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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Nelson Mandela: Union Man

Nelson Mandela poster

A poster created by the United Auto Workers welcomes Nelson Mandela to Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, plant in 1990. (Courtesy: Digital Innovation South Africa.)

Nelson Mandela was a union man.

Long aligned with the Congress of South African Trade Unionists, Mandela framed his presidency with a declaration that: “The kind of democracy that we all seek to build demands that we deepen and broaden the rights of all citizens. This includes a culture of workers’ rights.”

In South Africa, as a young campaigner for racial justice, Mandela was profoundly influenced by the 1946 African Mine Workers Union strike. He learned organizing skills from AMWU activists and would become a champion of the miners, telling workers, “It is your sweat and blood that has created the vast wealth that white South Africa enjoys.”

Mandela, the African National Congress leader, Nobel Prize winner and first president of the new South Africa, who died Thursday at age 95, recognized the organization of workers as a part of the freedom struggle and of the formation of a just society.

Unlike so many leaders who rise of power with the support of organized labor but then distance themselves from the movement, Mandela never broke the bond. He proudly served to the end of his days as the honorary president of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers. He declared himself to be “fully committed to the protection of the integrity of the collective bargaining system.” And he spoke movingly about how the “international solidarity of workers of the world enables us to learn from each other, to support each other and strengthen our ties in the face of multinational strategies for profit maximization and exploitation.”

For generations to come, there will wide-ranging and appropriate discussion of Mandela’s remarkable contributions to our understanding of freedom, democracy, tolerance and basic human relations.

Yet, it is that understanding of international solidarity that comes to mind when people ask me about the years when I covered Mandela in South Africa and on his global travels. I saw it most powerfully during his remarkable twelve-day visit to the United States in 1990, which came just four months after his release from the Victor Verster Prison. Mandela addressed the Congress and the United Nations and visited with the president of the New York Stock Exchange. And he went to Detroit, where he was determined to thank members of United Auto Workers Local 600 for their early and militant opposition to apartheid.

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The machines stopped at the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn in June 1990. Workers held aloft unfurled “Local 600” banners to welcome the South African leader on what was dubbed his “Freedom Tour.” When Mandela finally appeared, he was greeted by United Auto Workers president Owen Bieber and vice president Ernie Lofton. Mandela recalled the struggle to organize the plant in the 1930s and told the assembled workers: “It is you who have made the United States of America a superpower, a leader of the world.”

Bieber produced a UAW lifetime membership card and Mandela held it aloft, displaying it to the cheering crowd of autoworkers. Then, wearing a UAW jacket and hat, a beaming Mandela stepped to the microphone and declared, “Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here. The man who is speaking is a member of the UAW. I am your flesh and blood.”

Douglas Foster discusses the meaning of Mandela.

Americans Want a Great Big Increase in the Minimum Wage

Fast food workers on strike

Demonstrators rally for better wages outside a McDonald's restaurant in New York, as part of a national protest, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

It is time for a great big increase in the minimum wage.

Who says?

The American people.

It is not just the thousands of fast-food restaurant workers and their allies who rallied Thursday in 130 cities across the country, although the “strike against poverty wages” puts a human face on the data charting a dramatric increase in enthusiasm for this fight.

It is vital for supporters of wage increases to recognize—as everyone from Pope Francis to President Obama is talking about income inequality—that few proposals attract such broad support as the idea of raising hourly pay so that people who work forty hours a week can support their families.

A Hart Research Associates poll conducted last summer for the National Employment Law Project Action Fund found that 80 percent of Americans surveyed favor a $10.10-an-hour wage floor. And the support cuts across lines of partisanship, ideology, race and region.

Ninety-two percent of Democrats favor the increase, as do 80 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans.

Support from Americans who earn over $100,000 a year (79 percent) is roughly the same as from Americans who earn under $40,000 a year (83 percent). Southerners are almost as supportive (81 percent) as Northeasterners (86 percent).

This enthusiasm is not just theoretical. It is immediate. Seventy-four percent of Americans say that Congress should make it a priority to significantly increase the minimum wage.

Where they can, voters are getting ahead of Congress. In New Jersey, voters just raised the state’s minimum wage by a dollar and cleared the way for additional hikes by indexing increases to inflation.

In the Seattle area last month, voters backed a $15-an-hour minimum wage for the airport city of SeaTac, and elected a $15-an-hour advocate, Kshama Sawant to the city council. Even before Sawant’s swearing in, newly-elected Mayor Ed Murray has announced that a city will study hiking wages. And Sawant says, “If corporate resistance results in the ordinance getting watered down or not passing in 2014, then we will need to place an initiative on the 2014 ballot…. Workers simply can’t afford to wait any longer for $15 an hour.”

Something real is happening across the country. And it is about time. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington for jobs and freedom fifty years ago, the federal minimum wage was $1.25 an hour. In today’s dollars, that guaranteed base wage would be $9.54 an hour.

But the federal minimum wage today is just $7.25 an hour.

So low-wage workers are more than $2 behind where they were when King declared: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

As Congressman Keith Ellison, D-MN, said at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, “Income inequality threatens our democracy as Jim Crow segregation did in 1963. Families are working harder than ever and are still struggling to put food on the table. A full day’s work doesn’t mean a full day’s pay.”

And that is especially true for fast-food workers.

Most Americans are aware that, especially in a weak economy, fast-food restaurant jobs are no longer “entry-level” positions. In chain restaurants across the country, most workers are adults. And substantial numbers of them are trying to support families.

But if they are paid the minimum wage, or even a bit more, they live in poverty.

“Almost one-quarter of all jobs in the United States pay wages below the poverty line for a family of four. CEO compensation, meanwhile, continues to climb. It would take a full-time, minimum-wage worker more than 930 years to earn as much as the chief executive officer of Yum! Brands, which operates Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, made in 2012,” explains Christine Owens, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “Fast-food workers are in the lowest paid occupational category. The median hourly wage for front-line fast-food workers is $8.94 nationally. Many don’t even earn that. A shortage of hours further limits income. Fast-food workers work only 24 hours a week on average—at $8.94 an hour, this adds up to barely $11,000 a year.”

