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Northampton, Massachusetts—When Bernie Sanders said in a Nation interview in March that he was prepared—not at all certain, but prepared—to run for the presidency, that got a lot of political activists thinking.
They were thinking about the prospect of a presidential run by a progressive populist who speaks bluntly about the need for a “political revolution” to tip the balance away from oligarchy and toward democracy. But they were also thinking about the ballot line on which the senator from Vermont might seek to build a movement-driven campaign not just for the presidency but for a new American politics.
Sanders caucuses with the Senate Democrats, but he has never been a Democrat. He started in politics as a candidate seeking statewide posts in the 1970s on the ballot line of Vermont’s left-wing Liberty Union Party. He was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981 as an independent who went on to beat the Democrats and the Republicans in election after election. His tenure in Burlington spurred local third-party activism, laying the groundwork for the Vermont Progressive Party, which is today one of the most successful state-based progressive parties in modern American history. Sanders was elected to the US House and the US Senate as an independent. And his criticisms of the compromises made by both major parties—harsher toward the Republicans, but plenty pointed toward the Democrats—are central to the message he delivers on the stump, in media appearances and in Washington.
So, if Sanders were to run for the presidency, would he do so as a Democrat, taking on the prospective candidacy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and perhaps others in the 2016 caucuses and primaries?
Would he consider running as a Green, embracing a party that has secured and maintained ballot lines in states across the country and that has had significant success electing local officials in a number of regions?
Or would he mount an independent campaign, perhaps with an eye toward building a new party politics that combines economic populism, environmental advocacy and a commitment to social justice?
There are now “Run Bernie Run” websites, “Draft Bernie” Twitter accounts and “Ready for Bernie” Facebook pages. Groups are petitioning, organizing meetings and making appeals to the senator and to the grassroots activists who the senator says would have to be the essential players in any insurgent campaign.
Last weekend, Progressive Democrats of America, a group that has worked for a decade to get the party to turn left—with an explicitly economic populist and anti-war agenda summed up by its slogan “Healthcare Not Warfare”—presented Sanders with petitions signed by close to 12,000 activists who are asking the senator to run as a Democrat.
The petition drive, initiated by Tim Carpenter, a veteran political organizer and PDA National Director who died last month, is not finished. But an appearance by Sanders Saturday at PDA’s national conference in Northampton prompted the decision to deliver the first stack of signatures. “We want him to know that there’s enthusiasm for a run, and to run as a Democrat,” said actress Mimi Kennedy, the PDA board chair who delivered the petition that announces, “We, the Undersigned, make this call for a primary challenge in full recognition of the need to prevent the current crazed, mean, and dangerous incarnation of the Republican Party from seizing total power; and…We, the Undersigned, do declare that we will knock on doors, donate, make phone calls, use social media, and do everything we can to elect Bernie Sanders the next president of the United States.”
At the same time, individual Green Party activists are arguing that Sanders, who has long been outspoken on a range of economic and social justice, peace and sustainability issues that animate the party, should seek a Green endorsement and a place on the party’s November ballot lines. A change.org petition declares: “Senator Bernie Sanders must run for president as a Green Party candidate if he wishes to remedy any of the grave problems that he speaks about.”
A recent article in Socialist Alternative, the national newspaper of the group with which Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant is allied, made the argument that Sanders, a democratic socialist, should try to do nationally what Sawant did last fall with her development of a movement-based candidacy that upset the traditional political calculus in Seattle. “Our view, again, is that there has not been a more propitious time in modern American history to begin to build a pro-working class political force. Kshama Sawant’s resounding success is a very small indication of what is possible if progressive forces, and especially a section of the labor movement, decided to make a decisive break with the Democrats,” declares the piece. “We are not, of course, pretending that a mass party of the 99 percent could be built overnight, but if Sanders decided to run as an independent left candidate for president on the basis of using his campaign to help galvanize the forces to launch such a party, it would be an enormous step forward. Concretely, his presidential run could be linked to a national effort to stand a slate of credible left candidates in local and national races in 2016 on an independent basis.”
Sanders admits that he wrestles with the issue. As recently as Friday night, when we participated in a town meeting in Northampton where “Run, Bernie, Run” chants broke out several times, the senator reflected on the question at some length, asking rhetorically, “What’s the advantage of running as an independent? The advantage of running independent is, right now, most people in this country do not have a lot of faith in either political party. So when you say you’re an independent, people say ‘Well, you’re not a Democrat or a Republican, that’s pretty good.’ What’s the disadvantage? The big disadvantage is…you would have to build an entire political infrastructure. That, in itself, would cost a huge amount of money and require people to do nothing else but try to get you on the ballot. We want to talk about issues, right? Now, getting on the ballot is important and we have to explain democracy to folks as well. But, more importantly, our energy should be on talking about national healthcare, distribution of wealth and all of the issues we feel strongly about…”
Sanders has considered the various possibilities, and he says he can see the appeal in each approach. Yet, he says that he would not run as a November spoiler. That means that to mount a third-party or independent campaign, he and his supporters would need to build a big enough movement to be a serious contender in a race with the Democrats and the Republicans—or be prepared to fold the outsider run before the November vote.
The history of prominent progressives who have tried the third-party and independent route—from Eugene Victor Debs to Theodore Roosevelt to Bob La Follette to Norman Thomas to Henry Wallace to Benjamin Spock to Ralph Nader—is a frustrating one. While there are many historical examples of third-party and independent presidential campaigns forcing the major parties to address issues, and even to change direction, there are fewer examples of sustainable movements that have been developed. And there is just one example of a radical party that cracked the upper tier of American politics: the Republicans of the 1850s.
With that history in mind, the senator mentioned in Northampton that running as a Democrat offered the advantage that “it’s kind of easy to get on the ballot, you’re in the debates—that’s a big deal—and the media can’t quite ignore you.”
Sanders will be testing that theory in coming weeks. Having already visited the first Democratic primary state of New Hampshire, for an April speech at St. Anselm College in Manchester, Sanders will travel next weekend to Iowa, where he will appear as the featured speaker at the Clinton County Democratic Party’s annual dinner.
Jeff Cox, a former Johnson County (Iowa City) Democratic Party chair who has been organizing an effort to get the senator to mount a campaign in the 2016 caucuses, says Sanders could renew “the kind of New Deal Democratic approach to economics that has been lost to the Democratic Party.”
That is an argument that Sanders has considered, and plenty of analysts will take from the New Hampshire and Iowa visits a signal of his intentions. Yet, when I asked on Friday if he had settled the issue in his own mind, the senator’s reply was “Nope.”
That may frustrate activists of various partisan and ideological stripes. But to my mind, there is something healthy about a broad exploration of approaches to a broken politics. At his most frustrated, Gore Vidal, himself a former Democratic candidate for the US House from New York and the US Senate from California, observed, “Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” In such a circumstance, a freewheeling consideration of the various routes to getting a serious discussion of issues, a broader range of candidates and more genuine choices is an encouraging development. A good part of that discussion is focused at this point on Sanders. But it need not begin or end with him. The real point is to engage in a deep discussion, at once idealistic and practical, about how to get a better politics—and to make real the promise of American democracy.
