Politics, movements, new economies, culture and, on a good day, the nexus of the four.
A couple nights ago, insomnia led to channel-flipping, which led to an obscure B-movie called Ready to Rumble. The utterly forgettable wrestling flick had almost induced slumber when I heard one of the characters utter wisdom from an ancient martial arts master: “Always attack the man’s strength…. No one expects you to attack you at their strongest point, that’s where you can defeat them.” That phrase came roaring back to me in daylight hours yesterday when Mitt Romney surrogate John Sununu wished aloud that the president would “learn to be an American.” This offensive statement is the latest feint in the Romney campaign’s feeble attempt to execute the patented Rovian strategy reflected in the wrestling movie. Only Romney’s version is less ancient wisdom and more grade school taunt, “I am rubber, you are glue…”
Sununu’s attempted attack, steeped in birtherism and barely concealed racism, comes straight from Karl Rove’s playbook. Famous for aggressively going after his opponents’ strengths, Rove undercut John McCain’s unimpeachable status as a war hero by engaging in a whisper campaign asserting that McCain betrayed his country under torture and was unfit to lead as a result. Four years later, a paralyzed Democratic base watched in shock and awe when the Swift Boat Veterans launched a similar attack on John Kerry. No one anticipated a brutal blow on a decorated vet by a draft dodger.
But the Romney campaign’s attacks look less like the carefully crafted, strategic offensives that Rove is known for and more like the spastic flailing of a candidate desperate to deflect incoming blows to his own credibility. Already under scrutiny for the very charges he’s trying to glue to President Obama, Romney’s major achievement has been to drive home the belief that his attacks only hold up a mirror to his own weaknesses.
Weeks of unrelenting examination of Romney’s record at Bain Capital are taking a toll, according to analysts of both political persuasions. Newt Gingrich backers first aired first-person accounts by American workers who found their jobs axed and their communities decimated after acquisition by Bain. The Obama campaign takes up the drumbeat, and there seems to be an endless supply of folks who can trace their personal misfortune back to the robber-baron tactics of Romney-led Bain. Since not too many voters’ bucket lists include placing trust during a fragile economic recovery in a guy who made a fortune at the expense of Americans workers, Romney’s response was to lob a lame moniker at the president, calling him an outsourcer-in-chief. He didn’t even sound like he believed it would work as he was saying it.
That feeble attempt to undercut the president pales in comparison to John Sununu’s calling this president un-American. While such theatrics may satisfy the teeny percentage of birthers among the GOP ranks, most people read this attack in context of the vast disparity between the life stories of the two candidates. Romney’s privileged upbringing, which he parlayed into lucrative positions in management and private equity, catapulted him to wealth that makes him worth more than the last eight presidents combined. While a good “rags to riches” story is a mainstay of American cultural mythology, Romney’s story is noticeably absent of rags but is rife with whitewash to cover transgressions against the country he seeks to lead.
Americans—fatigued from far-right calls to release a much-examined birth certificate—are far more interested in why Romney steadfastly refuses to release his tax returns, despite even conservative outlets’ nearly begging him to do so. Speculation that Romney paid no taxes in 2009 feeds concerns of an electorate that this candidate has not shared the pain of this economic crisis. To make matters worse, Romney also spent the last week telling media outlets that Bain filings with the SEC placing him at the company in crucial outsourcing years are false. So either he lied to the SEC or he’s responsible for even more jobs being shipped overseas than previously believed.
Avoiding taxes, concealing documents, lying, destroying American jobs—these may be hallmarks of the 1 percent who place personal gain ahead of duty to country, but these are not elements of the American dream that most of us still aspire to. Those are found in President Obama’s story: born to a (mostly) single mom, raised by his grandparents, struggling to put himself through college. Despite the adversity, he managed to attend the best schools, gave back to his community and excelled at every undertaking. Those who want to believe in bootstraps need look no further.
None of this is to exalt a president who—while having achieved many things of significance—has also made strategic and substantive mistakes and struggles with some challenges of the office. But elections are ultimately about trust, and in such a scenario disappointment and human error will trump deeply flawed character every time.
Romney’s failure to grasp this critical difference has led him to make dizzying campaign errors. Far from executing on the Sun Tzu axiom “kill with a borrowed knife,” a k a use the enemy’s strength against him, his attempts to deflect have only magnified his own weakness. And in doing so, he’s inadvertently personified a different Sun Tzu axiom, “cornered prey mount desperate attacks.”
Mitt Romney escaped the record heat this weekend by attending several parties in his honor in the Hamptons. Early predictions were that one afternoon in this elite enclave would net the candidate more than $3 million for his campaign.
Less than 200 miles away in Philadelphia, where the median income hovers at $36,000 and a quarter of the city lives below the poverty line, there were no beach parties, but some disturbing news. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that state election officials upped the number of statewide voters potentially affected by the new voter ID laws from the 90,000 that Governor Corbett claimed to 758,000. A full 9.2 percent of the state’s eligible voters could be turned away from the polls in November, despite being eligible. In Philadelphia, where over half of the city’s residents are people of color, 18 percent of registered voters lack proper ID under the state’s new laws—laws that Pennsylvania House leader Mike Turzai claimed will deliver the state to Romney in November.
These twin anecdotes seem to perfectly capture the GOP 2012 plan for victory: “voters out, money in.” Despite the massive capital advantage the Republicans have accrued, they’re still driving a strategy of disenfranchisement and destruction that imperils our democracy and seeds distrust among a populace already experiencing record lows of confidence in their elected leadership.
Next week, pundits will be hyperventilating over the political fundraising totals from the last quarter. The cover of the Sunday NY Times Magazine breathlessly asks the rhetorical question, “Can Democrats Catch Up in the Super-PAC game?” Let’s get it clear: no, they can’t and no one ever claimed they could. But they also don’t need to—what they need is to raise some money, spend it smarter than their counterparts, and provide millions of people the legal means and the emotional desire to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The right understands this key to Democratic victory, which is why outraising is not enough. Victory requires dominating the system at both ends.
