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Bruce Rauner’s campaign for governor of Illinois hit a rough spot when it was revealed that he was talking about lowering the minimum wage.
That’s right, lowering.
At a December, 2013, Republican campaign forum, the wealthy candidate declared, “I will advocate moving the Illinois minimum wage back to the national minimum wage. I think we’ve got to be competitive here in Illinois. It’s critical we’re competitive. We’re hurting our economy by having the minimum wage above the national. We’ve got to move back to the national.”
Practically, what that would have meant was cutting the state’s 8.25-per-hour wage guarantee down to the federal rate of $7.25-per-hour.
Politically, what that meant was trouble because, as the Chicago Tribune noted, the statement “had threatened to upend a carefully crafted campaign aimed at convincing Republican primary voters and independents that the man who is potentially the wealthiest candidate ever to run for public office in the state was a regular guy.”
So Rauner backtracked, declaring that he was being “flippant” and that he was actually interested in increasing wages. (Never mind that tape of the radio interview in which the candidate was quoted as explaining that “I have said, on a number of occasions, that we could have a lower minimum wage or no minimum wage.”)
The flip-flop worked. Rauner was elected governor last November.
He still avoids the minimum-wage trap, even going so far as to suggest now that he wants to hike the rate—though he is currently objecting to moves by the Illinois state Senate to do just that.
But Rauner remains an ardent advocate for positions that are all but certain to reduce wages.
Last week, Rauner was talking up the idea of letting Illinois cities and counties reject the state’s labor laws and implement local “right-to-work zones,” where new rules could make it harder for unions to organize and effectively bargain for pay and benefit hikes.
This week, Rauner has moved unilaterally to overturn long-established models for collecting dues from state workers who are represented by public-employee unions. The governor claims that asking workers to pay their fair share for union representation violates the US Constitution.
In fact, Rauner’s the one who is operating outside the law, says American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch, who calls the governor’s executive order “a blatantly illegal abuse of power.”
“Perhaps as a private equity CEO Rauner was accustomed to ignoring legal and ethical standards, but Illinois is still a democracy and its laws have meaning,” says Lynch.
Service Employees International Union Illinois Council president Tom Balanoff was blunter, asserting that Rauner “knows this is not legal.”
It appears that the governor’s ultimate goal is to spark a legal battle, which he hopes will lead to an anti-labor intervention by the activist majority on the US Supreme Court.
No one doubts that Rauner will pursue that legal fight aggressively. As a Chicago Sun-Times column put it: “Governor Bruce Rauner fired his first shot Monday in his campaign to give all Illinois workers the right to choose to work for less money.”
Attacking unions makes sense for a man who once advocated for “no minimum wage.”
Unions are ardent supporters of living-wage initiatives and related efforts to improve pay for workers—whether they are members of labor organizations or not.
When unions are weakened, guarantees of fair wages are weakened.
Workers who are represented by unions have historically earned higher wages than workers who are not covered by labor contracts.
The strongest arguments that unions make for themselves are rooted in the statistics that reveal the fundamental difference between the circumstance of union members and non-union workers.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics announced last month that “In 2014, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $970, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $763.”
More than two hundred bucks a week counts for something, especially in an era when wage growth has so very frequently been so very slow.
The union advantage can be even greater in states with strong unions—for members and for non-members. That’s because, where unions are strong, employers must pay better wages to compete for the best workers.
Of course, there are distinctions to be made between private-sector and public-sector employment; union representation in the public sector is especially vital because of the protections that are provided for workers who blow the whistle on irresponsible practices and spending by managers, legislators and governors. “Without the protection of their union, nurses in public hospitals and clinics would be restricted from speaking out about unsafe hospital and clinic conditions, public servants who enforce public oversight and regulatory protections would be hamstrung in their ability to confront corporate attacks on safety standards, child welfare advocates would have less protection from retaliation for putting the interests of children first,” explained Martese Chism, a Chicago registered nurse and board member for National Nurses Organizing Committee-Illinois (National Nurses United).
