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The Prostitution of Our Politics

A great documentary aired this week on the Discovery Times network called Taking the Hill. It recounts the stories of four veterans running for Congress as Democrats in '06. It's a moving portrayal of sacrifice and service. It's also a probing look at what one candidate, Rick Bolanos, calls "the prostitution of our political system," the need to constantly raise an ever-increasing amount of campaign cash.

We see how Eric Massa, a Naval officer brimming with passion from upstate New York, is forced to spend four to five hours a day cold-calling strangers to ask for money. "I've raised more money in this Congressional campaign than I made in my entire military career," Massa says.

It's never enough. The campaign professionals in Washington don't judge Massa based on his record of service or what he thinks about policy issues. It's all about money. They view his campaign, and all the others, as a giant ATM. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee even tries to recruit a human resources downsizer to run for the same seat.

The tragedy of this story in particular is that VA budgets get cut while the price of campaigns skyrocket. Imagine if we took even a small percentage of what campaigns cost nowadays and gave it to our soldiers. Now that would be supporting the troops.

Legislation Watch: Immigration Reform

With the arrests of hundreds of immigrant workers at meatpacking plants in six states this week – which United Food and Commercial Workers union spokeswoman Jill Cashen rightly pointed out was "not a systematic way to address the deep problems plaguing the immigration system" – the pressures on the new Congress to pass immediate immigration reform will be even greater. Many activists, labor and immigration rights groups, analysts and pundits believe that some version of the McCain-Kennedy bill will find bipartisan support.

But there is a much better alternative for a humane and rational immigration policy.

Last year, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee – the new Chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims – introduced the Save America Comprehensive Immigration Act. She described her legislation to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!: "My bill attempted to craft this as a civil rights issue, and that is, to give a sense of fairness to individuals who had been in this country and had worked and paid taxes and wanted to come from under the shadows. And it provided the earned access to legalization with English conversance, the idea of working, investment in the community, family and community service and no felon record. We also provided for family unification. We provided for the DREAM Act, so the children could go to school. We eliminated or provided penalties for the utilization of fraudulent documents, for the abuse of women, for the abuse of workplace, which would take advantage of those who are undocumented. We insisted that employees provided a safe workplace and a workplace with dignity and equal rights. We also provided for the anti-smuggling provisions, that would stop the coyotes from bringing individuals across the border and causing danger to their lives." Jackson-Lee also introduced the Rapid Response Border Protection Act to add border patrol agents and the state-of-the-art equipment needed for enforcement through means much more reliable and less inflammatory than building a wall.

After millions of immigrants demonstrated across the nation in the spring, The Nation ran a lead editorial suggesting that comprehensive reform must address "…family reunification; a solution to the visa backlog, now at 6.2 million and counting; and the coveted ‘path to citizenship' that allows immigrant workers to build lives with a future." The Jackson-Lee legislation accomplishes that and it has the support of many leading labor, Latino, and African-American advocacy groups.

But neither Jackson-Lee's legislation – nor even the House version of the McCain-Kennedy bill – were allowed to be debated in the draconian Republican Congress. Certainly the new House will have a much greater respect for the diversity of ideas offered by our representatives. And with Subcommittee Chairs drawn from Congressional Progressive Caucus members such as Jackson-Lee, Jerry Nadler, Lynn Woolsey, Dennis Kucinich, Ed Markey, Jan Schakowsky, Raul Grijalva, Hilda Solis, Melvin Watt, Luis Gutierrez, Jim McGovern, Pete Stark, Jose Serrano, John Lewis, Maxine Waters, Jim McDermott and others – there will be many opportunities for thorough consideration of progressive, forward-thinking policies.

Radio Is Wrecked--But It Can Be Repaired

The Future of Music Coalition [FMC], the alliance of musicians and music fans that conducts the nuts-and-bolts research on media consolidation that should be done by the Federal Communications Commission, has completed a groundbreaking study documenting the damage done to American culture by consolidation of radio-station ownership.

The report confirms what is already known, at least anecdotally, by anyone who has tried to listen to the radio since Congress, with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, essentially eliminated controls on the number of stations that can be owned by a single company. That change opened the way for Clear Channel Radio to expand from a relatively small company with a few dozen radio stations into a media conglomerate that now controls more than 1,200 stations nationwide.

