Saeed Jalili. (Wikimedia Commons)
Iran, it turns out, is having a real election after all.
Tomorrow and over the weekend, I’ll report on the actual election results—and what they might mean for Iran’s relations with the United States and for the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. But today, the election itself.
Last month, after the Guardian Council—the oversight body whose dozen members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and by the Khamenei-controlled judiciary—disqualified two opposition-minded candidates (including a former president of Iran) from running, some American Iran-watchers concluded that Iran shouldn’t bother having the election at all. The seeming ultraconservative in the race, Saeed Jalili, now had the field to himself, they said, and had been “anointed” by Khamenei as Iran’s next president; and even many late reports suggest that Jalili is still Khamenei’s preferred candidate.
But that doesn’t mean that Jalili is a lock, and he might not have enough support to qualify for the June 21 two-man runoff if no one wins 50 percent in the first round on June 14. In fact, according to some polls—though in Iran, especially, polls are not overly reliable—Jalili is now in third or fourth place in advance of tomorrow’s election. Not only that, but the reformist movement in Iran is roaring back, in support of Hassan Rouhani, the only cleric in the race and an ally of former President Mohammad Khatami, who this week endorsed Rouhani. Rouhani got another endorsement from another former president, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the would-be candidate who was excluded by the Guardian Council in May.
Another candidate, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the quirky conservative who is the mayor of Tehran, is roughly tied with Rouhani, with Jalili in third or fourth place. Given Iran’s system, in which a lot happens behind the scenes—including the election count—that doesn’t mean Jalili ought to be counted out. But his sternly worded election slogans, in which he pledges no compromise in talks with the United States and says that he favors a “resistance economy,” which could tumble Iran into North Korea–like economic isolation, don’t seem to be resonating with Iranian voters.
There is one sense, of course, in which the election doesn’t matter. Whoever wins the presidency in Iran will still be beholden to Khamenei, who makes the key decisions—including about the nuclear file. But in the past, Iranian presidents have had a real impact, within the system’s relatively narrow lanes, and Khamenei may give the president—whoever he will be—some leeway to act. It’s also possible that Khamenei himself is undecided about which way to go in Iran’s quandary.
Still, the establishment in Iran doesn’t seem happy about Rouhani’s prospects. According to a former Iranian diplomat who spoke to The Nation on background, Rafsanjani and Khatami withheld their endorsement of Rouhani until the very eve of the election in order not to provoke the election authorities and the Guardian Council. (Indeed, even this week there were rumors, apparently untrue, that the Guardian Council would take action to bar Rouhani.) As a popular reformist, the only cleric in the race, and as a former nuclear negotiator under Khatami, Rouhani is gaining momentum. The only other reformist in the race, Mohammad Reza Aref, dropped out last week in order to allow reformists, centrists and moderates to gather around a single standard-bearer. But when Rouhani submitted a campaign video biography for broadcast by Iran’s television network, astonishingly the broadcasters—loyal to the conservative establishment—refused to run it unless Rafsanjani’s endorsement of Rouhani were deleted.
The presence of several other conservative (“principlist”) candidates in the race—besides Jalili, the most prominent is Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati—might split the principlist vote and divide establishment-minded clerics. The Washington Post, reporting from Qom, Iran’s clerical capital and religious center, notes that the thousands of mullahs and ayatollahs there don’t seem to have a preferred candidate. When the Post visited Velayati’s campaign office in Qom, he found it staffed by only two teenagers.
After their experience in 2009, when millions of Iranians flooded the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest the election’s outcome, it’s understandable that many reformists, liberals, business people and middle-class voters might be reluctant to count on Rouhani. Unlike 2009—when I spent two weeks in Iran watching the election excitement build—this time, according to The New York Times, there is far less visible electioneering, street demonstrations, posters and leaflets, and other election paraphernalia visible in Tehran. The authorities, mindful above all of suffering through another 2009-style upsurge, have taken steps to limit political expression and debate, and they’ve changed the format of the televised debates drastically to lessen public interest in the outcome.
But quite a few observers of the election note that a substantial portion of the coalition that backed Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009 is once again ready to go to the polls, even though other voters say that a boycott is the best way to express their political feelings. But, just as Rafsanjani and Khatami backed Mousavi four years ago, the support of the two former presidents has once again excited Iranian voters.
James Harkin chronicles the fight for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.
A sex worker demonstrates the use of a female condom during an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign organized by a NGO in Siliguri, India, on February 15, 2010. (Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri)
Ten years ago, the United States dramatically ramped up AIDS funding, but the funding came with this dangerous string attached: in order to qualify, non-governmental organizations must adopt an explicit policy opposing prostitution. Proposed by Republican Representative Chris Smith as an amendment to the landmark AIDS legislation the Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act (or, PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), this anti-prostitution pledge requirement was a conservative attempt to conflate offering HIV prevention and treatment to sex workers with promoting the actual practice of prostitution. Some feminist organizations—like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Equality Now—who oppose prostitution and sex work have also supported the pledge requirement. This April, after several years of legal challenges in lower courts brought by health and rights advocates, the United States had to defend the anti-prostitution pledge in front of the Supreme Court. Its decision is expected this month.
In the decade that’s passed since the pledge was made a requirement of AIDS funding recipients, it’s become more difficult for some prevention projects to reach sex workers, and others have had to close completely. As reported in the Journal of the International AIDS Society, the vague language of the pledge—as well as its political roots in attempts to eradicate sex work—has meant that PEPFAR recipients are left to interpret the pledge broadly, which in some cases has led them to cease providing any services to sex workers, lest they lose all their funding.