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Organizing for better pay for fast-food and retail workers does not just benefit those workers and their families. “We can’t build a strong economy on jobs that pay so little that families can’t live on them,” notes Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry. “Raising the wage floor will make the economy stronger for all of us.”

Indeed, argues California Congressman George Miller, the senior Democratic member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, “Low pay…holds back our recovery from the Great Recession.”

Miller is the House author of the Fair Minimum Wage Act (HR 1010), which would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. The rate would then be indexed to inflation, so that pay increases come when prices rise. Additionally, Miller’s bill would increase the required cash wage for tipped workers.

Ultimately, increases must go even higher to achieve a living-wage standard. But what Miller proposes is a meaningful step in the right direction.

“Better pay will put more money into local businesses and spur economic growth,” says the California congressman. “That’s why a living wage is not about asking for a handout. Rather, it’s about valuing work. And it’s about growing the economy from the bottom up by increasing working families’ purchasing power. Americans on today’s picket lines aren’t just standing up for themselves—they are standing up for a stronger America.”

Allison Kilkenny on the fast food workers striking for living wages nationwide.

Detroit Bankruptcy Bankrupts Democracy

Detroit facing bankruptcy

A man rides his bike past graffiti in Detroit after the last hurdle to municipal bankruptcy was cleared on December 3, 2013. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

Detroit elected a new mayor November 5 and he will take office in less than a month. But the future of this great American city and its citizens isn’t being defined by decisions made by voters on Election Day. It is being defined in federal bankruptcy court—and by an “emergency manager” who has no democratic legitimacy.

With a ruling Tuesday by US Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, Detroit officially becomes the largest US city ever to enter Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Despite a determination that negotiations with creditors outside of bankruptcy court had not satisfied good-faith requirements, the judge cleared the way for the emergency manager and his law firm to advance a “plan of adjustment” that is likely to include deep cuts in pension guarantees for retired city employees and a “fire sale” of city assets that could result in public utilities and the Detroit Institute of Arts collection being bartered off to private bidders.

What Judge Rhodes has done is not the end of the bankruptcy process. It is merely the beginning. But the process has been framed in a manner that runs the risk of undermining the city’s long-term recovery by taking money away from the most vulnerable residents of Detroit. As Jordan Marks, executive director of the National Public Pension Coalition notes, “In the bankruptcy, the modest pensions of Detroit’s firefighters, police officers, and other city employees could be all but wiped out, even as Wall Street banks continue to extract hundreds millions of dollars from the city’s economy. This is a dark day for people of Detroit who worked hard, played by the rules, and are now at risk of losing everything.”

By Tuesday afternoon, according to Reuters, the emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, had "called on unions to help bridge gaps with the city on planned pension cuts." And he has commissioned the auction house Christie's to assess the value of the art institute's collection -- which traces its roots to the 1880s and includes works by Bruegel, Cézanne, van Gogh and murals by Diego Rivera -- for possible sale.

There is no question that Detroit, like many American cities, faces fiscal challenges. But instead of assuring that those challenges are met in the most humane and functional manner, the city is being steered into a wrenching process of restructuring that—by all appearances—will be based on flawed math, flawed priorities and an exceptionally flawed understanding of how democracy is supposed to work.

In a groundbreaking new study of Detroit’s finances, the think tank Demos explains that claims regarding Detroit’s debts have been dramatically inflated to make a case that the city must go bankrupt. According to Demos, proponents of the bankruptcy move have manipulated the numbers by combining statewide and city debts. “Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, asserts that the city is bankrupt because it has $18 billion in long-term debt. However, that figure is irrelevant to analysis of Detroit’s insolvency and bankruptcy filing, highly inflated and, in large part, simply inaccurate,” argues the Demos analysis, which was prepared former investment banker Wallace C. Turbeville. “In reality, the city needs to address its cash flow shortfall, which the emergency manager pegs at only $198 million, although that number too may be inflated because it is based on extraordinarily aggressive assumptions of the contributions the city needs to make to its pension funds.”

By relying on what the Demos study identifies as “extraordinarily aggressive assumptions”—and by accepting premises advanced by the same financial institutions that urged Detroit officials to make unwise financial choices—the judge has shaped a bankruptcy process that errs on the side of helping Wall Street rather than the citizens of Detroit.

At the same time, the judge has empowered an emergency manager who has a track record of acting on those “simply inaccurate” premises, rather than the officials just chosen by Detroit voters to guide their city toward fiscal and social stability.

The judge’s decision gives the essential authority to guide the city’s affairs to Orr, the “emergency manager” selected by Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who in 2010 lost the city of Detroit by a 20-1 margin. Though barely 5 percent of Detroit voters thought Snyder should be calling any of the shots regarding their state and city, he is now—via his emergency manager, with the approval of the bankruptcy judge he asked to intervene—calling the shots.

And what of the new mayor, Mike Duggan, a veteran county official and highly regarded manager who won 55 percent of the vote in last month’s election?

“The only authority I’m going to have is the authority I can convince the governor and emergency manager to assign me,” Duggan, a Democrat, told reporters in November. “I’m attempting to persuade them. We’ll see.”

Duggan says he’s “going to do everything I can to advocate on behalf of Detroit’s future in this process. We need to make sure the retirees are treated fairly on the pensions they earned.” But, despite the fact that he will be the city’s mayor, he does not have the final say even on questions of whether the city will keep commitments to retired firefighters and police officers.

This is not what democracy looks like.

This is not the will of the people of Detroit.

We know that because the emergency manager power that Snyder has used to steer the city into bankruptcy, and that the governor and his appointee will now use to guide the city’s affairs, was rejected by the city’s voters in 2012.

Snyder had to develop the new emergency manager law after a previous version of the legislation—which he had used to take over smaller cities—was overturned by Michigan voters in a statewide referendum. In Detroit, 82 percent of voters said they did not want the emergency manager law. But they got it anyway. So it is that, while Mayor Duggan may be assigned some responsibilities, he will not have the clearly defined authority that an elected mayor should have to protect pensions, preserve labor agreements and set priorities when it comes to the delivery of basic services.