Radio listeners and media activists have known for a long time that the one-size-fits-all-markets approach of Clear Channel and other big radio firms is no good for the public discourse or the culture.

Unfortunately, the FCC and Congress have resisted reform, claiming that consolidation is, if not good, at least benign.

The FMC report, "False Premises, False Promises: A Quantitative History of Ownership Consolidation in the Radio Industry," confirms that listeners, musicians and activists have, indeed, been right to conclude that something is very wrong with consolidated radio.

"Radio consolidation has no demonstrated benefits for the public. Nor does it have any demonstrated benefits for the working people of the music and media industries, including DJs, programmers and musicians. The Telecom Act unleashed an unprecedented wave of radio mergers that left a highly consolidated national radio market and extremely consolidated local radio markets. Radio programming from the largest station groups remains focused on just a few formats--many of which overlap with each other, enhancing the homogenization of the airwaves," explains Peter DiCola, the FMC research director who wrote the report.

DiCola, one of the country's most respected analysts of media ownership issues, adds, "From the recent new-payola scandal to the even more recent acknowledgments that giant media conglomerates have begun to fail as business models, we can see that government and business are catching up to the reality that radio consolidation did not work. Instead, the Telecom Act worked to reduce competition, diversity and localism, doing precisely the opposite of Congress's stated goals for the FCC's media policy. Future debates about how to regulate information industries should look to the radio consolidation story for a warning about the dangers of consolidated control of a media platform."

Among the specific conclusions of the report are that:

* The top four radio station owners have almost half of the listeners and the top ten owners have almost two-thirds of listeners. This means that a handful of companies control what the overwhelming majority of Americans hear on the radio.

* The "localness" of radio ownership--ownership by individuals who live in the community--declined by almost one-third between 1975 and 2005.

* Just fifteen formats make up three-quarters of all commercial programming. Moreover, radio formats with different names can overlap up to 80 percent of the time in terms of the songs played on them.

* Niche musical formats like classical, jazz, Americana, bluegrass, new rock and folk, where they exist, are provided almost exclusively by smaller station groups.

* Across 155 markets, radio listenership has declined over the past fourteen years, a 22 percent drop since its peak in 1989. The consolidation allowed by the Telecom Act has failed to reverse this trend. In fact, it may well have caused the trend to accelerate.

In addition to confirming the crisis, the Future of Music Coalition is making specific recommendations about how to address it. In particular, DiCola suggests that, while the FCC should certainly maintain the few ownership caps that remain in place, a case can be made for restoring more stringent caps on ownership--a move that could force the largest radio conglomerates to divest themselves of at least some of their stations.

"Ownership caps on radio-station ownership prevent concentration of economic, social and political power," argues DiCola, who explains that by the standard measures of such things, concentration of radio-station ownership has reached a high level in the national market and dangerous levels in most local markets.

DiCola says "the FCC could justify a lower cap" and argues that a host of other reforms are necessary to restore localism and diversity--both in content and in ownership--to a radio industry that is rapidly losing both of those precious commodities.

"Radio has great importance for our culture, our economy and our democracy," argues DiCola. "The public deserves to see it repaired."

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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into the intentions of the founders and embraced by activists for its groundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability. After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone political writer Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "John Nichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, The Genius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less with the particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and instead combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

Happier Holiday Shopping

Because I've written a lot about Wal-Mart,people are always asking me: Where should the socially-consciousconsumer shop? Sometimes, I resist the question. We don't makesignificant social change by shopping: the process requires far morepolitical engagement than that. And there are no pure choices -- life inthe marketplace is messy and brutal. But since we do love buying stuffand this is the biggest retail season of the year, it behooves us totake consumer politics seriously, and recommend some holiday purchasesfrom merchants who don't suck.

