of going to the police are nonetheless real. Even legal immigrants are often concerned about drawing police scrutiny to their family members and friends who do not enjoy legal status. Says my friend Liberty Aldrich, director of domestic violence and sexual assault programs at the Center for Court Innovation, “Many female immigrant victims of gender based violence are reluctant to bring charges to law enforcement for fear of the immigration repercussions for them or their families. This is really a tragedy because immigrant women are disproportionately at risk of being victims of sexual assault and femicide.”
Consider the heartwrenching case of a 13-year-old girl in southern Georgia, who told her family she was raped by an acquaintance in 2007. When lawyers from the SPLC contacted a local prosecutor about the case, he said he would pursue it—but if he discovered the child was undocumented, he would report her to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The family decided not to report the crime.
Under the Obama Administration’s ICE, the coordination between immigration authorities and local law enforcement has been vastly expanded through two programs: 287G, in which local police are actually deployed as immigration law enforcers, and “Secure Communities,” in which local police feed information (such as fingerprints) about offenders to immigration authorities, who can then move to deport them. Despite the declared intentions of these programs, it is not just criminals who are negatively affected. Because immigrant crime victims are disinclined to seek help from police whom they regard as part of the deportation machine, the result for them has been a denial of justice; for perpetrators of crimes against undocumented immigrants, this new regime has created near total impunity—a perk the deposed IMF chief might have enjoyed had his accuser been more vulnerable in status.
The Obama Administration is coming under fire for foisting “Secure Communities” on local governments that want nothing to do with it, concerned about spending resources on detaining innocent people. The way the program (and its even nastier cousin, 287G) has crippled the ability of law enforcement to do its job at all in immigrant communities—not only by discouraging victims from reporting crimes, but also deterring other members of the community from cooperating with police in investigations—has received less attention.
It’s understandable that the DSK rape case, rich as it is in symbolism and international implications, would grab the spotlight. But it does make one wonder: how many other victims remain in the shadows?
If the first episode was any indication, Sarah Palin's Alaska will be as cloying as might be expected, with family conflict rendered in its most anodyne form, giving Palin ample opportunity to burnish her image as a tough but nurturing Mama Grizzly. Even less credible—and more insidious—than the G-rated family drama, though, is the way this "reality" show portrays its heroine's relationship to nature.
When we watch Palin scale a glacier, it's hard not to admire her fortitude (though I admit to having unkind thoughts as she struggled past those deep, dark crevasses). But as she styles herself a rugged outdoorswoman with a healthy (if clichéd) respect for Mother Nature, it's as if we are being asked to forget everything she has done to destroy the environment that serves as the stunning backdrop for her adventures.
This gambit is not new. Back in 2008, on the Republican Convention stage, it was her frontierswoman shtick that, perversely, allowed her to chant "Drill, baby, drill" as if it were really her land and she could tell you what it needed.
Now, though, as she rolls out the I-am-nature routine again—and in light of her role in cultivating the appalling crew of climate deniers in the incoming GOP Congress— it's worth a quick review of her environmental record as Alaska's governor:
• Palin was an early and enthusiastic proponent of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and essentially anywhere else the oil industry wanted to go; as Michael Klare wrote here in 2008, "Her only real nitty gritty legislative experience is in measures aimed at expanding oil and gas production, to the virtual exclusion of other factors, including the environment."
• She was an aggressive advocate of building a massive $40 billion gas pipeline from Alaska's North Slope to Canada and eventually to the Lower 48.
• In 2007, she green-lighted a toxic dumping plan by oil companies in Alaska's Cook Inlet.
• She opposed a statewide ballot initiative to restrict new mining operations that would threaten salmon in the state's streams and rivers.
• She opposed a clean water initiative that would have protected Bristol Bay, for which her daughter is named, from contamination by a huge mining operation.
• She pushed back against California's efforts to combat air pollution.
• As governor of a state with a rate of birth defects twice the national average, she did nothing to protect Alaskans from the toxic byproducts of mining and energy development.