This is a vital distinction to recognize as media outlets report on the judge’s decision and the bankruptcy process.

As retiring Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson reminds us: The city of Detroit did not file for municipal bankruptcy.

“The emergency manager (EM) filed the bankruptcy petition, and he is an appointee of the governor of the state of Michigan based on Act 436—a law formerly known as PA 4—which was repealed by 2.3 million Michigan citizens statewide on Nov. 6, 2012,” explains Watson. “The EM is only accountable to the governor, the EM only answers to the governor, and the EM can only be ‘checked and balanced’ by the governor.”

The new mayor and the new city council will not have the essential democratic authority to “check and balance” the emergency manager—or to guide the process that Watson argues “has clearly been crafted in a right-wing playbook to seize assets, dismember electorate voting powers, dismantle unions and the families/neighborhoods supported by union jobs, disable local elected officials, smear and tarnish the image and viability of Black elected leadership, and broadly claim that the legacy costs related to retiree pensions are largely to blame for the city’s debt crisis.”

Watson’s frustration is real. And appropriate.

Detroit’s greatest challenge has not been municipal governance. It has been deindustrialization, which has shuttered hundreds of factories and left hundreds of thousands of city residents unemployed or underemployed. And that great challenge extends beyond Detroit.

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Too many American cities face financial challenges similar to those that have destabilized Detroit. Snyder’s anti-democratic “answer” could well become the model for a response to those challenges that begins by blaming the victims and ultimately denies them a full and effective franchise.

“I believe Detroit and Michigan are ‘test cases’ for certain right-wing agents who want to do all they can to control future elections for this nation’s highest office and other posts,” says Watson. “Voter suppression, including the Supreme Court’s role in gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, are not incidental to the myriad of malevolence in Michigan.”

There is a lot more at stake in Detroit, and in Michigan, than one city’s balance sheet.

Our understanding of democracy, itself, is being subverted.

The voters of Michigan sent a clear signal last fall. They rejected emergency-manager authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, a federal bankruptcy judge has sided with a governor who could not win an election in Detroit and an approach that Detroit voters rejected.

This has nothing to do with budgeting, debt or broader fiscal matters. Those issues could, and should, be addressed by an elected mayor and city council.

This has everything to do with allowing unelectable and unelected officials—and the interests they serve—to achieve political results that could not be secured at the ballot box.

Chris Hayes ponders the constitutionality of Detroit's bankruptcy filing.

The Pope Versus Unfettered Capitalism

Pope Francis

(Reuters/Max Rossi)

Remember when the Occupy movement demanded that issues like income inequality, race-to-the-bottom globalization and the failures of the free market be placed on the agenda?

Remember the silly critique of Occupy that said the movement’s necessary challenge to austerity lacked specifics?

Problem solved.

The pope has gotten specific.

Condemning the “new tyranny” of unfettered capitalism and the “idolatry of money,” Pope Francis argues in a newly circulated apostolic exhortation that “as long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”

The pope has taken a side, not just in his manifesto but in interviews, warning: “Today we are living in an unjust international system in which ‘King Money’ is at the center.”

He is encouraging resistance to “the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” that creates “a throwaway culture that discards young people as well as its older people.”

“What I would tell the youth is to worry about looking after one another and to be conscious of this and to not allow themselves to be thrown away,” he told a television audience in his native Argentina. “So that throwaway culture does not continue, so that a culture of inclusion is achieved.”

The reference to a “culture of exclusion” is not casual.

In his manifesto, the pope decries the current “economy of exclusion and inequality.”

“Such an economy kills,” he explains. “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

What makes the contribution from Pope Francis to the emerging global dialogue about the next economy so significant is his explicit rejection of the basic underpinnings of the broken economic models that have created the current crisis—of the failed ideas that, remarkably, continue to be promoted by fiscal fabulists like House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” writes the new pope in his manifesto. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed.”

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As a global figure with a significant following and an ability to speak to the political and corporate elites, Pope Francis’ voice may be heard where others are dismissed. And the fact that he is embracing a critique of capitalism that has come from the streets—rather than the apologias issued from the suites—has the potential to move the debate. The point here is not to suggest that the dictates of any religious leader will be followed by Wall Street or Washington—nor that pronouncements from the Vatican are going to guide the economic and social discourse of secular society.

The point is to recognize that an alternative argument has taken shape. And new voices are being added to the chorus of complaint about an austerity agenda that would undermine universal guarantees such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, cut food stamps, and barter off basic services such as the Post Office, while at the same time restructuring tax and regulatory policies in order to redistribute wealth upward.

The world is in the midst of a rapidly evolving—and absolutely vital—debate about “the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”

On one side are the billionaires and their political pawns, angling for more of the income inequality that has so benefited them.

On the other side are labor unions, anti-poverty campaigners, Occupy activists—and a pope who argues that “money must serve, not rule!”

George Zornick reflects on the challenges of a food stamp Thanksgiving.

Conservatives Upset With Obama's ‘Multicultural Pieties’ on Thanksgiving Should Try a Serving of FDR

FDR

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (AP Photo)

It is no secret that Republicans in Washington and the conservative commentators who form their national echo chamber cut Barack Obama no slack—even when it comes to the issuance of Thanksgiving Proclamations.

No sooner had Obama issued this year’s proclamation than he was taking hits for “using the opportunity to bring out his favorite hobby horse, homosexuality.” The complaint was with the opening lines of the proclamation, in which Obama declares:

Thanksgiving offers each of us the chance to count our many blessings—the freedoms we enjoy, the time we spend with loved ones, the brave men and women who defend our Nation at home and abroad. This tradition reminds us that no matter what our background or beliefs, no matter who we are or who we love, at our core we are first and foremost Americans.