More than two dozen states have passed voter ID laws, with eleven passing in the last two years. Republicans, sensing the opportunity, have continually hyped the negligible threat of voter fraud in order to make voting tougher and tougher for the elderly, the poor, Latinos and African-Americans—all of whom tend to lean Democratic. Meanwhile, back in April, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave $10 million on one day to Romney Super PAC, Restore Our Future. Combined with $20 million to Newt Gingrich’s failed bid plus millions more to Rove and Koch brothers front groups, Adelson has given close to $60 million all told, and has stated publicly that he’ll spend up to $100 million to defeat Barack Obama.
What’s driving these actions at both ends of the spectrum is a mix of personal entitlement, business efficiency and good old-fashioned elitism, with a healthy dose of racism. Take Adelson: he’s in for high stakes because his personal stakes are high. He’s under investigation by both the Department of Justice and the Security and Exchange Commission for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) by paying off local officials and working with organized crime to further his gambling empire in Macau, China. The Obama administration has been diligent about prosecuting FCPA cases, while Adelson presumes the heat would be off under a Romney presidency. When you have $25 billion, what’s $100 million to secure your freedom?
Adelson also makes 90 percent of his earnings from his casinos in Macau and Singapore, a high number, but not unheard of for US companies operating abroad. Obama has promised to close the loopholes that allow these corporations to shelter earnings overseas, robbing US treasuries of billions in tax dollars. Preserving offshore tax havens is not the only place where donating big bucks to GOP Super PACs is a highly efficient business model. Mega-donors David and Charles Koch’s company, Koch Industries, spent a whopping $40 million on disclosed lobbying expenditures between 2008 and 2010. The price of a fundraiser in the Hamptons is peanuts compared to that tab. Between the tax plan and the estate tax, high-net-worth folks stand to save millions annually under Romney. The candidate himself would save almost $5 million per year under his own plan.
Apparently, when the stakes are this high, you don’t take chances. Hence, the full court press on disenfranchisement. In Florida, the GOP governor has been so intent on purging voter rolls of Latino-sounding names that the Justice Department filed an injunction and sixty-seven election supervisors courageously refused to implement the program until he proves his claims in each case.
Self-serving economics is a repugnant driver, but the psychology that allows lawmakers to deny fundamental rights to their constituents while their rank and file stand by is even more insidious. In a rare moment of honesty, a GOP donor that shelled out $25,000 to attend one of the Romney events yesterday had this to say to a LA Times reporter:
“I don’t think the common person is getting it,” she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. “Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them… But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies—everybody who’s got the right to vote—they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income—one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”
While it’s the money they flaunt, it’s the people they fear, a fact that would serve us well to remember as limited resources are spent in 2012 and beyond. As progressives work to protect the vote for every American citizen in the short term and to blunt the impact of big money on our democratic process, let’s not lose focus on long-term investments in our own not-so-secret weapon: the people—of all colors and ages, all incomes levels, in the cities and on the farms—that make this country great. When they all have a voice, we all win.
In perhaps the most highly anticipated decision of the Obama administration, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 today to uphold the individual mandate as constitutional. Justice Roberts, who sided with the liberals to tip the balance, voted to uphold the measure not under the Commerce Clause, as the Solicitor General had argued before the Court, but under the power of Congress to “lay and collect taxes.” The ruling surmises that the individual mandate amounts to nothing more than a tax charge levied on those free-riders who choose not to buy insurance and might otherwise end up sticking the rest of us with the bill.
How easy was that? No more arguments about the limits of Congress' power under the Commerce Clause or the merits of forcing broccoli on Americans. So why didn't the Obama Administration make the free-rider tax argument all along? Because to do that would be to admit that the President had proposed a new tax on Americans, even if only on the most irresponsible scofflaws among its ranks.
In a desperate attempt to salvage their political win, the minority argued in their dissenting opinion that even though the effect of the mandate is that of taxation, it cannot be upheld under that jurisdiction because the framers of the law used the “wrong label.” Just when you thought that conservative logic couldn't get more twisted, these judges “reasoned” that if the concerted anti-tax campaign was successful enough to force legislators to swap the word tax in order to sell a proposal, then they can't then have the protections associated with taxes. It's almost the legal equivalent to "you snooze, you lose!"
Confused? You’re not alone, since confusion is an intended effect of the linguistic gymnastics key to the right-wing’s win-at-all-costs game plan. But at least we can thank Chief Justice Roberts and the other four justices for striking a blow today for cognitive coherence. The Court affirmed by a razor-thin margin that a rose by any other name remains, constitutionally, a rose.
This comes as a blow to conservatives who, for years, have understood the power of language to shape reality. A nostalgic walk down memory lane of the healthcare reform fight is littered with catchy opposition phrases completely devoid of truth. Who can forget the summer of 2009 when town halls were filled with citizens terrified that Obama-appointed death panels would be administering their care if the bill passed? Anyone still have their “Obama lies, Granny dies” bumper sticker? Someone might want to tell Granny that it’s safe to come out of the basement now.
And how about that mandate that’s at the center of the frothing Tea Party rage? This “radical” initiative was introduced in 1993 by Republican Senator John Chaffey of Rhode Island as a means to undercut the employer mandate central to Hillary Clinton’s infamous health care proposal. Shifting the burden of responsibility from business to individuals proved to be such a popular conservative position that Mitt Romney made it the centerpiece of his Massachusetts healthcare reform bill. Rationally, Democrats assumed that Republicans would never attack their own idea. However, ever attuned to the power of language, Republicans made the "mandate" sound even scarier than a small tax applied to a few bad seeds.
Now that that the Court has ruled that mandate is the semantic equivalent to tax, the questions seem endless. Can we expect “no-tax Norquist” to withdraw support from the Republican presidential candidate who effectively raised taxes on Massachusetts residents when he signed RomenyCare into law? And was Romney lying to his constituents then, as Sarah Palin claimed that Obama is now in her tweeted response to the ruling?
@SarahPalinUSA: Obama lied to the American people. Again. He said it wasn’t a tax. Obama lies; freedom dies.
It’s worth noting here that what their side lacks in originality, they make up for in brevity, lyricism and consistency. Truth comes in a distant fourth in the Republican message hierarchy.