Read Next: The Nation’s recent exclusive interview with Bernie Sanders
If the US Senate really is the world’s greatest deliberative body, it ought to consider consequential questions. That does not happen often in a Senate where trivia tends too frequently to triumph over issues of substance. But Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, raised what might just be the most substantial issue of all Wednesday, at a Joint Economic Committee hearing where Federal Reserve board chair Janet Yellen was testifying.
The senator began with the facts: “In the US today, the top 1 percent own about 38 percent of the financial wealth of America. The bottom 60 percent own 2.3 percent. One family, the Walton family, is worth over $140 billion; that’s more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people. In recent years, we have seen a huge increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires, while we continue to have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. Despite, as many of my Republican friends talk about ‘the oppressive Obama economic policies,’ in the last year Charles and David Koch struggled under these policies and their wealth increased by $12 billion in one year. In terms of income, 95 percent of new income generated in this country in the last year went to the top 1 percent.“
Sanders then introduced an academic study, by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, that concludes, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
That sounds like an oligarchy.
So Sanders asked Yellen: “In your judgment, given the enormous power held by the billionaire class and their political representatives, are we still a capitalist democracy or have we gone over to an oligarchic form of society in which incredible enormous economic and political power now rests with the billionaire class?”
Yellen did not answer “yes.” But she did say, “There’s no question that we’ve had a trend toward growing inequality and I personally find it a very worrisome trend that deserves the attention of policy makers.”
She also expressed concern that trends toward growing inequality “can shape [and] determine the ability of different groups to participate equally in a democracy and have grave effects on social stability over time.”
Sanders asked another question, as well: “There comes a point where the billionaire class has so much political power, where the Koch brothers are now because of Citizens United able to buy and sell politicians; they have so much political power, at what point is that reversible?”
The senator did not press Yellen for an answer to that question. And her responses to inquiries about Republican proposals to cut the estate tax and otherwise steer wealth upward suggested that the Fed chair believes Congress has policymaking duties in this regard.
Ultimately, questions about oligarchy come back to politics, something Sanders well understands. He’s been arguing that core question regarding the concentration of economic and political power need to be addressed not just by politicians but by voters—with choices made in 2014 and 2016. As he explained recently, “[This] country faces more serious problems than at any time since the Great Depression, and there is a horrendous lack of serious political discourse or ideas out there that can address these crises, and that somebody has got to represent the working-class and the middle-class of this country in standing up to the big-money interests who have so much power over the economic and political life of this country.”
The issues are so consequential, Sanders says, that he is thinking about mounting a presidential campaign that would ask the American people whether they want to live in an oligarchic form of society.
* Bernie Sanders will join John Nichols is a conversation about economic policy and politics Friday, May 9, at 7 pm, at the Free Churches of Northampton in Northampton, Massachusetts. The event is free and open to the public.
House Speaker John Boehner and his cronies removed North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones from the House Financial Services Committee in late 2012, as part of a purge that removed Republicans who were not all in for Wall Street—and for Boehner’s brand of “service” to the industries that are supposed to be regulated by Congress—from the one panel with the power to hold bankers and brokers to account.
But Jones, who had opposed bank bailouts and favored Wall Street regulation, did not go quietly. He spoke up about the purge and made little secret of his sense that—though he had split with Boehner on a number of issues—his biggest “sin” in the eyes of the party leadership was his refusal to bow to the demands of big campaign donors.
“This whole place is all about money. Money is more important than policy,” complained Jones, who has in recent years co-sponsored most major pieces of campaign-finance reform legislation in the House—including a call for a constitutional amendment designed to restore the ability of federal, state and local officials to regulate campaign spending.
The congressman’s bluntness did not go over well with the masters of the universe on Wall Street. So, this spring, they set out to purge Walter Jones from Congress altogether.
They found a consummate DC insider with close ties to the financial-services industry, Taylor Griffin, and filled the challenger’s campaign treasury with PAC checks from JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, as well as political powerbrokers like former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour and Wayne Berman of the Blackstone Group.
It did not stop there.
Jones’s independence extended far beyond debates over Wall Street bailouts and regulation.
The Republican is a social and economic conservative—make that a social and economic very conservative—but he has repeatedly broken with the party establishment on issues of war and peace, privacy rights, trade policy and budgets. He even voted against proposals by the darling of Wall Street and the party establishment, Congressman Paul Ryan.
Bush administration aides and apologists rushed in with public statements and “independent” expenditures to attack Jones for his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for his refusal to go along with moves that might lead to wars with Iran and other countries. Former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer gave his enthusiastic backing to Griffin, as did former national security adviser Juan Zarate. Sarah Palin, one of the party’s most consistent militarists, came in big for Griffin, who hailed her as an “old friend.” A neoconservative group, the Emergency Committee For Israel, spent at least $250,000 on ads that claimed Jones “preaches American decline.” What Jones actually said was, “Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney.”
At the same time, the wealthy champions of Ryan’s crony-capitalist approach to budgeting were in with big money for TV ads and direct mail from the “Ending Spending Action Fund”—a Super PAC backed by billionaire businessman Joe Ricketts.
By a lot of DC measures, Jones should have been doomed.
But the ten-term congressman bet that the voters of eastern North Carolina would stick with him. “I’m not going to sacrifice my integrity for anyone or any party,” he said. “It’s the price you pay. I didn’t come [to Washington] to be a puppet for anyone. And I think the public back in my district, which is the most important, has seen I’m willing to do what I think is right.”
It was the right bet.
Read Next: Lee Fang reports on the money behind Wall Street’s attack on Walter Jones.
The Republican Party is not yet a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wall Street.
There are still a few Republicans, some of them stalwart conservatives, who think they owe a greater duty to their ideals and their constituents than to the bankers and bundlers who write campaign checks.
That unsettles bonus-rich CEOs, insider traders, short-selling speculators and the political grifters who serve their interests in Washington. So they are using their immense wealth, and their immense influence within the political sphere, to try to create a Republican Party that is entirely in their image. An essential test of the strategy comes Tuesday, in a North Carolina Republican primary, where a conservative congressman who says “no” to big banks and big money faces a corporatist challenger who is an enthusiastic yes man for Wall Street and the politics of plutocracy.
For those who imagine that American electoral politics is a simplistic team sport, pitting ideologically-and-practically identical Republicans against ideologically-and-practically identical Democrats, the incumbent, ten-term House member Walter Jones, appears to be an outlier. Conventional-wisdom peddling pundits refer to the congressman as “an iconoclast” and a “maverick.” But for those who understand the real struggles going on within our politics, Jones is the Washington face of a phenomenon that is hard to see in Washington but reasonably common in the states: that of the Republican reformer.