But, of course, there is always a complaint. The right’s stance with regard to the current president is one of perpetual offense, even when he is at his most mild. Indeed, by comparison with past presidents—especially Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used Thanksgiving proclamations to chart and encourage the progress of the nation—the current president has been remarkably restrained in his remarks.

But that hasn’t earned Obama any sympathy from the conservative intelligentsia.

Last year, after the president was re-elected with a 5-million popular vote margin, an Electoral College supermajority and a higher percentage of the popular vote than John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992 or 1996 or George Bush in 2000 or 2004, Obama put a modestly enlightened spin on his recognition of the 391st Thanksgiving.

His 2012 proclamation recalls that “the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony…enjoyed the fruits of their labor with the Wampanoag tribe—a people who had shared vital knowledge of the land in the difficult months before” and notes “the contributions that generations of Native Americans have made to our country.” He even celebrates community organizers, whose “actions reflect our age-old belief that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and they affirm once more that we are a people who draw our deepest strength not from might or wealth, but from our bonds to each other.”

The president’s words did not sit well with our friends on the right.

Conservative commentators grumbled that Obama’s proclamations—not just his holiday statements but, presumably, his proclamations in general—were insufficiently religious in tone.

Thanksgiving Dumbed Down,” growled the National Review headline.

“God is lucky to get a mention or two,” National Review editor Rich Lowry objected. “What God has lost in prominence in Obama’s statements has been gained by the American Indians, in a bow to multicultural pieties.” Oh those First Americans, always elbowing their way into our history!

Perhaps conservatives are worried that Obama’s modest “multicultural pieties” serve as a holiday manifestation of the demographic turning that handed the president an overwhelming mandate last year, and that provided the underpinning for breakthrough wins by Democrats in 2012 elections that saw the party’s candidates win the mayoralty of New York for the first time in twenty years and secure an apparent sweep of statewide offices in Virginia for the first time in decades.

While right-wing partisans may have reason to worry about their long-term political prospects, they needn’t worry about the president’s seasonal pronouncements. Obama is safely within the bounds of Thanksgiving promulgation. Indeed, it has been the better part of seventy years since a president made serious use of “multicultural pieties” in his Thanksgiving proclamations.

Americans have to look back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a thoroughly multicultural call to “let every man of every creed go to his own version of the Scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved.”

FDR’s Thanksgiving proclamations were bold and politically adventurous statements. He constantly flavored his proclamations with advocacy for action and challenges to the economic and political elites with which the nation was wrestling during the Great Depression. “May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors,” read Roosevelt’s first proclamation in 1933. A year later, he declared:

Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality.

More greatly have we turned our hearts and minds to things spiritual. We can truly say, “What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world and lose its own soul.”

By 1935, as Roosevelt’s New Deal was fully engaging, he wrote: “We can well be grateful that more and more of our people understand and seek the greater good of the greater number. We can be grateful that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself.”

After his landslide re-election in 1936, FDR would encourage Americans “to fulfill our obligation to use our national heritage by common effort for the common good.” He found cause for thanksgiving in the fact of laws and labor organizing that guaranteed “the toiler in shop and mill receives a more just return for his labor.”

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To a far greater extent than the presidents who succeeded him, including Obama, Roosevelt used his Thanksgiving proclamations to speak, in moral and spiritual terms, about the ills afflicting the republic—and about the radical remedies he had initiated in response to them.

“Our Nation has gone steadily forward in the application of democratic processes to economic and social problems,” wrote Roosevelt in 1939. “We have faced the specters of business depression, of unemployment, and of widespread agricultural distress, and our positive efforts to alleviate these conditions have met with heartening results. We have also been permitted to see the fruition of measures which we have undertaken in the realms of health, social welfare, and the conservation of resources.”

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For Roosevelt, every opportunity to speak of a New Deal was taken. Every teachable moment was utilized. Thanksgiving proclamations were not merely pious repetitions of past histories. They were statements of principle, and celebrations of that deepening sense of social justice.

Obama’s critics are inclined, always, to find something unsettling in his official words and deeds. But by comparison with Roosevelt, the current president’s Thanksgiving proclamations are modest, in their moral messaging and in their “multicultural pieties.”

Don’t Be Fooled: Scott Walker Is No Reformer

Scott Walker

Scott Walker (AP/Morry Gash)

Could there be irony greater than that of a career politician appearing before a gathering of political donors in a city far from his home state to declare that he is an outsider and a “reformer”?

Not likely.

Indeed, it would take a mighty tone-deaf politician to miss the surreal moment in which he found himself.

Meet Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin governor has spent much of the month of November scrambling around the television studios, luxury hotel suites and corporate-funded “think tanks” of Washington and New York, desperately attempting to position himself as a Republican presidential prospect. And he has done so without any sense of irony.

And an expectation that the national media will be gullible enough to believe that the most divisive governor in the modern history of Wisconsin—polls show that his classic swing state is almost evenly divided between those who approve and disapprove of the governor—can somehow run for the presidency as a consensus builder. Walker is now being pitched by the co-writer of the governor’s 2016 campaign book—Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge—as the ideal GOP candidate for the presidency.

Of all the “compelling potential standard-bearers” for the party, argues Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, “none is better positioned to energize the conservative grassroots while winning the center than Scott Walker.”

Thiessen imagines Walker “as an across-the-board, unflinching, full-spectrum conservative” with an ability to appeal “to persuadable, reform-minded, results-oriented independents.”

That may be what Walker says. But that’s not the assessment of state Senator Dale Schultz, a Republican who has worked with Walker for two decades and who enthusiastically backed Walker in 2010.

This year, Schultz opposed Walker’s approach to a state budget process that the senator said veered—on everything from school funding to academic freedom to tax policy to local control—into territory that was “way too extreme.”

Schultz, a veteran legislator from rural western Wisconsin, criticized Walker for “passing up an opportunity to show independent leadership.”

“No amount of rhetoric or sloganeering will cover up the influence of an out of state billionaire funded and driven agenda,” declared Schultz. “This is not the Wisconsin agenda I’ve fought for over 30 years, and it’s not the Wisconsin agenda I hear from people as I travel around my district and across the state.”