• She sued the Interior Department over its decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species. The reason they're threatened is that global warming is melting Arctic ice, which polar bears need in order to hunt seals, their main food source. Conservatives always hated the Endangered Species Act, viewing it as an encroachment on private property rights, and the move to protect polar bears under the Act was especially disturbing to them because it acknowledged global warming as a troublesome phenomenon. Palin's lawsuit provided the Bush administration the opportunity to declare that the Act could not be used as a "back door" to make climate change policy. (For more, see Going Rouge: Sarah Palin, An American Nightmare.)
Palin has never been a big believer in climate change. Under the media glare of the 2008 election, she waffled from "I'm not one…who would attribute it to being man-made," to "Show me where I have ever said that there's absolute proof that nothing that man has ever conducted or engaged in has had any effect or no effect on climate change." Now, though, she has no need to mangle the point, and dismisses global warming studies wholesale as "a bunch of snake oil science."
Palin deserves a large share of credit for popularizing this view, though she got lucky with last year's so-called "climategate," which was perfectly suited to her brand of paranoid, pseudo-populist, pro-free market anti-intellectualism. In her role as endorser in the 2010 midterms, she backed eight GOP candidates who will soon install themselves in the climate-denial caucus in the House. Fully 50 percent of incoming GOP freshmen are climate deniers (the preferred term is "deniers," not "skeptics," as they like to call themselves). But it's not just the Tea Party rank and file who are sounding these themes. Incoming House speaker John Boehner recently said "the idea that carbon dioxide…is harmful to our environment is almost comical." Not only is any prospect of legislation regulating carbon emissions completely gone, the Republicans now threaten to turn committees, like the House Oversight and Governmental Reform committee and the Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, into vehicles for investigating climate scientists.
Of course, it's not as if all was rosy before the midterms. Thanks to the fossil fuel industry's iron grip on Washington, even supporters of the inadequate Waxman-Markey bill couldn't marshal the needed votes in the Senate. But with the window for averting catastrophic climate change fast closing—the consensus is that emissions must peak by 2015—these midterm elections were, in the blunt assessment of Greenpeace UK's Joss Garman, "a complete disaster." As Garman is quick to point out, there are still fights to be waged around EPA regulation of greenhouse gases and the like. But the big picture is bleak. We will read articles about the melting ice pack in Greenland —which, according to the New York Times, could cause a rise in sea levels of three to six feet, potentially inundating the entire East Coast and displacing millions worldwide —but from our leaders, we will hear about how evil scientists concocted the "hoax" of global warming.
Welcome to Sarah Palin's America.
Editor's Note: "Glaciers" has been changed to "Arctic ice." Thanks to commenters for pointing out the error.
Among the myriad lies and distortions peddled this midterm election season by the Republican right, there is one seemingly designed to cause prochoice women to tear our hair out: that a vote for healthcare reform was a vote for "taxpayer-funded abortion." The reason this claim is so maddening, of course, is that prochoicers in Congress were in fact forced to swallow a last-minute compromise in which the principle of the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which banned federal funding for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest and danger to the woman's life, was applied to the law through an executive order from President Obama.
Much attention has been paid to the agonized debate over that compromise within Democratic circles, but in some ways, the vote was even more defining for the so-called "pro-life" movement. Those who cared about expanding healthcare and reducing abortions lined up in support, while those elements whose fealty was to the Republican Party opposed the bill—and quickly set about misconstruing its contents. A key operative in this disturbingly successful misinformation campaign has been Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that purports to promote "pro-life women" in politics, whatever their partisan affiliation—but which is in practice a hit group for the GOP.
Formerly an obscure organization run on a shoestring, SBA List made the big time this year when Sarah Palin delivered her much-discussed Mama Grizzlies speech at an SBA List fundraising breakfast this past May (forgoing her usual steep speaking fee). The group has endorsed in 56 races this cycle, with forty-nine candidates still in the running—all of whom are Republicans. It has reserved its greatest zeal —and $1.5 million in cash—for its "Votes Have Consequences" campaign, aimed at defeating pro-life Democrats who voted for the healthcare law. The campaign has been vicious.