Some projects have been targeted more than others, notes a brief from the Center for Health and Gender Equity. “Because drop-in-centers offer control, knowledge, and some degree of comfort to sex workers,” their researchers found, “they have been a particular target under U.S. policy.” Durjoy Nari Shangho’s drop-in center in Bangladesh lost their funding as a result of their NGO sponsor signing the pledge. As a result, the street-based sex workers they served, the majority of whom are homeless, were without a place to sleep, bathe or use a bathroom—or a safe space in which to educate one another about HIV and prevention. Representative Chris Smith attempted to explain the US denial of funds to these kinds of programs and their resultant service closures as necessary to prevent PEPFAR from becoming “potential funding for pimps and traffickers.”
One program was in Smith’s sights in particular: SANGRAM, based in India, recognized by both USAID and UNAIDS as a best-practice model. SANGRAM refused to sign the pledge, and notified USAID that it would be returning its funds—which was described by the media as a US decision to defund SANGRAM, claiming it was trafficking children. Why was a program lauded for being such a good partner now suddenly recast as the enemy? Smith used this “case” as justification to fight for the pledge, while Representative Mark Souder, then a Republican Congressman from Indiana, complained—and apparently lied—to USAID that “funding for SANGRAM was terminated only after a concentrated effort by the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons office.”
As some members of Congress use sex workers’ health in much the same way they use women’s health and abortion, targeted AIDS projects have seen their funding cut and services cease and sex workers have paid the price. Notably, the United States exempted some US-funding recipients recipients from the pledge—the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Health Organization, the International AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition and all UN agencies. But as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told the US attorney Sri Srinivasan this April as he defended the pledge, “I would have less problem accepting your message if there weren’t four major organizations who were exempted from the policy requirement. There seems to be a bit of selection on the part of the government in terms of who it wants to work with.” Chris Smith, the pledge’s architect, has certainly shown this to be true—at the expense of not just sex workers’ health but the fight against AIDS.
On Tuesday, the immigration reform bill passed a crucial procedural hurdle. With the Senate set to begin formal debate on the bill, Chris Hayes explains why Marco Rubio continues to attach amendments that undermine his own legislation.
Edward Snowden. (Courtesy: Guardiannews.com)
Immediately following the announcement that the source behind The Guardian’s NSA spying revelations is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old NSA contractor, protesters around the world rallied to show support for the whistleblower.
In New York, a group of activists gathered in Union Square amid downpours. Organizer Andy Stepanian called Snowden’s cause “a marginalized story:”
It’s saturating the media right now, but history has shown that when these whistleblowers come forward—whether it be Daniel Ellsberg or it be Bradley Manning—within a short period of time, there are attempts to malign the individual or co-opt the narrative or try to demonize that individual for what they did. Edward Snowden put aside a $200,000/year career, a house in Hawaii and left his loved one to go on the lam to show people the truth, which was that our government was spying on us without warrants under the auspices of the war on terror. And in doing so they violated our Fourth Amendment rights.
In Hong Kong, up to 1,000 Snowden supporters are expected to stage a protest to call on the government to protect him.
The AFP reports that the group, including lawmakers, will march first to the US consulate and then government headquarters to urge the administration of the semi-autonomous territory to not extradite Snowden.
“We should protect him. We are calling on the HK government to defend freedom of speech,” Tom Grundy, a rally spokesman, said Wednesday.
“We don’t know what law he may or may not have broken but if Beijing has a final say, they don’t have to extradite him if he is a political dissident,” he told AFP.
When asked why he chose Hong Kong as a refuge, Snowden cited the city’s “strong tradition of free speech.”
On Wednesday, Snowden told the South China Morning Post: “People who think I made a mistake in picking HK as a location misunderstand my intentions. I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality.”
Several lawmakers have agreed to take part in a discussion forum following the protest, including prominent pro-democracy politician Albert Ho, according to Grundy.
The online community has also rallied behind Snowden, organizing a White House petition demanding a presidential pardon that has already attracted more than 61,000 signatures, while a separate campaign was launched to help pay for Snowden’s expenses.
Facebook employee Dwight Crow donated $1,000 of his own money to help Snowden with legal fees, hotel bills or flight costs. Facebook is one of the companies that has denied links to the NSA’s Prism program.
Crow wrote: “I’d imagine Snowden’s fate is going to be determined by forces larger than legal bills, but have heard he’s stuck in HK with frozen accounts. Figured a little cash might help significantly.”
Obsession over Snowden’s personal life highlights a major flaw of the establishment media: the tendency to fixate on minute details while completely missing the big picture, namely the US government’s vast spying program.
While the media speculates about Snowden’s motives and allegiances and salary and pontificates about his dancer girlfriend and if she’s feeling lonely, Snowden’s supporters seem to grasp that this story is about something bigger.
“Anyone who uses the internet and expects some privacy should be concerned about what was said in [Snowden’s] interview, so I imagine we will get a good turnout,” said Grundy.
The Senate just passed a farm bill that contains massive cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Read George Zornick’s analysis here.
United States Capitol. (Wikimedia Commons)
Though it won’t garner many headlines nor blocks of cable news coverage, a Wednesday morning hearing on Capitol Hill has massive import for potentially millions of Americans waiting for the government to enforce some basic health and safety regulations.
The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will consider the nomination of Howard Shelanski to head the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a little-known outfit that consumer and good government groups have been complaining about for years—with good reason.
OIRA’s job is to evaluate cost-benefit analyses of regulations performed by executive branch agencies. Its blessing is needed to publish the regulations in the federal register and begin enforcement—but for reasons that are often unexplained, OIRA is sitting on numerous rules and indefinitely delaying their implementation.
