Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.
Water is a human right.
The United Nations formally “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”
A new European Citizens Initiative declares, “Water is a public good, not a commodity.”
Former President Jimmy Carter writes, “Clean water is a basic human right. Without it, the other rights may not even matter. Human societies cannot be healthy, prosperous and just without adequate supplies of clean water. What could be a more basic right than clean water?”
So why are children in Detroit marching through that battered city’s downtown with signs reminding officials that “Kids Need Water to be Healthy” and “Kids Without Water Can’t Brush Their Teeth”?
Why are religious leaders being arrested when they seek to prevent the shutoff of water services to families who cannot afford to pay bloated bills?
The answer is that, thanks to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Detroit is again providing a stark example of what happens when right-wing officials implement an unthinking and inhumane austerity agenda. Since Snyder imposed “emergency manager” control on Detroit last year— effectively disempowering local elected officials and putting the governor and his appointees in charge—the city’s residents have faced plenty of threats from unelected “managers” who are determined to balance the books of a financially strapped city on the backs of its hardest-hit residents.
But none of those threats has been so extreme, or so dramatic in their illustration of the crisis created by austerity policies, as the rush by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and its for-profit contractors to shut off water to some of the poorest families in America.
Under pressure from the governor’s emergency manager, the DWSD has so far this year shut off the water for approximately 17,000 households and small businesses that owed on their bills. And that’s just the start. In a city that has been brutalized by deindustrialization— where the official unemployment rate is 14.5 percent and where the real rate is dramatically higher; where 44 percent of residents live below the poverty line—water rates have spiked by almost 120 percent over the decade. Even as the city has gone through a bankruptcy crisis, rates have continued to rise at a dramatic rate.
Families and small business owners have struggled to keep up, but today an estimated 138,000 accountsare past due— including those of roughly 90,000 low-income families. Many families have paid their bills by cutting back on other necessities, but many others are struggling—while, at the same time,Snyder’s managers are pocketing hefty checks and toying with privatization schemes that have the potential to enrich private, out-of-town interests.
The Detroit officials who have ordered the shutoffs say they are simply creating pressure to get bills paid, and argue that they are trying to do so in a responsible manner. But environmental writer Martin Lukacs counters:
The official rationale for the water shut-downs—the Detroit Water Department’s need to recoup millions collapses on inspection. Detroit’s high-end golf club, the Red Wing’s hockey arena, the Ford football stadium, and more than half of the city’s commercial and industrial users are also owing—a sum totalling $30 million. But no contractors have showed up on their doorstep.
The targeting of Detroit families is about something else. It is a ruthless case of the shock doctrine—the exploitation of natural or unnatural shocks of crisis to push through pro-corporate policies that couldn’t happen in any other circumstance.
Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, has called on the DWSD to stop the shutoffs, making the case that “in the 21st Century, in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one should ever go without safe, clean water.”
The congressman has aligned with the Detroit Water Brigade, a grassroots movement that is organizing to stop the shutoffs and to get water to families. They’ve drawn international support. Canadians living across the river in Windsor have been organizing to deliver water to Detroiters.
Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, has made it plain that “[d]isconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.” And the Blue Planet Project, a global movement to promote water justice is petitioning President Obama (and Governor Snyder) with a message that “[t]he U.S. government is obligated to respect the human right to water and sanitation, yet the thousands of water cut-offs currently taking place in Detroit, Michigan, is a violation of this basic right.”
Conyers says the Obama administration and federal officials have options to act. In particular, he is “calling on President Obama to make available some of the $200 million still apportioned for Michigan from the Hardest Hit Fund, a reserve made available for relief from impacts of the Great Recession, for water service relief.” Additionally, the senior congressman is “requesting that US Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell formally designate the water crisis a public health emergency eligible for federal relief.”
But Detroiters have over the past several years come to be recognize that the plight of their city, even as it is assaulted by the governor’s austerity measures, is often neglected by federal officials.
It will be harder to neglect Detroit in coming days, however, as Netroots Nation brings its ninth annual gathering (and Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren) to the city. And National Nurses United, the activist union that has been promoting a “Robin Hood” tax on financial speculators as an alternative to austerity cuts, is working with dozens of local, state and national groups to organize a July 18 “Turn on the Water! Tax Wall Street!” march and rally.
The registered nurses plan to “declare a public health emergency and demand a moratorium on the unprecedented water shutoffs in Detroit.”
Their message is a blunt challenge to austerity:
Gov. Snyder is allowing the tragedy to continue with an endgame of privatizing the public water department—the latest in a string of gifts to Wall Street. The historic transfer of public wealth to private hands overseen by Snyder has cost the public jobs, pensions, vital public safety services, and civic jewels like Olmstead Island Park.
Now they have come for our water.
Let’s Tax Wall Street, Get Our Money Back, and Turn on the Water!
Read Next: Katrina vaden Heuvel asks why Detroit is denying its citizens water.
Constitutional amendments are often proposed but rarely advanced to the stage of serious debate. What moves any meaningful amendment from mere paperwork to serious consideration is the popular will of the great mass of Americans. And the popular will of the great mass of Americans have been abundantly clear since the United States Supreme Court struck down barriers to corporate control of democracy with its 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.
Sixteen American states and roughly 600 communities have formally told Congress that the Constitution must be amended to make it clear that corporations are not people, money is not speech and citizens and their elected representatives have a right to organize elections that are defined by votes rather than dollars.
Once dismissed even by many reformers as an appropriate yet impossible initiative, the movement for a “Money Out/Voters In” amendment to the Constitution has grown so strong—and been proven to be so necessary—that it has now achieved what most organizers of amendment movements only imagine.