But this whole linguistic rabbit hole we find ourselves at the bottom of raises the question: why not just call the whole thing what it is? Given how much Americans tend to love tax breaks and how relatively few “free-riders” there are who would incur unsubsidized new taxes under Obamacare, what political cost calculation led to all the talk of a mandate and a commerce clause in the first place?
The answer lies in a decades-long war on taxes that has left Democrats paralyzed when faced with an advantageous opportunity to reclaim the term. Conservatives, well aware of their victory in this strategic front of the language war, use the weaponized word prodigiously. In 2009, a Democratic-backed (but really quite conservative) market mechanism to put a price on carbon and begin the slow process of mitigating the disastrous impacts of climate change was killed in Congress after being labelled “cap-and-tax.” Never mind that even more taxpayer dollars are going to fight unprecedented forest fires in Colorado or biblical-scale floods in Minnesota, both obvious effects of record heat and shifting weather patterns.
The full frontal assault on taxes was birthed by conservatives with an agenda to squeeze the life out of popular social spending initiatives in the latter part of the last century. Given how normative taxes were in American culture, the intellectual architects of the “Starve the Beast” strategy saw no way to force spending cuts without a high-profile campaign to destroy the funding mechanism. The fact that the Federal Treasury would be collateral damage was of no concern to these men, and any political consequence for an incoming Democratic administration was icing on the cake. George W. Bush’s deficit spending and casino style regulatory approach drove the American economy straight off a cliff after systematically dismantling the rescue squads. The subsequent mess is one that Republicans have delighted in watching Obama try to clean up, a task made even more impossible by Republicans who would rather see the economy destroyed than vote for an increase in tax revenue, even—or especially—on the country’s wealthy.
But the impacts of this scorched-earth campaign are ominously visible not only in a policy agenda skewed towards the 1 percent but also in newly embedded cultural norms. When fire services were rendered optional in rural Tennessee as a way to curb spending in 2011, many residents opted out. After all, who ever believes that their house will burn until the sparks start flying? But in at least two heart-breaking instances, firefighters were forced to sit by and watch as peoples’ homes burned to the ground because of unpaid fees. The parallels are strikingly similar to the conservative outcry against the healthcare mandate, without which we would be forced to sit idly by while people suffer. As I wrote last week here, Justice Scalia’s endorsement of the “let them die” faction of the tea party in the healthcare hearings gave judicial credibility to a fundamentally anti-American posture of indifference—a position reinforced by his dissenting opinion this morning. Do we really want to embrace an America where we watch our neighbors’ lives go up in flames?
Given all of this, the irony of this much-reviled three letter word offering a parachute for a plummeting healthcare initiative is not lost on this progressive. As millions sleep easier tonight as a result of this ruling, it’s important to remember a few lessons as we forge ahead: Obama didn’t kill your granny, freedom is not actually dead and constitutionally protected taxes can—and often do— create a stronger America. That may be language actually worth fighting for.
The Supreme Court's highly anticipated ruling on Obama's healthcare reforms could come any day now. Whatever the verdict, expect much ado about the hotly debated role of broccoli in healthcare and arcane explanations of the Commerce Clause that is at the center of the legal case against the individual mandate. But buried deep in hearings filled with legalese and judicial sparring was a short exchange that illuminates an American ideal that truly hangs in the balance with this decision—the idea that in a civilized society, we do not sit idly by and watch our neighbors die.
The specific back-and-forth in question occurred on the third day of the hearings between Justice Antonin Scalia and Solicitor General Donald Verilli, the administration official charged with defending the law in court. It went like this:
GENERAL VERRILLI: No. It's because you're going—in the health care market, you're going into the market without the ability to pay for what you get, getting the health care service anyway as a result of the social norms that allow—that—to which we've obligated ourselves so that people get health care.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Well, don't obligate yourself to that. Why—you know?
GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, I can't imagine that that—that the Commerce Clause would —would forbid Congress from taking into account this deeply embedded social norm.
JUSTICE SCALIA: You—you could do it.
If you are not a frequent watcher of the Court and therefore not fluent in the cadences of judicial banter, this short, seemingly banal interchange in an exhaustive debate may not have even registered. The “deeply embedded social norm” that Verilli refers to—in fact seems confused that he has to explain to Justice Scalia—is the norm that dictates that people will step in to aid others who are ailing or in danger of death.
Scalia's statement that “you could do it [defy these norms]” eerily evoked the appalling moment at the September 2011 Republican presidential debate when the audience wildly applauded Wolf Blitzer's stunned probing of whether candidate Ron Paul would allow a 30-year-old uninsured man in a healthcare emergency to die. “Yes!” shouted unashamed audience members, turning a presidential debate into something reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum. When Justice Scalia argued against the social norms that Verilli was presuming sacrosanct, he was essentially saying, “Let him die!”
While we've grown to expect this kind of mob mentality from a radical right wing whipped up in a Tea Party frenzy, this bizarre display of indifference from a Supreme Court Justice breaks new ground in an evolving culture that seems to prize resistance to any and all government over the compassion that is the essence of civilized society. The right screams often and loudly that President Obama has declared war on the Judeo-Christian underpinnings they hold as American as apple pie. But in fact, it is Justice Scalia, from his exalted perch, who appears intent on vacating the Golden Rule and undermining the parable of the Good Samaritan, both core to Christian theology.
Scalia doesn't come into oral argument all secretive and sphinxlike, feigning indecision on the nuances of the case before him. He comes in like a medieval knight, girded for battle. He knows what the law is. He knows what the opinion should say. And he uses the hour allocated for argument to bludgeon his brethren into agreement.
Scalia, ever the showman, joked during the March hearings that having to read the entire healthcare law in order to rule on it would amount to cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Constitution. At the same time, he displayed an egregious ignorance regarding which provisions in the bill actually passed. And on the final morning of arguments, Scalia laid his cards on the table when he argued that stripping out the individual mandate would cause the whole law to topple.
The mandate, more descriptively titled the “free-rider clause,” fines uninsured individuals who expect taxpayer-supported emergency services to cover calamities that befall them. It is also the component of the reform that allows insurance companies to affordably cover those with pre-existing conditions. Cutting the mandate, Scalia mused, cuts the heart out of the entire reform and would almost certainly kick the whole matter back to a gridlocked Congress, while millions of lives hang in the balance.