The process for actually getting new regulations into law is already pretty burdensome. Once an agency elects to write a large-scale new rule—in some cases, after Congress has passed legislation requiring them to, which means it has already gone through the legislative meat-grinder—this is what happens with OIRA, via the Center for Effective Government:
This week the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards—an alliance of over 150 consumer, small business, labor, and scientific groups—released a report detailing the myriad ways in which OIRA is serving as a chokepoint in the regulatory process.
More than 120 rules that have already been written by a regulatory agency are stuck at OIRA. By executive order, OIRA is supposed to review the regulation for no more than 90 days—but seventy of 120 orders stalled there have been under review much longer, essentially in defiance of federal law. In many cases, though OIRA is supposed to explain delays, it just doesn’t.
The CSS report fingers industry influence as a major factor in the delays. It outlines the case of a rule on silica dust, which is particularly galling. Silica is a mineral found in sand, rock, brick and concrete, which if inhaled in dust, can be seriously damaging to human lungs. Naturally, construction and building industry workers typically inhale this dust, and as many as 4,400 people are diagnosed with silicosis each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It kills 146 people every year, and it is often a very painful death.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed lowering the amount of silica workers are allowed to be exposed to—the rules first created in 1972 were deemed far too lax. The silica rulemaking at OSHA was initiated in 1998, and took over a decade to complete—but finally, in February 2011, they sent a proposed rule to reduce worker exposure to silica dust.
That rule, therefore, went to OIRA almost two and half years ago, and should have left the office in the spring of 2011. Why the delay? It seems that industry influence is the big culprit here.
The CSS report notes:
Since the rule was sent to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review in February 2011, the office has hosted 11 meetings with outside groups to discuss the rule. Nine of those meetings were with industry groups that oppose the rule.
The report also describe a troubling revolving door between industries affected by regulation and OIRA, which no doubt gums up the works even further. The silica rule is just one example—the report details important regulations on food safety, minimum wage and overtime rules for homecare workers, energy efficiency, and controls on Wall Street traders that are all stuck at OIRA.
This is a clear failure that Obama is responsible for—OIRA is located at the White House. Some Democratic Senators, like Sheldon Whitehouse and Tom Harkin, have written the administration in protest of OIRA’s foot-dragging, as Brad Plumer notes.
During Shelanski’s confirmation hearing, Senators have a responsibility to press him on undue delays in approving rules and attempt to extract promises that things will get better. You can watch here and the CSS report is here. We will certainly follow up on how the hearing goes.
Republicans have repeatedly called for the repeal of Obamacare. Lee Fang reveals how those same GOP lawmakers have solicited grants from the program they claim to despise.
“Moral Monday” protesters demonstrating inside the North Carolina General Assembly on June 10, 2013. (Photo courtesy of the North Carolina NAACP)
“Outsiders are coming in and they’re going to try to do to us what they did to Scott Walker in Wisconsin,” North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory said yesterday, in response to the growing “Moral Monday” protest movement.
North Carolina is the new Wisconsin, but not for the reasons McCrory alleges. Like in Wisconsin, a homegrown grassroots resistance movement has emerged—and grown rapidly—to challenge the drastic right-wing agenda unveiled by Republicans in the state. Just like the Koch brothers backed Scott Walker, the Koch’s billionaire ally and close associate Art Pope funded North Carolina’s Republican takeover in 2010 and 2012. (Only McCrory went a step further and actually named Pope to his inner circle as deputy budget director.) And North Carolina, like Wisconsin, is “a state fight with national implications,” says Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP. Republicans have imported a slew of ALEC-inspired policies in an attempt to turn the New South back into the Old Confederacy.
Melissa Harris-Perry covered the North Carolina “Moral Monday” movement extensively on her MSNBC show last Saturday. I was one of the panelists.
In a few months since taking over power for the first time in one hundred years, North Carolina Republicans have passed or introduced legislation that would: eliminate the earned income tax credit for 900,000; decline Medicaid coverage for 500,000 and privatize public healthcare in the state; end unemployment benefits for 165,000 in a state with the country’s fifth-highest unemployment rate; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; cut taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent; allow for guns to be purchased without a background check and carried in parks, playgrounds, restaurants and bars; do away with public financing of judicial races; prohibit death row inmates from challenging racially discriminatory verdicts; and on it goes. (Unlike in Wisconsin, North Carolinians have no collective bargaining rights to protect).
In order to make it harder for opponents of these right-wing policies to challenge their sponsors, North Carolina Republicans have unloaded the kitchen sink of voter suppression. As I reported in April (“7 Ways North Carolina Republicans are Trying to Make it Harder to Vote”): “North Carolina Republicans have introduced a series of bills in the legislature that would require state-issued photo ID to cast a ballot, drastically cut early voting, eliminate same-day voter registration, end straight-ticket voting, penalize families of students who register to vote where they go to college, rescind the automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, and ban “incompetent” voters from the polls. The legislation has been dubbed the ‘Screw the Voter Act of 2013’ and ‘The Longer Lines to Vote Bill.’ The goal is to make this racially integrated swing state a solidly red bastion for the next decade and beyond.”
Forty of 100 counties in North Carolina are subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, based on a history of voting discrimination, and must have their election changes approved by the federal government. But North Carolina Republicans, judging from the legislation introduced, are already acting as if the Supreme Court has struck down Section 5. If you want to know what a post–Section 5 world will resemble, without Section 5’s powerful deterrent and enforcement effect, look no further than what’s currently happening in the Tarheel state. (For more on the consequences of repealing Section 5, read this great new report from the Brennan Center for Justice.)
