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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Dickens Was Right: the Real War on Christmas is the War on the Poor

British actor Albert Finney as Scrooge (AP Photo/Staff/Dear).

These are Dickensian times, when charity is rationed by politicians and pundits callously dismiss the poor as a burden best forced by hunger to grab at bootstraps and pull themselves upward.

Charles Dickens wrote of such times in 1843.

But surely he would have recognized 2014, a year that began with the Congress of the wealthiest nation in the world locked in debate over cutting funds for nutrition programs that serve those who are in need. The cuts were approved and, as the year progressed, so there came the announcements that tens of thousands of Americans would no longer have access to food stamps.

Food stamp cuts in a land of plenty are just one measure of the cruelty of the moment. There are also the threats to cut benefits for the long-term unemployed and to restrict access to welfare programs, which come even as Congress delivers another holiday-season “wish list” to the banking behemoths that have figured out how to crash economies and still profit.

Dickens captured the essence of our absurd times more than a century and a half ago with his imagining of a visit by two gentlemen, “liberals” we will call them, to a certain conservative businessman:

“Scrooge and Marley’s, I believe,” said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Marley?”

“Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years,” Scrooge replied. “He died seven years ago, this very night.”

“We have no doubt his liberality is well-represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentleman, presenting his credentials. It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality,” Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when want is keenly felt, and abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned— they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides— excuse me— I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned.

So Dickens began A Christmas Carol, a book very much in keeping with the radical tenor of a time when the world was coming to recognize the truth that poverty and desolation need not be accepted by civil society— or civilized people. The language employed by Scrooge was not a Dickensian creation. Rather, Dickens engaged in a sort of reporting on the political platforms and statements of those who opposed the burgeoning movements for reform and revolution that were sweeping through Europe as the author composed his ghost tale.

Ultimately an optimist, Dickens imagined that spirited prodding from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future would change Scrooge— just as there are those today who imagine that a bit more enlightenment might cause even the most predictable plutocrat to reconsider his disdain for the unemployed, the underemployed and the never employed.

In Scrooge’s case, a little otherworldly pressure did the trick.

After his unsettling Christmas Eve, the formerly conservative businessman hastened into the streets of London and rather too quickly for his own comfort approached one of the two liberals:

“My dear sir,” said Scrooge, quickening his pace, and taking the old gentleman by both his hands. “How do you do. I hope you succeeded yesterday. It was very kind of you. A merry Christmas to you, sir!”

“Mr. Scrooge?”

“Yes,” said Scrooge. “That is my name, and I fear it may not be pleasant to you. Allow me to ask your pardon. And will you have the goodness”— here Scrooge whispered in his ear.

“Lord bless me!” cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. “My dear Mr. Scrooge, are you serious?”

“If you please,” said Scrooge. “Not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favor?”

Dickens tells us Scrooge was frightened into such humanity, But also that he was filled with delight as he prepared to open his wallet in order to “make idle people merry.”

The poor were suddenly the miser’s business.

And, notes Dickens: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” Indeed, “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

So it is in this season, as it was in the winter of 1843. The debate goes on, in much the same language Dickens heard more than a century and a half ago. The poor are still with us, as are the Scrooges. We’d best bless them all, with hopes that one day we will, all of us, keep Christmas well.

Thank Postal Workers by Fighting to Save the Postal Service

USPS van

(Elvert Barnes, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Postal workers, mail handlers, letter carriers and rural carriers will process and deliver more than 15.5 billion packages, letters, and parcels this holiday season. It’s intense, demanding, long-hours, late-night and weekend work that keeps the promise of a robust national Postal Service outlined in Article 1 of the United States Constitution.

There is something profoundly wrong—not to mention profoundly absurd—about the notion that any federal official would abandon that promise and the workers who keep it.

Yet that is precisely what is happening. Even as United States Postal Service employees get the job done, with a better track record of care and efficiency than private competitors, the postal service itself is under attack. Pressured by extreme demands from Congress and hamstrung by outdated restrictions on how it can operate, the USPS faces financial challenges that are real—but those challenges can be addressed with relative ease. Unfortunately, instead of taking steps to ease the burden it created (with a 2006 requirement that the service prefund retiree benefits for the next 75 years), Congress ignored the issue. The House and Senate passed a “CROmnibus” spending bill packed with giveaways to Wall Street, big banks and big corporations and then quit town.

Congress failed to take what the unions representing postal workers identify as the most necessary immediate step to aid the postal service: initiation of “a one-year moratorium on a reduction in service standards and plant closings.” Congress also failed to reach an agreement on a stand-alone postal bill.

Now, argue American Postal Workers Union leaders, “The situation is urgent because the lower service standards are scheduled to take effect on Jan. 5. In addition to disrupting the lives of thousands of postal employees whose work assignments will be changed, the reduction in service standards will slow mail throughout the country and virtually eliminate overnight delivery of first-class mail. It also will set the stage for the closure of 82 mail processing plants.”

That’s a view shared by other major unions that have been working with APWU—the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union and the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association—to save the postal service. The unions have won strong support from community groups across the country, from national groups such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and from responsible members of Congress—51 senators and 178 representatives have backed a moratorium on closures and cuts.

Yet Congress continues to fail Americans who rely on the service and the communities that will be rocked by the planned closures.

“It’s an outrage,” says APWU president Mark Dimondstein. “Eight years after Congress ginned up a fake financial crisis for the Postal Service, its members still refuse to take even the smallest steps to prevent a major hit on this great national treasure.”

The fight is not done, however.

The Postal Service still has genuine advocates in Congress—led by Senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, John Tester, D-Montana and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, and House members Pete DeFazio, D-Oregon, and Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin—who are fighting to prevent closures and cuts. When Congress returns in January, it could still intervene. And the USPS could, and should, delay devastating assaults on the USPS infrastructure and on the workers who maintain it.