A recent Pew poll shows that approximately 83 percent of Americans are affiliated with an organized faith, be it a form of Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, Hinduism or Buddhism. A whopping 78.4 percent of us fall somewhere in the Christian camp. Yet, it is core Christian values that are currently on trial at the Supreme Court.
Perhaps this emotional dissonance is what drives a new poll from the New York Times that shows that only 44 percent of Americans approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing. Once a venerated institution that seemed immune to the partisan squabbles of the other branches of government, the Court has consistently displayed its corporate and right-wing allegiances in decisions that span from 2000's Bush v Gore when it picked our president and irrevocably altered the course of history (Scalia later told Americans to “get over it!” when asked about the decision) to the 2009 Citizens United decision, the impact of which is being felt acutely this election season. Now, 75 percent of Americans say that the Justices' political preferences motivate their decision making on the bench.
When healthcare reform passed in 2010, the United States ranked dead last among similar countries in a study comparing cost and quality of healthcare. America consistently spends twice as much for lesser care than its industrialized allies. While the Affordable Care Act left some of the best solutions on the table, it offers real hope to the one in four American adults that go without healthcare each year due to job transitions or other circumstances. So many of our neighbors live in terror that a single unexpected calamity will drive their family into bankruptcy spurred by emergency medical bills. Now, when the verdict comes in, those fellow Americans can add a new fear to their list: that a Conservative Catholic Supreme Court Justice will lead the charge to let them die.
Last weekend, the annual Netroots Nation conference in Providence, Rhode Island, drew 2,700 progressives to discuss the state of the movement. Since the event fell two days after Governor Scott Walker won his recall election in Wisconsin, I expected a collective mood approximating either a massive group therapy session or a giant wake. I found neither. The political challenges were apparent, sure. The “Bold Progressive 99% Candidates” panel was supposed to feature two bold progressives, Lori Saldana and Eric Griego, who lost their primaries to more centrist candidates. And while some respected elected officials were in the proverbial house—Senator Sheldon Whitehouse held court in the bar after speaking about the perils of Citizens United, while earlier Elizabeth Warren wowed from the main stage—there was none of the craziness of the 2007 Netroots Nation when all eight Democratic candidates for president made almost-mandatory pilgrimages to Chicago to court the powerful base of bloggers and activists and get an edge in the long race ahead. Instead, there were multiple panels on Occupy, art in every hallway, an amazing TED-style Ignite session from participants. Netroots Nation 2012 seemed to reflect a growing progressive sentiment that favors sass over suits and an emphasis on power building over power wielding.
In the hallways and in the twittersphere, a handful of folks bemoaned the absence of administration heavyweights as evidence of disrespect for the base, and some of the press used the conference to drive that now familiar storyline. Digging deeper though, the back-to-basics energy that pervaded the conference felt refreshing to most attendees. Rather than racing between keynotes dominated by political rockstars, participants lingered over panels doing deep dives into policy or skill shares on social media. Less Democratic Party participation left room to elevate emerging movement leaders, like Ai-Jen Poo from National Domestic Workers Alliance and Becky Bond from CREDO Action. The thousands of conversations elicited some common themes on lessons learned and moving forward. Here are five of my top points; I'd love to hear yours in the comment section below:
A powerful movement is defined by values, not tactics. Occupy. Consumer Boycotts. Shareholder Activists. Netroots Progressivism. While some argue these are independent movements; I see them as different tactics in a singular movement committed to economic opportunity, social and political equity, and environmental sanity. Despite having experienced a growth decade in the progressive political power due to the emergence of online communities, the national political sector is often the lagging indicator in social change. Does that mean we abandon the electoral playing field? Absolutely not. Groups have been and will continue to be active in primaries and general elections this year. But it does mean it's time to put resources into other sectors that build power towards our ultimate goals. The Stop Rush campaign has alerted political activists to the power of the pocketbook to stop hate speech and ChangeToWin has invoked the wrath of the Wall Street Journal for its effective shareholder organizing. Trayvon Martin's murder united progressives around the need for racial justice and The Advancement Project is organizing that energy to fight voter suppression campaigns that keep people of color out of politics. Embracing a values-based definition of the progressive movement and resourcing strategies accordingly will allow us to control more levers and win more victories.
Impact is impact: embracing progressive entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurship is exploding. From energy efficiency giant O-Power to peer-to-peer car-sharing platform Relay Rides, private ventures with a social mission are having great impact on everything from consumption to community-building and often outpace their non-profit brethren in measurable gains. And while these folks are everywhere from the Young Global Leaders table at the World Economic Forum to the pages of Fast Company, they are often nowhere to be found at progressive political gatherings. It's time to stop divining whether the motivation of profit-driven ventures are pure and to start evaluating these folks on their impact. An effective progressive movement needs like-minded business to stand with us against corporate co-option of our government.
Winners practice multidimensional chess. The right sees a win as a win as a win. A state win or a local win is as good as a national one; a partial win may not be good enough, but heralding it shows the momentum and power of the movement. Progressives are notoriously short on elevating local and state candidates, even though those actors may be able to maintain a progressive posture better than the national ones. There exists good infrastructure to identify and support candidates to build our bench, including Progressive Majority and the New Organizing Institute, but until we learn to use national bully pulpits to herald these up-and-comers, we unnecessarily limit the narrative of our own victories and the power-building that comes with it.
Claim victory early and often. The right, amazingly, even sometimes counts losses as wins. While the personhood amendment in Mississippi failed late last year, its backers helped succeed in moving the conversation from access to abortion to access to contraception, something they clearly consider a victory. As progressives, we are slow to claim victory—even when it is real—for fear it might communicate to those in power that we are wholly satisfied and to those on the sidelines that we don't need their help. But momentum generates more energy, not less and more energy can create greater change.