A (Truly) Green Christmas Tree

The OrganicConsumers Association (OCA) reports that Swedish researchers did anenergy comparison between plastic and natural Christmas trees, and foundthat the real tree used a fifth as much energy as an artificial one.Lots of people assume that a plastic tree would be more environmentallyfriendly because it is re-usable, but that's not so: artificial treesare often made from PVC, an environmental toxin. Besides, Christmastrees grow well on soil that is inhospitable to other crops, and likeall trees, they produce oxygen and absorb CO2. Thank goodness for theSwedish researchers for -- are you listening, Bill O'Reilly? --defending the true sprit of Christmas: plastic trees are ugly anddepressing anyway! OCA recommends buying your tree from an organic farm-- many farmer's markets sell them -- or one grown with a low level ofpesticides (most likely, that'll be one local and native to your area),better for the health of the land, the farm workers and your family.

Sweat-Free Clothing

Bienestar International's clothing, sold under theNo Sweat label, is made by workers in independent unions, all over theworld. No Sweat is the most commendable entrepreneurial project of itskind, but for too long, its products lagged far behind American Apparelin cuteness. No Sweat has also suffered from pallid marketing (again,especially compared to American Apparel, which has been criticizedfor its retro-pornographicads, but its image isanything but boring). No Sweat may be catching up, slowly: check outthe (quite fetching) sneakers, pea coats and hats on itswebsite. In addition to the more inviting goods, No Sweat also seems tobe getting a bit savvier in its marketing strategies, offering holidaypackages of enticing fairly traded spa products.

Fair Trade Cocoa

What's better than a steaming hot cocoa in the winter,and what's more horrible than forced-labor conditions under which somuch chocolate is made? Such contradictions aren't always easilyresolved, but this one is. Equal Exchange -- a company which sourcesentirely from democratically-run farmer cooperatives in Latin America,Africa and Asia -- sells a fairly traded organichot cocoa on its website. Folks concerned about food miles willcomplain -- the cocoa is from the Dominican Republic, the sugar fromParaguay and the milk power from the United States -- but nothing inthis world is perfect, and Equal Exchange does a good job of combiningexcellent politics with high-quality product. ("Fair trade" means thatthe farmers received a price above the one set by the free market; ofcourse there is much debate over what a "fair" price really is, andwhether even "fair trade" brands are paying suppliers enough. If you'reinterested in delving into some of these complexities, I recommend theNew Internationalist's specialNovember issue on the subject. It isn't online yet, but I've justwritten to urge them to put it up as soon as possible.)

A Free Press

You love reading free stuff on the Internet, but you knowreal journalism -- and any high-quality printed matter -- needs money tosurvive. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that a Nation subscriptionmakes a great gift. You knew that. I'd also highlyrecommend Bitch for the feminist on your list (of any age).

I welcome further suggestions from readers.

Does Prison Harden Criminals? Yes.

For a long time, those on the left who oppose the "tough on crime" policies of the last few decades have argued that the experience of incarceration itself makes those convicted of crime more disposed to future criminality. In prison, one learns from peers how to be a better criminal, makes criminal contacts and also acquires a pemanent record that severely inhibits the possibility of future employment. The conservative argument is that the unpleasant experience of prison serves as a useful deterrent and discourages released prisoners from committing more crime. Both of these frameworks would predict that the effects of incarceration would be amplified by harsher, more restrictive prison conditions. Under the first theory, higher-security confinement would introduce prisoners to more expert criminals, reinforce more anti-social behavior and create a larger stain on one's resume, whereas under the second, the more burdensome the experience of prison itself, the larger the deterence effect

Remarkably, there's very little empirical evidence to suggest which of these two theories are correct. Steven Levitt, along with two coauthors, did find in a 2003 paper that there is a detectable deterrence effect, but there's been no empirical study of the effect of harsher prison conditions on recidivism rates.

Until now. Recently, economists Jesse Shapiro and Keith Chen posted a working paper titled Does prison harden inmates? A discontinuity-based approach . In it, the co-authors use an ingenious bit of statistical sleight of hand to lend empirical support evidence to those of us in the first camp: harsher prisons do make people more likely to commit crimes once they're released.

Here's how the methodology works. They took a data set of approximately 1,000 federal prisoners from the 1980s, whose rearrest rates were tracked for three years. In the federal prison system, each new prisoner is assigned a score of 0-7 for a number of risk factors (prior record, the severity of the crime, etc...) and those points are totaled to compute a score of 0-36. Using that score, the prisoners are sorted into different security categories. For example, prisoners with scores of 0-6 get put into minimum security while those in 7-9 get put into low security, all the way up to high security for those with the highest scores.

