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John Nichols

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What's Bad for Democracy Is Good for Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie answers a question during a campaign event in Manville, New Jersey, Monday, May 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Scheduling matters—especially when it comes to manipulating election dates.

Just ask Chris Christie. He’s choreographing a confusing series of statewide elections in New Jersey this fall—all with the goal of benefiting Chris Christie.

And what benefits Chris Christie most is diminished democracy. So the governor—and potential 2016 Republican presidential contender—has managed his election schedule with an eye toward keeping voter turnout low.

Very, very low.

The first step in the process went according to plan. On Tuesday, New Jersey held US Senate special election primaries to choose candidates to finish the term of the late Frank Lautenberg.

From a crowded and competitive field of Democrats, Newark Mayor Cory Booker was nominated with almost 60 percent of the vote.

In a two-person Republican race, former Bogota, New Jersey, mayor and Americans for Prosperity operative Steve Lonegan prevailed.

But almost no one voted. One New Jersey newspaper summed things up when it described voter participation as “little to none.”

When all the ballots were counted, the turnout figure was around 9 percent.

So 91 percent of eligible voters did not participate, despite the fact that these definitional primaries featured a celebrity contender (Booker), two sitting members of Congress (Rush Holt and Frank Pallone), a prominent legislator (Sheila Oliver) and one of the state’s most outspoken conservative leaders (Lonegan).

The primaries were a small-“d” democratic disaster and the October 16 general election, in which Booker is a favorite, could be even worse.

In other words, everything is going as Chris Christie prefers.

The governor created a schedule designed to downplay the Senate race—primaries in the middle of August vacation season, general election in October rather than November—because it was expected to generate higher interest among Democrats than Republicans. He didn’t want it to conflict in any way with his own November 5 re-election run.

True, the schedule hurts his fellow Republican Lonegan, who would have benefited from being on the same ballot as Christie.

But is also hurts Christie’s Democratic challenger, State Senator Barbara Buono, who would have benefited from being on the same ballot as Booker.

By using his authority as governor to establish a separate election schedule for the Senate race, Christie insulated his re-election run against unexpected electoral developments. He also assured that voter turnout would be, as The Jersey Journal reported Tuesday, “very poor.”

So what’s bad for democracy is good for Chris Christie.

That’s how the governor rolls.

Christie’s entire political career has benefited from election scheduling that favors Republicans in a Democratic state. New Jersey elects its governors in odd-numbered years when there are no federal elections. Since federal elections, especially presidential elections, tend to attract a lot of Democrats to the polls, Christie has enjoyed a dream scenario for a Republican seeking statewide office in a state that has not backed a Republican for president since it picked George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Christie is not alone in benefiting from Republican-friendly scheduling.

The vast majority of states hold gubernatorial elections at the “midterm” point in the tenure of presidents, rather than on a schedule aligned with presidential voting. This means that most governors are elected when most eligible voters don’t cast ballots. This explains why states that vote solidly Democratic in presidential election years—such as Wisconsin, which has not backed a Republican for president since 1984; or Maine, which has not backed a Republican for president since 1988—have right-wing governors like Scott Walker and Paul LePage.

As former US Senator Russ Feingold has noted, if all major elections were scheduled with an eye toward getting the clearest reflection of popular sentiments, America would have a dramatically different politics—and governance.

Politicians know this.

And politicians who are not quite so honorable as Feingold are more than willing to game the process to assure that they get the electorate they want, even if that means creating circumstances where turnout is atrociously low.

That’s what Christie did when he scheduled the special election to fill the US Senate seat to assure the lowest possible level of participation.

The scheduling stunt will cost New Jersey $25 million that it did not need to spend and it has created a good deal of confusion.

But Christie’s fine with the cost, and the confusion.

Buono’s not.

Her campaign accuses the governor of using “a cynical and arrogant” scheduling scheme to “needlessly disenfranchise voters.”

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That’s true.

But, as New Jersey Working Families Alliance executive director Bill Holland notes, the disenfranchisement will undoubtedly be most severe for voters who are most likely to disagree with Chris Christie.

That, of course, is the point.

As Holland explains, Christie’s approach “guarantees that turnout will be low, and that those whose voices are not being heard in Washington will be heard even less.”

John Nichols is the author with Robert W. McChesney of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). It explores the many vehicles by which powerful interests manipulate election processes, including the gaming of election schedules.

What are the three questions that will decide the fate of voting rights in North Carolina?

Next Fed Head Should Meet the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren Standard

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Advisor Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Reuters Future Face of Finance Summit in Washington, March 1, 2011. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

No presidential appointment, no Senate confirmation, matters more than the one that will soon come for the post of chairman of the Federal Reserve.

If ever there was a time to ask for more—and better—this is it.

Yet, for the most part, official Washington is on autopilot, preparing for the replacement of outgoing Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke with another predictable insider—perhaps even the ultimate predictable insider: former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.

President Obama, who says he will make his selection this fall, has defended Summers. A number of prominent Democratic senators have suggested that the president consider a more appealing prospect: Janet Yellen, the vice chair of the board of governors of the Fed.

But not everyone is satisfied with predictable prospects, or politics as usual.

Senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, keep making the right demands and asking the right questions.

Several weeks ago, Sanders suggested that, instead of narrowing the choice to Summers—and Yellen—Obama should be considering a wider range of contenders, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz or former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

There’s every reason to talk up Stiglitz and Reich.