There really are Republicans who want to work with Democrats, Greens, Libertarians and independents to get big money out of elections and to renew a politics where Main Street matters more than Wall Street. They are essential to the building of coalitions that will overwhelm the money power and enact a constitutional amendment to say corporations are not people, money is not speech and citizens have a right to demand the organization of elections where the vote matters more than the dollar.
What scares the bankers and the billionaires—not just about Walter Jones but about the broader phenomenon—is that the coalitions are being built.
Across the country, at the grassroots level, Republicans have formed alliances with Democrats to demand that the influence of money in our politics be reduced. As the reform group Free Speech for People noted last year, dozens of Republican legislators have backed calls by states for a constitutional amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but other barriers to the regulation of money in politics. With backing from third-party and independent legislators, as well, the passage of the state resolutions highlights what the group refers to as “a growing trans-partisan movement…calling for the US Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) to be overturned, through one or more amendments to the US Constitution.”
In Washington, however, Republican reformers are harder to come by—as was evidenced by the celebrations of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling by GOP congressional leaders. Leaving no doubt about his faith that those with the most money get to speak the loudest in our elections, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, hailed the Court’s decision to strike down limits on aggregated campaign donations by wealthy Americans with an announcement that “freedom of speech is being upheld.” At the same time, one of the attorneys who argued for elimination of the cap on aggregate donations said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell—who Kentucky media noted “filed an amicus brief on the McCutcheon v. FEC case as a part of his continued crusade against campaign finance reform”—had been “extremely helpful” in pushing the Court to go even further than McCutcheon’s legal team had initially proposed.
Yet, despite Boehner’s enthusiasm and McConnell’s ambition, the party leaders do not speak for every Republican in Washington.
Three years ago, Congressman Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, signed on as a co-sponsor of one of several proposals to amend the Constitution in order to renew the power of the people and their elected representatives to regulate money in politics. More recently, he co-sponsored a proposal by Congressman Jim Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, to develop public financing for congressional elections. Jones is on board with Government By the People Act of 2014, a “matching-funds” plan offered by Congressman John Sarbanes, D-Maryland. And he is the only Republican co-sponsor of the Empowering Citizens Act, a plan by Congressman David Price, D-North Carolina, to renew the public financing system for presidential elections.
On his own, Jones has sponsored legislation to bar the use of political funds for personal purposes.
What is Jones thinking? “I think Citizens United was one of the worst decisions by the Supreme Court in my adult lifetime,” the congressman said last year. “In Washington, the problem is that the leadership in both parties—and I want to be fair about that—both parties—seem to like the system the way it is.… When the Democrats were in the majority, it was very difficult for those [reform] Democrats to get the bills moving on their own side. And on my side, it’s almost like it’s a dead issue, which disappoints me greatly as a Republican. Now, I will work this year, across party lines, to reform the campaign laws of our nation.”
Like many of the most progressive reformers in the country, the conservative congressman speaks specifically about the link between special-interest influence on elections and political dysfunction in Washington. “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed,” he says. “The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.”
Congressman Jones is noting something that too many DC insiders, be they Republicans or Democrats, members of Congress or pundits, fail to recognize: millions of Americans are already engaged on this issue. Support for real reform is widespread, crossing lines of partisan and ideological division. Sixteen states and more than 500 communities have called for amendments with varied language but one point: that “based on the American value of fair play, leveling the playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity to have their political views heard, there is a valid rationale for regulating political spending.”
Now, however, Jones faces a Republican primary challenge from a classic Washington power player, Taylor Griffin, a former aide to the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain who has been a consultant for big banks and trade groups and who put in a stint as the senior vice president for the Financial Services Forum, the DC voice of some of the biggest Wall Street banks. “[No] matter how he casts himself,” writes Politico, “Griffin is an insider.”
Griffin’s gripe with Jones appears to be that the veteran congressman is too independent-minded. And it is true that Jones breaks rank with party orthodoxy. For instance, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of US military adventurism, often working with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, on issues of war and peace. This has put him at odds with the Bush and Obama administrations, and more recently with House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, whose 2013 budget Jones said was too lavish in its funding of wars. But Jones is hardly a left-winger. He echoes the “old-right” language of conservative icons such as former Ohio Senator Robert Taft Sr. and former Nebraska Congressman Howard Buffett, and of some younger libertarian-leaning House members such as Michigan Republican Justin Amash.
What really bugs Griffin and his DC backers is that Jones does not follow the party line when it comes to doing Wall Street’s bidding. For the past decade, he’s been one of the steadiest congressional critics of free-trade agreements; and he recently joined twenty-one of his House Republican colleagues in expressing opposition to “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority. And he’s been a steady critic of big banks, opposing bailouts, supporting regulation and arguing with Congressman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and others for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial and investment banking. Those stances undoubtedly played a role in getting Jones kicked off the House Financial Services Committee in Speaker John Boehner’s purge of so-called “rebellious Republicans.”
Now Jeff Connaughton, the former Senate aide who wrote the book The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, suggests that Jones’s independence has earned him a challenge from Griffin in the May 6 Republican primary. “I doubt anyone in North Carolina needs me to point out this is a Wall Street bank hit job,” says Connaughton, who helped frame the fight for the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.
Bloomberg reports: “JPMorgan Chase (JPM) & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) are lining up behind Jones’ primary challenger, Taylor Griffin, an aide in President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department who later worked for groups that advocated in Washington for the biggest financial services companies.” Former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a top lobbyist, is a Griffin donor, as is former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Sarah Palin, for whom Griffin once worked, is busy hailing the Washington insider who just moved back to North Carolina last year, as a “patriot” who is ready to shake up the status quo.
The status quo, at least as it exists inside the Beltway around DC, and inside the boardrooms on Wall Street, adores Griffin. “To pull off the coup against the ten-term congressman, Griffin has had some big help in the race,” DC’s The Hill announced Monday. “The Emergency Committee for Israel, a neoconservative group run by The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and evangelical leader Gary Bauer, and the fiscally conservative Ending Spending super-PAC have combined to spend nearly $1 million against Jones. A number of big banks, including JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Bank of America have also donated to Griffin because of Jones’s vote for the Wall Street regulatory reforms.”
At the same time, observes Politico, Griffin’s campaign has been enjoying a late-in-the-race blizzard of cash from some of the most high-profile Republican lobbyists in Washington.
That’s helped the challenger get competitive with Jones, a rare accomplishment for a primary challenger. And as the May 6 election approaches, Griffin’s got the connections to bring in a lot more money. Like Mitch McConnell, he is a classic example of a candidate who benefits in a big way from the Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings.
Walter Jones has had a much harder time tapping top Wall Street donors than Taylor Griffin—in no small part because of the incumbent’s record of saying “no” to the banks.
Most members of Congress find it difficult to object to the demands of bankers in particular and big money in general. That’s one of the reasons why Jones has advocated for both financial services reform and political reform. The two go together. Indeed, in this era of Citizens United and McCutcheon, the measure of political independence must begin with a willingness to address the influence of money on our elections. It is Jones’s recognition of that fact that has made him a conservative advocate for reform. He understands that some truths go beyond partisanship and ideology, and the first of these is that, “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed.”