Microtargeting is for voters, not movements. It is high time that we stop using the words “online” and “off-line” in front of organizing. Organizing is organizing. Netroots are grassroots. Many organizers and funders who share the analysis that we are losing have an inclination to go back to what they know best — funding direct service and traditional Alinsky-style organizing. I fear this future. While service providers are absolutely critical in addressing immediate need, they alone will never be able to alleviate the inequality that plagues our nation. And no one refutes that traditional community organizing will always have lessons to teach us about building power. Still, there's no going back to the 1990s. Community organizers are wired now and mobile platforms represent the best hope of engaging anyone under thirty. Only when we lose the artificial distinctions will we fully embrace our power and the possibilities of a united cohesive movement.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
There is a disease spreading across our political punditry, and the beloved mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, seems to have contracted it. On Sunday’s Meet The Press, Booker disavowed the new ad campaign attacking Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, and in doing so, compared the Obama team’s decision to air the ads to the right-wing invocation of Reverend Wright to take down the president. Booker released a retraction video hours later, but the incident indicates just how advanced the sickness of false equivalence is in our national dialogue. The plague has now infected a normally sharp public official unlikely to confuse a thinly veiled racist play against the first African-American president with an examination of the economic track record of his challenger.
I’m as much a Cory Booker fan as the next populist progressive. I’ve watched with bemusement as his social media presence has made him a superhero, able to plow driveways in biblical snow storms and tweeting as he goes door to door during hurricanes to protect his constituents. His larger-than-life persona went stratospheric last month when he rushed into a burning building to save a woman trapped by the flames. But Cory, while you had me at your first hashtag, you lost me yesterday when you uttered these words:
“This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides,” [Booker] said on Meet the Press. “It’s nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity. Stop attacking Jeremiah Wright. This stuff has got to stop.”
In an effort to appear objective in a political climate anything but, talking heads now feel the need to utter a Democratic offense in the same breath as a Republican offense. But I’ve got news for them: when the offenses don’t line up—as they often don’t these days—these folks don’t sound objective, they sound like lunatics.
Mitt Romney is running as CEO-in-chief of a country starved for jobs. His economic record is central to his candidacy by his own design. The ads in question feature workers from factories destroyed by Bain Capital challenging Romney’s model for job creation. In an election where the economy and jobs lead voters’ concerns by double digits, a candidate’s history as an industrial titan is not only germane but crucial to decision-making. Obama’s team are hardly the first people to think so; Winning Our Future, the Sheldon Adelson–backed Super PAC, launched the mini-documentary King of Bain, widely credited with helping win the South Carolina primary for Gingrich.
This line of inquisition simply does not equate to using a preacher’s old inflammatory statements as an attack on the president’s patriotism. Even the previous Republican challenger understood the immorality of stoking racism as a path to the Oval Office.
But unchallenged false equivalence in our media and from our politicians is at epidemic proportions. A few cases in point:
In March, after the release of Game Change—the movie depicting the train wreck that Sarah Palin made of the McCain campaign in 2008—McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt defended himself on Morning Joe by claiming that both parties choose unqualified candidates for vice president. He compared John Kerry’s choice of John Edwards as vice president in 2004 to McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, saying both were ill-suited to run the country. Schmidt is a Republican operative with self-interest in playing down the Palin decision, so we might forgive him the transgression. But NBC Chief Correspondent Andrea Mitchell—guest on the same show and the epitome of establishment media—was quick to affirm Schmidt’s assessments of the two candidates. Not a single guest made the obvious point that Edwards was a respected senator with thoroughly vetted policy positions whose character flaws would not be revealed until years later. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, was virtually unknown and her lack of knowledge on even basic policy issues would have become clear in the most basic interview of a rigorous vetting process.
Earlier this month, one of Politico’s premiere political reporters, Manu Raju, stated in an article about Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s frustration over gridlock in the Senate that the filibuster is a tool that has been employed with growing frequency by both parties over the years. Raju’s history book seems to begin in 2009 when the threat of filibusters by the Republicans shot up to more than double that of their Democratic counterparts in previous years.
More insidious is the February column by Washington Post analyst Ezra Klein that claimed that “politically motivated” shifts on issues by both parties undercut any ideological meaning of “left” and “right.” By making this sweeping conclusion, Klein ignores the body of evidence that shows distinctly different motivations for the examples he uses. Democrats have consistently shifted position in an effort to compromise with Republicans—being lambasted by their base for doing so—and move legislation forward. Republicans have shifted position to stake out increasingly extreme positions that will drive government out of business. In conflating the two, Klein misinforms readers about the nature of the political dysfunction in our country and makes it that much harder to fix it.
The problem of false equivalence is so rife in our country that the president dedicated a chunk of his speech at the Associated Press luncheon in April to the issue. While it doesn’t rank explicitly on the list of voter concerns, this habit contributes to the high rates of American distrust in the news media. The American people are smart enough to know when a commentator or anchor holds an opinion and forgiving when this is made apparent. Attempts to cover up personal bias with false equivalence does not make one objective, but it does make one complicit in obscuring the dynamics of that lead to political gridlock and an unresponsive democracy. I’d expect Cory Booker, who’s built his entire political career on being responsive, to be immune to such an affliction.
A flag announcing the IPO of Facebook flies next to the American flag outside the offices of J.P. Morgan in New York City, New York, May 4, 2012. REUTERS/Lee Celano
When it was revealed last week that Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin renounced his US citizenship, even notorious bad-boy billionaire Mark Cuban took to Twitter to express his disgust. The move allows the 30-year old Saverin to avoid paying a significant chunk of the taxes he will owe on the windfall coming his way with the impending Facebook IPO. In making this decision, the Brazilian native did more than expose his blind disregard for all that his adopted country has done for him. He has made himself the poster child for the callous class of 1 percenters who are all too happy to use national resources to enrich themselves, and then skate, or cry foul, when asked to pay their fair share. The story evokes the image of the marauding aliens from the movie Independence Day, who come to Earth to take what they can get before moving on to another planet.
Saverin, who stands to make billions from his 4 percent share in Facebook, hastily moved here at the age of 13 when his name turned up on a list of potential kidnap victims targeted by criminal gangs in Brazil. His father was a wealthy businessman, with a high profile in their home country, and so his family relocated to Miami to protect the youngster. Eduardo thrived in his new country, eventually attending Harvard University, where he had a stroke of life-changing luck when he was assigned future Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a roommate. Their subsequent struggle over the company has been immortalized in the blockbuster Academy Award–winning film, The Social Network, which portrayed Eduardo as an outsider within the close-knit circle of friends, who eventually only won his stake in the company through a lawsuit based on an early investment in the company.