Now, the tricky thing about figuring out whether prison conditions affect recidivism rates, is that you can't just cite higher recidivism by those in maximum security, because their increased criminality might be just because they're more hardened criminals, which is why they're in maximum security in the first placea. But Shapiro and Chen exploit the discontinuity between those prisoners with scores around the cut-offs, to show that the prison conditions themselves are likely contributing to more criminal activity after release. If each point on the scale means a criminal is marginally more likely to commit another crime, there's no reason there should be a bigger difference between those with a score of 5 and 6, and those with a score of 6 and 7. But it turns out there are differences, big ones. As you step up from prisoner with a score of 6, who gets placed in minimum security and a prisoner with a score of 7, who gets put in low security, you get a big increase in the recidivism rate. The same effect, though less pronounced happens between those in low security and those in high security.

In their conclusion, Shapiro and Chen write:

By exploiting discontinuities in the assignment of inmates to different security levels, we attempt to isolate the causal impact of prison conditions on recidivism. Our findings suggest that harsher prison conditions cause higher rates of post-release criminal behavior, behavior which is also measurably more violent.

The criminal justice system is both the most dysfunctional aspect of American democracy and the most insulated from reform, thanks to a continuing legacy of the spike in crime in 1970s, and the political benefit of "get tough on crime measures" that exploit racial fears without ever giving them explicit mention.

At some point this has to change. It would be naive to think that facts alone are going to be the undoing of America's prison-industrial complex. But they certainly don't hurt.

"Fixing" the War

This is an old tale. Long forgotten. But like all good political bedtime stories, it's well worth telling again.

Once upon a time, there was a retired general named Paul Van Riper. In 1966, as a young Marine officer and American advisor in Vietnam, he was wounded in action; he later became the first president of the Marine Corps University, retired from the Corps as a Lieutenant General, and then took up the task of leading the enemy side in Pentagon war games.

Over the years, Van Riper had developed into a free-wheeling military thinker, given to quoting Von Clausewitz and Sun-tzu, and dubious about the ability of the latest technology to conquer all in its path. If you wanted to wage war, he thought, it might at least be reasonable to study war seriously (if not go to war yourself) rather than just fall in love with military power. It seemed to him that you took a risk any time you dismissed your enemy as without resources (or a prayer) against your awesome power and imagined your campaign to come as a sure-fire "cakewalk." As he pointed out, "Many enemies are not frightened by that overwhelming force. They put their minds to the problem and think through: how can I adapt and avoid that overwhelming force and yet do damage against the United States?"

As a result, Van Riper took the task of simulated enemy commander quite seriously. He also had a few issues with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's much vaunted "military transformation," his desire to create a sleek, high-tech, agile military that would drive everything before it. He thought the Rumsfeld program added up to just so many "shallow," "fundamentally flawed" slogans. ("There's very little intellectual content to what they say… ‘Information dominance,' ‘network-centric warfare,' ‘focused logistics' -- you could fill a book with all of these slogans.")

In July 2002, he got the chance to test that proposition. At the cost of a quarter-billion dollars, the Pentagon launched the most elaborate war games in its history, immodestly entitled "Millennium Challenge 02." These involved all four services in "17 simulation locations and nine live-force training sites." Officially a war against a fictional country in the Persian Gulf region--but obviously Iraq--it was specifically scripted to prove the efficacy of the Rumsfeld-style invasion that the Bush administration had already decided to launch.

Lt. Gen. Van Riper commanded the "Red Team"--the Iraqis of this simulation-–against the "Blue Team," U.S. forces; and, unfortunately for Rumsfeld, he promptly stepped out of the script. Knowing that sometimes the only effective response to high-tech warfare was the lowest tech warfare imaginable, he employed some of the very techniques the Iraqi insurgency would begin to use all-too-successfully a year or two later.

Such simple devices as, according to the Army Times, using "motorcycle messengers to transmit orders, negating Blue's high-tech eavesdropping capabilities," and "issuing attack orders via the morning call to prayer broadcast from the minarets of his country's mosques." In the process, Van Riper trumped the techies.