But, no matter who the nominee is, Sanders and Warren argue this week in a Huffington Post column that “the next Fed chair will have an opportunity to get our economy back on track and to help rebuild America’s middle class. But that will require the right temperament and a willingness to take on Wall Street CEOs when necessary. It is critical that the next Fed chair make a genuine, long-term commitment to supporting those who don’t have armies of lobbyists and lawyers to advance their interests in Washington—working and middle-class families.”

To that end, the senators have developed a set of questions that need to be answered by whomever is chosen to replace Bernanke.

To wit:

1. Do you believe that the Fed’s top priority should be to fulfill its full employment mandate?

2. If you were to be confirmed as chair of the Fed, would you work to break up “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions so that they could no longer pose a catastrophic risk to the economy?

3. Do you believe that the deregulation of Wall Street, including the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and exempting derivatives from regulation, significantly contributed to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?

4. What would you do to divert the $2 trillion in excess reserves that financial institutions have parked at the Fed into more productive purposes, such as helping small- and medium-sized businesses create jobs?

These are telling questions, especially for Summers who, for instance, played a critical role in “the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act” that is mentioned in Question 3.

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So be it.

No one should head the Fed if they cannot provide the right answers—"yes” to the first three queries, and specifics for number 4—to all the questions being asked by the senators who have refused to bow to the bankers.

John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Author Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.'

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a voter suppression law yesterday and it is already being challenged by two different lawsuits.

Mass Protests Put ALEC Under National Scrutiny

ALEC protesters in Chicago on August 6, 2013. (Courtesy of Flickr)

The American Legislative Exchange Council is better known today than at any time in its forty-year history.

For most groups that seek to influence the governing process that would be something to celebrate. But ALEC, the corporate-funded project that develops “model legislation” to be introduced by conservative legislators across the country, historically worked off-radar.

No more.

The group highlighted by the 2011 “ALEC Exposed” project of the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation has in recent years been the subject of investigations and inquiries by media outlets across the country. It has been the focus of a nationally broadcast “United States of ALEC” documentary by Bill Moyers & Company. It has been called out by groups such as Color of Change and Common Cause. It has been abandoned by forty-nine corporations (from Amazon.com to Walmart) that once paid for its initiatives.

ALEC has been decried by labor, environmental and clean government groups in state capitols across the country. National political figures, such as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, are launching inquiries into how the group promotes its legislative agenda. And this week, as ALEC gathers its corporate and legislative “members” in the city of its founding to celebrate four decades of service to special interests and ambitious politicians, demonstrations against the group have drawn thousands of union members, civil rights activists and social justice campaigners into the streets of Chicago.

An organization that once held its annual meetings virtually unnoticed is now met with mass protests so large that streets around its hotel were closed Thursday as activists staged “die-ins” recalling ALEC’s role in the passage of so-called Stand Your Ground laws and headlines screamed, “ALEC convention protests: Labor vs. lobbyists.”

ALEC has felt the pressure of public scrutiny. Last year, the group distanced itself from some of its more controversial initiatives, such as restrictive voter ID laws and the Stand Your Ground measures that gained national attention after the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

Yet, with continued backing from longtime allies such as the Koch brothers and the support of corporations that have disregarded calls from civil rights groups for them to quit the council, ALEC remains a defining force in statehouses across the country. A new report from the Center for Media and Democracy details the extent of the group’s ongoing engagement.

CMD has identified 466 ALEC bills that were introduced in state legislatures during 2013 sessions. At least eighty-four of these measures have become law.

According to CMD:

• One hundred and seventeen ALEC bills that seek to restrict worker rights, weaken unions, promote privatization and undermine advocacy for wage hikes. At least fourteen of these measures have become law.

• One hunded and thirty-nine ALEC bills that address education issues with proposals to use taxpayer dollars to fund private schools among the favorites. At least thirty-one ALEC education measures have become law.

• Seventy-seven ALEC bills that CMD says “promote a fossil fuel and fracking agenda and undermine environmental regulations.” At least seventeen of these measures have become law.

ALEC’s influence is broad, as is its legislative legacy. The CMD report explains: “Despite ALEC’s effort to distance itself from Voter ID and Stand Your Ground by disbanding its controversial Public Safety and Elections Task Force, 62 of these laws were introduced: 10 Stand Your Ground bills and 52 bills to enact or tighten Voter ID restrictions. Five states enacted additional Voter ID restrictions, and two states passed Stand Your Ground.”

Indeed, among the featured speakers at ALEC’s fortieth annual meeting is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who signed the Stand Your Ground law that provided the outline for the group’s model legislation.

So ALEC is still very much what ALEC has been for decades: a key player, perhaps the key player, in advancing the corporate agenda on a host of issues in statehouses across the country.

What has changed for ALEC is that a lot more Americans are now paying attention to its advocacy.

New national campaigns to get corporations and foundations to quit ALEC are ramping up.

So, too, are efforts to ask whether ALEC, which says it is not a lobbying group, should have to follow federal and state rules that are supposed to regulate groups that seek to influence the legislative process.

Legislators in a number of states have proposed that ALEC be required to follow existing lobbying laws when, as Center for Media and Democracy executive director Lisa Graves says, they are “[advancing] the lobbying agenda of special interests to the detriment of ordinary Americans.”

On Monday, Common Cause and CMD submitted a joint letter to the IRS requesting “an immediate investigation into the American Legislative Exchange Council’s massive underreporting of payment for state lawmakers’ travel on its Form 990s, filed with the Internal Revenue Service.”