On Thursday, the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 to endorse an amendment that would undo the damage done to democracy by a series of High Court decisions—and to restore reasonable limits on financial contributions and expenditures intended to influence elections.
Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, a former prosecutor and the senior member of the Senate, framed the vote with a declaration that “I have served in the Senate for nearly 40 years and as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for nearly ten. I have always believed that amending our Constitution must be subject to the highest measure of scrutiny. It is something that should only be done as a last resort. But when the voices of hardworking Americans continue to be drowned out by the moneyed few, and when legislative efforts to right this wrong are repeatedly filibustered by Republicans, more serious action must be taken.”
Leahy’s position was echoed by committee Democrats who joined him in backing an amendment that declares:
SECTION 1: To advance democratic self-government and political equality, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.
SECTION 2. Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.
SECTION 3. Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press.
That’s more cautious language than many activists would like to see. And it may be that, as the amendment movement grows in strength, and as the congressional debate evolves, a final amendment will feature more specific language regarding all the issues that arise when the courts and Congress extend special rights to corporations.
But no one should doubt the significance of the fact that, in four short years, a grassroots movement has changed the calculus of the money-in-politics debate. With little money and almost no major media coverage, the movement started by groups such as Move to Amend and Free Speech for People, and advanced by People for the American Way, Common Cause and Public Citizen has staked out bold positions and made overly cautious Democratic officials and even a few Republicans move toward them.
“This vote is an important step forward for the movement to take back our democracy from billionaires and corporations,” declared Marge Baker, the executive vice president of People for the American Way, which was part of a broad coalition of groups that delivered petitions signed by two million Americans asking the committee to back a Twenty-Eighth Amendment proposal based on an approach initially advanced by Senator Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.
“In the wake of cases like Citizens United and McCutcheon, the voices of everyday Americans are being overpowered by the money of special interests,” said Baker. “That’s not how democracy is supposed to work. People understand that. Americans have made it clear that all of our voices should be heard. We look forward to a full Senate vote on this important piece of legislation.”
With Judiciary Committee backing and forty-five cosponsors, the Udall amendment as it currently stands has traction in the Senate. There is a dawning recognition that, as Udall says, “the Supreme Court has left us one option for real reform. We must pass an amendment that will restore integrity to our elections, so that a billionaire in one state cannot have more influence than working families in the other forty-nine. That is not the equality envisioned by our founders, and is in direct contradiction to the kind of democracy they intended to create.”
“The amendment is crucial to strengthening and restoring the First Amendment, which has been weakened and distorted by a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings,” explained Weissman. “Specifically, the amendment would overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and its misguided holding that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as real, live, breathing human beings to influence election outcomes. It will overturn McCutcheon v. FEC, with its holding that the only justification for limits on campaign donations is to prevent criminal bribery. And it will overturn Buckley v. Valeo—the case holding that ‘money equals speech’ and imposing Supreme Court-made constitutional obstacles to imposing limits on what can be spent on elections.”
But that does not mean that the amendment will move easily through Congress. Senate Republican leaders, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, have grown increasingly militant in their opposition to efforts to reduce the overwhelming political influence of corporations and billionaire donors such as the Koch brothers. During Thursday’s Judiciary Committee session, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and his fellow Republicans trotted out all the talking points that have been developed as part of a cynical campaign to prevent limits of election spending focusing especially on the fantasy that corporations and wealthy Americans have a right to shout down everyone else.
Because sixty-seven votes are required to secure Senate approval of an amendment, majority support—even if it is bipartisan—will not be sufficient. So the organizing work that got the proposal this far will have to continue. That work is likely to face growing opposition from powerful interests. “We’ve now seen the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch Brothers take notice of the overwhelming public demand for far-reaching action to restore our democracy. In the coming weeks, we’ll see those defenders and advocates of the 21st Century Gilded Age leverage their power and money to oppose a constitutional amendment that threatens their grip on American politics,” argues Weissman.
But, he adds, “The tide of history is against them, however. The day is not long away when Americans will celebrate the 28th Amendment and the return of control over our elections and our country to We the People.”
Read Next: William Greider asks what the Democratic Party really believes.
Given the choice between Republicans who are explicitly committed to doing away with collective bargaining rights and Democrats, public-sector labor unions tend to back Democrats at election time.
But that does not mean that unions are always satisfied with Democratic Party policies—or with Democratic policymakers.
This is especially true with regard to education debates. There are certainly Democrats who have been strong advocates for public schools. But there are also Democratic mayors, governors, members of Congress and cabinet members such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who have embraced and advanced “reforms” that supporters of public schools identify as destructive.
Duncan’s policies were so appealing to 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney—who explicitly praised the “good things” the education secretary was doing—that education writer Dave Murray wrote a 2012 article headlined, “Could a Romney Administration include Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary?”
Former US Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, who has emerged as a leading champion of public education, refers to Duncan as “one of the worst Secretaries of Education”— arguing that “Duncan’s policies demean the teaching profession by treating student test scores as a proxy for teacher quality.
Teachers are pushing back against Duncan and those policies.
The NEA Representative Assembly joins other educators and parents in calling for the resignation of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the Department’s failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.
Duncan is not about to resign. Instead, he dismisses the resolution with a typically glib DC-insider dig about how he is “trying to stay out of local union politics.”
But the NEA statement is not a “local” resolution.
This is a call for the resignation of a Democratic secretary of education from the nation’s largest professional employee organization—a union with 3 million members working from the pre-school to university graduate program levels of public education in 14,000 communities across the United States.