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: The most popular tax in history has real momentum .
The dramatic progress of the movement to make the minimum wage a living wage was highlighted on May Day when Seattle Mayor Ed Murray unveiled a plan to double the base pay for workers over the coming decade.
A year ago, President Obama and others saw raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour as the great leap forward.
This week, the newly elected mayor of one of America’s largest and most prosperous cities proposed a plan that would, in a series of steps over the coming decade, take the base wage as high as $18 an hour. Something big is happening; the activist coalition Working Washington hailed the announcement of the mayor’s plan as “an incredible accomplishment.” Recalling “strikes, marches, boycotts and other mobilizations” by fast-food workers in Seattle that raised the call for a $15-an-hour basic wage, the labor-backed group noted that, “Less than a year later, we are on the verge of achieving a $15 minimum wage that ensures every worker in Seattle can support themselves, afford the basics, and contribute to the economy.”
Even as they celebrate the progress that has been made, however, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and others say they hope to improve upon the mayor’s plan. The councilmember says she’ll be working in coming weeks for changes that would speed up the implementation of wage increases, eliminate loopholes for big businesses and protect the interests of workers who rely on tips. “Our work is far from done,” says Sawant, who has helped to organize a grassroots 15 Now movement for a rapid increase in wages. “This is a historic moment to recognize the power of grassroots organizing,” she said after the mayor’s plan was announced. “It is a call to action.”
Seattle and the state of Washington have histories of recognizing the need to raise wages so that working people will not face the reality of putting in a forty-hour week while remaining stuck in poverty. The current minimum wage for Washington workers is $9.32 an hour, the highest state rate in the nation. But the basic premises of the debate were jolted last fall by the election to the city council of Sawant, an Occupy activist and Socialist Alternative candidate who made advocacy for a $15 wage central to her bid. At the same time, voters in the nearby city of Sea-Tac backed a $15-an-hour proposal.
The Seattle election results shook that city and the nation into a new way of thinking about the minimum-wage debate. The Fight for $15 movement of fast-food workers, which Sawant and others credit for laying the groundwork for wage-hike campaigns in Seattle and cities across the country, has been strengthened by the fact that its proposals were being embraced by voters and policymakers. Activists nationwide are ramping up demands for wage hikes that will address poverty and income inequality. And instead of proposing only incremental changes that might be grudgingly accepted by business interests and conservative politicians, progressive Democrats have begun to notice the polling data that shows broad support for major wage increases.
In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama embraced a proposal by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and California Congressman George Miller for a $10.10 hourly wage, and that popular position has become a baseline standard for progressives seeking state and federal posts in the 2014 election cycle.
But in expensive cities like Seattle, $10.10 an hour can still be a poverty wage. So, according to The Seattle Times, “Murray’s plan calls for the city’s minimum wage to climb to $15 an hour, phased in over three to seven years depending on the size of business and whether workers receive tips or benefits in addition to salary. After that, the wage would be tied to the Consumer Price Index, with estimates showing it rising above $18 an hour by 2025.”
Outlined with the aid of a large “Income Inequality Advisory Committee,” and assembled after weeks of negotiations involving council members, community activists, labor and business, the Murray plan comes with significant support. And it is moving forward rapidly. After setting a May 5 session to begin reviewing the proposal, Seattle Councilmember Sally J. Clark, who chairs the council’s Select Committee on the Minimum Wage and Income Inequality, said,“It’s my hope we can launch quickly into our review and decision-making.”
Moving to double the minimum wage may sound bold, and there will still be plenty of naysaying in Seattle and nationally. But we’ve been here before. President Harry Truman, fresh from his 1948 re-election on a platform that promised to renew the liberalism of the New Deal era, proposed an across-the-board increase in the federal minimum wage from 40 cents an hour to 75 cents an hour. Truman also proposed raising the base wage to $1 per hour in some industries. Truman adviser Clark Clifford said the president wanted “to strike a new high ground.”
Truman did not get everything he asked for from a Congress where conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats resisted progressive legislation. But by the fall of 1949, the president was signing a 75-cents-an-hour minimum wage into law.
What’s significant is that Truman nearly doubled the wage in a year. Seattle’s 15 Now activists are concerned that Murray’s plan, while generally headed in the right direction, drags the process out. They’ve been petitioning for a citywide vote on raising the base wage to $15 an hour by January 1, 2015.
“The fact that the City Council of a major city in the US will discuss in the coming weeks raising the minimum wage to $15 is a testament to how working people can push back against the status quo of poverty, inequality, and injustice. The movement, starting with fast food workers nationwide, and pushed forward by SeaTac and 15 Now, is forcing business and the political establishment to accept raising our wages,” says Sawant. “The proposal that has been announced is a result of the pressure from this movement. Unfortunately, it also reflects the attempt of business to water down what the working people of Seattle want. While business has lost the public battle on 15, they were given a seat at the table to pursue their wish list, while low-wage workers were left out.”
Sawant says she will work for “a strong $15” with grassroots organizing and in council debates on the plan advanced by Mayor Murray.
In particular, she seeks to narrow the timeline for implementation of wage increases by large businesses such as McDonald’s and Starbucks.
“Every year of phase-in is another year that a worker has to live in poverty,” the councilmember explained. “So we have to keep fighting. We will keep building the pressure from below.”
Specifically, Sawant says, “We still need a backup option should the city council fail to pass 15, which is why we need to keep up the pressure through signature collection [for the initiative proposal].”
And don’t think that this is just a Seattle thing. Fast-food workers and their allies across the country will be rallying in coming weeks for a $15 wage, and there are campaigns in communities and states across the country for wage-hike resolutions and referendums. What was once a debate about the minimum wage is becoming a debate about a living wage.
Read Next: Living undocumented: a conversation with Jose Antonio Vargas
The most under-covered yet dynamic grassroots movement in the United States seeks to restore the right of citizens and their representatives to organize elections so the votes of the great mass of American citizens matter more than the dollars of billionaire campaign donors and multinational corporations.
Sixteen states have formally demanded that Congress take action to amend the US Constitution to undo the damage done by the US Supreme Court’s decisions to eliminate century old barriers to the buying of elections. Close to 600 towns, villages, cities and counties have also made the ask. During the first weeks of March in New Hampshire, forty-seven town meetings called for a constitutional amendment. In early April, thirteen Wisconsin communities voted overwhelmingly to call on their elected representatives to begin the amendment process.
Now, Washington is listening.
The US Senate will vote this year on a proposed constitutional amendment, according to Senate Rules Committee chairman Charles Schumer, D-New York, who declared Wednesday that “The Supreme Court is trying to take this country back to the days of the robber barons, allowing dark money to flood our elections. That needs to stop, and it needs to stop now. The only way to undo the damage the court has done is to pass [an] amendment to the Constitution, and Senate Democrats are going to try to do that.”