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The letter charges that ALEC “engaged in an impermissible amount of lobbying and served private rather than public interests.”

In addition to asking for the federal examining of whether ALEC’s approach is appropriate in light of its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, the groups are also asking state ethics officials to determine if ALEC’s “scholarship” programs complies with state gift and disclosure laws.

Common Cause and CMD argue that the conflict is clear.

“Ultimately,” the groups argue in their letter to the IRS, “ALEC’s scholarship fund activity provides private benefits to two core constituents: (1) state legislators, who receive all-expense-paid vacations, and (2) corporate donors, who are able to obtain “business-friendly” legislation through this influence peddling.”

John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), which examines the role played by ALEC and other national groups in shaping policy at the state and local levels of government.

Can Chris Christie change the gun control debate?

Democracy Disenfranchised: Detroit's Next Mayor Won't Be Allowed to Govern

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder presents his third state budget before the state legislature in Lansing, Michigan, February 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

A hundred and fifty years ago, in the thick of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln rejected the counsel that suggested he might postpone the 1864 presidential election on the grounds that the national circumstance was too chaotic for voting.

“We cannot have free government without elections,” declared the sixteenth president. “If the rebellion could force us to forgo, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”

Lincoln’s commitment to maintain regularly scheduled elections despite all the challenges facing the nation was essential to the formation of the American democratic standard. But what happens when elections are held but those who are elected are not allowed to govern? Can we tell ourselves that democracy has been maintained if it is not respected in any realistic sense by state and federal officials?

That’s a question that the voters of one of America’s great cities, Detroit, are in the process of answering.

Detroit voters trooped to the polls Tuesday to nominate candidates for the city’s top posts in one of the more unsettled—and unsettling—elections in American history.

The voters selected candidates for mayor, city clerk and the city council—all the officials who normally would guide the affairs of one of America’s largest municipalities.

The chosen candidates are running serious campaigns. They will compete in traditional fall contests, with some elected and some defeated. The winners will take office shortly after the election results are certified. And then, the new leaders of Detroit will in all likelihood be forced to sit in official chambers and watch as their city is dismantled by an appointed—not elected—“emergency manager” and a federal bankruptcy judge.

They will not do so willingly. The candidates that initial returns suggest Detroit voters have nominated to replace outgoing Mayor Dave Bing—Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and, with a surge of write-in votes being counted for him, former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan—have made it clear that they are ready and willing to govern. Summing up the sentiments of most Detroit candidates this year, Napoleon, a former Detroit police chief, says that “the mayor should be able to set the priorities.”

But that won’t happen, because Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has taken control of Detroit, using an “emergency manager” law that he cobbled together late last fall.

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 the voters of Michigan 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 Detroit’s next mayor may eventually be allowed to govern, he won’t be calling the shots at the critical juncture when the city faces bankruptcy and dismantlement.

This is a vital distinction to recognize as Detroit faces the federal bankruptcy process—initiated at Snyder’s behest—that has been so much in the news.

“Let’s get one thing straight, the city of Detroit has not filed 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 retiring Detroit City Council member JoAnn 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 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.

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.

The courts should back the voters up and put an end to the emergency-manager charade. Federal and state officials should work with Detroit’s elected leaders to seek alternatives to bankruptcy—and the austerity cuts to services and pensions that go with it. Democracy should be restored so that the candidates who have been nominated in Detroit this week, and who will be elected in November, can guide the affairs of the city they have been chosen to lead.

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Some truths are self-evident across time.

That is surely the case with Lincoln’s observation that “we cannot have free government without elections.”

It was absolutely true 150 years ago that the postponing of an election would have been a defeat for the forces of democracy.

It is absolutely true today that the sapping of meaning from elections—by denying successful candidates the authority to govern—represents another form of the same defeat.

John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.”

Why won’t Anthony Weiner drop out of the New York City mayoral race?

Big Media Story Isn't Bezos and the Post, It's the RNC Threatening CNN, NBC

Reince Priebus speaking at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Courtesy of Flickr)

The big media story this week is not the purchase of The Washington Post by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

For as long as there have been newspapers, rich people have bought them as toys and tools.

So, while it is significant that Bezos bought the Post for $250 million, this is not exactly a definitional development on the media landscape.

Bezos is not even the only rich guy to buy a major metropolitan daily paper in the past week. It was announced on Saturday that Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry has purchased another of the twenty-five largest dailies in the United States, The Boston Globe, for $70 million.

While it cannot be said for certain regarding Bezos and Henry, the best bet is that these very wealthy men will run their papers as side projects—Bezos, a little less hands-on; Henry, a little more hands-on—in the tradition of another wealthy newspaper purchaser, Warren Buffett. The fact that these guys don’t need big profits from newspapers that no longer post big profits actually provides a measure of insulation that financially struggling metro dailies owned by publicly traded companies lack. And while Bezos, Henry and Buffett have political pedigrees, none has the take-no-prisoners edge that has made the prospect of purchases of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune by the brothers Koch so unsettling to so many of the free-press faithful.

If new owners maintain old papers pretty much as they have been, that’s not dramatic news. Indeed, the only real “news” may be that newspapers, which cannot survive as publicly traded entities where stockholders demand big payouts, might have a future as the vanity projects of rich people. Or even better, as nonprofit entities, cooperatives and public trusts.

So if the sale of the Post is not as dramatic a development as might initially seem to be the case, what is?