But there is also a bottom-line contention when it comes to undermining the strength and flexibility of unions—no matter what the state, no matter what the sector. Attacks on labor organizations represent what Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery decries as “brazen, out-of-touch attacks on the middle class and the unions who give them a collective voice.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Warren and the 2016 election
Backed by unions and grassroots activists, the WFP was organized in 1998 to move New York and national politics in a progressive direction. Sometimes, when the fight has been with conservative Republicans, the WFP has aligned with centrist Democrats, including Clinton. But, when the fight is over the type of challenge that will be made to those conservative Republicans in 2016, WFP activists recognize that progressives are skeptical with regard to Clinton’s expected candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.
A measure of that skepticism was on display Sunday, as the Working Families Party formally urged Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to try for the Democratic nod.
“We know a champion for working families when we see one—and millions of Americans clearly do too. That’s why Senator Warren is inspiring such a remarkable surge of grassroots enthusiasm,” declared a message from WFP New York State Director Bill Lipton, which was sent to party backers and others after the WFP’s Sunday decision to ask Warren to run. “She’s taken the fight directly to Wall St. and to the big banks that increasingly have a vice grip on our economy and our democracy. She’s led the effort to create a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She’s fought on behalf of students and recent graduates suffering from crippling student loan debt, and to change the debate in D.C. from a discussion over whether to cut Social Security into one about how we can grow it.”
Warren says she is not running.
But an energetic “Draft Warren” campaign has taken shape in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states. (Read more about it in my colleague George Zornick’s Nation cover story). National groups such as MoveOn.org and Democracy for America are pouring energy into the effort. And the WFP move turns up the volume.
A significant force in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio and Public Advocate Letitia James have long enjoyed the party’s support, the WFP maintained its ballot line in 2014 by backing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The Cuomo endorsement stirred criticism from progressive activists, who thought the party should challenge a governor who was seen as being too close to the interests the WFP frequently battles. The call for a Warren candidacy puts the WFP at odds with a candidate it once endorsed, Clinton, but it is likely to appeal to the progressives activists who last year were frustrated with the party.
The move also marks the party as a potentially influential force in presidential politics. Operating in a state where third, fourth and even fifth parties can be significant political forces—thanks to a “fusion” law that allows candidates to run on more than one party line and then merge accumulated votes into a grand total—the Working Families Party is not the first of New York State’s smaller parties to link up not merely with major parties but with movements within major parties. When John F. Kennedy accepted the endorsement of the state’s old Liberal Party in 1960, he declared, “I’m proud to say I’m a Liberal.” Kennedy’s Democratic vote in New York state that November was slightly less than Richard Nixon’s Republican vote, but 406,176 Liberal votes gave Kennedy a comfortable victory.
The prospect of combining Democratic and WFP votes for Warren is a long way off. A Warren spokesperson told The New York Times Sunday that the senator “is not running for president and doesn’t support these draft campaigns.” And Warren is far behind Clinton is the polls.
That said, leaders of the movement to draft Warren were clearly pleased with the move by the WFP.
Referring to the WFP decision as a “a huge moment for the campaign to draft Elizabeth Warren,” Ready for Warren campaign manager Erica Sagrans said, “Last summer, a group of passionate volunteers who shared the improbable idea that they could convince Elizabeth Warren to run for president came together to start Ready for Warren. Late last year, MoveOn and Democracy for America joined in. And now with the Working Families Party on board, this movement is getting stronger by the day.”