"At one point in the game," as Fred Kaplan of Slate wrote in March 2003, "when Blue's fleet entered the Persian Gulf, he sank some of the ships with suicide-bombers in speed boats. (At that point, the managers stopped the game, ‘refloated' the Blue fleet, and resumed play.)" After three or four days, with the Blue Team in obvious disarray, the game was halted and the rules rescripted. In a quiet protest, Van Riper stepped down as enemy commander.

Millennium Challenge 02 was subsequently written up as a vindication of Rumsfeld's "military transformation." On that basis--with no one paying more mind to Van Riper (who, this April, called openly for Rumsfeld's resignation) than to Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki when, in February 2003, he pointed out that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to occupy Iraq, the "transformational" invasion was launched--with all the predictably catastrophic results now so widely known.

The Millennium Challenge 02 war games were already underway when, late that July, Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6 (the British equivalent of the CIA), returned to London from high-level meetings in Washington to report to Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top officials. In a secret meeting, he told them that the decision for war in Iraq had already been made by the Bush administration and that now, in a memorable phrase, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

On May 1st, 2005, notes from this meeting, dubbed "the Downing Street Memo," were leaked to the London Sunday Times. Thanks to that memo and other documents, it's now commonly accepted that the Bush administration "fixed" the intelligence around their war of choice. But Lt. Gen. Van Riper's forgotten story should remind us that they also "fixed" the war they were planning to fight.

Between then and now, when it came to Iraq, there wasn't much that wasn't "fixed" in a similar manner. Only recently, James A. Baker's Iraq Study Group report described the way levels of violence in Iraq were grossly underreported by U.S. intelligence officials--in one case, only 93 "attacks or significant acts of violence" being officially recorded on a day when the number was well above 1,000. As the report politely summed up this particular fix-it-up methodology, "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."

But here's the thing: The Iraq Study Group, too--like every other mainstream gathering of advisors, officials, or pundits--"fixed" the intelligence. Think of the ISG as the clean-up-crew version of the Blue Team of Millennium Challenge 02. Before they even began, Bush family consigliere Baker and cohorts ensured that, while the ISG would be filled with notable movers and shakers from numerous previous administrations, no one on it, nor any expert "team" advising it would represent the one point of view that a majority of Americans have by now come to support--actual withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq on a set timeline.

You would not, for instance, find retired Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, the former Director of the National Security Agency, who has openly called for the U.S. to "cut and run" from Iraq, on the panel. Despite the report's harsh descriptions of the last three years of failed policy and some perfectly sane negotiation suggestions, it dismissed the idea of such a withdrawal out of hand--because such a dismissal was simply built into the group's very make up.

It turns out, of course, that when you control both sides of a war game or the range of opinion on a panel, you are assured of the results you're going to get. The problem comes when you only control one side of a situation; and when, as American commanders learned in the early days of the Korean War and again in Vietnam, whether due to racism or imperial blindness, you also discount and disrespect your enemies.

Unfortunately for the Bush administration, it turned out that, while you could fix the war games and the intelligence, you couldn't be assured of fixing reality itself, which has a tendency to remain obdurately, passionately, irascibly unconquerable. Yes, you could ignore reality for a while. (The President, when being told a few hard Iraqi truths in 2004 by Col. Derek Harvey, the Defense Intelligence Agency's senior intelligence officer for Iraq, reportedly turned to his aides and asked, "Is this guy a Democrat?") But you couldn't do it forever, not when the Lt. Gen. Van Ripers of Iraq refused to step aside and you weren't capable of removing them; not when you couldn't even figure out, most of the time, who they were. It was then that the fixers first found themselves in a genuine fix, from which none of Washington's movers and shakers have yet been willing to extract themselves.

For more on why the "withdrawal option" was off the table for the Iraq Study Group, check out Michael Schwartz's "Why Withdrawal Is Unmentionable" at Tomdispatch.com.

Health Scare, Democracy Scare

South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, reportedly recovering after brain surgery Wednesday, reminds Americans of one of the most troublingly undemocratic aspects of this country's uneven and often dysfunctional political process.