The big deal in media this week has to do with the relationship of broadcast and cable news networks to the two major political parties. And it matters—more—because it gets to a question that is at the heart of all of our discussions about the future of print, broadcast and digital media: will we have a sufficient journalism, and a sufficiently independent journalism, to sustain democracy?

Ever since the Democratic and Republican parties took over the nation’s presidential debates in 1987, with the creation of a corporate-funded “Commission on Presidential Debates” run by the former chairs of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, the dialogue in presidential election years has been the ultimate insiders’ game.

Debate rules have for a quarter-century been dictated by parties and campaigns, not by the television networks that present them—and certainly not by nonpartisan good-government groups such as the League of Women Voters, which used to organize debates before the parties elbowed them aside. The change has resulted in a degeneration of the discourse that has tended to reinforce the status quo rather than extend America’s experiment with democracy.

Parallel to the commission’s management of fall debates featuring the presidential and vice presidential nominees of the major parties—it’s been more than two decades since billionaire Ross Perot bought his way onto the stage in a way that no independent or third-party candidate has since been able to do—there’s been an equally ugly phenomenon: the “partnering” of major parties with networks to organize debates between candidates seeking presidential nominations.

The partnering deals have been just as ugly as the corruption of the election process by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

That ugliness went public this week when Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus threatened a broadcast network, NBC, and a cable network, CNN, over planned projects on Hillary Clinton.

That Clinton, a former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state who started her public career as a Watergate prosecutor and played a significant role in struggles for women’s rights and children’s rights, is a worthy subject for examination should be beyond question journalistically and academically. But it is not beyond question politically.

Because Clinton might seek the Democratic presidential nod in 2016, Priebus says NBC must cancel plans for a four-hour mini-series and CNN must dump its plan for a documentary. Presuming that the projects would be positive in their portrayals of Clinton, despite the fact that she’s been a frequently controversial figure, Priebus accused each network of engaging in a “thinly-veiled attempt at putting a thumb on the scales of the 2016 presidential election.”

Priebus has a long history of complaining about media coverage of his party and its candidates. Besides, both the CNN and NBC projects are likely to air before Clinton decides on whether to run. If anything, the most likely candidates to be harmed are prospective Democratic primary challengers to Clinton.

So the chairman’s letter would have been stashed in the “whiner” file, except for one component: the threat.

“If you have not agreed to pull this programming prior to the start of the RNC’s summer meeting on August 14,” wrote Priebus, “I will seek a binding vote of the RNC stating that the committee will neither partner with you in 2016 primary debates nor sanction primary debates which you sponsor.”

The reactions from the networks were uninspired. NBC News declined to comment; CNN offered a vapid, “We would encourage the members of the Republican National Committee to reserve judgment until they know more.”

The networks should have told Priebus, “Good riddance!”


Partnerships between the networks and the major political parties are a far greater concern than the ownership of newspapers by new generations of rich people. By cutting deals with the parties to host “exclusive” primary debates, and by accepting the parameters established by the two major parties for fall debates, the networks defer to the political establishment in the worst of ways.

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It’s time for the networks, wealthy and powerful entities that they are, to declare independence from the major parties. If they want to partner with the League of Women Voters, which remains honorably committed to fairness and openness, that’s great. If they want to work with groups such as Common Cause, or state-based good government organizations and, yes, newspapers, that’s terrific.

But the network partnerships with the parties reinforce the worst status quo instincts—in our media and our politics. Americans should be interested in who owns newspapers, but they should be indignant about an arrangement that has television news operations negotiating with, partnering with and being threatened by political parties.

John Nichols and Robert McChesney, the co-founders of Free Press, the nation’s media reform network, are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Basic Books/Nation Books), and examination of media and politics that pays close scrutiny the changing newspaper business and how presidential debates are manipulated by the parties.

Did Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker really compare himself to FDR?

Did Scott Walker Really Go and Compare Himself to Franklin Roosevelt?

In this January 3, 2011, photo, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at an inauguration ceremony at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Much of this progress (for working Americans) has been due, I like to think, to the one thing that this Administration from the very beginning has insisted upon: the assurance to labor of the untrammeled right, not privilege, but right to organize and bargain collectively with its employers.
         —Franklin Delano Roosevelt, September 11, 1940

Scott Walker is not averse to flights of fantasy.

But the governor of Wisconsin—who began August by hosting the annual meeting of the National Governors Association in Milwaukee and then planned to jet off to South Carolina and other key states to promote a 2016 presidential bid—filled his imagination quota last week when he compared himself with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

No one with the slightest sense of history could confuse the governor, who has yet to encounter a Wall Street dictate he didn’t honor, with the president who said when he sought re-election in 1936, “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.… Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

But, of course, Scott Walker does not have the slightest sense of history.

That was painfully obvious when last week, in an appearance before a Governmental Research Association conference, the governor asserted, “The position I pushed is not unlike the principle that Franklin Delano Roosevelt—not exactly a conservative—pushed as well when it came to public sector collective bargaining. He felt that there wasn’t a need in the public sector to have collective bargaining because the government is the people. We are the people. And so what we’ve done is to be able to empower our great employees, to affirm them.”

Walker was referencing a popular fantasy among anti-labor fabulists.

Unfortunately, the theory loses something in translation.

Back in 1937, Roosevelt did write that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”

The comment came in a letter from the president to the National Federation of Federal Employees, in which he did, indeed, express his conviction that “upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities.”