Help The Nation to raise $150,000 by 12/31 and to keep delivering our progressive reporting to over 500,000 readers every week.

“We strongly urge the USPS to delay implementation of any mail processing consolidations until feasibility studies are completed and there has been adequate time for public comment and consideration of those comments,” a bipartisan group of senators wrote in a December 1 letter to Postal Service officials. “Completed feasibility studies should include service standard impacts worksheets based on the revised service standards expected to be published on January 5, 2015. There is no reason that the USPS cannot delay its consolidations to provide time for the public to see and comment on the service standard worksheets. It is only fair to allow the process to unfold in this way, and the USPS gains little by deciding to continue the consolidation process on its current, arbitrary timeline.”

The senators are right.

The United States Postal Service is an American treasure that we should all appreciate this holiday season.

For Americans who hope to appreciate the service next holiday season, however, now is the time to thank postal workers by fighting to save the Postal Service.

 

Read Next: John Nichols on what Bernie Sanders and Dwight Eisenhower have in common

Postal workers, mail handlers, letter carriers and rural carriers will process and deliver more than 15.5 billion packages, letters, and parcels this holiday season. It’s intense, demanding, long-hours, late-night and weekend work that keeps the promise of a robust national Postal Service outlined in Article 1 of the United States Constitution.

There is something profoundly wrong—not to mention profoundly absurd—about the notion that any federal official would abandon that promise and the workers who keep it.

Yet, that is precisely what is happening. Even as United States Postal Service employees get the job done, with a better track record of care and efficiency than private competitors, the postal service itself is under attack. Pressured by extreme demands from Congress and hamstrung by outdated restrictions on how it can operate, the USPS faces financial challenges that are real—but those challenges can be addressed with relative ease. Unfortunately, instead of taking steps to ease the burden it created (with a 2006 requirement that the service prefund retiree benefits for the next 75 years), Congress ignored the issue. The House and Senate passed a “CROmnibus” spending bill packed with giveaways to Wall Street, big banks and big corporations and then quit town.

Congress failed to take what the unions representing postal workers identify as the most necessary immediate step to aid the postal service: initiation of “a one-year moratorium on a reduction in service standards and plant closings.” Congress also failed to reach an agreement on a stand-alone postal bill.

Now, argue American Postal Workers Union leaders, “The situation is urgent because the lower service standards are scheduled to take effect on Jan. 5. In addition to disrupting the lives of thousands of postal employees whose work assignments will be changed, the reduction in service standards will slow mail throughout the country and virtually eliminate overnight delivery of first-class mail. It also will set the stage for the closure of 82 mail processing plants.”

That’s a view shared by other major unions that have been working with APWU—the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union and the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association—to save the postal service. The unions have won strong support from community groups across the country, from national groups such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and from responsible members of Congress—fifty-one senators and 178 representatives have backed a moratorium on closures and cuts.

Yet Congress continues to fail Americans who rely on the service and the communities that will be rocked by the planned closures.

“It’s an outrage,” says APWU president Mark Dimondstein. “Eight years after Congress ginned up a fake financial crisis for the Postal Service, its members still refuse to take even the smallest steps to prevent a major hit on this great national treasure.”

The fight is not done, however.

The Postal Service still has genuine advocates in Congress—led by Senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, John Tester, D-Montana and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, and House members Pete DeFazio, D-Oregon, and Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin—who are fighting to prevent closures and cuts. When Congress returns in January, it could still intervene. And the USPS could, and should, delay devastating assaults on the USPS infrastructure and on the workers who maintain it.

Help The Nation to raise $150,000 by 12/31 and to keep delivering our progressive reporting to over 500,000 readers every week.

“We strongly urge the USPS to delay implementation of any mail processing consolidations until feasibility studies are completed and there has been adequate time for public comment and consideration of those comments,” a bipartisan group of senators wrote in a December 1 letter to Postal Service officials. “Completed feasibility studies should include service standard impacts worksheets based on the revised service standards expected to be published on January 5, 2015. There is no reason that the USPS cannot delay its consolidations to provide time for the public to see and comment on the service standard worksheets. It is only fair to allow the process to unfold in this way, and the USPS gains little by deciding to continue the consolidation process on its current, arbitrary timeline.”

The senators are right.

The United States Postal Service is an American treasure that we should all appreciate this holiday season.

For Americans who hope to appreciate the service next holiday season, however, now is the time to thank postal workers by fighting to save the Postal Service.

 

Read Next: John Nichols on what Bernie Sanders and Dwight Eisenhower have in common

What Bernie Sanders and Dwight Eisenhower Have in Common

Senator Bernie Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Dwight Eisenhower was right when he warned at the close of his presidency about the development of an American military-industrial complex, as most everyone in the United States and around the world is now well aware.

Eisenhower was also right when he warned at the opening of his presidency about the danger posed by the bloating of military budgets.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” the newly inaugurated commander-in-chief told the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in April 1953.

“This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people,” Eisenhower explained, as a president who also happened to be a retired general. “This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

The cross of iron has grown a good deal heavier with the passage of time, as a United States Congress that argues about whether the country can afford to pay for Food Stamps and nutrition programs just approved a Department of Defense bill that authorizes $585 billion in Pentagon spending for the 2015 fiscal year. If history is any indication, the actual spending total will turn out to be a good deal more than that once all the supplemental appropriations have been added.

“The United States spends more on its military in absolute terms than any other nation on earth,” notes Germany’s Deutsche Welle. “In 2013, the US spent $640 billion on defense, followed by China with $188 billion and Russia with $88 billion, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.”

The US spending tends to be approved with very little of the questioning that Eisenhower encouraged. In the House the vote to approve the latest Pentagon plan was 300-119. In the Senate, it was an even more lopsided 85-11.