Barber, who has lived in North Carolina since 1966, kicked off the “Moral Monday” movement on April 29. “A couple of months ago, when we called for moral witnesses based on Gandhi and Dr King’s brilliant examples of nonviolent direct action, we had 17 ministers and other leaders answer the call and participate in the first inaugural ‘Moral Monday,’” he wrote in The Guardian this week. “We were pleased, but not shocked, when 29 additional North Carolinians came the second Monday; 49 the third, 59 the fourth, and 151 last Monday, 3 June. Each week, the number of supporters multiplies; from about 300 the first week to more than 4,000 on 3 June.”
Several thousand joined the demonstration inside the North Carolina statehouse this past Monday, braving rain and tornado warnings, with clergy across the state taking the lead. The clergy, teachers, historians, politicians and civil rights leaders who are now getting arrested on a weekly basis, many for the first time, are hardly outside agitators, which, incidentally, was the kind of language used by Southern governors to defend segregation during the 1950s and ’60s. Of the 338 people arrested so far, only eight are not from North Carolina.
The Forward Together coalition is holding a “Witness Wednesday” event today to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Medgar Evers and to launch a new statewide voter registration campaign. Says Barber, “2014 is a major time and our rights are under attack.” The 1960s civil rights movement began with a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the “Moral Monday” movement shows how the fight for equal rights and justice continues in the state today.
Read Ari Berman’s article on John Lewis and his fight to save the Voting Rights Act.
David Simon, one of many media pundits who have been critical of the response to the NSA leaks. (Courtesy of Flickr user David Kindler)
Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. One would think that newspaper pundits, whose publications benefit most (besides the public) from major leaks—and whose reporters then face possible prosecution by the government—would rise in at least partial defense of an Edward Snowden. But if you thought that, you’d be very wrong this week.
The latest example, today, is Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. Longtime media writer Dan Kennedy, up in Boston, tweets this morning that yesterday everyone was making fun of the anti-Snowden “rant” by TV series creator (and former newspaper reporter) David Simon—and now here’s Friedman highlighting it in the Times.
Friedman uses the argument that he will gladly trade off what he describes as simply data mining to prevent another 9/11, because (wait for it)—if there’s another 9/11 most Americans will call for a truly Orwellian crackdown. That is, Friedman knows he would be one of them.
Friedman, like so many others, cites the threats revealed in the recent Boston Marathon bombing, in quoting Simon at length. In fact, he quotes Simon referring to Boston, without irony, twice. Of course what he and others fail to mention is the obvious fact that we have had this “data mining” in place for years—and it still didn’t come close to preventing the Boston bombing. (I guess Friedman is correct in claiming that Simon “cuts right to the core of the issue”). So, logically, since the current regime did not prevent Boston, folks like Friedman and Simon must favor even more invasive surveillance—of US citizens.
Friedman also quotes Simon’s conclusion and supposed trump card on the NSA programs: “We don’t know of any actual abuse.” Since it’s been top-secret (until now), how would he or anyone know of any?
And Friedman reveals more than he probably realizes by casually tossing off a line like this, then moving on very quickly (to quoting Simon again): “To be sure, secret programs, like the virtually unregulated drone attacks, can lead to real excesses that have to be checked.” This is the standard line all week—from pundits who have rarely if ever criticized any excesses before.
But the high point of the latest from Friedman comes when he—of all people!—raises the threat of other writers “bloviating.” Pot meet kettle! (Friedman also seems to have missed that Simon did walk back part of his original rant, in regards to internet surveillance.)
This follows yesterday’s anti-Snowden columns by, among many others, Jeffrey Toobin at The New Yorker, David Brooks of the Times and Richard Cohen at The Washington Post. Need we remind you that all were pitifully wrong-wrong-wrong on Saddam’s WMD, mocking critics of our invasion of Iraq in particularly vicious fashion. Roger Simon of Politico declared that Snowden had “all the qualifications” of “a grocery bagger.”
And then you have the Gene Lyons of the world, asking what’s the fuss, “the systems appears to be working as designed,” as Lyons puts it. Exactly.
Brooks babbled even more than usual in an all-out assault on Snowden—and young Americans everywhere. Apparently he feels they have betrayed failed institutions rather than failed institutions betraying him. Yet he demands more, not less, fealty to those institutions. And BTW, my 25-year-old son sounds nothing like the younger folks he lacerates: “the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.” And the idiocy of this is proven in this statement: “Young people in positions like that will no longer be trusted with responsibility.” Right. Let me know when you hear about mass transfers, demotions or firings of the millions in such positions with US agencies and at private contractors.
And Brooks, who declares Snowden an antisocial misfit, is probably the one glued to his computer right now—looking at those revealing photos of Snowden’s girlfriend in Hawaii.
Meanwhile, longtime, alleged “liberal” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has also weighed in on Edward Snowden. You should read the whole thing but here’s one of several money quotes: “Greenwald said that ‘Snowden will go down in history as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers.’ I think he’ll go down as a cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood.”
Glenn Greenwald plays a pivotal role in my book (with Kevin Gosztola) on the Bradley Manning case, just published in an updated edition.
A member of the audience uses their celphone to take a picture of President Barack Obama speaking at a fundraiser in Chicago, Wednesday, May 29, 2013. (AP Photo/ Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
As long as we’re opening a discussion about data mining, might we consider the fact that it’s not just the government that’s paying attention to our digital entanglements?
There’s a reason the National Security Agency was interested in accessing the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. When you’re mining, you go where the precious resources are, and technology companies have got the gold.
Data is digital gold. Corporations know that. They’re big into data mining.