Walker and his allies are doing everything they can to foster the fantasy that the governor as an outsider, a reformer, the antithesis of poilitics as usual. That was certainly the agenda last week, when Walker appeared in New York City before a November 18 gathering of top check writers for Republican candidates, Walker ripped the Democrat he hopes to run against in 2016—Hillary Clinton—for her long record of public service. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t just secretary of state, wasn’t just a U.S. senator, wasn’t just the first lady. She’s been a product of Washington for decades.”

Always at the ready for some self-promotion, Walker told the Republican crowd in New York that “if we’re going to beat somebody like Hillary Clinton, we’ve got to have somebody from outside of Washington, who’s got a proven record of reform.”

So, let’s review: Clinton’s the insider and Walker’s the outsider, right?

Not so fast.

Though she spent many years in Arkansas, Clinton has certainly done her time in Washington. And she is certainly no innocent when it comes to the maneuverings and manipulations that take place in the capitals of states and nations. So even if she is not a “product” of Washington, she is certainly no newcomer to the political game.

And what of Walker?

The governor conveniently forgot to mention that he began his own political career at age 22 and has, since then, run twenty-three years primary and general election campaigns in twenty-three years—making him one of the most determined careerists in American politics. And even before he finishes his first term as one of the nation’s most embattled governors, Walker is bidding for the presidency—so much so that he did not bother to correct a questioner in New York who began: “Since you’re clearly running for president…

The problem with careerists is that they are often more interested in their careers than in challenging power.

In a word, they are: intimidated.

But Walker says that’s not him.

The governor’s new book seeks to portray this would-be presidential contender as an fearless political warrior, ever at the ready to advance his ideals.

That, like Walker’s suggestion that his austerity agenda has been successful, is a fantasy grounded in his ambition rather than reality.

In fact, Walker is one of the most intimidated politicians in America.

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When Walker ran for governor in 2006, he framed a reform message that talked about ending crony capitalism and addressing the influence of special-interest campaign money and lobbying on the state budget process. In meetings with the state’s newspaper editorial boards, he pitched himself as a different kind of Republican who would not play insider political games. Walker earned some high marks when he “vowed to run as an underdog battling party insiders”—except from party insiders, who were unimpressed with his campaign.

In March 2006, just days after Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman visited Wisconsin, and barely a week after a visit to the state by Vice President Dick Cheney, Walker folded his gubernatorial campaign.

No “unintimidated” stand against the Washington power brokers. No fight to the end on behalf of his ideals. No faith that a grass-roots campaign could beat the money power.

Four years later Walker was back, with a better fundraising operation. This time, he had all the right connections. National donors, like Charles and David Koch, made maximum contributions to his campaign, and then gave even more money to groups making “independent” expenditures on Walker’s behalf.

He won, and in February 2011, when he got a call from someone he thought was David Koch, Walker played along with the caller’s talk about “planting some troublemakers” to disrupt peaceful protests against the governor’s anti-labor policies. Walker writes in his book that “we never—never—considered putting ‘troublemakers’ in the crowd to discredit the protesters.” Yet, when he was talking to someone he thought was a billionaire campaign donor, the governor said: “We thought about that.” If we take Walker at his word—that he never considered using agents provocateurs—then why didn’t he say so at the time? Was he intimidated by someone he thought was a major campaign donor?

The same question arises regarding Walker’s conversation with Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who gave $500,000 to his 2012 campaign. Walker has said he has “no interest in pursuing right-to-work legislation” to weaken private-sector unions. Yet, when Hendricks asked him about right-to-work legislation, Walker did not say, “We’re not going to do that.” Rather, he told Hendricks his “first step” would be to attack public-sector unions as part of a “divide-and-conquer” strategy.

Walker wants a frequently obtuse national media and grassroots Republicans to imagine that he is “unintimidated.” And perhaps that is the case when he is picking on teachers and nurses and anyone who might dare to join a public-employee union. But when the party bosses and billionaire donors come calling, he’s just another politician telling the money power what it wants to hear.

John Nichols catalogues how Scott Walker’s memories of his years as governor diverge from reality.

Senator Susan Collins Is the Barrier to Transparency, Accountability on Drones

Senator Susan Collins

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine (courtesy US Senate)

Susan Collins is supposed to be the last reasonable Republican in the Senate.

The pair of New England Republicans with whom she had aligned in something of a regional caucus—fellow Mainer Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown of Massachusetts—are gone. So, elite media outlets frequently remind us, it’s up to Collins.

But on a fundamental question of democratic governance—accounting for civilians killed by US drone strikes—Collins does not appear to be up for it.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, on which Collins sits, voted this month to require the government to report on the number of civilians who have been being killed by drone strikes, as part of a broader effort to bring the Congress into a proper advise-and-consent role when it comes to killings that are committed in the name of the American people but without their informed consent.

The legislation is a big deal: “Because the U.S. government number is secret, we can’t have a normal democratic debate about the policy,” explains the group Just Foreign Policy. “Government officials anonymously tell the press that civilian deaths from drone strikes have been rare. Independent reporting says otherwise. Government officials anonymously tell the press that the independent reporting isn’t accurate, but they won’t say why it isn’t accurate and they won’t say what is accurate. So the broad public is left with ‘he said, she said.’ Media that reach the broad public won’t challenge the government’s claims about civilian casualties until we can force the government onto the public record to defend its claims.”

Unfortunately, notes Robert Naiman, the policy director for Just Foriegn Policy, Collins voted “no.”

“Because of the way the Senate works, Susan Collins’s opposition could keep this crucial reform of the drone strike policy from becoming law,” Naiman and his Just Foreign Policy colleagues argue.

This is how Collins fits into the equation: “Senator Collins’s support for this provision is crucial because it’s not likely that the Senate will pass it into law unless it attracts some Republican support. Republicans outside the committee tend to defer to Republicans on the committee. But no Republican supported the amendment in committee. Susan Collins is the Republican member of the committee considered most likely to change her position.”

Which takes this debate out of the Intelligence Committee, out of the Capitol and out of Washington.