Past resolutions urging Duncan’s resignation failed to gain traction with NEA representative assemblies. But this year, the delegates determined that it was time for the education secretary to go.
Even if Duncan does not seem to take the call seriously, the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress should.
For a number of years now, teachers, parents and students have expressed mounting frustration—and appropriate anger—with the focus of Duncan and other education policymakers on standardized testing that they say makes evaluation a bigger priority than actual education.
“For us, one thing is clear: before anything is going to get better: It’s the Testing, Stupid,” the incoming president of the NEA, Utah teacher Lily Eskelsen García, told delegates to the representative assembly. “Better yet, it’s the stupid testing.”
In her speech, Eskelsen García decried what she referred to as a “phony” accountability system that she said hurts students and demeans the teaching profession.
Members of the California Teachers Association, who submitted the resolution urging Duncan to quit, have been especially blunt in their calls for Duncan to exit the cabinet.
Upset both with the education secretary’s emphasis on standardized testing and with Duncan’s response to a recent court ruling that eliminated workplaces protections for teachers, the CTA says:
Authentic education change only comes when all stakeholders— teachers, parents, administrators and the community—work together to best meet the needs of the students in their school or college. Teachers are not the problem. Teachers are part of the solution. And it’s time we have a Secretary of Education who understands and believes that.
Read Next: Ari Berman on the challenges to North Carolina’s voting law
There are many ways to express patriotism. Yet there remains a common sense that the best expressions extend beyond ideology and partisanship to embrace the noblest ideals and deepest truths—of the American experiment.
In this time of deep division and money-driven hyper-partisanship, can that higher common ground still be reached?
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who has been the steadiest antiwar voice in the US House, and Congressman Scott Rigell, who served in the Marine Corps Reserve before representing Virginia as a very conservative Republican, have found it. They may disagree on many, perhaps most, issues. But Lee and Rigell are in absolute agreement that President Obama and Congress should resist “calls for a ‘quick’ and ‘easy’ military intervention in Iraq.”
Lee and Rigell recognize that while the rise of sectarian violence in Iraq is a serious concern, it cannot become an excuse for the casual redeployment of US troops to the country where so many Americans and so many Iraqis have already perished.
“We do not believe intervention could be either quick or easy. And, we doubt it would be effective in meeting either humanitarian or strategic goals, and that it could very well be counter-productive,” write Lee and Rigell in a joint letter to President Obama. “This is a moment for urgent consultations and engagement with all parties in the region who could bring about a cease fire and launch a dialogue that could lead to a reconciliation of the conflict.”
The letter, which eighty House Democrats and Republicans have signed, urges the president to be restrained in his own response and to accept respect the further restraint of the system of checks and balances outlined in the Constitution.
“As you consider options for U.S. intervention, we write to urge respect for the constitutional requirements for using force abroad,” it reads. “The Constitution vests in Congress the power and responsibility to authorize offensive military action abroad. The use of military force in Iraq is something the Congress should fully debate and authorize. Members of Congress must consider all the facts and alternatives before we can determine whether military action would contribute to ending this most recent violence, create a climate for political stability, and protect civilians from greater harm.”
Deep caution with regard to military intervention has a deep history in the United States of Thomas Jefferson, who warned that America should “have nothing to do with conquest,” and James Madison, who declared, “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.”
On July 4, 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams used the anniversary to describe the thinking of the nation with regards to its place in the world—and the concerns that underpinned that thinking.
Adams’s statement remains the finest expression of the unique balance that a republic must strike if it wishes to avoid paying the unaffordable wages of empire.
Above all, Adams reminded Americans that while they have a responsibility to speak up for global democracy clearly and without apology, they have an equal responsibility to avoid entangling themselves in the turmoil of other lands. Echoing the warnings of George Washington, the great diplomat warned that such entanglements would ultimately undermine liberty in the United States—as they would require of America economic and political compromises that were inconsistent with domestic democracy.
After reading aloud the Declaration of Independence in its entirety, Adams said of America:
“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. [But] she well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
“The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit…”
The genius of the American experiment, said Adams, was found in the revolutionary spirit of 1776, which rejected the corruptions of empire—the worst of which stem from the impulse to meddle in the affairs of other countries.
“Her glory is not dominion, but liberty,” Adams said of the United States. “Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.”
Adams concluded his address by urging Americans to renew their acquaintance with the revolutionaries against colonial meddling and empire who founded the American experiment, to celebrate their example and to: “Go thou and do likewise!”
Barbara Lee and Scott Rigell are doing likewise, and the House members who have signed their vital letter are wise to recognize the danger that arise when the United States involves herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s foresight in her Hobby Lobby dissent
The Republican Party was, for a vital century, the major American political party that most frequently aligned with the cause of civil rights. The invariably realistic Frederick Douglass explained, “I knew that however bad the Republican Party was, the Democratic party was much worse. The elements of which the Republican Party was composed gave better ground for the ultimate hope of the success of the colored man’s cause than those of the Democratic Party.”
Well into the twentieth century, many leading Republicans took seriously their party’s history and the responsibility that went with it. They worked to earn the votes of African-Americans and all supporters of equal justice under law, declaring in the party’s 1960 platform that
[t]his nation was created to give expression, validity and purpose to our spiritual heritage—the supreme worth of the individual. In such a nation—a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—racial discrimination has no place. It can hardly be reconciled with a Constitution that guarantees equal protection under law to all persons. In a deeper sense, too, it is immoral and unjust. As to those matters within reach of political action and leadership, we pledge ourselves unreservedly to its eradication.