But it’s not just profits that data can yield.
Data is also mined by those who seek power.
Political candidates, political parties, Super PACS and dark-money groups are among the most ambitious data miners around. They use data to supercharge their fund-raising, to target multimillion-dollar ad buys and to stir passions and fears at election time.
Data mining drives the money-and-media election complex that is rapidly turning American democracy into an American Dollarocracy, where election campaigns are long on technical savvy but short, very short, on vision.
Here’s a short excerpt from the new book by myself and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books), which is published today. It focuses on data mining by political campaigns:
* * *
If there was one assessment of the 2012 campaign that the campaign consultants loved above all others, it was the analysis that said, “Thar’s gold in them thar iPhones.” After two decades of trying to figure out how to monetize bits and bytes, the consulting class is now all in for the digitalization of our politics. Indeed, the final election-season issue of Campaigns & Elections (“the magazine for people in politics”) featured “10 Bold Ideas for the Future of Consulting.” This was the money-and-media election complex talking to itself, and there was no mistaking the message. Yes, of course, there were the calls for more spending: “Money in Politics: Time to Embrace It.” And complaints about even the most minimal restraints on campaign donations: “Give Candidates the Ability to Fight Back: With Contribution Limits Intact, What’s a Candidate to Do?”
But the primary focus of the “bold proposals” was on spreading the political pathologies of the “old media”—brutal negative campaigning, crude messaging, divisive tactics, and, above all big spending—to the “new media.” “Political Technology Is Best Served Partisan,” declared one headline, which was sandwiched between “The Future of Direct Mail Is Digital” and “Software Will Revolutionize Local Politics.” Any fleeting talk of ideals and values was mostly muffled by the drooling over dollars: “The political technology field is still relatively new and whenever a new industry shows promise and money is being made, venture capitalists are quick to notice and search out promising opportunities for investment,” noted one of the more thoughtful commentators. “Some in the political technology space have been quick to meet these new players with a ready grin and an open palm.”
The political players who have mastered television and radio and direct mail, the Karl Roves and the David Axelrods, as well as the thousands of consultants you’ve never heard of, are deep into a process that they believe will allow them to master the Internet. The reality is that the consulting class no longer views the Internet as a “new frontier” or a tool that needs to be understood. Those are the discussions of ten, even fifteen years ago.
Now, their professional journals are packed with ads that scream “Big Data. Bigger Results” and “Canvassing Tools for the Mobile Campaign.” The digital tipping point has not been reached, but we can see it from here—and so can the consultants, slow as they may once have been. They are now racing toward it because they have come to understand, thanks to the innovations and successes of the Obama campaign, that there could well be another pot of gold just beyond the tipping point.
Truth be told, there’s already a good deal of gold being spread around. By our calculations, the total amount of campaign money spent online for political advertising in 2012 was in the range of $300-350 million. This was a good tenfold increase from 2008, and what was spent on the Internet in 2012 was almost twice what was spent on television candidate ads in the entirety of the 1972 election, even when inflation is factored in. Recall that in 1972 this level of TV advertising was widely considered scandalous and could have had no small number of Americans fantasizing about burning their TV sets in effigy. So 2012 Internet political advertising was hardly chopped liver, and by all accounts its exponential growth rate will continue through election cycles for the foreseeable future.
Online advertising is, of course, the easiest measure of political activity on the Internet. But it is neither the beginning nor the end of the Internet’s role in American politics. In our view, the focus on advertising understates the Internet’s overall role in campaigns. In 2012, the Pew Research Center determined that 47 percent of voters categorized the Internet as a “main campaign news source,” second only to television, well ahead of newspapers and radio, and up from 36 percent in 2008 and 21 percent in 2004. Pew research also determined that 55 percent of registered voters watched political videos online and nearly 25 percent watched live videos online of candidate speeches, press conferences, or debates. Moreover, 45 percent of smartphone owners used their phones to read other people’s comments about a campaign or candidate on a social networking site, while 35 percent of smartphone owners actually used their phones to “look up whether something they just heard about a candidate or the campaign in general was true.” A Google poll found that 64 percent of battleground-state voters used the Internet to fact-check the candidates. After the first Obama-Romney debates, there were more than 10 million tweets, making it to that point the most tweeted about event ever in U.S. politics. By November 2012, there were 110,000 political Facebook pages in the United States and more than 11,000 pages just for American politicians. Nearly 25 percent of all the time that Americans spend online is spent on Facebook.
In short, these aren’t your grandfather’s elections, or your father’s, or even your older sister’s. “Shaking hands and all the traditional campaign stuff has not gone away. You must still do it to win,” Alan Rosenblatt of the Center for American Progress put it, “but if you don’t have a complementary online strategy you can’t win either.” Of course, digital political ad spending matters, and, yes, it will matter a whole lot more in the elections to come. But emphasizing digital political ad spending over all other aspects of the Internet as a source of political insight, inspiration and manipulation does a grave injustice to the digital revolution occurring in political campaigns. The Internet is already in the bone marrow of the American election system.
And not just at the grassroots.
The digital revolution has not rendered giant corporations clumsy dinosaurs on their way to extinction with a tidal wave of competition and consumer empowerment. In grand irony, the Internet has arguably become the greatest generator of monopoly power in the history of economics. Everywhere enormous firms all ranking among the most valuable in the world—Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, with eBay and Facebook not far behind—have monopolistic domination of huge digital markets often equal to or greater than what John D. Rockefeller enjoyed with Standard Oil in the Gilded Age. As The Economist put it, the Internet invariably generates “quasi-monopoly” through “winner-take-almost-all markets.” The reasons for this development have been spelled out elsewhere and derive from network economics, the capacity of digital communication to collapse space, patents, standards, and, with time, good old barriers to entry with the enormous capital requirements of cloud computing.