Drone policy is unlikely to change unless Collins changes her position. But that is not likely to happen, Naiman suggests, “unless there’s some public agitation for it.”

To get that, there has to be a real debate about drone policy—nationally, but especially in Maine.

Nationally, there’s a MoveOn petition campaign urging Collins “to reverse her opposition to telling the public about civilian deaths from US drone strikes.” It has already attracted roughly 15,000 signatures, with thousands of new names being added daily.

But what about Maine?

Enter Shenna Bellows.

The longtime executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, recently announced that she would challenge Collins in 2014 as a “Democrat. Libertarian. Progressive.”

Bellows is serious about all three words. And she has a record of taking on both parties on issues ranging from the Patriot Act to freedom of information to drone policy. In fact, she has been a national leader on the final issue, having organized a left-right coalition that got the Maine legislature to pass legislation requiring police agencies to obtain a probable cause warrant before using drones for surveillance. (Governor Paul LePage vetoed the bill but then issued an executive order directing the state’s commissioner of public safety to issue a policy governing law enforcement use and operation of drones.

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Bellows launched her campaign in October, with a declaration that

We need to repeal the Patriot Act and REAL ID.

We need to stop the NSA and the FBI from wasting their time and taxpayer dollars spying on ordinary Americans through our cell phones and email.

We need to place limits on drones.

Bellows argues that Congress has created a constitutional crisis by failing to defend basic liberties, and by failing to serve as a check and balance on executive overreach.

She is right.

And her candidacy highlights a vital constitutional question—that of the right of Congress and the people to information about military missions—on which Collins is wrong.

Political campaigns, by their nature, are competitions for power. But they are also competitions of ideas. They can put issues into play. And they can force entrenched politicians to think anew about stances they have taken. Even those who might not back Shenna Bellows must recognize the value of a candidacy that demands Collins think more deeply about the essential role of the legislative branch in checking and balancing the executive.

Robert Greewald’s film Unmanned adds fuel to the drone debate.

Honor JFK by Renewing His Constitutional Commitment to Extend Voting Rights

John F. Kennedy

“The right to vote in a free American election is the most powerful and precious right in the world—and it must not be denied on the grounds of race or color. It is a potent key to achieving other rights of citizenship. For American history—both recent and past—clearly reveals that the power of the ballot has enabled those who achieve it to win other achievements as well, to gain a full voice in the affairs of their state and nation, and to see their interests represented in the governmental bodies which affect their future. In a free society, those with the power to govern are necessarily responsive to those with the right to vote.”
    —John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Civil Rights, 1963

There has been much honoring of the memory of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy this week, and rightly so. He was dynamic figure who preached a “new generation of leadership” vision that still serves as an antithesis to the listless, austerity-burdened rhetoric of so many of today’s political figures—including some in Kennedy’s own Democratic party.

Kennedy saw himself as a liberal reformer, declaring in 1960: “If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal.’ ”

Kennedy was ardently in favor of religious tolerance, respect for immigrants and labor rights (in 1962 he signed Executive Order 10988, which established the right of most federal workers to bargain collectively). Yes, in his service as a senator from Massachusetts and later as the nation’s thirty-fifth president, Kennedy was a politician of his times, which meant that he could disappoint; surely, he was slower than need be when it came to challenging Cold War dogmas and in calling out Southern resistance to social and economic justice. But Kennedy evolved, as did the nation he led, during the course of his short but transformational presidency.

Kennedy devoted much of the last year of his life to advocacy on behalf of voting rights. His great civil rights address—delivered in the last year of his presidency from the Oval Office to a national television and radio audience—argued that “it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal.”

Fifty years after his assassination, Kennedy can be honored in many ways. But a renewal of his liberal commitment to voting rights would surely be a fine place to begin. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which eliminated the poll tax, was placed on the national agenda by Kennedy, who made it his personal mission to eliminate the wealth barrier to voting.

Politically savvy, the president knew that enacting a constitutional amendment would be difficult, but he argued for going “the hard way” because of an understanding of the need to go around Southern resistance in the Senate and because of a determination on lock in voting-rights gains.

Kennedy promoted the amendment in speeches and letters to the Congress, and then in a steady stream of telegrams and phone calls that prodded governors and legislators across the country to get their states on board.

In the last months before his death, Kennedy was in the thick of the struggle for voting rights, telling Americans: “Finally, the 87th Congress—after 20 years of effort—passed and referred to the states for ratification a Constitutional Amendment to prohibit the levying of poll taxes as a condition to voting. I urge every state legislature to take prompt action on this matter and to outlaw the poll tax—which has too long been an outmoded and arbitrary bar to voting participation by minority groups and others—as the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.”

Beyond the bully pulpit, the president exchanged notes with governors such as Wisconsin’s John Reynolds regarding the details of legislative debates and votes. To a far greater extent than was known at the time, Kennedy personally managed the ratification process.

Thirty-six states ratified the amendment before Kennedy’s assassination—two short of the needed total. Kennedy and others hoped that Texas might break with other states and support the amendment. A statewide referendum on November 9, 1963, proposed to repeal that state’s poll tax and the campaign was intense. Opponents of repeal argued that people of color would “flood the polls” if the economic barrier to voting was removed. Supporters distributed literature that declared: “President Kennedy Wants You to Vote Saturday, November 9, to Repeal the Poll Tax.”

A special message from Kennedy read: “I share the conviction that the right to vote should not be denied or abridged because of the failure to pay a poll tax.”

The literature made the connection to the civil rights movement, urging a “yes” vote: “For Better Job Opportunities, For Better Housing, For Equality and Dignity, For Freedom.”

Unfortunately, a majority of Texas voters saw the change as a threat. The rejected repeal less that two weeks before Kennedy made his trip to Dallas. Yet the president continued his advocacy, getting prominent Texans such as Vice President Lyndon Johnson and US Senator Ralph Yarborough to lend their names to the effort.

Kennedy died without seeing his amendment added to the Constitution.

But his labors were not in vain.