If Johnson is incapacitated, the decision about how to fill his seat will not be made by the voters of South Dakota but by one man: the state's Republican governor. And if, as is expected, that governor were to appoint a fellow Republican, control of the upper chamber of the Congress would turn on his whim.

Johnson, a Democrat who is in his second term, became disoriented during a conference call with reporters Wednesday. The normally sharp 59-year-old began stuttering in his responses to questions. He seemed to make a comeback, and returned to his Washington office. There, he appeared again to be sick and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Johnson was in critical condition early Thursday morning, after he underwent surgery. Dr. John Eisold, the Capitol physician, described what he saw as "the symptoms of a stroke," although that was not a final diagnosis.

For Democrats, who control the Senate by a 51-49 margin, however, the diagnosis was clear. If Johnson is incapacitated, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, a partisan Republican perhaps best known for signing the most draconian antiabortion law in the land, will be able to appoint a Republican to replace the Democratic Senator.

Rounds has a track record of using appointments to gain partisan advantage. In 2002, after a Democratic member of the South Dakota State Senate died, the Governor put a Republican in his place.

The appointment by Rounds of a Republican to Johnson's seat would saddle the Senate with a 50-50 split. That would give President Dick Cheney, who as the chamber's presiding officer is empowered to break ties, the authority to hand control to the GOP.

Cheney will do so.

Thus, if Democrat Johnson were forced to give up his seat, two Republican partisans, Mike Rounds and Dick Cheney, could overturn the decision of American voters on November 7 to hand control of Congress to the Democrats.

Under South Dakota law, the governor has the power to fill an open Senate seat and, according to South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson, there are no restrictions on such appointments. Thus, Rounds does not have to appoint another Democrat. Nor does he have to call a special election that, presumably, would be won by South Dakota Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth, a popular Democrat.

Though senators must be elected by the people in all states, when they are incapacitated during their terms they can be replaced in a variety of manners. Some states, such as Texas and Wisconsin, hold special elections to fill open seats--thus keeping decisions about who sits in the Senate with the people. Other states, such as South Dakota, allow a gubernatorial designation that is roughly akin to a royal appointment.

The United States should have a uniform system for replacing senators. The system should be democratic, placing authority in the hands of the electorate rather than a single man or woman. Instead, we have a lingering remnant of royalism--gubernatorial appointment--that could in this rare circumstance upset the will not just of the people of one state but of the United States.

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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into the intentions of the founders and embraced by activists for its groundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability. After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone political writer Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "John Nichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, The Genius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less with the particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and instead combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

DeLay Does Dems a Favor

Democrats picked up their 30th seat in the House of Representatives last night. In a major upset, Democrat Ciro Rodriguez defeated Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla in a runoff election in Texas's 23rd district. Rodriguez had previously lost two primaries to conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar, in '04 and '06. The third time around, he managed to defeat a conservative Republican.

In an odd way, Rodriguez has Tom DeLay to thank for his victory. DeLay controversially redrew the district in 2002, booting out 100,000 Hispanics to make it more Republican-friendly, giving Bonilla a safe seat. This summer the Supreme Court found that DeLay's scheme violated the Voting Rights Act and forced the state to include a larger Hispanic population, boosting the Democrats chances. When Bonilla failed to receive 50 percent of the vote in the November 7 election, he moved into a runoff with Rodriguez.

Democrats knew they had a strong pickup opportunity, albeit very much under the radar. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $1.5 million on the race. The National Republican Congressional Committee, by contrast, didn't drop a dime. Bet they regret that now.

Moreover, the election proved just how much the Tom Tancredo wing of the Republican Party turns off Hispanic voters. Bonilla was the only Mexican-American Republican in Congress--and an aggressive proponent of hardline immigration measures. This election, usually supportive Hispanic voters deserted him in droves. "Bonilla's loss last night confirms one of the Bush administration's greatest fears," the Hotline writes, "that a hard-line position on illegal immigration could cause Republicans long-term damage among the growing Latino vote."

Citizen Dreyfuss

Richard Dreyfuss stood before a packed community meeting in Martha's Vineyard last week and asked, "Where do we offer young people the chance to fall in love with America?" He insisted that he was "not speaking for Democrats, Republicans or anything else. [But] as an American who wants to hand to his kids the country he learned about." He then led a discussion on the importance of reviving civics education in our nation's public schools.