Writer Farhad Manjoo does an excellent job at pandodaily identifying all the ways that young Eduardo’s years in the United States played a role in the financial bonanza he’s about to experience. Starting with the obvious protection from kidnapping that wealthy people generally enjoy here in the United States all the way through the reasonably functional US court system that awarded him the shares that are about to make him a billionarie, this country played a critical role in this young man’s life. In return, Saverin has decided to relocate to Singapore, where he’ll pay no capital gains taxes on any Facebook shares he sells in the future. In fact, he’ll only pay an “exit tax,” which will be determined by his own team’s estimated value of his net worth at the time he renounced his citizenship. This little move could cost the US Treasury as much as $600 million dollars. That’s a novel way to thank your adopted country.
Saverin exemplifies the spoiled 1 percenter who erodes the fabric of the country that afforded such opportunity by not paying back the investment America made in him. His decisions are a slap in the face of every person who recognizes that, to be a place that can facilitate the birth of new innovations like Facebook, the United States needs resources. Doubt that? Remember what government funded the research that created the Internet and the web? Harvard University, where the Facebook plot was hatched, took in almost $700 million in federal grant support for tuition and research last year alone. But Saverin’s decision is even more insulting to the millions of his less wealthy fellow immigrants who work hard to gain the privilege of giving back to the country that affords them opportunity to pursue their dreams in relative safety. Not to mention the DREAMers who offer to fight and possibly die for the country that they yearn to make their own.
Saverin aside, immigrants add an enormous amount to our economy every year. Despite right-wing rhetoric, even undocumented workers pay plenty of taxes too, including not only sales taxes but often payroll taxes. A study from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy showed that undocumented immigrants paid over $11.2 billion in taxes in 2010, including income, property and sales taxes. Immigrants are also disproportionately entrepreneurial. A long-term study in 2008 showed that immigrants are almost 30 percent more likely to launch a small business than their non-immigrant counter parts. Their aggregate total contribution to the business income of the US economy is over 10 percent. In some places like Long Island, they account for upwards of 16 percent of small-business profits. Most of these immigrants see paying taxes and generating income as an opportunity to reinvest in the country that extended a hand to them and their families. Not so Saverin.
This week we’re going to be overrun with stories about the Facebook IPO and the instant billionaires that it creates. It is the kind of economic fairy tale we love to pore over, with the enigmatic Zuckerberg ready to pay over $1 billion in taxes while asking the board to slash his salary to $1 annually. In the midst of this, Saverin’s craven selfishness will help us rethink not only enforcement of our tax code but also how we recognize and define loyalty and patriotism for all of us, immigrant and native-born, who call America home.
“We must reconnect the people to the political process and their government.… Let’s pass campaign finance reform and let’s do it this year.”
These words, uttered by Governor Andrew Cuomo at his State of the State address in January, could have been discounted as a rhetorical nod to a base issue by a Democratic governor a year into his four-year term. That’s the risk of a system where money in politics feels as pervasive as sand on the beach: its ubiquity creates a dangerous inertia that prevents citizens from seizing real opportunities for change. But thanks to a coalition of New Yorkers dedicated to elevating and actualizing Governor Cuomo’s pledge, this year could not only rewrite the rules in New York but also change the risk calculation on engagement for the entire country.
As the Supreme Court has chipped away at the protections in McCain-Feingold (a k a the Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act) and Citizens United has opened the flood gates to corporate money in the political system, the collective frustration has risen to an astonishing 83 percent of Americans who believe that there’s too much money in politics. But despite the rare across-the-board consensus, federal policy solutions have been at a standstill. The vicious cycle that gives rise to big-money candidates has produced overwhelmingly negative incentives to stepping out on government accountability. That gives wealthy and corporate interests a virtual lock on the status quo.
New York’s public finance legislation, if it comes to a vote in June, could be the beginning of the end of that dynamic, which is why it’s worth exploring the key elements that make this issue viable again.
First off, the people: grassroots groups in New York have joined with two key constituencies to force a new equation on legislators—high donors and business interests. On the forefront is the New York Leadership for Accountable Government (NY LEAD), a coalition of philanthropic luminaries and high-dollar contributors. With marquee names like media-mogul Barry Diller and Facebook founder Chris Hughes as the face of the effort, this is the first credible wedge of political donors on the issue of campaign finance reform. NY LEAD brings much-needed resources to the fight, but its real value is in breaking the psychological paralysis of politicians convinced that action equals electoral death. Real money backing reform candidates forces a new position on the issue.
Similarly, the early endorsement of the Committee on Economic Development (CED) was a key win for the fledgling campaign. The CED is a policy think tank backed by senior executives at a number of Fortune 500 companies. The group is actively encouraging business leaders to join the coalition, proactively blunting the hollow cries of the right that an accountable government is anathema to business interests.
The ground troops include MoveOn.org, Public Campaign, New York Citizen Action and some of the state labor unions. An organizer I spoke with said that’s been the key to getting traction on the ground—an unprecedented partnership between good-government groups and constituency-backed organizations. Together, they are singularly focused on getting their elected officials on the needs of New Yorkers over the needs of their campaign coffers. Theirs is a high-risk, high-reward strategy: double down on the systemic overhaul and getting other vital issues addressed will be vastly easier.
One of our best hopes to nationalize this effort is the presence of progressive hero and reform champion Senator Russ Feingold, who is engaged individually and through his new group Progressives United. Senator Feingold’s strict adherence to his principles in 2010 by not allowing outside money in his race may have cost him an election, but it won him the undying gratitude of a movement starved for leaders. He laid out the opportunity at hand in New York Daily News op-ed last week.
If played well, the New York campaign offers three huge advantages to the 83 percent of Americans desiring more democratic elections.