The announcement came as the Rules Committee was meeting to hear from former US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who has urged consideration of an amendment “because of a very strong state interest in trying to establish equality of opportunity for competing candidates to get elected.”
Echoing the sentiments of the millions of Americans who have called for amending the Constitution, Stevens says that under the system created by the court rulings in cases such as Citizens United v Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission, “The voter is less important than the man who provides money to the candidate.” In order to address what Stevens identifies as “a giant step in the wrong direction, an amendment is needed to allow Congress and the states to impose “reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns.”
The amendment that the Senate will take up does this by restoring the authority of Congress to regulate the raising and spending of campaign money (including independent expenditures by so-called “Super PACs”). It would, as well, renew the ability of states to regulate campaign finance at their level.
Sponsored by US Senator Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, the proposed amendment now has thirty-five co-sponsors. In addition, there are a number of senators who has sponsored other amendment proposals who could be expected to sign on. At this point, there are no Senate Republican supporters of the amendment strategy, although Congressman Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, has supported a similar amendment in the House.
There remain obstacles to securing a vote in the Senate, where Republicans have obstructed votes on numerous major issues and could be expected to erect barriers to consideration of a constitutional intervention on a matter that has long been a focus of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. And no one expects that action in the Republican-controlled House will come quickly, or easily. But the history of the constitutional amendment process reminds us that a critical turning point in any struggle to enact an amendment comes when it begins to be seriously considered by the House or Senate. With that in mind, Schumer’s announcement represents significant progress.
“With the vote, every senator will be required to take a stand: Do you side with the forces of dark money or the American people? Are you for plutocracy or democracy?” said Public Citizen president Robert Weissman, whose group has been active in organizing at the local and state levels on behalf of an amendment.
Organizers with Public Citizen’s “Democracy is for People” project and groups such as Free Speech for People, Move to Amend and Common Cause—organizations that have backed a variety of amendment proposals and strategies—noted Wednesday that the prospect of Senate action was likely to inspire more grassroots activism across the country. That is especially the case in states represented by Democratic senators who have not yet endorsed a constitutional response to Citizens United and McCutcheon, and in states where responsible Republicans might be pressured to at least allow a vote.
“Today marks another important milestone in the growing grassroots movement across the country to end the dominance of big money in our elections and to restore our republican democracy to the people,” said Free Speech For People president John Bonifaz, who added, “The Supreme Court has hijacked the First Amendment for the wealthy few, allowing them to drown out the voices of everyone else. We must now use our amendment power under Article V of the US Constitution to defend our democracy. We have done this before in our nation’s history. We can and we must do it again.”
Specifically, Bonifaz said the Udall amendment would “overturn the Supreme Court’s egregious rulings that have so threatened our democracy and the fundamental American promise of political equality for all.”
It would do so by adding to the Constitution language that reads:
Section 1. To advance the fundamental principle of political equality for all, and to protect the integrity of the legislative and electoral processes, Congress shall have power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents with respect to Federal elections, including through setting limits on—
(1) the amount of contributions to candidates for nomination for election to, or for election to, Federal office; and
(2) the amount of funds that may be spent by, in support of, or in opposition to such candidates.
Section 2. To advance the fundamental principle of political equality for all, and to protect the integrity of the legislative and electoral processes, each State shall have power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents with respect to State elections, including through setting limits on—
(1) the amount of contributions to candidates for nomination for election to, or for election to, State office; and
(2) the amount of funds that may be spent by, in support of, or in opposition to such candidates.
Section 3. Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress the power to abridge the freedom of the press.
Section 4. Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Udall, a former federal prosecutor and New Mexico Attorney General, says that, “James Madison argued that the US Constitution should be amended only on ‘great and extraordinary occasions’,” Udall said. “I believe we have reached one of those occasions. Our elections no longer focus on the best ideas, but the biggest bank accounts, and Americans’ right to free speech should not be determined by their net worth. I am proud to be [advancing] this amendment to change the way we do business in Washington and get money out of a broken system that puts special interest over people.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Tim Carpenter’s radical politics of inclusion.
Tim Carpenter never lost faith in the very real prospect of a very radical change for the better. And he never lost his organizer’s certainty that the tipping point that would make the change was just a few more phone calls, a few more rallies, a few more campaigns away.
So he kept on organizing.
To the last.
Carpenter, the lifelong social and economic justice campaigner who nurtured Progressive Democrats of America from its founding a decade ago into a national movement, died Monday at age 55 after a long battle with cancer.
Not many hours before I learned that he had passed, Tim was on the phone with me, running through the latest numbers from a national petition drive he and PDA had organized to urge Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to seek the presidency. They were over 10,500. A few hours after the call, he e-mailed me, with more numbers. They were over 11,000. That was typical Tim. His enthusiasm for politics was immeasurable, and infectious.
But Tim’s was never a typical politico. He knew the drill: he had been at the side of presidential candidates, developed winning electoral strategies and helped to organize movements around every essential issue of the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush (again) and Obama eras. But Tim was always about something more; he was never satisfied with an election victory, or a legislative success; he wanted to transform politics because he wanted to transform America into a land that realized what he believed was an irrevocable promise of liberty and justice for all.
To achieve that end, Tim knew it was necessary to transform a too-often centrist, too-frequently compromised Democratic party into a dramatically more militant and more meaningful organization than it has been for a very long time. Mixing memories of the New Deal with elements of the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements, linking the vision of the Rainbow Coalition with the new energy of fast-food and retail workers demanding a $15 minimum wage, Tim sought to define and achieve what one of his heroes, author and Democratic Socialists of America chair Michael Harrington, described as “the left wing of the possible.”
Tim refused to compromise with politics as usual. Yet, he refused just as ardently to be pushed to the margins. He waded into the middle of every new fight, grabbed a stack of precinct lists, distributed them to the activists he’d brought along in that beat-up car with Bob Dylan blasting on the stereo, and headed for the doors shouting, “Teamwork!”
“The Progressive movement is driven by people, but it is only successful because of people like Tim Carpenter,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, a PDA board member who got it right when he said, “Tim showed the kind of determination and courage that was contagious. His passionate idealism was matched only by his inexhaustible commitment to making those dreams a reality.”
Combining his encyclopedic knowledge of movement history and electoral strategy with the knowing optimism of one who had actually bent the long arc of history toward justice, Tim embraced an “inside-outside strategy” that was designed to go around the party elites and link insurgent campaigns to grassroots movements.
“In the polling booth and in the streets” was his vision, and if that meant breaking with the party establishment and aligning with the demonstrators outside the party convention, or outside the White House of a Democratic president, so be it. The principles were the point, and while Tim could join a coalition with folks who might not share every one of his positions, he believed his mission was to pull that coalition to the left.
Tim was a Democrat—to the frustration of his Green, Socialist and social Libertarian friends—but he was never a member of the Democratic Party establishment. He was the thorn in its side, declaring, “I’m not satisfied with the party as it is. I want the party as it should be.”