But Roosevelt’s letter was not an anti-labor diatribe like one of Walker’s rants about “big union-sponsored mercenaries” and “bare-knuckle union attacks.”

Roosevelt began his letter celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the federal employees union with a declaration that “organizations of government employees have a logical place in Government affairs.”

“The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry,” continued Roosevelt, who expressed the view that organization on the part of public employees “to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical.”

It was Roosevelt’s respect for government—and his understanding of “the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government”—that led him to focus on what he understood as the distinct nature of labor relations at the federal level. But to suggest that the thirty-second president—who signed the National Labor Relations Act into law and famously declared, “It is one of the characteristics of a free and democratic modern nation that it have free and independent labor unions”—set the stage for Walker’s anti-union politics is absurd.

Roosevelt did not want strikes to disrupt public safety and public service. But he recognized the “logical place” of public employee unions as representatives of federal workers. And it was in no small measure because of his pro-labor sentiment that the National Federation of Federal Employees exists to this day—as the representative of 110,000 federal workers at forty agencies and departments.

When the current president of the federation heard the comparison of Walker and Roosevelt, he wrote a column for the Federal Times in order to “correct the misinformation” about the letter—the original of which hangs outside his office at the union headquarters.

“It is clear that this letter was written to federal employees about the importance of not having strikes in federal agencies because of national security concerns. Nothing more,” explained William Dougan. “To suggest this is evidence that Roosevelt—the father of workers’ rights to form and join unions—shares an ideological lineage with Walker’s union-busting tactics is outrageous and disingenuous. A voice in the workplace for teachers, firefighters and other public employees is not a matter of national security, it is a matter of dignity for workers.”

Scott Walker is not the twenty-first-century embodiment of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Scott Walker is the twenty-first-century embodiment of Julius Heil, the right-wing Republican governor of Wisconsin who, after his election in 1938, sought to undo the job-creation initiatives of Phil La Follette, the great Progressive Party governor of the 1930s. Heil had no taste for Roosevelt, and the feeling was mutual. The governor clashed with unions, and his repeated assaults on the rights of Wisconsin workers would eventually be his undoing. As The New York Times noted, “[Heil] lost in 1942, largely because of his unpopular labor record.”

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Heil would never have suggested that he was “not unlike” FDR. It would have been absurd for the anti-labor governor to compare himself with the man who declared during the 1936 campaign, “Of course we will continue every effort to end monopoly in business, to support collective bargaining, to stop unfair competition, to abolish dishonorable trade practices. For all these we have only just begun to fight.” If Heil had the audacity to make a comparison, FDR would have corrected him.

FDR is not around to correct Scott Walker. But the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees is around. “I can say with conviction and history firmly on my side that if Roosevelt was around today,” says William Dougan, “he would lead the charge for workers’ rights to unionize—public and private.”

John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Basic Books/Nation Books). Author and radio host Thom Hartmann says: “Dollarocracy is the most important political book of the year, maybe of our times. Nichols and McChesney provide an original and painstakingly researched account of how corporations and billionaires have come to dominate the political process, as well as the contours of what they term the ‘money-and-media election complex.’ Although I study politics for a living, I learned more about how political advertising works, the crucial role of media corporations and dreadful election journalism than I would have ever imagined possible.”

How far will Scott Walker go to eliminate dissent as he kicks off his presidential campaign?

In an Economic Democracy, Stiglitz and Reich Would Be Contenders for Fed Head

Joseph Stiglitz (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The big election race of 2013 is for the position of Federal Reserve chairman.

The United States is not an economy democracy, however. So there will be no popular vote on who will make the most critical decisions on jobs, investments, interest rates and a host of other defining issues for working families, communities, states and the nation.

But there is a campaign going on. In order to influence the selection of a new chair by President Obama and the Senate confirmation process: contenders are positioning. Camps and caucuses are organizing. Endorsements are being made. Issues are being placed on the table.

So let’s invite the American people into the process.

Let’s tell them how powerful the Fed is, and what it could do to address poverty, unemployment and the economic challenges faced by cities like Detroit.

One member of Congress, Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee, is already inviting us to imagine the possibilities.

In response to the threat of bankruptcy that looms for Detroit and other cities, Kildee has argued that the Fed should be actively engaged in developing solutions for cities that are in economic turmoil after decades of deindustrialization and federal and state neglect. “While Detroit’s problems may be extreme, they are certainly not unique,” says Kildee. “Municipalities in Michigan and across the country are increasingly facing insolvency that requires us to rethink the way we support our cities.”

When Fed Chair Ben Bernanke appeared before the House Financial Service Committee in mid-July, the congressman said, “I would ask if you would think about how you would advise Congress or how the Fed itself might pursue policy that would have the effect of potentially avoiding—but certainly mitigating—the economic effect of municipal financial failure.”

Kildee’s point is well taken, not merely with regard to the debate over Detroit—but with regard to the debate over who will head the Fed.

One potential contender for the job, Lawrence Summers, has a record of delivering for Wall Street and the big banks—as an advocate for deregulation, privatization and the elimination of essential regulatory protections such as the Glass-Steagall Act. As economist Dean Baker noted after the economy melted down in 2007 and 2008, “The policies [Summers] promoted as Treasury Secretary and in his subsequent writings led to the economic disaster that we now face.” But Summers is also an over-the-top advocate for the sort of free trade agreements that have left communities across this country with shuttered factories and high unemployment. He’s so disinclined toward the public investments that might renew those communities that Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, has said, “Larry Summers hates infrastructure.”