True to their word, top Republicans in Congress provided advice, counsel and support that was essential to the development and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
While Democrats struggled with their party’s internal contradictions on the issue—deferring far too frequently to the demands of Southern segregationists who held powerful committee chairs in the House and Senate, and who commanded machines that delivered needed electoral votes—Republicans demanded action. “When President John F. Kennedy failed to submit a promised civil rights bill, three Republicans (Representatives William McCulloch of Ohio, John Lindsay of New York and Charles Mathias of Maryland) introduced one of their own,” noted The New York Times in recalling the great struggles of the era. “This inspired Mr. Kennedy to deliver on his promise, and it built Republican support for what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
When the key votes in the House and the Senate came fifty years ago, Republicans were significantly more supportive of the Civil Rights Act than were Democrats. The measure passed the House on a 290-130 vote, with support from 61 percent of House Democrats (152 in favor, ninety-six opposed). But Republican lawmakers gave it 80 percent backing (138 in support, just thirty-four against).
The critical test came in the Senate in June, 1964. Republicans aligned with northern Democrats to break the segregationist filibuster. Then, 82 percent of Republican senators backed the final passage of the measure, as opposed to two-thirds of Senate Democrats.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, he is said to have told an aide, “We [Democrats] have lost the South for a generation.”
But that statement did not just apply to the Democrats. Republicans were, necessarily, part of the change equation.
The change began to develop quickly. Two weeks after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, the Republican National Convention in San Francisco nominated for the presidency Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, one of the handful of Republican senators who had opposed the measure.
Two months later, a key Democratic foe of civil rights, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, switched his party affiliation and began working to remake the Republican Party so that it could appeal to Southern white voters. Thurmond was an essential backer of the campaigns of Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. His influence on Nixon, who developed a so-called “Southern strategy” to help realize Thurmond’s vision of a transformed political map, was immense. It extended deep into the decision-making process for the selections of a vice president and Supreme Court nominees.
At the same time, civil rights advocates within the Republican Party either left or were defeated. House minority leader Charles Halleck, the Indiana Republican who worked closely with the Johnson administration to pass muscular civil rights protections was deposed the following January by his own caucus. John Lindsay, who was rejected in his own party’s 1969 New York City mayoral primary (winning instead on the Liberal Party line), became a Democrat in 1971. His ally in the 1963 civil rights push “Mac” Mathias was so unsettled by the GOP’s move to the right that he threatened to run for the presidency in 1976 as a progressive independent. Others champions of civil rights, such as California Senator Thomas Kuchel (the Republican floor manager in the fights to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), New Jersey Senator Clifford Case and New York Senator Jacob Javits, would eventually lose primaries to conservative challengers.
The senators who were rejected did not lose merely because of their civil rights advocacy but because of their Lincolnesque vision of a progressive Republican Party that, in Kuchel’s words, “brought to politics the philosophy of governing for the many.”
That philosophy was replaced by a more rigid and divisive politics. “The Republican Party that had been ceased to be sometime in the 1980s, and the modern party—the radical conservative party—not only has little or no interest in honoring its history, it is actively hostile to it,” Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of the brilliant 2012 book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party explained to Todd Purdum.
Purdum, who has written his own fine book on the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, marked the anniversary of the signing of the act with an article headlined, “Why the Civil Rights Act Couldn’t Pass Today.”
Purdum is appropriately critical of both major parties, but his most damning statement is an observation that “the Party of Lincoln became the party of white backlash, especially in the South.”
Thurmond was certainly not the only Southern Democrat to switch his party affiliation in the period following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act—Jesse Helms made the change in 1970; Trent Lott, an aide to a segregationist Democratic congressman, ran for the House as a Republican in 1972; Virginian Mills Goodwn Jr., whom The New York Times described as “a pillar of his state’s policy of ‘massive resistance’ to the racial integration of schools” during his years as a Democratic state legislator, was elected governor as a Republican in 1973. But Thurmond was the most prominent, and the most influential of the party switchers. Over time, he evolved his rhetoric away from the crude language of his 1948 States Rights Democratic Party presidential run and his Senate filibusters to a more politically palatable critique of “big government.” The senator would eventually say that “if I had been elected president in 1948, history would be vastly different. I believe we would have stemmed the growth of Big Government, which had begun with the New Deal and culminated with the Great Society.”
That statement conveniently neglected the fact that Thurmond and his allies in 1948 did not just talk about the size of the federal government. The same States Rights Democratic Party platform that declared its opposition to “the totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police nation called for by the platforms adopted by the Democratic and Republican Conventions” also announced, “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race.”
Thurmond left the Democratic Party the first time, in 1948, because the Democrats were becoming more like the Republicans on the issue of civil rights—as both parties moved, slowly but surely, toward a recognition that Hubert Humphrey was right when he told the 1948 Democratic National Convention it was time “to get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
For a time in the 1950s and 1960s, enlightened Democrats and Republicans competed to be the party of civil rights. And the Republicans were in the lead through much of the period—encouraging Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the Senate in the modern era, to observe that the Republican Party “was, I believe, much more progressive than the Democratic Party.”
Republicans were not the party of Thurmond, they were explicitly and proudly the party of Lincoln. That 1960 GOP platform read:
Equality under law promises more than the equal right to vote and transcends mere relief from discrimination by government. It becomes a reality only when all persons have equal opportunity, without distinction of race, religion, color or national origin, to acquire the essentials of life—housing, education and employment. The Republican Party—the party of Abraham Lincoln—from its very beginning has striven to make this promise a reality. It is today, as it was then, unequivocally dedicated to making the greatest amount of progress toward the objective.