The significance of this digital monopoly capitalism for our argument is twofold. There is the general issue of Dollarocracy versus democracy: this much-concentrated economic power and wealth inequality are invariably dangerous for the survival of credible self-government. And then there is the issue of how this new kind of economic power translates into political power. Given the titanic power these firms have in the overall global economy, their political power should soon approach untouchable status under Dollarocracy, if it is not there already. This is especially true for policy debates directly affecting the direction of the Internet, where a number of crucial issues are in play, ranging from copyright law, network neutrality, community broadband, and the digital divide to taxation, antitrust, and, arguably most important of all, privacy. The old saw in politics is that if you’re not at the negotiating table when deals are being made, you’re what’s being served.
To address this new world, and to take advantage of cookies themselves, Internet publishers are increasingly “personalizing” their Web sites so that different users get different content at the sites depending upon what their personal data tell about them. Already Google search results for the same entry generate different responses for users depending on their extensive Google profile. Click on a major news site, and different people get different headlines and stories depending upon their demographics. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt noted that individual targeting is “so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” The age of people sharing a similar digital experience or having a serendipitous experience online is fading, with all that loss suggests. We now experience a “filter bubble,” as Eli Pariser put it. Jeffrey Rosen wrote that “a world of customized ads, news, and politics is one where advertisers, publishers and politicians rank and differentiate us. They evaluate us not as citizens but as consumers, putting us in different—and often secret—categories, based on the amount of money they predict we’ll spend or the votes they predict we’ll cast.
“Personal data is the oil of the information age,” the New York Times observed, and that captures exactly where the most important transformation of election campaigns, digital or otherwise, is occurring. In 2012, digital data collection moved from the margins to the center for the presidential campaigns. “While the media coverage is focused on rallies and the last-minute dash by Obama and Romney through seven swing states,” a reporter observed on the eve of the election, “the real work of the first ever billion-dollar campaign is being done behind closed doors.”
Some, perhaps much, of the ease with which President Obama won reelection despite historically unfavorable metrics has been attributed to his decided advantage over the Romney campaign in the underpublicized development of data collection and its effective utilization. Although both sides fought to a draw with their carpet-bombing of TV political ads, Politico tech reporter Jennifer Martinez wrote, “Obama’s treasure trove of data helped give him a notable edge over Republican Mitt Romney.” It was striking that when Tim Dickinson did his postmortem of the 2012 presidential campaign, his top six most valuable Obama operatives were the folks in charge of or directly connected to the digital operation; strategist David Axelrod and the traditional TV ad managers and pollsters followed them well down the list.
Obama’s Chicago-based campaign offices were dominated by his secretive analytics department, where hundreds of specialists crunched numbers. As one reporter who got an inside look put it, the football-field-sized office “looks like a corporate research and development lab.” The “Chief Data Scientist” of the Obama team was Rayid Ghani, an expert in artificial intelligence who came from Accenture Technology Labs, where he was a trailblazer in consumer data mining for retail purposes. Ghani’s directive “was to devise algorithms that could sift through the massive amounts of data collected by the campaign,” as Dickinson put it. “If you used Facebook to log onto the Obama campaign’s Web site, you revealed to them your entire social network.”
Among other things, the Obama team consolidated all of its disparate databases from 2008, and placed nearly all of the material on the Amazon Web Services cloud, where Ghani and his staff could slice and dice the data as never before. “The biggest idea we brought to bear,” said Dan Wagner, who ran Obama’s analytics team, “was integrating data and then acting on what it told us.”
The secrecy of the effort was such that we cannot accurately determine how much money the Obama campaign spent in this area—or what all the campaigns together spent. But we do know the Obama campaign cut no corners here. In 2008, the Obama campaign dominated Republicans on the burgeoning social media platforms, and that dominance on the increasingly ubiquitous Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube continued through 2012. But the campaign’s 2012 initiative went much further. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina acknowledged that he made the 2012 analytics staff five times larger than the much-ballyhooed analytics staff in the 2008 campaign, because 2012 was going to be a “totally different, metric-driven kind of campaign.” When asked for any specifics about the data work before the election, the campaign clammed up. “They are our nuclear codes,” campaign spokesperson Ben LaBolt told reporters. Data accumulation and evaluation were the Obama campaign’s Manhattan Project.
The Obama data operation took Schmidt’s advice and drew heavily from private sector talent; one operative called the effort a $1 billion “disposable startup.” No, it did not cost $1 billion to create or run; but it got that sort of bang for the buck. That is what so intrigued corporate observers. The Obama campaign was not only joined to the corporate data industry at the hip; it also proved to have been the dominant partner in the relationship.
“Until recently, everyone in politics thought the commercial sector knew better how to locate and engage with their customers, and tried to apply that to politics,” a reporter for Britain’s Spectator put it. Now experts believe “the Obama campaign has now leapfrogged the commercial world.” The morning after the election, Messina said of his high-tech staff, “Corporate America, Silicon Valley were knocking down the door trying to hire these guys.” Romney’s campaign engaged in much the same activities. As the Wall Street Journal put it, both “presidential campaigns have gone further than commercial advertisers ever have in using online and offline data to target people.” Obama’s campaign, by most accounts, just did more of it and was better at it.