So count Summers out.

There are better choices, such as Janet Louise Yellen, who in her writings and in her tenure as the vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System has evidenced a higher commitment to the Fed’s mandate to promote high employment. She’s clearly a candidate—so much so that on Tuesday she got her first newspaper endorsement: from The New York Times.

But Senator Bernie Sanders has suggested a pair of dark-horse contenders who—in a real race for the Fed chairmanship—would offer working Americans a genuine choice.

Declaring that “it’s time for new leadership at the Federal Reserve and a new approach to our troubled economy,” Sanders has identified Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich as “excellent candidates” to replace Chairman Ben Bernanke when the chairman finishes his term January 31.

“We need a new Fed chair who will act with the same sense of urgency to combat the unemployment crisis in America today that has left 22 million Americans without a full time job,” argues Sanders. To that end, Sanders rejects Summers as a contender, writing to President Obama that “it would be a tragic mistake to nominate anyone as chair of the Fed who continued those failed policies. Instead, we need a new chair who will have the courage to hold Wall Street accountable for their fraud, recklessness and illegal behavior, and stand up for the needs of ordinary Americans.”

But Sanders also recognizes that in the race for the Fed chairmanship progressives should have a contender. Or, perhaps, two.

“As you consider whom to nominate as the next chair of the Federal Reserve, I urge you to consider someone who will put the needs of the disappearing middle class ahead of the interests of Wall Street and the wealthy few,” Sanders wrote to the president. “There are a number of excellent candidates who are capable of doing that. Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz and former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich are just two names that come to mind.”

The reality is that, while the names of Stiglitz and Reich come quickly to the mind of Sanders and other progressives, they may not be at the top of the White House list. But they should be. On the immediate issue of Detroit, Reich has written brilliantly on the importance of recognizing, “in an era of widening inequality,” that the real question is whether Americans are going to “[write] off the poor” who reside in urban America. On the broader question of the economy, Stiglitz is arguing that so-called ‘free trade’ talks should be in the public, not corporate interest.”

Those are not ideas that are now at the center of the discussion about who should head the Fed.

But they should be.

And they can be.

This is the point of treating the race for the Fed chairmanship as an election, rather than an anointment.

By putting Stiglitz and Reich in the running, Sanders invites organized labor and economic justice and urban policy groups to join the debate. By highlighting the progressive economic approaches advanced by Stiglitz and Reich, as an alternative to those advanced by Larry Summers, they expand the understanding of what the Fed can and should do—for Detroit, for cities across the country and for neglected rural communities.

The debate is essential.

A quarter century ago, my colleague William Greider wrote the groundbreaking book: Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country (Simon & Schuster). The Fed still operates behind veils of secrecy. Most Americans do not know what it does and, more critically, what it can do.

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Treating the race for Fed head as a race, as a real campaign, invites citizens into the process.

Urging the selection of Stiglitz or Reich might not lead to the actual choice of a progressive-populist as Fed chair. But it could turn the tide against Summers. It might help Yellen. And it would almost certainly create pressure on whoever takes charge of the Fed to recognize and embrace the full potential of the Federal Reserve.

John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy says: “The billionaires are buying our media and our elections. They’re spinning our democracy into a dollarocracy. John Nichols and Bob McChesney expose the culprits who steered America into the quagmire of big money and provide us with the tools to free ourselves and our republic from the corporate kleptocrats.”

Does Larry Summers deserve a second chance?

If You're Not Singing Along With Scott Walker, You're Under Arrest

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at an inauguration ceremony at the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, on January 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is an exceptionally ambitious career politician who loves the sound of cheering crowds in the presidential primary states where he hopes to be a 2016 contender.

But he’s does not care for the sound of dissent.

In fact, dissident voices bother the conservative Republican governor so much that he has ordered state police forces to begin arresting Wisconsinites—from 85-year-olds to young moms with kids—who dare to join a long-established noontime “Solidarity Sing Along” at the state capitol in Madison. In this summer of protest, crowds have gathered at state capitols nationwide—from women’s rights activists in Austin to “Stand Your Ground” foes in Tallahassee to voting rights champions in Raleigh. There have been mass arrests, especially during the “Moral Monday” protests in North Carolina.

But Walker has distinguished himself by targeting tunes.

The singing, which traces its roots to the mass protests against Walker’s anti-labor initiatives of February and March 2011, has been a steady presence in the capitol for two years. But, this summer, the governor’s cracking down. So far, seventy-nine Wisconsinites have been arrested and ticketed, and dozens more are likely to face charges for singing songs like “Which Side Are You On?” and “On Wisconsin” without following a new set of permitting rules developed by the governor to limit the right to assemble.

It is hard to understand why the governor is so perturbed.

He’s not often in a position to hear what’s going on in the capitol.

Unless, of course, the voices of the singers are loud enough to carry to states like Alabama.

The governor, who makes little secret of his 2016 presidential enthusiasm, is spending this summer traveling to states that are likely to play a role in naming the Republican nominee who will pick up where Mitt Romney left off. He’s already been to Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada, New York, Tennessee and Texas. And he’ll be back in many of those state this fall to hawk his upcoming book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge (Sentinel/Penguin), which he’s written with Marc Thiessen, who previously served as chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush. The conservative Washington Examiner says that “according to those familiar with it, might as well come with a ‘Walker for America’ bumper sticker.”