The tragedy of the Democratic Party through much of its history was an unwillingness to stand strong against its Southern wing and to clearly align itself with the cause of social and economic justice. The tragedy of the Republican Party is that when Democrats began to do the right thing, key figures in the GOP welcomed Thurmond into its fold and began to craft not just a “Southern strategy” but a politics of reaction. There were plenty of Republicans who resisted the trend at the time, and there have been plenty of Republicans since (notably former Congressman Jack Kemp and former Secretary of State Colin Powell) who have sought to broaden the party’s focus and appeal.
But as one of the great Republican advocates of civil rights, John Lindsay, noted when he left the GOP in 1971, “Today the Republican Party has moved so far from what I perceive as necessary policies…that I can no longer try to work within it.”
John Avlon, the longtime speechwriter for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani who has since become a prominent advocate for centrist projects such as the “No Labels” movement, wrote several years ago: “The Republican Party was right on civil rights for the first one-hundred years of its existence. It was right when the Democratic Party was wrong. Its future strength and survival will depend on rediscovering that legacy of individual freedom amid America’s essential diversity. To win in the 21st century, the Party of Lincoln needs to start looking like the Party of Lincoln again.”
This is true.
It is also true that Republicans have a right to reflect proudly on the role the GOP played in securing approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This anniversary belongs to both parties—to Democrats who recall Johnson’s leadership, to Republicans who recall the role played by congressional Republicans.
Unfortunately, the Republican Party that has spent much of its energy in recent years promoting restrictive Voter ID laws and that is currently entertaining a telling debate about Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran’s outreach to African-American voters in last month’s runoff election fight, often finds itself at odds with the legacies of Lincoln and the Republicans who championed civil rights in the mid-1960s.
“There’s also a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party,” Powell said on NBC’s Meet the Press last year. “What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities.”
Powell recommended that his party “take a very hard look at itself.” In particular, the Republican Party should take a very hard look at its past—and it should embrace that past.
Read Next: Michelle Chen on New York’s exploited food workers.
There were undoubtedly justices on the most anti-labor US Supreme Court in modern judicial history who wanted to strip public-sector unions of their ability to collect dues from workers they represent.
But they were not quite prepared to strike the devastating blow that labor activists feared would be delivered Monday.
Since the High Court’s 2012 decision in Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000—which complicated the processes by which public-employee unions can engage politically—there has been a general sense that conservative justices were angling for an opening to gut the twenty-six state laws that require workers who benefit from union representation to pay dues. The case of Harris v. Quinn, in which a small number of Illinois homecare workers sought to avoid paying dues to the Service Employees International Union, seemed to create that opening.
But the Court’s conservative majority stopped short of making a ruling that would have allowed public employees to stop paying dues to the unions that negotiate contracts guaranteeing them higher wages and benefits, protect them from employer abuses and advocate in the legislative and political arenas on their behalf. In so doing, they allowed public-sector unions to remain vital forces in the majority of American states.
Make no mistake, however, the Court did so grudgingly.
Writing for the five conservative justices who made up the majority, Justice Samuel Alito let the eight homecare workers involved in the Harris case opt out of paying dues because the Court determined they were not “full-fledged public employees.” The majority (Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy) determined that, because the workers are hired by individual patients and work in private homes, they are not actually state employees—even though they are paid via Medicaid, and even though SEIU’s negotiations with the state yielded substantial improvements in the pay and benefits of the represented workers.
That dodge allowed a sharply divided court—where Justice Scalia surprised observers of oral arguments on the case with a line of questioning that seemed somewhat sympathetic to the arguments of the unions—to avoid making a sweeping determination.
It is important to recognize, however, that the Court’s decision is an ominous one for domestic workers and the unions that are speaking to represent them.
And Alito, who has emerged as the steadiest foe of labor rights on the Court, still seems to be looking for an opening to further undermine labor rights.
Alito ripped the Court’s 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision that permitted states to require payment of union dues by represented workers, referring to the precedent as “questionable” and “anomalous.”
Translation: the Harris case wasn’t quite the right vehicle, but the majority would entertain a case they could eliminate vital protections for unions and their members—creating a circumstance where they would no longer have the resources to fully represent workers at the bargaining table, in the corridors of power and at election time.
“While the Court upheld the importance of collective bargaining and unions to families and communities, let’s be clear that working people, who have aspired to the middle class and tried to make a better life for their families, have taken it on the chin for years,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “Stagnating wages, loss of pensions and lack of upward mobility have defined the economic distress they have experienced. Today’s decision makes it worse.”
Weingarten is right.
While this ruling was certainly not as bad as it might have been, the threat of a Court decision that severely undermines public-sector unions remains. And that is a threat that has much broader ramifications, as public-sector unions have become key defenders of public services and public education in an era of funding cuts and privatization schemes.
Indeed, along with the ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that was issued at the same time, the Harris decision provides a powerful reminder of the importance of elections this fall for US senators who could be asked to confirm one or more High Court nominees in the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, SEIU activists and leaders pledged to redouble efforts to organize and represent Illinois homecare workers.
“They are trying to divide us and limit our power, but we won’t stop standing together for our families and our consumers,” Flora Johnson, a homecare provider from Chicago, said in a statement released by the union. “Before we formed our union, I made less than $6 an hour, but by uniting we are set to make $13 an hour by the end of the year. I know from experience that we are stronger together.”
SEIU president Mary Kay Henry added, “For our parents and grandparents to get the care they need to live at home, workers need a strong voice in a union. I know that Flora Johnson other SEIU members are determined to keep up the fight to end poverty wages and ensure quality care.”
This Supreme Court has made that work a little tougher. But an even slightly more anti-labor Supreme Court could make it dramatically more difficult. That argues for a response that combines serious voting and serious organizing.