Read Next: John Nichols on how Bush beat Romney in the GOP establishment primary
UPDATE (2-3-15) 5:30 pm: Facing sharp criticism for proposing to abandon the University of Wisconsin’s public-service mission statement, as outlined in state statutes, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on Wednesday afternoon abruptly dropped the plan. Criticized for attacking the Wisconsin Idea and the state’s historic commitment to academic inquiry, the all-but-announced 2016 presidential candidate shifted course less than twenty-four hours after making his proposal, which came as part of a broader assault on higher education funding. Walker claimed the line-by-line proposal for changing the statutes was a “drafting error.” The following article provides background and context regarding the prospective presidential candidate’s stumble.
Americans have returned to the question of whether the Republican Party has launched a “war on science”—as 2016 presidential prospects Chris Christie and Rand Paul have abandoned public-health imperatives in order to feed skepticism about whether children should be vaccinated against infectious diseases.
But Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has trumped his fellow 2016 contenders.
Walker is launching a war on the truth.
As part of a broader attempt to diminish the state’s support for, and ties to, the University of Wisconsin System, Walker wants to strike “Wisconsin Idea” language from state statutes—including references to public service and a commitment to “search for truth.”
The Wisconsin Idea, which is much discussed but not always so much understood in the present day, has always been always been about seeking the truth, and about applying the results of that search not just to curriculum choices but to the policies and programs of the state.
The statutes of the state of Wisconsin detail a vision of the role of the University of Wisconsin rooted in this Wisconsin Idea, which holds that the mission of the UW is both to educate students and to provide information and ideas to solve the challenges facing the state and its citizens. Outlined more than a century ago in the language of longtime University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise, Governor Robert M. La Follette and their progressive allies, the Wisconsin Idea has always held that “the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.”
What this meant, practically, was that when farmers faced a challenge, UW professors did research to help them address it. When city officials were looking to improve sanitation, UW professors provided assistance. When state and local officials were looking to assure that elections were fair and functional, UW professors analyzed and responded to proposals. And when new technologies developed, such as radio and television, the UW utilized them to spread knowledge and ideas to Wisconsinites who might never set foot on a campus. (Notably, Walker’s budget also proposes cuts to Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.)
The Wisconsin Idea has always held that democracy requires an informed and engaged citizenry, and that academics and researchers should pursue the truth in order to serve that citizenry.
For decades, this vision has been detailed in the Wisconsin Statutes that reference the UW System. “The mission of the system is to develop human resources, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise and a sense of purpose,” the statutes explain. “Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”
With his presentation Tuesday night of a new state budget plan that will also serve as a touchstone for his presidential campaign, Governor Walker proposed to cut $300 million in higher-education funding as part of plan to remake the UW System as a “public authority” with “increased flexibilities.” In legislative documents outlining how the plan would be implemented, Walker and his team suggested a rewrite of the statutes that strikes the call “to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society.” He also wants to remove the closing lines that read: “Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”
Walker has never made a secret of his disdain for Wisconsin’s progressive heritage, and his policies have evidenced his disregard for the Wisconsin Idea. But disdain and disregard are one thing. Eliminating references to “the search for truth”—and to using that truth to “improve the human condition”—is something else altogether.
There were many incidents that helped to forge Wisconsin’s commitment to freedom of inquiry and to the use of the inquiry to serve students and the state. The most famous of these came in the 1890s, when state officials pressured the UW to remove Professor Richard T. Ely from his position as director of the School of Economics, Political Science and History at the University. The charge was that Ely was too engaged with efforts in the community to improve social conditions and to expand the rights of workers. The controversy was as bitter as it was intense. But ultimately the UW Board of Regents rejected the pressure to limit the school’s search for truth and its engagement with the issues and challenges facing Wisconsin.
Their defense of Ely is quoted on a plaque on the UW campus that reads: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
The Wisconsin Idea has always been about the search for truth, at the UW and beyond.
When Scott Walker attacks that search, he attacks not just the UW but Wisconsin; not just public service, but the pursuit of truth in service to the public.
Read Next: John Nichols on the people’s movement to win net neutrality.
Can the people ever win in an new age of oligarchy, when corporate power is so frequently and thoroughly unbound?
Yes, sometimes, they can.