And a number of the latest “no” votes came from Republicans—such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz—who were griping about a provision that designated new national parks and wilderness areas,

But Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders cast a “no” vote on what might reasonably be described as “Eisenhower principles.”

“I am voting no because I have very serious concerns about our nation’s bloated military budget and the misplaced national priorities this bill reflects,” explained Sanders. “At a time when our national debt is more than $18 trillion and we spend nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, the time is long overdue to end the waste and financial mismanagement that have plagued the Pentagon for years.”

Sanders, who is set to take over as the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, is making an argument for cracking down on budgeting abuses that the Pentagon that liberals and conservatives ought to be able to respect.

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“The situation is so absurd that the military is unable to even account for how it spends all of its money,” says the senator. “The non-partisan watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, said ‘serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense made its financial statements un-auditable.’ ”

That does not make Sanders anti-defense. It makes him a senator who is willing to call out waste, fraud and abuse—and to apply the standards that Eisenhower proposed.

“I support a strong defense system for our country and a robust National Guard and Reserve that can meet our domestic and foreign challenges,” argues Sanders. “At a time when the country is struggling with huge unmet needs, however, it is unacceptable that the Defense Department continues to waste massive amounts of money.”

Read Next: John Nichols on why Dick Cheney is wrong about the torture report

VIDEO: Elizabeth Warren Blasts Citigroup From the Senate Floor

(AP Images)

Elizabeth Warren delivered a “Cross of Gold” speech for the twenty-first century as the Senate wrangled over the $1.1 trillion “Cromnibus” spending bill that keeps the government open in return for putting taxpayers on the hook for the next bailout of the nation’s biggest and most irresponsible banks.

While the Senate ultimately said “yes,” it is Warren’s loud “no” that can and should serve as an echo of the past in the future;

“The American people are disgusted by Wall Street bailouts,” thundered the senator from Massachusetts, who spoke with bluntness rarely heard on the Senate floor—or in modern American politics.

Ripping Citigroup by name for its practicesand for its influence on Democratic administrations and the Democratic Party—and by extension addressing all of the banking behemoths that have whined about even the mild regulations contained in the Dodd-Frank legislation enacted after the Wall Street meltdown of 2008—Warren announced: “I agree with you Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces!”

Warren’s words were not enough to prevent passage of the combined Continuing Resolution and omnibus spending bill that Washington dubbed “Cromnibus.” After the House narrowly approved it Thursday night, the Senate on Saturday gave a 56-40 authorization to the measure that guts bank regulations in a way Warren says will “let derivatives traders on Wall Street gamble with taxpayer money and get bailed out by the government when their risky bets threaten to blow up our financial system.”

But the measure of a Cross of Gold speech is never made in the moment.

The original Cross of Gold speech by William Jennings Bryan at the Democratic National Convention of 1896 secured the party’s nomination for the Nebraska populist who upset the political calculus of his day by arguing that the party must stand against economic elites and declare, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” But Bryan’s words did not win him the presidency in that year’s campaign or in the succeeding campaigns of 1900 and 1908.

Bryan’s accomplishment was the transformation of a Democratic Party that had been in the service of the elites into a populist force that gave the United States a new politics. That new politics turned even Republicans—like Bryan’s 1900 foe Teddy Roosevelt—into trust-busting regulators. And out of that new politics would eventually come an economically- and societally transforming New Deal.

This is the big ticket.

This is what really matters.

One speech is never enough. One candidate is never enough. Before real change comes, politics must matter—clearly and unequivocally for all Americans. And before politics can matter, parties must define themselves as more than mere treasuries for corporate campaign donations.

Warren’s speech has already renewed speculation about the prospect that she might reconsider her decision to refuse a run for the presidency in 2016. If she were to run, it is not unreasonable to suggest that she could scramble every expectation. In these times, when change comes dramatically faster than in the past—for worse and for better—perhaps she could win the nomination. Perhaps she could win the presidency; against most of the potential Republican nominees in 2016, she would be widely recognized as the voice of reason.

But what matters most for the future is that prospect of the broader transformation of a party and a politics. That is what we remember William Jennings Bryan for today—when we forget so many other Democratic and Republican nominees of the ancient electoral past. Only by remaking parties and politics does it become possible for a president, any president, to remake government policies.

Principles, passion, populist fury when it is called for: this is what sets the stage for real change. And this is what Warren was offering Democrats and American when stormed the Senate to declare,

Enough is enough.

Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch. Enough is enough with Citigroup passing 11th hour deregulatory provisions that nobody takes ownership over but everybody will come to regret. Enough is enough.

Washington already works really well for the billionaires and the big corporations and the lawyers and the lobbyists.

But what about the families who lost their homes or their jobs or their retirement savings the last time Citigroup bet big on derivatives and lost? What about the families who are living paycheck to paycheck and saw their tax dollars go to bail out Citi just six years ago?

We were sent here to fight for those families. It is time, it is past time, for Washington to start working for them!

DC Voted to Legalize Marijuana. Congress Should Not Overrule It.

Marijuana store

Marijuana retail store in Colorado (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

There is every good reason for members of Congress to vote against the continuing resolution that has evolved into a $1.1 trillion, nine-month omnibus spending bill—“Cromnibus” is Washington-speak.

As it currently stands, the measure includes a rewrite of rules for derivatives trading that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren says “would let derivatives traders on Wall Street gamble with taxpayer money and get bailed out by the government when their risky bets threaten to blow up our financial system.”

It includes another provision that rewrites campaign-finance rules so radically that Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer says would, if enacted, be “the most destructive and corrupting campaign-finance provisions ever enacted by Congress.”

It reworks pension rules in a way that Teamsters President James Hoffa says could “slash the pensions of thousands of retirees who worked years for a pension that they thought would provide them financial security in their retirement years.”