Tim cut his teeth on campaigns that recognized the connection between transforming politics and transforming the country: as a kid working “behind the Orange Curtain” (in then hyper-conservative Orange County) for George McGovern in 1972 and for the remarkable radical intervention that was Tom Hayden’s 1976 US Senate bid. Tim was a trusted aide to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 “Rainbow Coalition” run for the presidency, an inner-circle strategist for Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential run (addressing that year’s Democratic National Convention and urging delegates to “Save Our Party” from ideological compromises and corporate influence), a key figure in Dennis Kucinich’s antiwar presidential campaign of 2004.
Tim worked on plenty of campaigns that lost—as well as winning campaigns such as those of Congresswoman Donna Edwards, D-Maryland, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and, to his immense delight, Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts—but he didn’t count wins and losses. He was interested in movement building. Drawing together veterans of the 2004 Kucinich and Howard Dean campaigns, Progressive Democrats of America grew, with Tim as its national director, into a network of activists and elected officials on the left of the party.
At the core of the mission was Tim’s vision of a movement-guided politics.
It was the same vision that shaped Tim’s grassroots activism, as a Catholic Worker advocate for the homeless who slept on the streets of Santa Ana to challenge police harassment; as an organizer of the anti-nuclear Alliance for Survival who counted musician-activists Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt as friends and comrades; as an organizer and champion of groups that opposed not just wars but the overreach of a military-industrial complex—from United for Peace and Justice to Democrats for Peace Conversion. To begin to list Tim’s causes, his victories and his ongoing struggles would take days—or weeks, if Tim was still telling the stories. But suffice it to say that for more than four decades, he was there—behind the scenes, sleeping on the floor, risking arrest, flying in with the rock stars, counseling the presidential candidates, remembering the name of every son and daughter of every activist, making the money pitch, organizing, always organizing.
The Nation named Tim as its “Progressive Activist of the Year” some years back. And it was far from the only honor accorded him. When Congressman John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who is the senior progressive in Congress and arguably in America politics, learned that Tim was sick, he told the US House, “Tim has been indefatigable in pressing forward progressive ideals to help strengthen our American democracy. He has been in the forefront of progressive causes, from promoting nuclear disarmament to fighting to abolish the death penalty to establishing health care as a human right, as well as securing voting rights and jobs for all.”
Around the same time, Tim’s daughter ran up to him with an envelope from the White House that had arrived in the mailbox of the family’s Florence, Massachusetts, home. When they opened it, there was a note from President Obama, wishing Tim well while celebrating his resilience.
That was how most of us took the news that Tim was ailing. Knowing he had beaten cancer before, we wanted to believe that Tim was unstoppable. When he warned “it’s pretty serious this time,” we paid attention to his actions, not his words. Because even as he made the rounds of doctors and hospitals, treatments and hospice preparations, he was still on the phone, still texting, still e-mailing, still organizing.
Tim was determined that Progressive Democrats of America, a group founded when Democrats were not doing enough to oppose the war in Iraq or to advance a “Medicare for All’ reform of a broken healthcare system—PDA’s slogan: “Healthcare Not Warfare”—would keep embracing new issues: amending the US Constitution to end the buying of elections by billionaires and corporations, getting Washington to take seriously the threat of climate change, blocking “Fast Track” and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Tim believed every battle could be won, by building bigger coalitions, by getting more people engaged.
Tim had a remarkable gift for what actress and PDA advisory board chair Mimi Kennedy referred to as “radical inclusivity.” He was always welcoming young activists into the fold, flying off to meet with folks who might form a new PDA chapter, asking people to tell him what new issues they were working on—and then asking how he could help. He had a faith that the change was going to come: a faith born in having won and having lost but never having surrendered the organizer’s dream of a movement that would be unstoppable.
We were in California last year and Tim beseeched a crowd: “Help us grow this movement. Help us to put 435 activists in every congressional office, and another 100 activists in every Senate office to say not only is it time to end this war, not only is it time to bring about healthcare as a human right, but it’s time for our community to stop turning our back on those who so desperately need us. To stop talking just about the middle class.… It’s time to talk about the 50 million Americans who are poor.”
A politics that speaks not only for the middle class but for the poor—proudly, energetically, radically—jumps boundaries that many top Democrats still avoid. But that was what Tim Carpenter wanted.
“It’s our responsibility to build that movement, your responsibility, my responsibility,” Tim said, even as he warned, “I may not be with all of you when you are out there in those streets, in those struggles, but I will be with you in spirit.”
If we did not fully understand then, we do now.
Tim Carpenter was right. The building of the politics he wanted—more powerful than any party or politician—is now our responsibility. But Tim is with us in spirit, still telling us that the key is not money or television ads, not caution or compromise. It’s a passion for justice. It’s a belief that peace is possible. And like Tim said, it’s “teamwork!”
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When Barack Obama was running for president in 2007, he earned a great deal of credibility with tech-savvy voters by expressing support for net neutrality that was rooted in an understanding that this issue raises essential questions about the future of open, free and democratic communications in America.
Obama “got” that net neutrality represented an Internet-age equivalent of the First Amendment—a guarantee of equal treatment for all content, as opposed to special rights to speed and quality of service for the powerful business and political elites that can buy an advantage.
Asked whether he thought the Federal Communications Commission and Congress needed to preserve the Internet as we know it, the senator from Illinois said, “The answer is ‘yes.’ I am a strong supporter of net neutrality.”
“What you’ve been seeing is some lobbying that says that the servers and the various portals through which you’re getting information over the Internet should be able to be gatekeepers and to charge different rates to different Web sites,” explained Obama, who warned that with such a change in standards “you could get much better quality from the Fox News site and you’d be getting rotten service from the mom and pop sites.”
Obama’s bottom line: “That I think destroys one of the best things about the Internet—which is that there is this incredible equality there.”
Candidate Obama was exactly right.
So was President Obama when, in 2010, the White House declared that “President Obama is strongly committed to net neutrality in order to keep an open Internet that fosters investment, innovation, consumer choice, and free speech.”
And President Obama certainly sounded right in January 2014, when he said, “I have been a strong supporter of net neutrality. The new commissioner of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, whom I appointed, I know is a strong supporter of net neutrality.”
The president expressed that confidence in Wheeler, even as concerns were raised about an appointee who had previously worked as a cable and wireless industry lobbyist.
Now, barely three months after the president identified him as “a strong supporter of net neutrality,” Wheeler has rolled out a proposal that our most digitally engaged newspaper, The Guardian, delicately suggests would “axe-murder Net Neutrality.”
According to Los Angeles Times tech writer Jim Puzzanghera, the plan “would allow Internet service providers to charge companies for faster delivery of their content.”
Gabe Rottman, an American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel and policy advisor who focuses on First Amendment issues, correctly explains, “If the FCC embraces this reported reversal in its stance toward net neutrality, barriers to innovation will rise, the marketplace of ideas on the Internet will be constrained, and consumers will ultimately pay the price.”