The final states, Maine and South Dakota, signaled their approval in the weeks after the president’s death

When the Twenty-fourth Amendment was added to the Constitution in January 1964, the change in the founding document was heralded with front-page headlines in newspapers and broadcast reports from coast to coast—except, notably, in Southern states where too many media outlets had aligned themselves with the massive resistance to civil-rights legislation, even when that legislation took the form of a constitutional amendment.

The constitutional elimination of the barrier Kennedy derided as “the property qualification” for voting signaled the arrival of what the late president had hoped for: “another turning point in the history of the great Republic.” With the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it seemed, finally, that the nation might move “beyond the new frontiers” of which Kennedy had spoken.

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Unfortunately, as the historian Eric Foner reminds us, the history of the right to vote in America is one of expansion and contraction. And the rights Kennedy and so many others fought to expand have been contracting with the passage of restrictive “Voter ID” laws, attacks on early voting and same-day registration, and a US Supreme Court move to gut the Voting Rights Act. Responding to the legislative and judicial assaults on the voting rights, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison have returned to the constitutional route that John Kennedy charted when he set out to end polls taxes and property qualifications as a barrier to voting.

With support from groups such as FairVote and Color of Change, the struggle for a constitutional guarantee of voting rights has gone national. Communities across the country are passing resolutions urging Congress to approve the amendment and send it to the states. As in the period before Kennedy embraced the campaign for an amendment banning the poll tax, there is a burgeoning grassroots campaign for constitutional intervention on behalf of voting rights.

The Pocan-Ellison proposal states in simple language the values that voting-rights campaigners have championed for decades: “Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides,” and “Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.”

Or as John Fitzgerald Kennedy put it in 1963: “It is necessary [to] free the forces of our democratic system…promptly insuring the franchise to all citizens, making it possible for their elected officials to be truly responsive to all their constituents.”

Ari Berman describes the contemporary resurgence of Jim Crow throughout the United States.

Rep. Trey Radel Won’t Be Joining the More Than Half a Million Americans Jailed for Drug Offenses

Florida Rep. Trey Radel

Florida Congressman Trey Radel, who has wisely determined that he does not want to become an American version of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, says he will take a leave of absence from the US House of Representatives to address his penchant for cocaine.

“I’m struggling with this disease, but I know that I can overcome it,” explains the conservative Republican.

Fair enough. The congressman wants to finally deal with an addiction problem he says he’s struggled with “on and off for years.” And there is every reason to wish him well as he does so.

But it would be good for Radel and his colleagues to note that he has identified his challenge as a disease, not a bad habit.

That’s a very different line than was taken by the House Republicans Caucus (of which Radel has been an enthusiastic member) when the chamber this year gave voice-vote approval to an amendment that allows states to require drug-testing of food stamp recipients. Why would they seek to penalize victims of what the congressman says is a disease? Why would they go after the neediest Americans in what Congressman Jim McGovern—the House’s most ardent advocate for nutrition programs—with a “degrading and mean-spirited” approach?

Why, in general, is there a rush to penalize Americans who are in need far more aggressively than Radel, a former television reporter who was elected to Congress last year with the backing of Tea Party groups that have made it a priority to promote crackdowns on recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Radel’s penalty for an admitted purchase of cocaine from an undercover agent will be a year of supervised probation.

He will not lose his job, or the benefits that will allow him to overcome his disease. He even suggests that he wants to “continue to serve.”

Radel seems to be safe from the worst ravages of the drug war. He's getting a chance to "overcome" his problems.

But Americans who are not members of Congress continue to be harmed. Shouldn't they get the same chance that Radel has gotten?

As the Drug Policy Alliance notes:

§ The number of people behind bars for drug law violations rose from 50,000 in 1980 to more than a half of a million today—an 1100-percent increase.

§ Drug arrests have more than tripled in the last 25 years, totaling more than 1.63 million arrests in 2010. More than four out of five of these arrests were for mere possession, and forty-six percent of these arrests (750,591) were for marijuana possession alone.

§ Arrests and incarceration for drugs—even for first time, low-level violations—can result in debilitating collateral consequences for an individual and their family. A conviction for a drug law violation can result in the loss of employment, property, public housing, food stamp eligibility, financial aid for college, and the right to vote—even after serving time behind bars.

And Radel’s House Republican Caucus just led the fight to make it even harder on people suffering from what the congressman identifies as a disease—or for people who simply engage in recreational marijuana use—to get by.

There are lots of calls for Radel to step down.

But wouldn’t it be better for him to get his treatment and come around to the realization that penalizing and punishing people who use drugs is a bad policy? Wouldn’t it be better if he recognized, as a participant in future policy debates, that this bad policy is too frequently applied in a “new Jim Crow” manner that sees people of color and low-income Americans face far harsher penalties than wealthy and politically connected white folks?

Radel could be a leader in backing legislative proposals would change not just policies but the broader debate about how to end a failed “drug war.” So, too, could more members of a House Republican Caucus that still errs too frequently on the side of punishment of those in need rather than common sense.

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Some Republicans have already come around. There’s bipartisan support for some of the soundest legislative proposals. But the support has not been sufficient to get the House moving on what the Drug Policy Alliance identifies as essential reforms, such as:

§ The Safety Valve Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and in the U.S. House by Representatives Robert “Bobby” Scott, D-Virginia, and Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky. The bills would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted. (Notably, Radel is a co-sponsor of this measure. Unfortunately, he’s one of just 18 House members—15 Democrats, 3 Republicans—who are now on board.)

§ The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced in the US Senate by Senators Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and in the House by Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Bobby Scott, which would lower mandatory minimums for certain drug law violations, make the recent reduction in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity retroactive, and give judges more discretion to sentence certain offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence if warranted. (Ten members—7 Democrats and three Republicans, but no Radel—are backing this measure.)

§ The Public Safety Enhancement Act, introduced in the US House by Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Bobby Scott, which would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.(Seventeen House members—12 Democrats and 5 Republicans, but no Radel—are backing this measure.)