But even if this measure did not include that fiercely wrongheaded provisions, it would still deserve a “no” vote because of its direct assault on democracy.

In November, the District of Columbia voters chose by a 70-30 margin to permit marijuana to be consumed and grown in Washington.

That was hardly a radical move. The proposal had broad support from legalization advocates, criminal-justice reformers and local officials. And, of course, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have all backed similar measures.

Unfortunately, because the District of Columbia is not a state, and because some members of Congress are determined to oversee it with all the flexibility of King George III’s oversight of the colonies, the omnibus bill will, if passed, overrule the will of the people of Washington.

A provision added the hastily cobbled together and minimally debated measure would, according to The Washington Post, “[prohibit] the District from using any of its own funds or federal funds to enact or implement drug laws that are weaker than federal ones, which still classify marijuana in the most dangerous class.”

In other words, because of congressional meddling, the voters of the District of Columbia could be denied the ability to govern their own affairs in a way that voters in every state are allowed to do.

This is, as The New York Times notes, an example of “the ‘plantation’ oversight powers long exploited by Congress to checkmate home rule in Washington.”

The District of Columbia should be a state. If it was, Congress could not meddle quite so crudely as it has with local democracy.

But, until that statehood step is taken, responsible members of Congress must recognize and respect that an omnibus spending bill that overrules the will of the people of America’s capital city is entirely unacceptable.

This is not a local issue.

This is an American democracy issue with national consequences—especially at a time when so many popular initiatives are being threatened with pre-emption by right-wing and corporate interests operating at the state and national levels.

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DC council member David Grosso and other local officials are precisely right to urge Americans to tell their representatives to take a stand for democracy and refuse to back an omnibus bill that thwarts the will of DC voters.

“Members of Congress of both parties are willing to sell us down the river to get some of their priorities through,” says Grosso. “Hopefully, people will stand up this time and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”

 

Read Next: John Nichols on how Congress cooperates in the service of corporations

Why Dick Cheney Is Wrong About the CIA Torture Memos

Dick Cheney

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The Senate Intelligence Committee had to release details on its multi-year investigation into how, under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the Central Intelligence Agency employed tactics that the world understands as torture. A decision to sit on the findings of what the 500-plus-page summary of the report begins by describing as a “brutal” and “flawed” program that was “in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values” would have put senators who are elected to serve and advance the public interest at odds with a basic American premise: the idea that a government acting in the name of the American people must regularly seek and obtain their informed consent.

This premise does not deny the necessity of action in an emergency. Nor does it require consultation so constant or picayune that all flexibility would be lost. But it does expect that officials can and shall be honest with the American people about long-term initiatives, about accepted tactics and about the values that guide this country as it engages domestically and internationally. In particular, it expects frankness and cooperation in interactions with the Congress that the people elect to check and balance the executive branch.

The Bush-Cheney administration did more than simply abandon this premise.

As Arizona Senator John McCain said, in defending the release of the report, the CIA interrogation program as it operated during the Bush-Cheney years "stained our national honor, did much harm, and little practical good."

With Cheney taking the lead, the former administration aggressively and repeatedly rejected the principles of transparency and accountability that are essential to maintaining not just national honor but meaningful democracy. And the assault continues, as Cheney, in particular, maintains the pattern of denial and defense that characterized his tenure as the most powerful—and secretive—vice president in American history.

Without reading the Senate Intelligence Committee’s lengthy summary, or the broader 6,000-page study that has not been made public because of what’s been described as “a prolonged tussle between the CIA and the committee over how much of the material should be classified,” Cheney was already attacking it. With his typical combination of bombastic aggression and refusal to face the facts—especially when those facts reveal the extent to which his own statements have been untrue—Cheney on the eve of the summary’s release decried the study as “a bunch of hooey.”

Cheney rejects what CNN describes as “the central conclusion” of the study: “that CIA employees exceeded the guidelines set by Justice Department memos that authorized the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and that the agency misrepresented to Congress and the White House what it was doing.”

“The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program,” claims Cheney, choosing, as he did throughout his vice presidency, to dismiss actual information in favor of a personal narrative where he is always right.

Doubling down in defense of what can only be described as “Cheneyism,” the former vice president is justifying waterboarding and other tactics as “absolutely, totally justified” and claiming that those who engaged in tactics that have long been identified as torture “ought to be decorated, not criticized.”

Presumably, Cheney includes himself on a longer list of those deserving decoration, as he boldly declares, “If I had to do it over again, I would do it.”

It is this overarching arrogance that has consistently put Cheney at odds with American ideals and American values regarding transparency and accountability. Even with the passage of time, even in the face of carefully gathered and carefully examined facts that suggest his own past statements were not just wrong but deliberately deceptive, the former vice president will not accept, let alone respect, any questioning of his absolute authority.

When he left office in January, 2009, Cheney’s approval rating was just 13 percent.

Now Cheney expects his fellow Republicans to embrace not just his sweeping rejection of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s majority report, but to his broader approach. Some are already following the former vice president’s lead—despite the irony of having complained so loudly (and sometimes appropriately) about a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the Obama administration. They are wrong to do so.

It needs to be understood, by people of all partisanships, that Cheney really is the outlier here. As difficult and challenging as a moment like this may be for Republicans and for some Democrats, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill is correct when she says, “This is a gut-check moment for our democracy.”

“The world knows we tortured,” explains McCaskill. “But does the world know yet that we’ll hold up our values and hold our government accountable?”

Going back to his days in the Nixon White House, and certainly during his time as the Reagan administration’s chief defender during the Iran/Contra inquiry, Cheney has rejected accountability and transparency. Indeed, he has for so long been so over-the-top in this regard that the opposite of the set of values mentioned by McCaskill is best understood as “Cheneyism.”