Wheeler tried to soften the blow by claiming that criticisms from public-interest groups, based on initial reports about his plan, were “flat-out wrong.” “There is no ‘turnaround in policy,’” Wheeler announced. “The same rules will apply to all Internet content. As with the original Open Internet rules, and consistent with the court’s decision, behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted.”
Although the plan would reinstate the agency’s prohibition against Internet providers from blocking any legal content, it would allow phone and cable companies to charge Netflix and other companies to put their content in a super-fast lane on the information superhighway.
The plan appears to violate a basic principle of net neutrality that all similar content should be treated equally.
Tim Karr, of the media reform group Free Press, says: “All evidence suggests that Wheeler’s proposal is a betrayal of Obama and of the millions of people who have called on the FCC to put in place strong and enforceable net neutrality protections.”
The Future of Music Coalition’s Casey Rae argues that any FCC initiative that establishes a model for speeding up delivery of content for paying customers is “not ‘net neutrality.’”
The risk, says Rae is that, “the Internet in America will now be carved into a fast lane for well-heeled corporations and a dirt road for everyone else.”
“These proposed rules not only don’t go far enough to safeguard consumers, they actively marginalize smaller and independent voices,” explains Rae, who says, “Artists, developers, culture workers, media-makers, nonprofit organizations, community, civic and church groups must tell the FCC that this isn’t good enough. We need real rules of the road for ISPs to guarantee that creative expression and entrepreneurship can thrive in the online ecosystem. FMC and our allies look forward to making this case in the upcoming rulemaking after May 15.”
Rae’s point is an important one. The process is just beginning. It can be influenced by content creators, consumers and citizen activists who understand that in this age of digital communications a broken Internet will lead to a broken democracy. It can even be influenced by the president and members of Congress, who ought to speak up, loudly, in favor of the right approach to net neutrality.
There are two simple steps to take:
1. Recognize that there is a right response to court rulings that have rejected the complex and ill-thought approaches that the FCC has up to now taken with regard to net neutrality. The right response is to reclassify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service that can be regulated in the public interest.
When the FCC’s clumsy previous attempt at establishing net neutrality protections was rejected in January by the US District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the court did not say that the commission lacked regulatory authority—simply that it needed a better approach. As David Sohn, general legal counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, notes, the court opinion laid out “exactly how the FCC essentially tied its own hands in the case, and makes it clear that the FCC has the power to fix the problem.”
“The Court upheld the FCC’s general authority to issue rules aimed at spurring broadband deployment, and accepted the basic policy rationale for Internet neutrality as articulated by the FCC,” explains Sohn. “The arguments in favor of Internet neutrality are as strong as ever, but prior FCC decisions on how to treat broadband have painted the agency into a corner. Those decisions are not set in stone, however, and the ball is now back in the FCC’s court. The FCC should reconsider its classification of broadband Internet access and reestablish its authority to enact necessary safeguards for Internet openness.”
The approach that Wheeler is now proposing continues down the wrong course, and actually veers into even more dangerous territory with its outline for a pay-to-play "fast lane" on the Internet. But this proposal can be altered or rejected by the full commission. In other words, the reclassification option can still be pursued.
2. Recognize that this is the time to send a clear signal of support for genuine net neutrality. The FCC has listened in the past when a public outcry has been raised, on media ownership issues, diversity issues and Internet access issues. Wheeler is a new chairman. It’s vital to communicate to him, and to the other members of the commission that President Obama was right when he said that establishing “fast lanes” on the Internet “destroys one of the best things about the Internet—which is that there is this incredible equality there.”
Dozens of public interest groups, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Government Accountability Project to the PEN American Center to Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting and the National Hispanic Media Coalition have urged the FCC to do the right thing. The “Save the Internet” coalition has a track record of rapidly mobilizing Americans to thwart wrongheaded moves by the FCC.
They’re already up and at it, with a petition urging Wheeler and the FCC to “scrap” approaches that won’t work and “restore the principle of online nondiscrimination by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service.”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says, “Our free and open Internet has made invaluable contributions to democracy both here in the United States and around the world. Whether you are rich, poor, young or old, the Internet allows all people to seek out information and communicate globally. We must not turn over our democracy to the highest bidder.”
Sanders is right about that—especially when he recognizes the vital link between technology and democracy. A free and open Internet is essential to modern democracy. But that freedom and openness will be maintained only if Americans use their great democratic voice to demand it.
There is a way to save net neutrality. And if ever there was a time for citizens to urge the FCC to go the right way, this is it.
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), and a co-founder (with McChesney) of Free Press.
The measures of books written by politicians are never simply literary.
Books written by the women and men who might, maybe, just possibly run for president are invariably judged by electoral standards.
So it is that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s fine new book, A Fighting Chance, will be assessed both for its composition and for its potential to spark the popular uprising that might make a reasonably populist Democrat a contender for the presidency, the vice presidency or a top cabinet post in a next administration.
Warren says she is not running for president in the 2016 Democratic nomination contest that too many pundits have already decided will be won by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—just as they had already decided the 2008 nomination fight for Clinton. Warren’s statements have been consistent in that regard. On the CBS Sunday Morning program this week, she was pressed repeatedly on the issue. “I’m not running for president,” Warren reiterated, cutting her interviewer off with a warning that “you can ask it lots of different ways” and still get the same answer.
Warren has a reputation as a straight shooter. But even straight shooters have been known to resist entreaties to seek the presidency, or to accept an invitation to join a national ticket, right up to the point at which they hear the siren call.
Candidates and potential candidates write books for two reasons. At their worst, they seek merely to advance their own ambitions. At their best, they seek to frame the debate—not necessarily with a precise platform; often with an ably developed premise, as was the case with the two best-selling books that a young Barack Obama wrote before launching a presidential bid that in its early stages was grounded at least in part on a stack of favorable reviews.
But reviews, and even sales, do not necessarily translate into votes. The finest “idea” book written by a political figure who was angling for a presidential run, Wendell Willkie’s 1943 text One World, got him precisely nowhere in his 1944 run for the Republican nod. Folks showed up at Willkie events seeking autographs on their copies of the enormously popular book and then voted for Tom Dewey or Franklin Roosevelt.
It was different with John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1957 book that positioned a very young Massachusetts senator as both an intellectual and as something of a bipartisan prospect for the presidency. And his impressive collection of foreign policy observations, 1960’s Strategy for Peace, helped Americans to imagine how the Democratic nominee would chart a course through Cold War politics. The first book was critical to getting Kennedy into the 1960 race as a serious contender, the second provided him with foreign-policy credibility for a contest with Vice President Richard Nixon.
Warren’s text is a relatively standard political book, as least in comparison with those by Willkie, Kennedy and Obama. But it strikes the right ideological tone for a moment in which Warren’s long-term issues—income inequality, middle-class misery, Wall Street excess and accountability—have finally gotten notice from a traditionally neglectful media, and from a Democratic Party that is in need of a new playbook.
It is with all of these understandings that the professor-turned-senator’s tenth book enters the long list of political tomes that will be read not only for their ideological insights but for hints about practical politics.