These pieces of legislation represent vital steps in the right direction. Ultimately, however, the first step is to recognize that Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” has failed and that it is absurd to continue to respond to that failure with an unreasonable and unequal regimen of penalty and punishment.

Take Action: Ask President Obama to Pardon Nonviolent Drug Offenders

Zoë Carpenter describes how inequality is “literally killing America.”

Bernie Sanders Might Just Have to Run for President

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders is not burning with presidential ambition. He doubts that he would consider bidding for the nation’s top job if another prominent progressive was gearing up for a 2016 run that would provide a seriously-focused and seriously competitive populist alternative to politics as usual.

But if the fundamental issues that are of concern to the great mass of Americans—“the collapse of the middle class, growing wealth and income inequality, growth in poverty, global warming”—are not being discussed by the 2016 candidates, Sanders says, “Well, then maybe I have to do it.”

This calculation brings the independent senator from Vermont a step closer to presidential politics than he has ever been before. With a larger social-media following than most members of Congress, a regular presence on left-leaning television and talk radio programs—syndicated radio host Bill Press greeted the Sanders speculation with a Tuesday morning “Go, Bernie, Go!” cheer—and a new “Progressive Voters of America” political action committee, Sanders has many of the elements of an insurgent candidacy in place.

But the senator is still a long way from running.

In interviews over the past several days, Sanders has argued with increasing force that the times demand that there be a progressive contender in 2016.

“Under normal times, it’s fine, if you have a moderate Democrat running, a moderate Republican running,” the senator told his hometown paper, the Burlington Free Press. “These are not normal times. The United States right now is in the middle of a severe crisis and you have to call it what it is.”

So, says Sanders, there must be a progressive alternative to the conservative Republican politics of cruelty and cuts and the centrist Democratic politics of compromise with the conservatives.

“[The] major issues of this country that impact millions of people cannot continue to be swept under the rug,” Sanders told Politico on Monday. “And if nobody else is talking about it, well, then maybe I have to do it. But I do not believe that I am the only person that is capable of doing this.”

The independent senator has high praise for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has recently been talked up by some progressives as a prospective primary challenger to the front-runner for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Unlike Clinton, Warren has a reputation for taking on Wall Street, big banks and corporate CEOs, and Sanders hails the Massachusetts senator as a “real progressive.” But Warren says she is not running.

So what happens if Warren stands down? And what if other liberal and populist presidential prospects, such as Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, fail to gain traction?

Then, says Sanders, he’d consider a run.

That sounds casual. But it isn’t. Sanders has stipulations regarding a candidacy.

Though he is a proud independent, he would not run as a November “spoiler” who might take away just enough votes to throw the presidential election to a right-wing Republican.

And he has little taste for “educational” campaigns that seek to raise issues—either on an independent line or in a Democratic primary dominated by a Clinton juggernaut—but do not seriously compete for power.

If Sanders were to run—and that remains a very big “if”—he says he would do so with a strategy for winning.

That strategy, whether the senator were to mount a presidential bid as an independent or as a Democrat, would not be built around insider ties or connections; Clinton already has much of the party establishment locked down. And it certainly would not rely on raising the most money, explains the sponsor of a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and get big money out of politics.

When we spoke recently about the challenges facing progressive candidates, Sanders said what most politicians will not:

“This small handful of multi-billionaires control the economics of this country. They determine whether jobs stay in the United States or whether they go to China. They determine how much we’re going to BE paying for a gallon of gas. They determine whether we’re going to transform our economic system away from fossil fuel. Economically, they clearly have an enormous amount of power. And, now, especially with Citizens United, these very same people are now investing in politics. That’s what oligarchy is. Oligarchy is when a small number of people control the economic and political life of the country—certainly including the media—and we are rapidly moving toward an oligarchic form of society.”

Sanders actually likes the prospects of taking on the oligarchs, saying: “And I think you can bring people together to say: Look, we may have our disagreements, but we don’t want billionaires deciding who the next governor is going to be, the next senator, the next president of the United States. As someone who believes in that type of grassroots organizing, I think it’s a great opportunity.”

So any presidential run by Sanders would rely on small contributions and grassroots support. But the core of the strategy would be that challenge to oligarchy, with its focus on values and ideas that have been too long dismissed by prominent presidential contenders and the media that covers them.

In effect, say Sanders, he would run only if he thought that he could fill the great void in the American political discourse, and in so doing inspire voters to reject old orthodoxies in favor of a new populist politics that would have as its core theme economic justice.

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When we spoke about what is missing from American politics, Sanders told me that the president America needs would begin the discussion, as Franklin Roosevelt did, by calling out the plutocrats and their political and media minions.

Imagine, explains Sanders, if Americans had a president who said to them: “I am going to stand with you. And I am going to take these guys on. And I understand that they’re going to be throwing thirty-second ads at me every minute. They’re going to do everything they can to undermine my agenda. But I believe that if we stand together, we can defeat them.”

The senator explained the concept that would, necessarily, underpin a presidential bid:

“If you had a President who said: ‘Nobody in America is going to make less than $12 or $14 an hour,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President who said: ‘You know what, everybody in this country is going to get free primary health care within a year,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘Every kid in this country is going to go to college regardless of their income,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘I stand here today and guarantee you that we are not going to cut a nickel in Social Security; in fact we’re going to improve the Social Security program,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a president who said, ‘Global warming is the great planetary crisis of our time, I’m going to create millions jobs as we transform our energy system. I know the oil companies don’t like it. I know the coal companies don’t like it. But that is what this planet needs: we’re going to lead the world in that direction. We’re going to transform the energy system across this planet—and create millions of jobs while we do that.’ If you had a President say that, what kind of excitement would you generate from young people all over this world?”

Whether Sanders runs or not, the prospect of such a speak-truth-to-power presidency is an appealing one. And the senator from Vermont is right: Americans do not just deserve such an option. In these times, they need a serious progressive alternative the ugly politics of austerity -- and the empty politics of compromise.

John Nichols discusses another candidate of progressives’ dreams: Elizabeth Warren.

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