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There are Republicans who have rejected “Cheneyism”— not least McCain, who on Tuesday, announced "the truth is a hard pill to swallow (but) the American people are entitled to it."

More Republicans need to step up in defense of transparency and accountability, recognizing the wisdom of the Republican leader who best explained the necessity of transparency and accountability.

It was not a liberal Democrat, but rather a retired general, Dwight Eisenhower, who counseled the American people to always remember that “only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

 

Read Next: After fearmongering kills the NSA reform bill, what’s next?

Bogus Bipartisanship: Congress Cooperates in the Service of Corporations

US Capitol

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The problem with bipartisanship as it is currently understood is that, for the most part, cooperation in Congress serves the elites that already are living large thanks to federal tax policies that redistribute wealth upward.

That was certainly the case this week, when the US House voted 378-46 for the so-called “Tax Increase Prevention Act.”

Hailed by politicians and pundits as an example of Congress coming together to get something done, the measure—which still must be considered by a somewhat skeptical Senate—is better understood as a glaring example of what it wrong with Washington.

“There are a lot of things that Congress didn’t get done in the last two years,” explains Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who cast one of the lonely “no” voters in the House. “The fact that this was a priority of this leadership at this point shows just how broken this Congress is.”

The measure seeks to extend many of the most absurd tax breaks enjoyed by multinational corporations in a way that Congressman Keith Ellison says “gives away too much to big business, while doing little to help working families make ends meet.”

“The bill is full of deficit-financed corporate giveaways that won’t stimulate the economy or help working Americans,” notes Ellison, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “The bill retroactively restores the bonus depreciation tax break, which doesn’t increase economic growth because it helps companies pay for equipment they’ve already purchased. It also costs $1.49 billion. The active financing exemption allows companies to keep a huge amount of profits overseas and costs $5 billion. The bill also provides tax breaks for motorsports tracks such as NASCAR ($33 million) and racehorses ($45 million).”

The “bonus depreciation” merits special attention.

Georgetown University law professor David A. Super refers to that particular corporate tax break as a “license to steal”—because it “allows a business to pretend that its buildings and equipment wear out far faster than they actually do.”

“As economic stimulus, bonus depreciation does not work. Studies of a similar measure enacted to combat the 2001 recession found that only a tiny minority of businesses even considered the new tax benefit as an important factor in making investment decisions,” explains Super. Yet, he adds, “The cost [of bonus depreciation is] staggering: nearly $300 billion over the next decade, more than three times what we spend on nutrition supplements for pregnant women, infants and young children. That would wipe out roughly one-third of the deficit reduction from higher tax collections from the wealthy as a result of last year’s ’fiscal cliff’ deal.”

Only the most sold-out, corporate-hack Republican could back such a fundamentally flawed scheme, right?

Think again.

Of the 378 “yes” votes for the House measure, 202 did come from John Boehner’s Republicans. But the remaining 176 “yes” votes came from Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats.

Of the forty-six “no” votes, twenty-sixwere cast by Republicans—some libertarian-leaning foes of crony capitalism, others trickle-down zealots who would do even more for corporations and mega-rich CEOs. The twenty Democrats who opposed the measure pretty much make up the caucus of House members who actually get that something is very wrong with an economic calculus that says the richest individuals and corporations in America should be first in line for government assistance.

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Compromise-prone Democrats tried to argue that they had to back the measure because it extended some programs that benefit working Americans. However, Pocan explains, “almost all of the significant tax extenders were going to corporations, not to working people. And they were retroactive. You couldn’t even argue that they would create jobs—except in the last two weeks of the year.”

Ellison’s assessment was that “the bad clearly outweighs the good in this bill.”

“The bill passed [December 3] does little for working families, but lots for corporations already booking big profits,” added Ellison. “Too many Americans are working in jobs that don’t sustain their families. Nearly 75% of the tax breaks in the package will make their struggle to attain the American Dream even tougher.”

Read Next: John Nichols on the bold economic agenda to transform politics

Bernie Sanders’s Bold Economic Agenda Seeks to Transform Politics

Senator Bernie Sanders

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will “make a decision within the first few months of 2015” on whether to bid for the presidency of the United States. It is not certain that he will run. And, if the independent senator from Vermont does decide to run, he says he has yet to determine precisely how he might do so: as a challenger to presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination or as an insurgent independent taking on both major parties. Sanders has in recent months spent a good deal of time in the first caucus state of Iowa and the first primary state of New Hampshire, and he acknowledges that this has stoked speculation that he is likely to go the Democratic route. He also declares, “I will not play the role of a spoiler”—tipping a fall 2016 race to a right-wing Republican. Yet, the senator expresses deep frustration with the failure of the Democratic Party to adopt positions that are sufficiently progressive and populist to build a movement to change the debate and the direction of the country.

Sanders explained in an interview with The Nation that he is convinced, after visiting not just Iowa and New Hampshire but Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Carolina, Mississippi, California and other states, that “there is a real hunger in grassroots America for a fight against the greed of the billionaire class, which is wrecking havoc on our economic and political system.”

At the same time, like many progressives, he is unsettled by the inability of Democratic leaders and the party establishment to channel that anger into political action—as Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman once did.

“This country faces more serious problems today than at any time since the Great Depression,” says the senator. “We have already, in the midterms, gone through an election where there was no substantive debate about the most important issues, which is why you have, I think, the lowest voter turnout since 1942. The idea that we could go through a presidential election, where you have all these right-wing Republicans on one side talking about their issues and then, within the progressive community, not to discuss issues like the collapse of the middle class, the growth in poverty, the fact that we’re the only country in the industrialized world without a national healthcare program…not to discuss climate change when the scientific community tells of that we have a short window in which to address it; not to discuss these and other issues would, I think, be horrendous for this country. Absolutely horrendous.”