Let’s begin by stipulating that, apart from any political calculus, Warren has written a good book. It’s appropriately biographical, relatively frank and quite strong with regard to the pathologies of our politics and our economics. The book is at its best when it explores those pathologies, as when Warren recounts her effort to establish and lead what would become the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Recalling a meeting with Congressman Michael Grimm, R-NY, she writes: “When I launched into an enthusiastic description of what we were trying to get done at the agency, the congressman looked surprised. After a bit, he cut me off so he could make one thing clear: He didn’t believe in government.” Warren wryly observes that Grimm believed in a lot of government—including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for which he worked before embarking on a political career, and the “government-paid health insurance [he got] when he joined Congress”—“but not other forms of ‘big government’ and certainly not a consumer protection agency.”
Warren’s book is tougher on Republicans than Democrats, despite the fact that Democrats were responsible for many policies and approaches she opposed as a crusading Harvard Law School professor and ally of the late Senator Paul Wellstone. She generally goes easy on the Clintons and is gentle with Barack Obama—though she does do some damage to Larry Summers, whose Diet Coke–drenched seminar on how to be an insider Warren recounts to devastating effect.
The senator seems most comfortable in the realm of ideas and debate, especially when she goes after those who would have the government stand down as a regulator and enforcer of the rules.
“We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend that if ‘big government’ disappears, so will society’s toughest problems,” she writes. “That’s just magical thinking—and it’s also dangerous thinking. Our problems are getting bigger by the day and we need to develop some hardheaded, realistic responses. Instead of trying to starve the government or drown it in the bathtub, we need to tackle our problems head-on, and that will require better government.”
With knowing references to right-wing dogma, those lines are being read as a shot at Tea Partisans such as Ted Cruz and sort-of-libertarians like Rand Paul. But Warren goes a good deal deeper, pressing the point that government is needed. It’s a personal message, rooted in her experience as a girl growing up in a working-class Oklahoma family.
The biographical sections of the book are the most poignant, especially as the senator recalls her mother, shaken after Warren’s father suffered a heart attack and afraid about losing the family home, pulling on a best dress and heading out to take a low-wage job. Warren makes the right connections, arguing in conversations about this story that, “we came right to the edge of losing our home. My mother saved our home with a minimum wage job. But in the 1960s, a minimum wage job would support a family of three above the poverty line. Not today. Not even close.”
The reasons why it is “not even close” are highlighted throughout Warren’s book, in which one chapter is titled “Bailing Out the Wrong People.” But the real heart of the matter was summed up in the working title of this book, Rigged—“It refers to how the economic system’s too often rigged against families who work hard and play by the rules—and how it’s loaded in favor of those with money and power,” she told an interviewer last year.
Book titles change for a lot of reasons.
But no one should miss the point of the title change for this book. Warren and her publisher decided that Americans don’t need another bummer book about a broken economy. They need some hope that a rigged system can be fixed so that it doesn’t always favor “those with money and power.”
A knowing optimism is better for book sales.
It is, as well, better for presidential bids.
There is little reason to disbelieve Elizabeth Warren when she says that “right now” she is focused on electing populist Democrats like Iowa’s Bruce Braley and South Dakota’s Tim Weiland to the US Senate, and on keeping that chamber in Democratic hands. But should Democrats find themselves casting about for a populist in 2016—either because a front-runner stands down or because economic justice issues take precedence—there is good reason to believe that they might be drawn to a potential candidate whose book announces, “I’m here to fight for something that I believe is worth absolutely everything: to give each one of our kids a fighting chance to build a future full of promise and discovery.”
Editor’s Note: Click below to listen to Elizabeth Warren read from the prologue to the audiobook version of A Fighting Chance.
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Phase IV of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project would, if approved and constructed, cut across the state of South Dakota from its northwest corner through hundreds of miles of ranch land to the Nebraska border. If all the promises of jobs for workers and protection for the environment that have been made by Keystone proponents were well grounded, there’s good reason to believe that Rick Weiland might be on the forefront of efforts to get the project up and running.
Weiland’s a rural-state Democrat seeking to hold a Senate seat that has been in Democratic hands since 1997. It’s a hard race, where the pressure is on to appeal across lines of partisanship and ideology in a state that has not backed a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Political pundits would, no doubt, make excuses for Weiland if he finessed the Keystone debate with a politically convenient bow to Nebraska legal deliberations and ongoing assessments of the potential impact by federal agencies—as the US State Department did with its just-announced delay of a decision on whether to approve the $5.4 billion initiative.
But Weiland, a former congressional aide and regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has a long record of balancing economic and environmental concerns. And he is not prepared to avoid the issue.
The Democratic contender declares flatly, “I’m opposed to it.”
Like the members of the Cowboy Indian Alliance of ranchers, farmers and tribal communities from along the pipeline route, which this week is rallying in Washington to urge the administration to reject the Keystone XL proposal and protect the environment, Weiland has sorted the issue out in practical terms.
“[There are] huge environmental impacts,” he said in a March interview during a visit with members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe on the fourth-largest Indian reservation by land area in the United States. “You look at what it takes in terms of the extraction of the oil and the energy that is consumed to do that, the transportation—the fact they have to heat the tar sand up so it becomes almost liquefied—through a pipeline that crosses over precious water resources like the Ogallala [the shallow water table aquifer that underlies portions of South Dakota and seven other states] and the potential for the damage that could occur, and the fact that we’re not really getting anything for taking on that risk. I think that in and of itself is reason not to build it.”
Weiland notes that because the Keystone project is an export pipeline, “very little if any of the oil, tar sand oil, that’s going to be coming through South Dakota is going to stay in the United States. Most of it is going overseas.”
At the same time, he expressed doubts about the suggestion that the project would create jobs. “The last report I read, which was put out by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) basically said we’re talking about thirty-five full-time jobs, permanent jobs, and we don’t even know how many of those are going to be in South Dakota. And the 2,000 that it’s going to take to build the pipeline, those are temporary jobs,” Weiland explained to Sustainable Dakota’s Tasiyagnunpa Livermont.
The Obama administration continues to wrestle with the Keystone issue. There are now suggestions that the wrestling could extend until after the November election. That’s earned the president criticism from Republicans such as Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources, who called the delay “a stunning act of political cowardice.” And from Democrats such as Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who chairs the committee and called the delay “irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable.”
At the same time, opponents of the pipeline are frustrated and concerned. “Keystone XL poses a grave risk to our land, water and climate, and breaks long held treaties, and President Obama still has an opportunity to do the right thing and reject the pipeline,” argue activists with the Cowboy Indian Alliance’s “Reject and Protect” campaign. “But he won’t take it unless we commit ourselves to principled action and push him to step up.”
The president and his aides and appointees undoubtedly feel pulled in many directions.
In the end, they must make a choice.
And in doing so they would be wise to consider the reasoned position of Rick Weiland, who says that “what you end up having at the end of the day is an awful lot of risk associated with the construction of this and the potential for impacts on the environment and very little reward, and that’s why I’m opposed to it.”
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