“With a Supreme Court that is increasingly moving hand in hand with Wall Street and corporate interests to eviscerate our democracy,” says National Nurses United union executive director Rose Ann DeMoro, “it’s a reminder working people can not count on the courts for justice, and must rely on our own stepped up activism for a more just society.”
Read Next: Michelle Chen on how the Supreme Court just undermined the gains made by home healthcare workers.
Thad Cochran just did Democrats a favor.
Yes, yes, of course, the veteran Republican senator’s comeback win in Tuesday’s Mississippi Republican primary runoff made it a lot less likely that the Magnolia State will join Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina on the list of Southern states where Democrats could win Senate seats this fall. And, yes, that will make it harder for Democrats to hold their majority in the chamber.
But Cochran’s win taught a pair of lessons that Democrats must learn -- not as talking points but as a core concepts -- if they hope to secure positive results in November.
Lesson One: Turnout is definitional.
Lesson Two: Turnout can be substantially increased, even in the most difficult of circumstances, with focused energy, resources and messaging.
In the initial Mississippi Republican Senate primary, Cochran’s Tea Party–backed challenger, Chris McDaniel, narrowly led the conservative—yet relatively genteel—incumbent. McDaniel fell just short of winning 50 percent, however, and under Mississippi law a runoff was required between the top two finishers.
By most measures, that should have been the end of it for Cochran.
Runoffs usually attract lower voter turnout than initial primaries, and Tea Party candidates thrive in low-turnout contests—when the most extreme voters are the most likely to show up.
Cochran was advised to give up.
The strategy worked.
Instead of declining, turnout for the runoff increased. A lot.
Much of that spike came in counties with substantial African-American populations. Mississippi’s African-American population provides much of the base vote for the Democratic Party in the state. But under Mississippi law, Democrats can “cross over” and vote in Republican primaries and runoffs—just as Republicans can, and often have, voted in Democratic primaries and runoffs.
The crossover vote appears to have helped Cochran a good deal. As veteran political scientist Larry Sabato points out, “The Mississippi counties with a black population higher than the state’s county median saw turnout increase by 27 percent over the runoff, and Cochran won these counties by about 25,000 votes. Meanwhile, the counties with a black population lower than the median had a turnout increase of 13 percent, and McDaniel won these counties by about 19,000 votes. Cochran’s overall victory margin of nearly 6,400 votes is about the difference between those two numbers.”
In the first primary, Cochran battled McDaniel for right-wing votes, emphasizing his pro-gun record and social consevatism. In the runoff, however, Cochran switched to a more mainstream message that emphasized his support for federal programs that aid Mississippi and especially for education.
The senior senator also, as The New York Times reported, “attacked Mr. McDaniel for his vows of austerity.”
“Those attacks seemed to work with voters—at least enough to spook Democrats, and even some Republicans, who are accustomed to the protection and seniority of a long line of Congress members going back almost 100 years, including Senators John C. Stennis, James Eastland and Trent Lott and Representatives Sonny Montgomery and Jamie L. Whitten,” explained the Times.
Voters like Jeanie Munn, of Hattiesburg, came to the conclusion that—whatever they might think of Cochran—they needed to get to the polls to stop McDaniel and what they saw as “a threat to the state.”
Of course, McDaniel and his “Tea Party” allies cried foul—refusing even to concede the close race. Sarah Palin objected to the turnout "shenanigans" that saved Cochran. Their griping was rooted in the fact that their faction lost a “sure thing” election because the electorate grew.
The growth in voter turnout on Tuesday helped a mainstream conservative Republican win on Tuesday. But similar growth could help Democrats win in November.
By most measures, 2014 is going to be a tough year for Democrats. They are defending a lot more competitive Senate seats than the Republicans, as this is the election when senators elected on the Barack Obama wave of 2008 are up for re-election. They also face the daunting task of trying to win House seats that were redrawn to favor GOP candidates after the “Republican wave” election of 2010.
If turnout levels remain the same in 2014 as they were in 2010—roughly 38 percent of the voting age population cast ballots that year, according to the United States Election Project at George Mason University—this could be another “Republican wave” year.
No one expects that 2014 turnout will rival that of 2012.
But Thad Cochran has proven that focusing on turnout—with resources, organizing and a targeted message that highlights the threat posed by austerity-prone Republicans—can significantly increase voter participation in critical races. And that participation can change the electoral calculus.
If Democrats learn that lesson, they could rewrite the rules of the 2014 general election— just as Cochran rewrote the rules of the Mississippi runoff race.
Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on the US Supreme Court’s latest ruling on privacy
Scott Walker, an ardent Ronald Reagan fan from his youth, was never likely to follow Reagan’s footsteps to the White House. The Wisconsin governor lacks his hero’s way with words, skill for crossing lines of partisan and ideological division (especially within the Republican Party) and confidence on the national campaign trail.
Yet Walker has wanted to believe in the possibility so badly that he has spent the two years since his 2012 recall election win positioning himself as a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He penned a campaign book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, which was so transparent in its ambitions that Glenn Beck’s The Blaze refers to it as “the prototypical book about someone running for president who doesn’t want to come out and actually say that he is running for president.” He jetted off to Las Vegas to to try and impress Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, but Adelson missed the Wisconsinite´s speech. He even persisted in making the rounds nationally after polls showed that his enthusiasm for presidential politics did not sit well with the Wisconsin voters he must face in a November re-election bid.