Modeling of solutions. A successful campaign needs a proof of concept to garner resources and interest. If the public funding legislation passes in New York, we’ll have a legislative blueprint in place for the rest of the country. A victory in New York also begins dismantling psychological and cultural obstacles to action nationwide. New York ranks among the loosest states in the nation when it comes to campaign finance laws. Individual donors can give more than $60,000 to candidates in state-wide races. That’s more than twelve times the median cap of $5,000 by other states with limits! In 2011, just 127 individuals gave more than a third of all money collected by in state candidates and political parties. New York is awash in money, and Albany has sometimes made Washington look like a paragon of virtue. Successfully implementing a democratic election program in New York would effectively topple the excuse for not doing so anywhere else in the country.
State strategies. The effort in New York is part of a growing trend of savvy progressives treating state and local fights as part of our overall battlefield. With the federal Congress at a virtual standstill and confidence in their ability to move legislation at an all-time low, litigating this issue at the state level is not only a smart way to move towards a more democratic system, it may be the only way for now. The right wing has been adept at exploiting this tactic: look at how the Mississippi personhood initiative or the Alabama hate laws have catapulted fringe positions to the national spotlight. Because the desire to end pay-to-play politics is as mainstream as those are marginal, advances in New York could spread virally to other states and force federal movement more quickly.
National momentum. One of the toughest challenges to mounting a real campaign around money in politics is a common sense of futility about the closed-loop relationship between large donors and elected officials. Inertia is the enemy of reform, but a visible campaign in New York will provide new hope and opportunities for engagement. The campaign builds on the fall success of Occupy Wall Street that both revved up a dispirited electorate and irretrievably linked economic inequality to political inequality. Citizens United made the corporate co-option of our democracy impossible to ignore, and frustration and discontent are a tinderbox waiting to explode. When asked by e-mail why Americans should tune into what’s happening in the Liberty State, Senator Feingold said this: “New York can ignite a movement. A victory there will set a nationwide example for how public financing can combat the corrupting influence of corporate money.” In other words, the next couple months in one state could determine whether there’s sufficient momentum to keep this issue in the spotlight through 2012 and lay the groundwork for a concerted push towards federal reform in 2013.
The stakes are high. In that very same State of the State address, Governor Cuomo noted that New York’s voter turnout in the 2010 midterms was the lowest in the nation. It is possible that as the chief executive of his state, he has realized that his government is on the brink of crisis due to collapse of participation. Or maybe he thinks like many Democratic leaders that the system is so out of whack, he doesn’t stand a chance at re-election without substantial reform. Either way, Cuomo is poised to step into the leadership vacuum and provide a rare glimpse of hope on a mission-critical progressive priority. Let’s all pay attention.
As someone lucky enough not to have an underwater home, I have had the luxury of not needing to learn the all the gory details of our broken housing finance system—full of undecipherable acronyms and the minutiae of regulation and arcane policy. So, I admit that I have only loosely been following the situation since the $25 billion fraud settlement between the big banks and the state attorney generals was announced.
But my curiosity was piqued again this week when I got an e-mail from CREDO Action protesting new information that the task force established to investigate what went wrong never received the staff that it was promised. And while the source of the hold up is unclear as is exactly how many staffers have been assigned, what is becoming clear is that even the promised fifty-five investigators would be ill-equipped to achieve its goals. That news got me wondering where things stand more generally with task force, lauded by progressives and homeowners alike when it was announced back in January.
In a recent NPR interview, William Black—the former litigation director for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board—pointed out that a hundred investigators were employed to get to the bottom of the Enron scandal ten years ago. That was a single company, and now we’re talking about delving into multiple business sectors to determine accountability and criminal wrongdoing in this crisis. For a more apples-to-apples comparison, the thousand-strong force investigating the Savings and Loans crisis in the 1980s returned a thousand felony convictions. The economic impact of the mortgage crisis is estimated to be forty times worse than the S&L debacle, and yet this under-staffed investigation has only been able to uncover enough evidence for ten convictions.
CREDO’s petition asking President Obama to staff up the task force well beyond the original promise has already yielded over 100,000 signers and over 1,100 calls to Obama For America headquarters, and I’m told CREDO has not even contacted all their members yet. This level of engagement is an indication that others like me who tune back in to find expectations unmet will have a strong response. Notably, a response that has the potential to trump queasiness progressives have about criticizing a Democratic president in an election year. But also a responding audience that clearly wants to use the instruments at hand to create a win for all involved.
One unintended consequence of the establishment of the task force is that many Americans felt like they could rest easy that justice was underway. Part of this feeling stemmed from the clear engagement of President Obama in his State of the Union address and part stemmed from the reputation of strength and integrity of the chair of the body, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Given the massive entrenched interests of the banks and the hyper-partisan political landscape, though, it appears that allies in government will need a strong outside consituency to make progress on this issue. Not doing so would be a huge missed opportunity for our economy and millions of Americans still waiting for relief.
The Campaign for Fair Settlement, of which CREDO is a part, was formed to do just that—keep pressure on the various enforcement mechanisms for resolution and to make sure this issue doesn’t fade from view. The loose coalition is showing signs of ramping up activities in the coming weeks, including planned direct actions at bank shareholder meetings. It appears that the CREDO petition was just a shot across the bow.
The reasons for acting with speed and strength are clear and compelling:
1. The Moral Imperative: Americans are sick of seeing bankers go free while they foot the bill. The underwater mortgage holders are the living example of a values system out of whack. They live in limbo, or worse, while the banks that partnered with them on these mortgages and then forged documents to illegally foreclose get bailed out with homeowners’ tax money and let off with a small fine. And justice is an hourglass with the sand running out. The statute of limitations on most of these cases is up soon, so swift action is required if criminal penalties are forthcoming. Claims that the taskforce is itself running out the clock will certainly have more resonance as time goes on.
2. The Economic Imperative: Unresolved mortgages are a huge drag on economic recovery. The International Monetary Fund, hardly a bastion of progressive economic policy, just released a report demonstrating the positive economic benefits of mortgage write-downs. Simply put, when American homeowners are not trapped in debt, they buy more things from American businesses, who then hire more American workers. In the 1930’s the Roosevelt Administration faced a similar crisis. It formed the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) to buy distressed mortgages from banks and then worked with homeowners to prevent default and eviction. The report cites this move as contributing to getting the economy back on track, not to mention keeping people in their homes. In the end, the HOLC even turned a profit. We still have time to learn from the successful models of history. If even just Fannie and Freddie committed to real principal reduction, some experts say this would be enough to tip the entire housing market towards recovery and have a positive domino effect on the economy at large.