Just ask Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, the Pennsylvania Democrat elected in 2008 in a district that had been in Republican hands for thirty-two years. Dahlkemper, who became pregnant at 21 when unmarried and lacking healthcare and chose to have the baby, is as dedicated in her opposition to abortion as anyone. SBA List's Dannenfelser says that she once regarded Dahlkemper as a "beacon, as a pro-life woman in the [Democratic] party." But as retribution for her healthcare vote, SBA List declared war on Dahlkemper, pledging to spend more than $300,000 to defeat her and blanketing the district with billboards, mailings and radio spots blasting her for supporting "the biggest expansion in abortion in decades." In an interview, Dahlkemper sounded weary as she explained how she believes the law "will really end up reducing abortion in this country" because of its abortion restrictions coupled with its generous provisions for pregnant women.
As a Democrat who supported the President on healthcare, the stimulus, and other key votes, in a district that's conservative enough to make her vulnerable to a GOP challenge, Dahlkemper has lots in common with Ohio's Rep. Steve Driehaus, who also, as it happens, has found himself in the SBA List's cross hairs.
The group has attempted to tar Driehaus with the same brush it's using against Dahlkemper, but in Ohio, a tough law prohibiting false statements in political campaigns has gotten in the way. Driehaus complained to the Ohio Elections Commission that the SBA List's proposed billboards claiming that he voted "FOR taxpayer-funded abortion" by supporting healthcare reform would violate the law. Dannenfelser defends the ads, saying, "We will not rest until we are exonerated." SBA List sued to stop the commission from pursuing the case, citing their First Amendment right to free speech. The Ohio ACLU took SBA List's side—consistent with the organization's belief that the government should not be the arbiter of truth in political speech—but a federal judge ruled on October 25 that the case could go forward.
Driehaus's camp now awaits the results of their request for thousands of documents from SBA List. The case turns on a key question: Does the SBA List believe what it says about the healthcare law, or is it purposefully misleading the public? The disclosures prompted by the proceedings may also shed light on a second, equally interesting question: Does the SBA List work in close coordination with the Republican Party, despite its pretense of being nonpartisan?
On the first question, it is hard to believe that Dannenfelser and crew are truly that deluded. In the past Dannenfelser has suggested that abortions will be covered by federally subsidized health insurance policies in state "high-risk pools," a claim that has been systematically debunked and that a July 14 statement by HHS ought to have put to rest, reiterating that no abortions will be covered in the high-risk pools "except in cases of rape or incest, or where the life of the woman would be endangered." Dannenfelser has also alleged that the law "provides for direct funding of elective abortion in community health centers," which Obama's executive order specifically prohibited. This misrepresentation has been taken apart by Politifact.com.
In an interview, Dannenfelser emphasized that her concern is with what might happen if there are legal challenges to the law after the midterm elections. "There will be challenges, and when those challenges are brought, there is no reason in the statute to find abortion is not healthcare, as they have done in the past." Obama's executive order is not enough, she argues; "a statute is the only thing that will do the job." Even if she were right about that, however, it is a very different thing from saying the law itself funds abortions, as the ads have claimed. As Chris Korzen of Catholics United points out, SBA List has no evidence for that assertion. "Why don't they produce someone whose abortion was funded by this bill? Because they can't," he says.
As for the issue of partisanship, critics point out that other groups engaged in the abortion debate are forthright about their partisan alliances. Democrats for Life of America, for example, supports pro-life Democrats. Says that organization's president, Kristen Day, "I just wish they'd change their mission statement, to say they are trying to elect Republicans and trying to defeat pro-life Democrats. I am a partisan organization, a Democratic organization. That's it—we are true to our mission." EMILY'S List, which in many ways SBA List has sought to model itself after, makes no bones about being a partisan organization: it says it supports prochoice Democratic women, and that is what it does.
For cover, perhaps, SBA does toss some change to an odd Democrat—this cycle it raised $5,000 for Illinois's Daniel Lipinski, who toed the SBA List's line and voted against healthcare reform in the House, compared to millions doled out to Republicans. What the discovery process in the Ohio Elections Commission case may reveal is how closely the group works with the Republican Party. Interestingly, SBA List is a major client of the Republican media firm Crossroads Media, along with entities linked to Karl Rove or Mary Cheney, according to the Sunlight Foundation, suggesting how embedded SBA List has become in the GOP election apparatus. When asked about SBA's connection to Crossroads Media, to which it has paid several hundred thousand dollars for attack ads against Dahlkemper, Driehaus and other Democrats, Dannenfelser said, "I don't know what that is, I am not aware we are using them," though she allowed that it was possible.