But with the release of documents in which Wisconsin prosecutors allege Walker helped to engineer an expansive “criminal scheme” to coordinate efforts by conservative groups to help his recall campaign—by circumventing campaign finance laws—Walker’s presidential prospects look less realistic even than those of his mentor, scandal-plagued New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
The headlines in Wisconsin Thursday were damning:
“John Doe prosecutors allege Scott Walker at center of ‘criminal scheme’”
“Prosecutors accuse Walker of running ‘criminal scheme’”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker participated in a “criminal scheme” to coordinate fundraising for the Republican in response to efforts to recall him and state senators from office, local prosecutors argue in court documents released Thursday.
Walker, his chief of staff and others were involved in the coordination effort with “a number of national groups and prominent figures,” including Karl Rove, says special prosecutor Francis Schmitz.
“[T]he evidence shows an extensive coordination scheme that pervaded nearly every aspect of the campaign activities during the historic 2011 and 2012 Wisconsin Senate and Gubernatorial recall elections,” Schmitz wrote in a December motion, on behalf of five attorneys from some of the state’s most liberal counties, just now unsealed by an appellate court judge.
Even worse for a governor who has already had to try an explain away highly controversial emails from former aides, as well as the investigations, prosecutions and convictions of aides, appointees, allies and campaign donors, are the actual details of the documents that were ordered unsealed by Federal Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook.
“The documents include an excerpt from an email in which Walker tells Karl Rove, former top adviser to President George W. Bush, that (veteran Wisconsin Republican operative R.J.) Johnson would lead the coordination campaign. Johnson is also Walker’s longtime campaign strategist and the chief adviser to Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative group active in the recall elections,” reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state’s largest paper.
The May 4, 2011, e-mail to Rove read: “Bottom-line: R.J. helps keep in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin. We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities).”
Walker, who is certainly no stranger to controversy, claimed Thursday that he had been vindicated by judges who have restricted—and even attempted to shut down—the “John Doe” investigation into political wrongdoing. But other judges have sustained the inquiry.
Walker allies argue that he is the victim of a “witch hunt” organized by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and other top prosecutors, who they allege are out to silence conservatives and harm Republicans. Chisholm is a Democrat, but he is also a respected prosecutor who has gone after Democrats and worked with Republicans.
Lawyers for targets of the probe are fighting to shut it down and, in this unsettled and uncertain post–Citizens United period with regard to state and national campaign finance laws, they believe they will succeed.
Attempts to halt the probe, which have been cheered on by advocates for a no-holds-barred “big money” politics, are part of a broader strategy to gut remaining campaign-finance laws. One way to super-charge the influence of major donors and corporate interests is to undermine bans on coordination between candidates and their campaigns with “independent” groups that operate under different and more flexible rules for raising and spending money during a campaign.
“If you don’t have restrictions on coordination, then the contribution limits become meaningless,” Paul S. Ryan, the senior counsel for the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, explained. Ryan told Politico that without the restrictions, a donor “could max out under the limits [for donating to a candidate], but then you could also just say to the candidates, ‘Hey give me an ad script and we’ll walk down to the TV station and do this ad for you.’”
But even if the probe is prevented from going forward, the documents that have now been released—in combination with the February release of 27,000 pages of e-mails from the seized from the “secret e-mail system” computers of a former Walker aide who has been convicted of political wrongdoing—paint a picture of a governor whose political style does not say “statesman.”
There is no question that Walker is a hero to some Republicans, and to some conservatives.
But Republicans and conservatives who want to win back the White House have to be realistic enough to recognize that Walker has a paper trail that is unlikely to read well on the 2016 campaign trail.
In fact, if the Wisconsin polls that have Walker tied with Democratic challenger Mary Burke are to be believed, Walker might have trouble getting past the 2014 election.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on what’s missing from the My Brother’s Keeper program.
Americans do not want to send ground troops back to Iraq.
Americans really do not want to send ground troops back to Iraq.
A fresh Public Policy Polling survey finds that 74 percent of voters oppose sending troops to the country where in 2003 former Vice President Dick Cheney claimed US troops would be “greeted as liberators”—but where in fact 4,486 Americans were killed, and where even the most cautious estimates put the Iraqi death toll (military and civilian) in the hundreds of thousands.
Americans recognize the damage that was done, as well, to their country’s international reputation, and to its sense of priorities when it came to policymaking and federal budgeting. That does not mean that they are unaware of, or unconcerned with, the degenerating circumstances in Iraq. That does not mean they have suddenly gone isolationist. That does not mean that they oppose diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives.
What it means is that they have a sense of perspective that is lacking among the neoconservative elite that is always so ready for war.
So it is that, while Cheney is busily repurposing his pro-war rhetoric of 1991 and 2003—while at the same time accusing President Obama of “betraying” US freedom, “abandoning” Iraq, being a “very very weak president” and generally failing to follow the neocon playbook—Americans are remembering what happened the last time the war hawks had their way.
In fact, if there is one thing that unites Americans, it is their skepticism about steering back into Iraq.
Eighty-two percent of Democrats oppose sending US troops to Iraq, as do 86 percent of independents. Notably, 57 percent of Republicans are also opposed.
Just 28 percent of Republicans favor the ground-troops option.
Overall, just 16 percent of Americans are inclined toward the sort of approach that might satisfy Cheney.
Given a choice between President Obama’s relatively cautious response—with its emphasis, so far at least, on regional diplomacy—and the more aggressive approach of the man Obama beat for the presidency in a 2008 campaign that offered a stark choice with regard to foreign policy, 54 percent of those surveyed favored Obama’s way of handling things. Just 28 percent were inclined toward McCain’s hawkish rhetoric.