3. The Political Imperative: If none of those reasons are enough, a glance at the politics of the situation should motivate even the most hard-hearted political operative to action. As Mike Lux put it in his excellent Daily Kos piece last week, there are 11 million underwater homeowners. This is an important constituency in a close election. Many of these folks were already among the swing voters hungrily pursued by each campaign, and if they were not before, they are now mad as hell and looking for some answers from their elected officials. If the situation remains stagnant, some of these homeowners will certainly vote for the other guy, desperately hoping for anything but the status quo. Some disillusioned Democrats may just not vote. Add to this the clear signs that the base is deeply invested this issue, and you can see how effective action could be a political game changer.
It’s not accurate to say that nothing has happened. Right after the task force was formed, Eric Schneidermann unleashed a flurry of subpoenas, and shortly thereafter, the small initial settlement was announced. Last month, I attended a press conference on the Hill as a representative for Rebuild The Dream, on whose board I serve. The event brought together advocacy groups and members of Congress to ask that Ed DeMarco be removed as head of FHFA, where he continues to block settlements and write downs for mortgages held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The administration has not moved to replace him, but has shown signs of pressuring DeMarco to take action. This is good and should be lauded.
Actions to date still fall short of the huge opportunity to do right by homeowners, help the economy and win the hearts and minds of a depressed electorate in a critical year. Many Americans felt like the formation of the task force was a genuine beginning of a new era of much-needed accountability in this country, not a one-off gesture to quell frustration. I believe that there are people inside the administration and the task force that really want to fight this fight. Let’s hope that the Campaign for a Fair Settlement gives them the fire they need to make the task force’s investigation, and principal reduction, the priority it should be. The political and economic alternative is unacceptable.
Bill Maher spent a significant portion of last Friday’s Real Time defending Rush Limbaugh. Well, not defending the man, whom he calls repulsive. And not defending Rush’s statements over the last few weeks, which he vehemently objected to on both political and rhetorical grounds. But Maher defended Rush’s right to say those things, invoking free speech and the ACLU, and in the process missed the point completely.
Maher proclaimed that efforts to pressure Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors amounted to an illegitimate attack on his freedom of speech, and that the advertiser campaign is an example of “the system being manipulated.”
Unsurprisingly, the right-wing press wasted no time in broadcasting triumphantly that even lefty pundits recognized that the real victim here was Rush.
Let’s get this clear: Rush is not a martyr for the cause of free speech. Nor have his First Amendment rights been violated in any way since the day he chose to call a Georgetown law student a “slut” for arguing that contraception should be covered by health insurance. For starters, violating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action. Rush has not been jailed for his views, nor has anyone even whispered a suggestion to that effect. There have been no calls for his radio transmitter to be jammed. No one is even demanding he be fined, which might be possible under the FCC’s arcane and arbitrary decency laws.
Instead, what his critics are doing is exercising one of their own fundamental American rights, their right as consumers to frequent the businesses they choose. This is not actually a constitutional right, but for Americans who may feel their right to vote doesn’t amount to much, our right to spend our money as we see fit affords us some additional measure of self-determination.
In the modern world of consumer defined identity, we use this power of the pocketbook for far more than satisfying visceral needs. Our shopping preferences have become clear signifiers of our values and our character. Any Branding 101 class teaches that values alignment is a key driver of consumer loyalty. Many companies have spent millions of dollars winning and retaining customers through value-based brand strategies. Shop at Whole Foods? Might as well scream “I care about the Earth!” (Or just carry your recycled Whole Foods shopping bag to scream it for you.) Apple user? Obviously hip, tech-savvy and cutting edge. Munching on some Newman’s Own cereal? Clearly someone who cares about philanthropy and your health. It’s a perfectly reasonable way to build a customer base. But it makes these companies responsible for upholding their end of the bargain.
In response to Rush’s ranting, no one has called for our government censorship. People have merely vocalized their desire not to be associated with companies that associate with Rush. Those associations risk reflecting on our values, which—in this case—so drastically diverge from his that we care enough to change our choices over it. There are no issues of law or free speech here. This is simply the marketplace doing its thing, shaping both our commerce and our culture by reflecting shared agreement on conduct and conscience.
By conflating this economic feedback loop with Rush’s right to free speech, Bill Maher played into a right-wing canard, misinterpreted the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment, and did himself and his viewers a disservice. In order to uphold the First Amendment, which is very important, it helps to know what it means. It does mean that Rush should not be censored for his views by the government apparatus. His opinions should not be criminalized, nor should his business be shut down by an arbitrary panel of judges empowered by the State. But nowhere in the Constitution is Rush, or anyone else, guaranteed the right to be shielded from popular outrage if he chooses to engage in hate speech, misogyny or slander. Advertisers who exercise their preference to support Rush do not have a right to retain customers angered by this decision. Above all, Rush is not guaranteed an enshrined right for the private sector to pay him for his outrageous behavior even if it costs them customers. His hate cannot and should not be forcibly subsidized.
Advertiser campaigns are hard to run and hard to win. I wrote about this when Lowe’s dropped the show All American Muslim. Companies weigh vocal customer concern against the backlash of a decision that could be perceived as political. At the end of the day, successfully attracting the attention of a business and changing their position on an ad buy carries a high threshold for action. Rush Limbaugh’s three-day tirade against an innocent woman expressing her own political views met and surpassed that threshold. His language made business leaders uncomfortable and supporting him risked their market share. That’s why the show has lost forty-six advertisers.
These kinds of consumer campaigns have become the embodiment of democratic principles in a country where consumer choices matter and the government is more and more influenced by corporations, rather than the other way around. The power of the pocketbook has the wonderful potential to crowd-source our cultural norms. The last two weeks have shown just how far outside of our cultural norms Rush resides.
That does not mean he should shut up. He should keep on speaking his beliefs. The First Amendment guarantees him the right to say whatever he likes. It does not guarantee him the right to be paid to say it. And the sooner Bill Maher and others get this right, the stronger our democracy will be.