It's clear that the SBA List is more focused on promoting Republicans than on the pro-life cause. But what about women? SBA List includes in its endorsement criteria being "a pro-life man running against a pro-abortion woman," which by their lights includes any woman who voted for healthcare reform. One fundraising appeal, which was titled "More Nancy Pelosis?" asked, "Have you heard about the wonderful SBA-list endorsed men candidates who are running against women who have been backed by pro-abortion groups?" This seems twisted: Why make a point of targeting such women and replacing them with men? Dannenfelser says they do this because a prochoice woman is "a far bigger threat than a man speaking out on the issue." Says EMILY's List Communications Director Jen Bluestein Lamb, "Either you are for promoting and empowering women in politics, or you are not. Endorsing men against women solely because they voted for a bill that doesn't fund abortions—but does keep families healthier— is not a good way to empower more women to run for and serve in office."
It's a disorienting world in which Democrats are being called to account for expanding access to abortion because they voted for a bill that imposed "the most significant restriction in access to abortion coverage in thirty-five years," in the words of Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards. The unfolding process in Ohio will be interesting to observe, but it's likely that its conclusions, even if they don't go SBA List's way, will arrive too late to undo the damage done by its distortions. By then, many of the pro-life Dems who demanded that the healthcare law contain those onerous abortion restrictions, supposedly to safeguard their electoral chances, will probably be long gone.
From the prochoice point of view, all of this does make one wonder: If Democrats were going to pay the political price for a law protecting abortion rights anyway, was that compromise really worth it?
It's a horrifying thought: Is Sarah Palin progressives' fault? Could it be that we brought this on ourselves?
Anna Holmes and Rebecca Traister think so. As they argued in their New York Times op-ed yesterday, "If Sarah Palin and her acolytes successfully redefine what it means to be a groundbreaking political woman, it will be because progressives let it happen." By not doing enough to nurture their own women leaders, Holmes and Traister say, it was Dems who cleared the way for Palin and her raging pack of grizzlies to maul our politics. Progressives "have done nothing to stop an anti-choice, pro-abstinence, socialist-bashing Tea Party enthusiast from becoming the 21st century symbol of American women in politics."
Holmes and Traister have a point: Democrats don't do enough for women—either as constituents, as we saw with the heartbreaking abortion healthcare compromise, or as candidates. Indeed, the Democrats' own wobbly commitment to promoting women hampered what should have been a slam-dunk response to the GOP's bogus "Year of the Woman" hype after the June elections. Yes, Dems could point out that only eight of the Republicans' 110 Young Guns were female, but when reporters asked for their equivalent stats, they had to mumble apologetically about "not being satisfied" that just three of thirteen members of Red to Blue, the party's program to support candidates in battleground districts, are women.
But it's not as if more assiduous Democratic efforts to recruit and support female candidates would have satisfied the same "appetite for female leadership" that Palin does, thereby pre-empting her astonishing ascension. What Palin satisfies, rather, is an appetite for right-wing female leadership.
And actually, notwithstanding their shortcomings, the Democrats can legitimately claim to have a much better record than Republicans in promoting and electing women. In today's Congress, women hold ninety seats, and of these just twenty-one are Republicans, versus sixty-nine Democrats—including, not insignificantly, the first female Speaker. In a sobering LA Times piece published the same day as Holmes and Traister's op-ed, Lisa Mascaro reported that the number of women in Washington may decline after this year's midterms, with as many as ten seats held by women in danger of being washed away by a Republican wave, which would amount to "the first backslide in the uninterrupted march of women to Washington since 1978." In other words, Mama Grizzlies can roar all they want, but years that are good for Republicans tend to be bad for women, and this year is likely to be no different.
Holmes and Traister accuse the Democrats of favoring a "diminutive" model of female political behavior. They cite the reluctance of Democratic women like Nancy Pelosi to mount a "Palin-style girl-power campaign" as evidence. I'm all for girl power, but I'm not sure that would help Nancy Pelosi much right now, given the misogynist venom she has had to face from the right this election season merely for exercising her authority in a no-nonsense manner. (The title of a new right-wing hit book is telling: it's called She's the Boss: The Disturbing Truth About Nancy Pelosi. Nice how they spell it out like that: yes, female authority—disturbing!)