Always uncomfortable with political discussions that get bogged down by process and personalities, Sanders does not spend time bashing Clinton or other prospective contenders. He rejects the narrow constraints of horserace politics and asks the essential question: “Do we have a desperate need for a candidate, or candidates, to be representing the middle class and the working class of this country, standing up to the billionaire class, raising issues that are never talked about here in Congress, or in the media? The answer is absolutely, absolutely yes. But the other side of the equation is, if you do have that candidate—myself or anybody else—doing that, you have to figure out and be certain that you can run a strong and effective campaign.”

Such a campaign cannot be built around traditional fundraising or name recognition calculations, says the senator, who argues that, “We are in a new order right now, new territory, in terms of Citizens United [and money in politics]. It is my full expectation that, within a few months, the barrage we saw during the [2014] campaign will return. No one should think that these ads are going to be on three months before an election anymore. I suspect they will be on eleven months or a year before [the 2016 election]. That’s the new politics. And these people [billionaire donors who fund the ads] have—and I use the word advisedly—unlimited sums of money. They will do everything they can [to determine what] the issues are; they will make horrendous attacks against anybody who stands up to them.”

And Sanders does not believe that the media will effectively check and balance what progressives of another era referred to as “the money power.”

“I can tell you from personal experience: I get on TV a lot. It is very hard for me to fight through the questioning and to actually talk about policy issues,” he says. “There is a real prejudice and a desire not to talk about the collapse of the middle class, about the level of poverty in this country, about income and wealth inequality. They don’t want to talk about that; they want to talk about anything else—to make it into a personality match: ‘What do you think about Hillary Clinton?’—rather than ‘How do we help the middle class? How do we deal with income and wealth inequality?’ ”

In the new money and media order, Sanders acknowledges, “there are some people who are arguing that it can’t be done anymore, that you cannot defeat the billionaire class. What you have is a situation where the Koch brothers and others will be supporting a set of candidates, and then the opponents of them—in order to get half the money that the Koch brothers have—are going to have to reach out to if not the billionaire class, then the multimillionaire class. And what’s left for working people?”

What’s left, Sanders suggests, are the ideas, the issues that have in the past and might again inspire mass movements. If there is a prospect for galvanizing a movement to change the politics and the governance of America, it rests not in the processes of petty politics but in the process of framing agendas that are bold enough to make working people believe again in the necessity of voting.

So Sanders is getting the discussion going. Whether he runs for the presidency or not, he is getting specific about the issues that the senator says need to be at the center of the debate in the new Congress and on the 2016 campaign trail.

This week, Sanders took to the Senate floor to outline a twelve-point economic program that challenges both major political parties and the process itself. No one who has followed the senator’s career doubts that he would prefer to begin implementing the agenda now. But no one who knows the math of the incoming Congress, and the current disconnect between debates in Washington and the real issues facing America, doubts that a lot about our politics must change before a progressive populist economic agenda is approved by the House and Senate.

So, when Sanders talks about his program, he is really talking to the American people—as a senator and as a prospective presidential contender, but perhaps most of all as an old-school organizer—about what voters can and should demand from their government

To that end, Sanders argues that the United States ought to

* Invest in our crumbling infrastructure with a major program to create jobs by rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, waste water plants, airports, railroads and schools.

* Transform energy systems away from fossil fuels to create jobs while beginning to reverse global warming and make the planet habitable for future generations.

* Develop new economic models to support workers in the United States instead of giving tax breaks to corporations which ship jobs to low-wage countries overseas.

* Make it easier for workers to join unions and bargain for higher wages and benefits.

* Raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour so no one who works forty hours a week will live in poverty.

* Provide equal pay for women workers who now make 78 percent of what male counterparts make.

* Reform trade policies that have shuttered more than 60,000 factories and cost more than 4.9 million decent-paying manufacturing jobs.

* Make college affordable and provide affordable childcare to restore America’s competitive edge compared to other nations.

* Break up big banks. The six largest banks now have assets equivalent to 61 percent of our gross domestic product, over $9.8 trillion. They underwrite more than half the mortgages in the country and issue more than two-thirds of all credit cards.

* Join the rest of the industrialized world with a Medicare-for-all healthcare system that provides better care at less cost.

* Expand Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and nutrition programs.

* Reform the tax code based on wage earners’ ability to pay and eliminate loopholes that let profitable corporations stash profits overseas and pay no US federal income taxes.

Sanders does not suggest that this is the whole of a progressive agenda. What matters, he argues, is framing a deeper and more serious debate. The senator believes that speaking clearly and boldly on core economic issues—in a way that most politicians no longer do—has the potential to excite and engage the tens of millions of Americans who have grown increasingly frustrated with an empty and dysfunctional politics.

“[The] goal is to, number one, make people aware that decisions made here in Washington, DC—whether it is trade policy, whether it is environmental policy, whether it is a jobs program or raising the minimum wage—are enormously important to people’s lives,” says Sanders. “And, second, the goal is to figure out—though it is very difficult—a way for them to become actively engaged in the political process.”

Sanders does not argue that presidential campaigns are the only vehicles for fostering that engagement, nor even the best vehicles. But he recognizes that the obsession of the media with presidential politics creates a “venue” for raising and advancing issues. So the senator continues to wrestle with the prospect of a candidacy. If he runs, he says, it will be to win. But what he seeks to win in more than just a nomination or an office. It is a different and better politics.

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Sanders says he is looking beyond the specific question of what a campaign by him or another progressive populist might entail to the broader question of whether there is sufficient interest, sufficient excitement and sufficient commitment to mount a campaign that transforms politics so that economic issues are seriously discussed and addressed.