The man who once obsessively built clay models of a form that couldn't escape his mind, who warned locals on this same island of a killer shark roaming the waters offshore, who devoted himself to teaching music at the expense of his relationship with his hearing-impaired son... Those fictitious events were part of Dreyfuss's other life as an actor. But it is Citizen Dreyfuss who spoke at the community meeting--living what he calls "the second half of my life."

From the age of 12, Dreyfuss has wanted to do three things: be an actor, be a movie star, and be in politics. He says that four years ago, after he was fired from the London production of The Producers, he decided it was time to retire and do the third thing.

"I've been acting since I'm 12," he says. "I've been famous since I'm 25.... So, I just got really tired of it. After forty years, there are other things you love and want to spend time with.... I decided that instead of waiting to be rich enough to do whatever you want to do, you'll just do whatever you want to do and scramble around for the money."

What he wanted to do was enroll at Oxford University to study democracy. And he did. "I came there with a notion that I had tried to sell to Coca-Cola about ten years previously," he says. "That was to create a two-hour show for kids. The idea was the story of democracy as a biography like a Dickensian tale. Think of David Copperfield as Democracy, and it becomes immediately a more interesting story: born under perilous circumstances, raised without any love and affection--fragile childhood. Held in contempt, dismissed... surprising allies and surprising opponents. And then, out of nowhere almost, he prevails. And he not only prevails he becomes the system of choice--the most popular in England. But he carries within himself the seeds of his own destruction because that's what he sought. And I think that that could be a legitimate two-hour movie for TV, and never stray from the truth. And hook people on that story, and make them want to go even further."

But Dreyfuss found himself drifting towards political writers at Oxford and wanting to be in the classroom. And he was deeply distressed about the state of America's democracy.

"There is no serious place to discuss serious issues any more and that's a serious problem," he argues. "How do you discuss serious issues without the melodrama and all that stuff? Kids grow up thinking that shouting is the only way to discuss politics--that rumination and thinking things through is for sissies."

Dreyfuss says that the Framers felt that the people could be relied upon to maintain our system--they could be sovereign. But being sovereign required a thoughtful, intelligent, active citizenry. Dreyfuss believes that today we know so little about our system; even worse, we are taught so little about how to preserve and strengthen it. As he said in an interview on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, "If the people are sovereign, they are the monarch. Who tutors the monarch? Who trains and teaches the people to be sovereign?" Dreyfuss says that he became convinced "America was going to go by way of all the other leading nations which slipped up, kept hold of its documents which lost any meaning, and simply faded away...."

But at some point during his time at Oxford Dreyfuss found reason for hope. "I realized that all of the institutions are there," he says. "And it just takes the revivification of one or two of these places and the rest will follow." His original idea for the TV show began to morph into a civics curriculum--which he says is the teaching of the tools that are necessary to maintain our system of government--"the internal combustion engine and not the Porsche and not the Chevy." He says that these tools are "pre-partisan," and he defines them as reason, logic, clarity of thought, dissent, debate, and civility. Dreyfuss says that civility was the one "I thought I had to bury because I knew it was the biggest buzzword." But civility, he insists, is "the oxygen that democracy requires. Democracy is our willingness to share political space with those with whom we disagree. We need to share it with respect--letting [people] finish their sentences, not patronizing them, thinking things through, getting to know people. Otherwise we strangle on incivility."

Last summer, Dreyfuss and his longtime friend and Martha's Vineyard educator, Robert Tankard, spoke with the island's Superintendent, James Weiss, about teaching a new civics curriculum. They wanted parents, teachers, students, historians, and others to collaborate on it, use the Martha's Vineyard school system as a laboratory, and then offer it as a model for a national civics revival. Weiss said that if they could generate interest in the local community he would implement the classes.

"I never heard such a great offer in my life," Dreyfuss says. "It's the difference between walking and talking." And that's how Citizen Dreyfuss found himself talking civics with the community last week.

Dreyfuss spoke about the risk of doing nothing. Without doing the rigorous work, the training, and learning "the tools of democracy, we leave the running of our system to happenstance and luck. We can kiss it goodbye in the lives of my children and yours."