Sasha Issenberg said the great breakthrough in 2012 was “linking a person’s offline political identity with their online presence.” Both presidential campaigns had on average around one thousand data points on each voter. Strategists affiliated with the campaigns acknowledged they had “access to information about the personal lives of voters never before imagined.” Whereas much of commercial online data collection tends to keep the actual identities of computer users anonymous—because advertisers target users by demographic criteria that do not require knowing the precise identity—political campaigns had every incentive to know who exactly was connected to the online profiles and where exactly they lived. There was no such thing as “too much information.”
This is where the “fun” begins. As The Economist put it, “The point of all these data is to mine them for insights into the electorate and identify pockets of voters who can be won over—either to vote, spend or volunteer.” Ghani’s team plumbed the data for “motivations, attitudes, and protestations.” As Bloomberg Businessweek described it, the “campaign’s Orwellian knowledge of the electorate—its deep understanding of precisely what, or whom, would motivate someone to act on Obama’s behalf—was such that it could get supporters to appeal to wavering or unreliable friends and acquaintances with individually tailored messages.” The Obama team took the data to predict “which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals.” It created an “optimizer” that was able to crunch all the data to create a new rating system for all Americans based on their likelihood of being an Obama voter. The data-miners created support scores “for every single voter in battleground states,” Messina explained after the election, on a scale of “1 to 100, on whether they would support us.” This gave them a far superior means to evaluate where and how resources would be best deployed.
Even more importantly, the Obama campaign used its computer power to test and retest and retest again messages to see what worked best with specific sets of individuals and with individuals themselves. It developed the unprecedented “targeted-sharing program”—what Messina termed its “true innovation”—to determine which person should contact another person to get that person to vote for Obama and precisely what type of message would be most effective. “People really trust their friends, not political advertising,” Obama campaign digital director Teddy Goff said. Goff’s team provided people with all the “high-quality, shareable content” they needed to be “effective ambassadors for the campaign.” It was basically idiot-proof. The Obama campaign was able to use targeted sharing on 85 percent of its turnout targets aged twenty-nine and under, largely through Facebook, which was used to reach 5 million such prospects. “What businesses find so tantalizing about the Obama campaign is that it has advanced this phenomenon to its next iteration,” Bloomberg Businessweek noted. “Your friend isn’t just raving about Pepsi; he’s telling you, in language and images likely to resonate with you, that you should be drinking Pepsi, too.”
The significance of this observation cannot be underestimated, as if offers deep perspective on the extent to which the civic and democratic values that ought to underpin our politics are being replaced by commercial and entertainment values—so much so that businesses now emulate campaigns. We have come full circle from the days when Adlai Stevenson said in 1956, “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.” Now the folks who sell breakfast cereal are taking marketing cues from the folks who do politics.
The lesson of 2012 was summed up by reporter Molly McHugh: “No interested candidate is going to see this campaign and not want to replicate what the Obama team was able to do by taking the mountains of information the Internet holds and turn it into deliverables.” “Everyone will want to jump on the data train,” ElectNext CEO Keya Dannenbaum said after the election. “Much like Obama pioneered campaigning on social media and now all politicians are there, so too it will be with big data.” Or as Kantar Media president Ken Goldstein put it, “Future campaigns ignore the targeting strategy of the Obama campaign of 2012 at their peril.” This is the next stop on the path of the money-and-media election complex.
At this point, the ethical and social implications of the digital transformation of campaigns are still mostly unexplored. It is a world where the guiding principle is, as Ghani put it, “Will it get me more votes? If not, I don’t care.” For some insiders, the seamy underside of digital data collection and microtargeting may be better left unsaid. “These are the kinds of things that I think smart people would keep to themselves,” an interactive political consultant said. The process may be getting to the point where it cannot be ignored. An ad executive with experience on Republican campaigns provided a sober assessment: “They are tactics that are pretty standard in marketing, but they are nonetheless ‘Orwellian.’ Those of us who’ve read 1984 look at this and say, ‘This is unbelievable.’” Nor should Democrats regard the digital transformation as not especially problematic because their guy won. The great political reporter David Broder interviewed LBJ staffers after their landslide election victory in 1964. Broder noted the “lip-smacking glee” they exhibited at how the revolutionary Daisy TV ad “had foisted on the American public a picture of Barry Goldwater as the nuclear-mad bomber who was going to saw off the eastern seaboard of the United States.” “The only thing that worries me, Dave,” one of the staffers confided to Broder, “is that some year an outfit as good as ours might go to work for the wrong candidate.”
The new book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America, is published this week by Nation Books. Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says: “Dollarocracy gets at what’s ailing America better than any other diagnosis I’ve encountered. Plus it prescribes a cure. What else could a reader—or a citizen—ask? To me, it’s the book of the year.”
After the Greek government announced the closing of the state broadcaster ERT, workers occupied the building while protesters gathered outside. Read Maria Margaronis’s report here.
Supporters stand outside the Greek state television ERT headquarters in Athens, on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
“We’re on air, the last little bit of air that’s left for us to breathe. We’re staying here all night, and beyond that, as long as it takes…”
I’m watching an overloaded Internet feed from ERT, the Greek state broadcaster, which has been shut down by the Greek government tonight, laying off all its 2,700 workers, on six hours’s notice, with no discussion and no vote in parliament. One by one, the transmitters around the country are being turned off. Journalists and production staff are occupying the broadcaster’s Athens headquarters; the network’s musicians are playing protest songs in the courtyard. Many thousands of protesters are gathering outside; so are busloads of riot police. @amaenad tweets, “Everyone in
#Greece has been watching #Occupygezi. And PM Samaras just gave them a spark. He was always as stupid as he was arrogant. #ERT”
A couple of hours ago I spoke to Marilena Katsimi, an ERT journalist inside the Athens building. She said that when the rumours of ERT’s impending closure first surfaced two weeks ago, nobody took them seriously: “We just couldn’t believe they would do it.” But all day today the director was shut in his office, not speaking to anyone. At six o’clock, New Democracy minister Simos Kedikoglou announced that ERT was being shut down because of “a scandalous lack of transparency” and waste and abuses by its bloated workforce. Katsimi found his statement deeply offensive: “He actually said ‘the party’s over,’ when it was their party. Since this government came to power they’ve been buying in expensive programs, bringing in their own people, hiring thirty or forty consultants at 4,000 euros a month when our salaries have been cut by some 40 percent and we’re making 1,000. How dare he tell us we’ve been having a party here!” Last year Katsimi was suspended from presenting a morning television news show because she referred, somewhat sarcastically, to a threat by the public order minister to sue the Guardian for reporting allegations that the Greek police had tortured antifascist protesters.