“These issues have got to be discussed. A massive effort has got to be undertaken to demand that working people and low-income people begin to stand up and fight for their rights—and that we take on the billionaire class for the sake of our kids and grandkids—that is a given. That is exactly what has got to happen,” says Sanders. “What I simply have to decide is whether there is the kind of political infrastructure that exists in this country—and I’m talking about rallying millions of people—so that the campaign that I run is either a winning campaign or at least is a campaign where at the end of the day people say, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know that there was so much anger out there at what’s going on in America. Wow!’ ”

Read Next: Democrats: The party of pablum

It Is Time for a Retail Workers’ Bill of Rights

Target employee

Target employee Jen Sans points a customer in the right direction just after midnight on Black Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, in South Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Now that the Thanksgiving holiday is done, the discussion about forcing people to work on holidays should be ramping up—not dying down. There is no question that thousands of retail workers were placed in untenable and abusive circumstances by retailers and restaurants that opened on Thanksgiving or at absurdly early hours on “Black Friday.” But the untenable and abusive circumstances will continue throughout December, a month of multiple religious and community holidays and immense pressure by corporate retailers on their employees.

So, instead of simply celebrating the firms that did treat their workers well or condemning the firms that did not, it is time to turn up the volume on demands for workplace standards—and to recognize them as essential complements to demands for living-wage pay. “Erratic, constantly changing schedules aren’t just a nightmare for workers, they’re bad for business,” says national Jobs With Justice Executive Director Sarita Gupta, who argues that there is a crying need to “adopt 21st-century policies that keep up with the changing nature of today’s workplace.”

San Francisco—where voters in November approved a series of increases that will result in a city minimum wage of $15 an hour—is in the process of establishing needed protections for workers in chain stores and restautants. Last week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously backed a “Retail Workers Bill of Rights” which combined several pieces of legislation with an eye toward

* Promoting Full-Time Work and Access to Hours

To encourage full-time employment, employers must offer more hours to existing part-time employees before hiring additional part-time workers.

* Encouraging Fair, Predictable Schedules

To discourage erratic, unpredictable scheduling practices, employers will be required to post schedules at least two weeks in advance. Employees will receive one hour of pay at their regular rate of pay for schedule changes made with less than a week’s notice and two to four hours of pay for schedule changes made with less than 24 hours’ notice.

* Discouraging Abusive On-Call Scheduling Practices

Employers will be required to provide two to four hours of pay to an employee at his/her regular rate of pay when she/he is required to be “on-call” for a specified shift but the employer cancels the shift with less than 24 hours’ notice.

* Equal Treatment for Part-Time Workers

Employers will be prohibited from discriminating against an employee with respect to their starting rate of pay, access to employer-provided paid and unpaid time off, or access to promotion opportunities.

* Encouraging Worker Retention and Job Security

If an employer’s company is bought or sold, the workers must keep on at their jobs for at least a 90-day trial period.

“All families need strong wages, stable hours and sane schedules to build a good life,” explained Jobs With Justice San Francisco Executive Director Gordon Mar, whose group played a critical role in promoting the bill or rights. “But too many of our neighbors who serve our food, stock our shelves and sweep our floors have jobs that grant too few hours on too short notice and require them to be at the beck and call of their employers.”

The San Francisco model for “Jobs With Just Hours” needs to go national. There has already been progress at the federal level, where Congressman George Miller, D-California, and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, have introduced the “Schedules That Work Act” (HR 5159). A parallel measure has been introduced in the Senate by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin.

The federal initiative has attracted significant support from the AFL-CIO and major unions, as well as the National Organization for Women and dozens of activist groups working on equal pay and workplace issues. The House measure has more than 40 cosponsors, while Democrats Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Edward Markey (Massachusetts), Chris Murphy (Connecticut) and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) have cosponsored the Senate measure, (One of them will have to pick it up in the next Senate, as Harkin is retiring, as is Miller in the House.)

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The unfortunate reality is that action on workplace issues, like action on a meaningful increase in the minimum wage, will be hard to come by in the next Congress. But states and communities can pick up on the San Francisco initiative.

And the federal government can send the right signal.

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, Congressman Steve Israel, D-New York, asked Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to “encourage companies to: 1) first ask for volunteers to work on Thanksgiving Day; and 2) provide overtime or holiday pay for those who work. At your earliest convenience, please advise how you will work on these efforts.”

That encouragement should be extended, especially in the coming weeks—a time when retail workers will be under immense pressure.

Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus who has signed on to Israel’s letter, is right when he says retail workers should be properly compensated for working on holidays.

Ellison makes an important point when he explains that “we can give thanks to working Americans by paying them fairly.”

 

Read Next: Black Friday rage, from Ferguson to Walmart

An Inconvenient Political Truth: That St. Louis Prosecutor Is a Democrat

Robert McCulloch

St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announces the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Monday, November 24, 2014, in Clayton, Missouri. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cristina Fletes-Boutte)

St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s handling of the Michael Brown shooting case has inspired a storm of controversy.

After a grand jury refused to bring charges against Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the August 9 shooting death of the African-American teenager, an attorney for the Brown family told the Associated Press, “We said from the very beginning that the decision of this grand jury was going to be the direct reflection of the presentation of the evidence by the prosecutor’s office.”

Long criticized for failing to adequately investigate complaints about the police, and for failing to demand accountability in cases of officer-involved shootings, McCulloch’s approach to the grand jury inquiry was the subject of concern from the start. And the prosecutor sparked anger at the finish by delaying the announcement of the grand jury’s decision deep into Monday evening. The prosecutor seized his prime-time platform to delivera rambling and frequently defensive forty-five-minute speech. He went on and on about aspects of the case. Yet he failed to mention that Brown was unarmed when he was killed.

“Robert McCulloch, who is widely viewed in the minority community as being in the pockets of the police, made matters infinitely worse by handling this sensitive investigation in the worst possible way,” argued a New York Times editorial, which concluded:

Under ordinary circumstances, grand jury hearings can be concluded within days. The proceeding in this case lasted an astonishing three months. And since grand jury proceedings are held in secret, the drawn-out process fanned suspicions that Mr. McCulloch was deliberately carrying on a trial out of public view, for the express purpose of exonerating Officer Wilson.