But before he distributes the bumper stickers, Walker is spending his off-year summer vacation on the partisan dinner circuit.

When seventeen singers were arrested Friday at the state capitol, Walker was in Denver keynoting the fourth annual Western Conservative Summit.

Soon he’ll be off to Alabama for the annual Republican Party summer dinner.

He’s already been to the first primary state of New Hampshire and the first caucus state of Iowa.

Walker’s certainly seems to be running.

But he’s not getting much traction.

Against prospective Republican contenders, according to a new TheRun2016 poll, Walker finished eighth with 2.1 percent support among possible Iowa Republican Caucus participants.

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There are a lot of explanations for why Governor Walker, despite a very high national profile, attracts so little support. But some of the burden the governor carries undoubtedly has to do with his image as a “divide and conquer” politician who is determined to crack down on teachers, public employees, conservationists, local officials and anyone else who isn’t using his songbook—even going so far as to have grandmothers, veterans, teachers and mothers with children arrested for carrying a tune in the capitol—but who is not very good when it comes to managing his state, maintaining great schools, building a strong infrastructure or creating a climate that encourages job creation.

John Nichols and Bob McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, Harvard University, says, “As Nichols and McChesney’s new book shows, the robber barons of the late 19th century were pikers compared with today’s moneyed interests. They have hijacked our elections at all levels, and nothing short of the sweeping reforms called for in Dollarocracy can fix the problem. The book is a must read for anyone who cares about the integrity of our democratic system.”

Congressman Darrell Issa has a plan to end the US Postal Service. Can the American Postal Workers Union stop him?

Darrell Issa's Got a Plan to Put the Postal Service in a Death Spiral

A post office in Long Island City, New York. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Congressman Darrell Issa really is determined to end the United States Postal Service as Americans know it—indeed, as Americans have known it for more than 200 years.

Issa, the powerful chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has a long history of attacking the postal service. But, now, he has taken advantage of a manufactured crisis to get his committee to vote twenty-two to seventeen in favor of a “Postal Reform Act of 2013” that American Postal Workers Union president Cliff Guffey warns “will lead to the demise of the Postal Service.”

With Wednesday’s committee vote, the full House is now set to consider a plan that would, among other things, phase out door-to-door mail delivery by 2022. Instead of the traditional and highly popular delivery model that now exists, mail would be left in so-called “neighborhood cluster boxes” that would serve multiple residences.

The Issa plan also sets the stage for the elimination of most weekend mail service.

The changes Issa proposes would, according to the National Association of Letter Carriers, lead to “the elimination of more than 100,000 postal jobs and would dramatically cut service.” And in addition to its assault on the character and quality of postal service, the legislation includes classic austerity schemes, such as a prohibition against postal unions and management from negotiating protections against the closure of post offices, stations and branches, the consolidating of plants, the privatization of operations and layoffs.

The cuts, if implemented, would issue as an open invitation for private-delivery services to cash in by offering to fill the void created by those cuts. There are profits to be made by delivering mail to the front doors of Americans who can pay—and who want regular delivery on Saturdays. So it should come as no surprise that one of the first endorsements for Issa’s proposal came from the “Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service,” a group that counts FedEx as one of its most enthusiastic boosters.

The corporations that want to carve the USPS up and grab their pieces of America’s communications infrastructure are ready to pounce.

That is what is at stake.

APWU president Guffey says that “the legislation as written is totally unacceptable.”

It is so unacceptable, in fact, that it is unlikely to be implemented in its entirety anytime soon. But to the extent that Issa’s ideas influence the decision-making process with regard to the future of the USPS, the Issa plan is exceptionally dangerous.

The primary danger is the suggestion that the only fix for the postal service is downsizing. That’s the wrong route. There’s no question that the USPS can and must change. But schemes to cut services and to break up and sell off parts of the service begin with the false premise that its current financial challenges are evidence of structural flaws.

That’s not the case.

The service is losing money at an unsettling rate; it was down $16 billion in 2012. But the vast majority of the losses—roughly 80 percent, according to Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon—result from a mandate imposed by Congress in 2006, which requires the USPS to prepay retiree healthcare benefits for seventy-five years into the future. Major corporations could not shoulder such a burden. Neither could cities, states or the federal government.

Ending the mandate and requiring the postal service to operate along the lines of the most responsible private businesses would make the USPS viable.

So Issa is going at things in entirely the wrong way.

The right route is outlined by National Association of Letter Carriers president Fredric Rolando in a letter to Issa and Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. In it, Rolando writes that comprehensive postal reform must:

1. Stabilize the Postal Service’s finances by reforming or eliminating unwise and unfair pension and retiree health financing policies that have crippled the Postal Service’s finances since 2006;

2. Strengthen and protect the Postal Service’s invaluable first-mile and last-mile networks that together comprise a crucial part of the nation’s infrastructure;

3. Overhaul the basic governance structure of the agency to attract first-class executive talent and a private-sector style board of directors with the demonstrated business expertise needed to implement a strategy that will allow the Postal Service to innovate and take advantage of growth opportunities even as it adjusts to declining traditional mail volume; and

4. Free the Postal Service to meet the evolving needs of the American economy and to set its prices in a way that reflects the cost structure of the delivery industry while assuring affordable universal service and protecting against anti-competitive abuses.

While Issa is using flawed premises and flawed policies to hasten the demise of the postal service, others really are working to save it.