The more specific question of whether Democratic sexism in the primary opened the door to Palin in 2008 is an interesting one, which Traister explores in riveting detail in her nuanced feminist account of how that campaign unfolded, Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women, coming out this September. Though the media obsessed at the time about the largely mythological PUMAs and their supposed readiness to ditch the Democrats, making the Palin pick initially appear to be a stroke of desperate genius by a flailing McCain, in reality the boys running his campaign were only dimly aware that Palin's gender would be an issue. Their vague hopes of snagging votes from disgruntled Clinton fans did not pan out—women were smarter than they thought.
But, after being sidelined by the male-dominated McCain campaign, vilified by the left and ridiculed by the media, Palin found a warm embrace among conservative women, who were thrilled to see one of their own enjoy a taste of power for a change. "My experience with Palin's supporters left me alert to the fact that she was building an army of followers—not just scared and angry xenophobes…but women (and men) who felt that their support for this candidate was about an expansion of opportunities for women," Traister writes.
So who's to blame for Palin? Of course, there's no simple, single answer. Perhaps we're all a bit guilty. I'd lay much of the responsibility on the media, for casting her as the Republican starlet and then treating her to a spectacular tabloid meltdown, for celebrating her beauty and earthy charm and then glorying in her every humiliation, and now blasting her every inane tweet into a vast and thought-killing echo chamber. But it's we media consumers who can't stop looking and listening.
Failed GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose new memoir, set to be released on Nov. 17, emphasizes her supposedly "maverick" tendencies with its title Going Rogue, has just dipped her toe into New York State politics. By endorsing a right-wing third party candidate, Doug Hoffman of the Conservative Party, in the Nov. 3 special election for the state's 23rd Congressional district seat, she has indeed bucked the party establishment--in order to advance a hard-line social conservative agenda. In the nonsensical Palin universe, that's what "rogue" means: walking in lockstep with the Christian right.
The Republican Party's candidate in the race, Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and has pledged to support the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act. While Scozzafava has been depicted as a radical leftist in the right-wing blogosphere, in fact she is a centrist with conservative leanings. The net effect of Palin's "rogue" intervention may be to split the conservative vote and help elect the Democrat in the race, Bill Owens, who maintains an edge over the other two candidates in the polls. Still, Hoffman has been gaining momentum, and--in a testament to Palin's enduring appeal to her devoted base--he's been raking in the campaign cash in the wake of her endorsement.
In her Facebook posting announcing her support for Hoffman this past Thursday evening, Palin wrote, "Our nation is at a crossroads, and this is once again a ‘time for choosing.'"
I might not have put it exactly like that, but I agree.
When Palin's book Going Rogue comes out on Nov. 17, we're launching Going Rouge: Sarah Palin--An American Nightmare, a collection of pieces on Palin that I co-edited with Nation senior editor Richard Kim. Despite internet chatter suggesting that we might be trying to dupe unsuspecting hockey moms into buying our anti-Palin book, I think it's pretty clear from the thunderclouds and the subtitle that the cover's a satire. But the book is not a parody: it's a serious look at Palin's record, her policy positions, the meaning of her candidacy for feminism and her future in American politics.
It's also fair to ask who has been practicing the politics of deception here. Palin's entry onto the national stage was a Hollywood-style production, replete with a ready-made storyline, a speech carefully crafted by others and a brand new wardrobe. Many remarked at the time that she seemed more like an actress playing a candidate running for Vice President in a romantic comedy (albeit one who sometimes had trouble remembering her lines) than an actual candidate. And the image, more often than not, contradicted the reality. Given the misleading use of "rogue" in the title of her new book, it seems likely that it will merely offer more of the same.
Our book, by contrast, is reality-based. No ghostwriters or pricey political consultants were employed in its production, just hardworking journalists. Our purpose is to not to deceive but to clarify--to show Palin beneath the gloss. And to give people a choice on Nov. 17.