If all this weren’t bad enough, Mr. McCulloch took a reckless approach to announcing the grand jury’s finding. After delaying the announcement all day, he finally made it late in the evening, when darkness had placed law enforcement agencies at a serious disadvantage as they tried to control the angry crowds that had been drawn into the streets by news that the verdict was coming. Mr. McCulloch’s announcement sounded more like a defense of Officer Wilson than a neutral summary of the facts that had led the grand jury to its conclusion.

This is appropriate criticism.

Now let’s add some political context.

What has not been much discussed is the fact that McCulloch is a Democrat—a member of the same party as President Obama, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and Congressional Black Caucus chair Marcia Fudge, the Ohioan who on Monday evening referred to the failure to bring charges against Wilson as “a slap in the face to Americans nationwide who continue to hope and believe that justice will prevail.”

Across America, counties elect top law-enforcement officials as state’s attorneys, district attorneys and prosecuting attorneys. Hundreds of them are Democrats. Some, like Kings County (Brooklyn) District Attorney Ken Thompson and Bronx County District Attorney Robert T. Johnson, have impressed progressives by taking bold stands and developing innovative policies on everything from the drug war to the death penalty to gun violence and domestic abuse. Former San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, a “wild Irish rogue” who was arrested sixteen times as a civil rights campaigner before his election to the DA post, often clashed with the police on accountability issues during his tenure.

But there are plenty of Democratic prosecutors who are indistinguishable from the Republican counterparts. Placing a “D” next to the name of a prosecutor does not make that prosecutor a progressive, or even a moderate. Some of the most controversial prosecutors in the country are Democrats. For instance, Brooklyn’s Thompson won his post in 2013 by beating incumbent DA Charles Hynes in a Democratic primary campaign, during which The New York Times noted that Thompson accused Hynes “of remaining passive on issues important to minority communities, like stop-and-frisk policing.”

As the elected prosecutor in suburban St. Louis County since 1991, McCulloch is a powerful player in Missouri Democratic politics. He has delivered sought-after endorsements to prominent figures such as Claire McCaskill, who had the prosecutor’s support when she challenged a sitting Democratic governor in 2004 and who is now Missouri’s senior senator. In August of this year, McCulloch helped a white challenger mount a successful Democratic primary challenge to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, the first African-American to hold the position. On the same day, McCulloch, who is white, easily saw off a Democratic primary challenge from Leslie Broadnax, an African-American attorney and municipal judge.

The primary came just before the killing of Michael Brown. As protests filled the streets of Ferguson, community leaders argued that McCulloch—because of his close ties to the police in suburban St. Louis County—should hand off the case. “Many community members don’t believe he can be fair and impartial,” said state Senator Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat who led a drive that collected tens of thousands of signatures on petitions calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor.

McCulloch balked at that request, as did Democratic Governor Nixon. There was no real chance to defeat McCulloch at the polls in the fall, as he ran without Republican opposition. But thousands of St. Louis County voters refused to vote for the incumbent. In Ferguson, for instance, 10,645 voters went to the polls on November 4. Almost all of them cast ballots in races for county executive and county assessor. Yet, rather than vote for the unopposed McCulloch, Ferguson voters cast more than 1,000 write-in ballots and another 3,000 voters simply skipped the race.

In the contest for county executive, a number of leading African-American political figures rejected the Democratic nominee backed by McCulloch and endorsed the Republican, who attracted substantial African-American support and lost by just 1 percent of the vote. The Republican, veteran state legislator Rick Stream, was not a progressive by any means. But he reached out to the African-American community in suburban St. Louis, listened and made commitments. In return, he was backed by a number of African-American Democrats, led by State Senator Maria Chapelle-Nadal, St. Louis County Council Chair Hazel Erby and the Fannie Lou Hamer Democratic Coalition.

In announcing the endorsement, Erby specifically criticized Democrat Steve Stenger’s “unbreakable alignment with Bob McCulloch.”

For his part, Republican Stream declared, “Mr. McCulloch had a chance to step aside and frankly it would have removed all doubt about having a fair and independent investigation.” The Republican went further, endorsing a proposal to name special prosecutors to handle all cases of officer-involved shootings. He also campaigned in the African-American community and promised to promote diversity in his appointments.

That wasn’t enough to reverse voting patterns altogether. But it shook the process up; for instance, the Democratic vote for county executive in Ferguson dropped twenty points, from 2010 to 2014. “There was a significant falling off of Democratic performance at the top of the ticket,” said Mike Jones, an ally of the coalition effort. “And you have to argue that didn’t happen by accident.”

Elections for local positions should not happen by accident. And that goes double for key law-enforcement posts.

It is good that prosecutors are elected. Prosecutors have immense authority over the lives of citizens, and citizens should be able to hold prosecutors to account. But for that political process to work, it is important to move beyond simplistic assumptions about Democrats and Republicans, and to make demands of candidates from both parties.

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It is vital to take primary elections seriously. And it is important to recognize the value of independent and third-party challenges to the two-party status quo.

There is a good argument to be made for electing prosecutors on a nonpartisan basis. But there is an even better argument to be made that elections for prosecutor positions— be they partisan or nonpartisan, be their primaries or general elections—must be recognized as some of the most vital contests on our ballots.

Media and political elites tend to focus on top-of-the-ballot races for president and governor and senator. But, if the experience of Ferguson and St. Louis County teach us anything, it is that at the bottom of the ballot, in races for local law-enforcement posts, the most fundamental choices are made.

 

Read Next: In Ferguson, a militarized police isn’t necessary for suppression.

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