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Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Congressman DeFazio have proposed legislation that would stabilize the finances of the USPS while freeing it to compete in the twenty-first century.

Says Sanders, “While we all understand that the Postal Service is experiencing financial problems today and that changes need to be made as the Postal Service adjusts to a digital world, these issues can be dealt with in a way which strengthens the Postal Service rather than initiating a series of cuts that could eventually lead to a death spiral.”

John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Tim Carpenter, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, says, “Those of us who have been fighting at the grassroots against the corporate influence on both major parties have for years been waiting for an uncompromising, unrelenting expose of how big money shouts down the voices of citizens. This is it! Nichols and McChesney reveal how billionaires and corporations are buying our media, buying our elections. But Nichols and McChesney don’t stop there. They outline an agenda that is bold enough to make this country a real democracy. If you want to build a movement that gives power to the people, you must read this book.”

The USPS is not alone in facing financial difficulties—millions of Americans are struggling with poverty as well.

Potemkin Checks & Balances: Boehner Blocks Real Action to Limit Syria Entanglement

Hezbollah supporters fire weapons as they celebrate the fall of the Syrian town of Qusair to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah fighters, in Bazzalieh village, Lebanon, near the Lebanese-Syrian border, Wednesday, June 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are agreed on one thing: they both want to get the United States more actively engaged in the fighting in Syria.

Obama announced last month that he hopes to ship arms to the Syrian opposition forces that are fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Boehner said this week that the president’s Syrian gambit “is in our nation’s best interest.”

Boehner’s endorsement of the move came as House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, announced, “After much discussion and review, we got a consensus that we could move forward with what the administration’s plans and intentions are in Syria consistent with committee reservations.”

But, make no mistake, an “in our nation’s best interest” quote from Boehner and an Intelligence Committee “consensus” ought not be read as congressional approval for a project that threatens to involve the United States in another war in another Middle Eastern country.

That’s a point made by a key Intelligence Committee member, California Democrat Adam Schiff, who announced this week, “I do not share that consensus, however, and wish to make my dissent clear. In my view, the modest chance for success of these plans does not warrant the risk of becoming entangled in yet another civil war.”

Schiff’s concerns are well-founded. And he is not alone. Polling shows that only 11 percent of Americans favor US moves to aid the rebels. And there are many in Congress—Republicans and Democrats, Obama critics and frequent Obama allies—who express profound reservations about the course chosen by the administration.

That ought to create a checking-and-balancing moment. After all, the Constitution clearly affords Congress the power to declare wars—and to define the scope and character of military interventions.

But, as Vermont Congressman Peter Welch asked this week, “Does Congress play a role?

The answer, because of manipulations of the process by Boehner and his allies is basically “No.”

Congressman Welch, a Democrat who recently visited the Syrian border region, has emerged as an outspoken critic of moves to involve the United States in the conflict. Welch warns that “this is a significant military action. We are taking sides in a civil war.” It is this concern that led Welch and a number of Republican representatives to try and force Congress to engage in a serious debate about whether to get entangled in the Syria fight. Unfortunately, Boehner has manipulated the rules to aid Obama’s quest.

As part of the debate over the 2014 Pentagon spending bill, Welch and a bipartisan coalition he helped to assemble had hoped to get a vote on an amendment that would have barred the use of Department of Defense money to arm the rebels—or to otherwise pull the United States into the Syrian conflict.

But House leaders blocked consideration of the proposal. Boehner’s allies on the Rules Committee wanted to allow debate on only four narrowly drawn amendments to the broader spending bill. In addition to amendments that discuss limiting National Security Agency spying and aid to Egypt, a watered-down amendment on Syria was considered.

Sponsored by Republican Congressman Trey Radel, of Florida, the Syria amendment passed on a voice vote Wednesday. But it only prohibits the use of Pentagon funds for Syrian projects that are defined as “inconsistent” with the War Powers Resolution. The wording of Radel’s amendment makes it essentially symbolic, as it does little more than restate existing law.

It is important to remind the White House of the rules. Indeed, as Robert Naiman, the policy director for the group Just Foreign Policy, notes, “the Radel amendment can help achieve two things: it can be cited as Congressional opposition to deeper U.S. military involvement, and it specifically can be used to argue against continuation of the recent deployment of U.S. troops to Jordan, widely perceived as related to the threat of U.S. military intervention in Syria.”

But the Radel amendment does not achieve the sort of meaningful congressional action that the founders imagined as a necessary tool to check and balance military adventurism. It’s a facade of oversight rather than the real thing. Just as when Russian officials were accused of erecting fake “Potemkin villages” to fool foreign ambassadors into thinking impoverished regions were thriving, Boehner and his team are erecting Potemkin Checks and Balances.

“The Republican leadership ducked a real important debate when it comes to Syria,” complained Congressman James McGovern, D-Masachusetts.

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McGovern is right about that.

And he is right to worry about what Boehner’s failure might mean.

“I hope that…a few years down the road we don’t look back,” said McGovern, “and express regret that somehow we got sucked into this war without a real debate.”

John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (The Nation). Author Thomas Frank says: “This is the black book of politics-as-industry, an encyclopedic account of money’s crimes against democracy. The billionaires have hijacked our government, and anyone feeling complacent after the 2012 election should take sober note of Nichols’ and McChesney’s astonishing finding: It’s only going to get worse. Dollarocracy is an impressive achievement.”

Members of Congress aren’t alone in questioning US involvement in Syria—the top US general is doing it too.

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