Just recently, things were looking up for socialism. In April, a much-discussed Rasmussen poll reported that only 53 percent of Americans expressed a preference for capitalism. The poll didn't define either system, so one could surmise that the right's desperate strategy of branding a popular Democratic president as a "socialist" had backfired: If Obama's a socialist, then a good number of the 69 percent of Americans who viewed the President favorably were apparently ready to sign up. Perhaps this new openness to alternatives wasn't deep, but it seemed promising.
Now, the Obama=socialist meme, which was once just laughable, has gone viral.
It's still hard to take it very seriously, given how far Obama's policies are from even the mildest form of social democracy--recall how he explicitly rejected the idea that the United States should emulate Sweden's highly effective response to its early 90s financial meltdown, when it overcame the crisis by nationalizing the banks.
Still, the ludicrous notion has traction. The other day, Alaska governor Sarah Palin ripped Obama on Fox News for leading the nation toward socialism through "nationalizing many of our services, our projects, our businesses." The RNC went so far as to declare that "the Democratic Party is dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals."
The GM takeover was a tipping point. For the right, "Government Motors" is the smoking gun, definitive proof of Obama's heretofore secret radical leftist agenda. The "New GM" is the target of a boycott spearheaded by right-wing radio bloviator Hugh Hewitt, who declared, "I won't buy a socialist car." Rush Limbaugh, who flirted with the boycott before disavowing it, fumed, "This guy came into office with an agenda, a pure socialist agenda, and he's implementing it without regard for current economic circumstances."
But what's really going on with the GM nationalization -- just as in the bank bailout -- is more akin to corporate statism than socialism. In order to qualify for federal help, GM had to "slim down"-- 21,000 GM workers will receive pink slips in the wake of this so-called rescue, and the UAW was forced to swallow painful concessions. It's not as if this occasion is being used to facilitate a real transition to a worker-friendly green economy, converting auto factories to production facilities for wind turbines, solar panels, light rail, etc. Sure, there are murmurs about fuel efficiency, but as Obama himself said, the goal is "to get GM back on its feet, take a hands-off approach and get out quickly." He wouldn't even take a position on whether the corporate headquarters should remain in Detroit. This is no socialist plot: it is a company bailout.
When the dust settles, the Big Three might still be standing, but Michigan will probably still face the highest unemployment rate in the nation (currently 12.7 percent and rising).
So, one might ask, from the right's standpoint, what's not to like? After all, if conservatives didn't mind the crony capitalism of the Bush era, they shouldn't bridle at the GM bailout. The Republican hysteria that greeted the takeover was less about substance than partisan pushback: If Obama's for it, they're against it, because what else are they going to say?
More insidious, and significant, is how the business lobby has used the GM controversy to fuel its campaign against government regulation of any kind. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is poised to punish the Obama administration for so much as thinking aloud about reining in the private sector. The silly GM boycott is a sideshow: the real assault is emanating from the Chamber, which just announced that it will spend $100 million on a "Campaign for Free Enterprise" to stem the "rapidly growing influence of government over private sector activity."
The Chamber has in its sights the financial regulations set to be unveiled next week (being weakened by the minute), as well as the public healthcare option--a.k.a., Obama's "socialized healthcare" proposal. To Karl Rove, writing in the Wall Street Journal, the threat posed by the public option is dire: "If Democrats enact a public-option health-insurance program, America is on the way to becoming a European-style welfare state. " If that happens, he predicts, "our nation will be changed in damaging ways almost impossible to reverse."
Actually, there is lively debate among progressives about that very question. Some harbor hope that the public plan will lead to more comprehensive reform; others doubt that it can be used to pry open the door to single-payer. But few sane observers would dispute that the modest public plan is a far cry from universal, national healthcare -- the kind of system that would produce better health outcomes for less spending across the board by cutting out the profit motive altogether. The kind of, yes, socialized system that people might actually like.
If the right succeeds in rebranding corporate-friendly Democrats as the revolutionary vanguard -- and if the Obama administration continues to cave into corporate pressure to water down its weak-tea reforms -- we could see the opposite effect from the one that appeared so encouragingly in the Rasmussen poll result: Obama and the Dems could give socialism a bad name.