Of course, sucessive governments, both PASOK and New Democracy, have long given jobs at ERT (and elsewhere in the public sector) as prizes to loyal supporters. Everyone has heard stories of “journalists” drawing fat salaries and never showing up in the office. But as the blog Crisis Republic points out, the new, streamlined state broadcaster promised by Kedikoglou (at some vague point in the future) will look much like the old one—except it will be staffed entirely by this government’s supporters, at a cost in compensation and new salaries of several million euros.
So, in the name of transparency and cutting costs, the government has closed, by fiat and at great expense, the country’s only public broadcaster—the only broadcaster (for all its flaws) that isn’t pushing the agendas of the oligarchs. It has laid off some 2,700 people in one fell swoop—exceeding the Troika’s demand for 2,000 more public-sector job cuts. And it has opened the way for the distribution of lucrative franchises—for sports broadcasts, for instance—to the private TV channels that feed the Greek people the relentless diet of pap, hysteria, conspiracy theories and xenophobic propaganda that has helped sink the country into its current mess. Last week, Turkish TV notoriously showed movies about penguins instead of the police repression in Taksim Square. Greek TV has been poisoning people’s minds for decades; penguins would be an improvement.
The closure of ERT is the most dramatic in a series of attacks on free speech and public space by the Greek government. It comes as the official story of the austerity program’s success has been undermined by the IMF’s admission that serious mistakes were made, and by the Russian giant Gazprom’s failure to bid for the state-owned energy company. Greek friends are asking each other, Is this the beginning of the end? I couldn’t say; but in tragedies, killing the messenger is usually a sign that things aren’t going well.
Is Bradley Manning more heroic than SEAL Team 6? Read Chase Madar's argument here.
A sign announcing the acceptance of electronic Benefit Transfer cards at a farmers market in Roseville, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
It’s official: Congress will slash food stamp funding in the midst of a deep economic recession, when more people rely on food stamps than ever before.
Monday night, the Senate passed a five-year farm bill that contained $4.1 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over ten years. This ensures that the only debate now will be about how much to cut—and it’s likely to result in cuts much deeper than $4.1 billion.
The House Agriculture Committee passed a farm bill last month that cut $20.5 billion from SNAP by removing “categorical eligibility” (more on that here), which would take food stamps away from 2 million Americans and hundreds of thousands of children.
That bill has yet to be fully debated and passed on the House floor, and the push to make the cuts even deeper will be strong—conservatives have insisted on even deeper cuts. Representative Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget, for example, called for $135 billion in food stamp cuts, and on Tuesday, twenty-five House Republicans wrote to House Speaker John Boehner to remove food stamp funding from the bill altogether. (They just want the program debated on a separate track, but the barely implicit message in the letter is that they don’t want to be forced to agree to “only” $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts at the risk of killing the farm bill.)
The House bill, once passed, will head to conference committee, and the negotiators will have to reach a consensus number. Without question, it won’t be lower than $4.1 billion.
Why did Democrats in the Senate head down this road? Some attempted not to—Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill last month that blocked any food stamp cuts, but only twenty-five of her colleagues, and zero Republicans, voted for it. It failed 70-26.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture committee, has defended the cuts as designed only to stop “waste, fraud and abuse” in the SNAP program, and urged Democrats to vote against Gillibrand’s bill. “Every family that currently qualifies for nutrition assistance in this country continues to get that assistance,” she said. “We do make sure there is integrity in the programs.”
That’s not really what the bill does, however. It cuts $4.1 billion by eliminating the “Heat and Eat” programs adopted by several states that coordinate low-income heating assistance with SNAP benefits, thus allowing a slightly larger benefit. The Coalition on Human Needs explains:
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have opted to provide SNAP households with a nominal [Low Income Heating Assistance Program] payment, so that instead of having to provide burdensome monthly documentation of their shelter and heating/utility bills, they can deduct a standard allowance from their income, thereby increasing the amount of SNAP benefits they qualify for. This “Heat and Eat” approach disproportionately helps seniors and those with disabilities, who pay a high proportion of their income on shelter costs. Without this coordinated approach, such households may lose $50—$75 a month in SNAP benefits.
Aside from being, well, cruel, the food stamp cuts in the Senate bill are also damaging to the economy. The Center for American Progress, in a study released in March, found that for every $1 billion cut from SNAP, 13,718 jobs are lost:
So the Senate bill, by that calculation, will cost 56,243 jobs. CAP noted the losses “will likely have the greatest impact on younger workers, since they account for a disproportionate share of workers in food-related industries.”
The only hope now to at least moderate the cuts is a band of House Democrats who have pledged to fight the food stamp cuts ferociously, as we reported last month.
AT&T’s deregulation campaign will hurt low-income Americans, people of color and rural communities. Read Leticia Miranda’s report here.