Of course, it’s more nuanced than that. Obama has already sent a contingent of 275 troops to provide embassy security in Baghdad, and there is talk of sending Special Forces units. Additionally, the prospect of a bombing campaign to support Iraqi forces has been raised.
Even more limited strategies inspire skepticism, however.
For instance, there is not majority support for military airstrikes.
According to the survey conducted by PPP for Americans United for Change, 46 percent of likely voters say they could support airstrikes. But 32 percent oppose them, and another 22 percent say they are unsure.
Respecting that skepticism, Congressman John Garamendi, D-California, and Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, on Wednesday introduced an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that would require the administration to seek the advice and consent of Congress before engaging in any sustained military action in Iraq.
“Before we ever consider sending our brave men and women in uniform back into the Iraq powder keg, we owe it to our servicemembers and to the American people to at least have a frank and public debate in the Halls of Congress,” said Garamendi, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
The amendment would not block moves to increase security at the US Embassy in Baghdad. But it would limit the use of defense funds in Iraq for actions deemed to violate requirements outlined in the War Powers Resolution.
“In 2003, Congress should have resisted the rush to a war of choice with Iraq. I will do everything in my power to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of my predecessors,” announced Garamendi. “I am deeply skeptical of reigniting America’s involvement in Iraq’s civil war, and if my amendment is adopted, we’ll at least ensure a serious debate on the merits of returning to Iraq.”
Read Next: William J. Astore on how we all got drafted into the national security state
Bernie Sanders does not believe that government always gets things right.
But the independent senator from Vermont does believe that where government has the capacity to act on behalf of those in need, it should do so.
In a capital where an awful lot of folks still buy into Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” calculus, Sanders knows that government can be the solution. Indeed, he recognizes that for those most neglected by an economy that almost always takes care of CEOs and celebrities but often fails clerks and construction workers, government is able to provide answers that the private sector cannot or will not produce.
“In the US Senate today, my right-wing colleagues talk a lot about “freedom” and limiting the size of government,” says Sanders. “Here’s what they really mean: They want ordinary Americans to have the freedom not to have health care in a country where 45,000 of our people who die each year because they don’t get to a doctor when they should. They want young people in our country to have the freedom not to go to college, and join the 400,000 young Americans unable to afford a higher education and the millions struggling with huge college debts. They want children and seniors in our country to have the freedom not to have enough food to eat, and join the many millions who are already hungry. And on and on it goes!”
Sanders cannot always get the Senate to consider the alternative. But as the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, he has the authority and the bully pulpit to focus the nation’s attention not just on the neglect of military veterans—an issue that has long been his focus—but on the solutions government can provide for them.
Even before the details of how veterans are forced to endure excessively long wait times to access VA medical care were revealed, Sanders had written and advanced major legislation to address the underfunding of VA services and a host of other programs for veterans.
Then came the revelations of the extent of the dysfunction at VA hospitals—most recently in the form of a Veterans Affairs Department audit describing how more than 57,000 veterans have been forced to wait at least three months for their first appointments. And that another 64,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past ten years never got the attention they requested—and deserved.
Sanders saw an opening to talk about what could, and should, be done. He started looking for allies. He found one in Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and Vietnam War POW.
Together, Sanders and McCain crafted a response to the crisis. Yes, there were compromises. But the outlines of what Sanders had previously proposed were very much in evidence in the proposal to spend $35 billion over three years to dramatically improve VA staffing and to provide resources for vets seeking care from doctors close to home.
Sander told the Senate, “The cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched. The cost of war continues until the last veteran receives the care and the benefits that he or she is entitled to and has earned on the battlefield.”
This time, the Senate agreed.
The often bitterly divided chamber voted 93-3 in favor of the Sanders-McCain plan.
When conservative Republicans objected to the price tag, McCain told them, “Make no mistake: this is an emergency.”
The most austerity-obsessed Republicans—Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—still voted “no.”
But most of Senate Republicans, including some of the chamber’s most conservative members, voted “yes,”
In so doing, they recognized the need for an ambitious expansion of government service, and of government aid to those who are most in need.
The Sanders-crafted measure the Senate backed seeks to
* Authorize leases for twenty-six new medical facilities in seventeen states and Puerto Rico.
* Designate funds for hiring more VA doctors and nurses to provide quality care in a timely manner.
* Expand existing VA authority to refer veterans for private care. Veterans experiencing long delays at the VA could seek care instead at community health centers, Indian health centers, Department of Defense medical facilities or private doctors. The two-year program also would offer those same options to veterans who live more than forty miles from a VA hospital or clinic.
The measure also expands accountability, giving the VA the authority to remove or demote administrators who have failed to meet the needs of vets, while creating incentives for reducing wait times at VA facilities. It also recognizes that healthcare is not the only need vets have; so the measure includes language to assure that “all recently-separated veterans taking advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill get in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.”
And, notes Sanders’s office, “for the first time, those same education benefits would be extended to surviving spouses of veterans who died in the line of duty.”
This is a big response to a big problem.
It still faces hurdles. The austerity hawks who are so good at thinking up reasons to go to war but so bad at paying for them—and so very bad at meeting commitments to those who serve—will keep raising objections. House Republicans are making predictable demands for “offsets” equaling the cost of the VA initiative, peddling the fantasy that other programs must be cut in order to find the money to aid veterans. The Philadelphia Inquireris hails the Senate measure as “an unusually swift and welcome response” that has “broad support and the potential to alleviate some of the department’s serious shortcomings.”
The prospect that a major problem will be met with a major response is real—as is the recognition that Senator Sanders has been right all along: sometimes government has to be part of the solution.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on the upheaval in Iraq