Dreyfuss found a receptive crowd. On the importance of civility an elderly man said, "You were born with two eyes, two ears, one nose, and one mouth. Use them in those proportions." Others complained of people "making up facts in order to win arguments." Or "bashing others to score political points instead of working to solve problems." They felt that civics education needed to start younger so that by the time people finished high school they were practicing citizenship rather than learning it. Historian Gordon Wood told the group, "We are a nation of immigrants.... What holds us together? It can't be Starbucks and McDonald's. That's why we go back to the Founders--equality, liberty, self-government.... If younger people don't know [this foundation], they will lose any sense of collectivity, identity as Americans." Sociologist James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, also participated in the meeting and called the teaching of civics "one leg of many in our culture to revive and renew us." A retired principal spoke of the obstacles created by No Child Left Behind--the forced focus on reading and math, and the consequent cuts to music, arts and other programs. "To be successful, we need to think of the whole child again," he said.

There was another target on the mind of Dreyfuss and many of the citizens at the meeting: the media, and especially television. (Dreyfuss calls television "possibly the worst thing that ever happened to us. I think it shortened our brains. I think it created road rage. I think it killed rumination. I think it allows us to think that we are discussing serious public issues when we're not. I think that it has become the place of serious public discussion of issues but it isn't. And it just passes for that.") He said that television is where we go for news information. It delivers information through image (rather than text) instantaneously, leaving no time for rumination. He cited 9/11 coverage as an example--the instantaneous images of the Twin Towers replayed over and over again--leaving room for nothing other than feelings of "grief and revenge." Dreyfuss believes television has caused us to reinterpret what makes a good politician (the image being more important than the text). He called people in the industry "like addicts--denying that a problem exists." Meanwhile, he says, we accept the medium as offering the same level of reflection and insight as reading and rumination. There was general agreement that we have lost our way in teaching young people to be critical thinkers and sort through the information industry.

As the meeting ended, Dreyfuss asked: "Are you in favor of teaching civics in American public schools?" He called for the nays and there was silence. Dreyfuss allowed it to linger. Finally, he asked for the yeas, and hundreds of people responded with enthusiasm. The contrast was striking, and Dreyfuss had clearly drawn on his skillful sense of timing to orchestrate the moment. Dreyfuss and Tankard had achieved their objective of demonstrating strong public support. Participants were invited to attend a follow-up session at a local high school the next day where the focus would shift to developing a pilot program.

After the meeting Superintendent Weiss said that there is an eighteen-month window of opportunity to revamp civics education on the island. The standardized testing in social studies for the state will be decided during that time period and curricula will be revised. He said that eighteen months was "just enough time" to succeed.

The next morning, Dreyfuss was pleased with the conference but also tired and frustrated as he reflected on the contributing factors that he perceives as threatening our system of government--a system he undeniably loves and is passionate about. He railed at a media that fails to demand the truth on the gravest matters of our time ("You want someone to say [to the President], 'Excuse me, you're full of shit, and answer the question.' And they don't do that"). He decried the infighting of the Democratic party ("Democrats eat their young") and the failure of the left to articulate a compelling case that people can rally around. He denounced Republicans for not being straight with people about what they stand for and why. He said that America has broken the hearts of young people and caused cynicism to be rampant among them. Dreyfuss believes that civics--despite what he calls its boring reputation--is the way young people can begin to have "a love affair with America."

Whether or not one agrees with Dreyfuss's critique of political culture, one thing is clear: He's not only talking the talk, he's also walking the walk--and demonstrating the kind of committed citizenship he espouses. How many Oscar-winners walk away from their profession to develop curricula ("The only time you'll ever see me in a movie or anything like that is when you know they paid me a billion dollars....")? To Dreyfuss, "representative democracy is as thrilling as anything Charles Dickens wrote and Alfred Hitchcock ever shot." It is both a thriller and a romance, and offers a narrative with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The beginning and the middle are history--and to Dreyfuss, the still open-ending begs this question: "What country do we want to hand to our kids?"

With reporting from Martha's Vineyard by Gregory Kaufmann, a Washington, DC-based journalist and screenwriter.