After years of bumbling, blustering and bureaucratic attempts to avoid necessary action, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to move on Thursday to defend net neutrality. According to the design and technology blog Gizmodo, “It’s Finally Game Time for Net Neutrality.” The more staid Wall Street Journal explains that the commission majority is moving to “fully embrace the principle known as net neutrality”—the “central element” of which “would be a ban on broadband providers blocking, slowing down or speeding up specific websites in exchange for payment.”
Translation: The FCC is preparing to defend the Internet as we know it against subdivision by profiteers who would create a “fast lane” for paying content from multinational corporations and billionaire-backed politicians and a “slow lane” for communications from those who are not on the winning side of the income-inequality chasm.
This is a good thing for citizens, for consumers and for businesses that seek to compete on the merits of their products and services—rather than to shut down competition with crony-capitalist deals and the monopolies that extend from them. So good, in fact, that Free Press president Craig Aaron calls the expected FCC embrace of net neutrality “one of the most important victories for the public interest in its history.” Future of Music Coalition CEO Casey Rae says that if the FCC acts, as now seems possible, the commission will not just uphold basic freedoms but unleash “the amazing creativity that real net neutrality will help inspire for generations to come.”
Consumer, civil rights, media reform and open-Internet activist groups—Consumers Union, Color of Change, Demand Progress, CREDO Action, the Future of Music Coalition and Free Press, among others—have for years advocated on behalf of net neutrality. And they have argued that the only way to defend “the First Amendment of the Internet” is by regulating high-speed Internet service in the public interest—rather than in the interest of old-fashioned telephone and cable companies.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, like his predecessors, initially resisted the logic of recognizing broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the federal Communications Act, a move that would allow the commission to establish forward-looking policies to preserve an open Internet. But, after the November election, the man who appointed Wheeler to the FCC intervened on behalf of the right response.
“An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known,” explained President Obama. “Net neutrality has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation—but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”
Wheeler, a former president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, did not move immediately. Even prodding from the president is not always enough to get federal regulators to challenge the power of the telephone and cable industries that flood Washington with lobbyists and election campaigns with money. But the people kept pushing—flooding the FCC with millions of comments and making it clear that they would not be fooled by compromises, concessions and “hybrid proposals” that deliver something less than full net neutrality.
Of course, media and political power-brokers are imagining that the shift by the FCC is largely the result of “Silicon Valley firms” such as Amazon, Google, Netflix, Mozilla and Reddit that “have called for the FCC to shore up net neutrality.” But Google did not step up in a meaningful way until last September, long after grassroots groups had challenged—and upset—Wheeler’s initial “paid prioritization” plan. Without popular pressure, an insider debate about net neutrality would have resulted in an insider deal undermining the basic premises of a free and open Internet.
People power—and a terrific “seize your moment, my lovely trolls” call to action by John Oliver that crashed the FCC’s comment system—changed the debate. And people power must continue.
Wheeler will circulate his proposal Thursday, setting the stage for a vote by the five-member commission on February 26. Telecommunications industry lobbying will be intense because billions of dollars, and the future of communications in a digital age, are at stake. Even though, with Wheeler’s shift, the FCC now would appear to have a 3-2 majority in favor of net neutrality, the lobbyists will seek to weaken the proposal, insert loopholes and weaken standards for enforcement. The lobbyists will, as well, seek congressional interventions on behalf of the telecommunications firms, and they will do so from a position of strength because, as John Oliver says, “these companies have Washington in their pockets to a conveniently almost-unbelievable way.”
The goal of public-interest advocates must be to get both an FCC commitment to net neutrality and a final order that is “free of loopholes and industry meddling,” says Aaron, who explains that this will protect “the legal right of all individuals to access affordable, competitive and secure communications networks which enable them to transmit the information of their choosing between points of their choosing, without unjust discrimination.”
That’s a worthy goal. And it now appears to be an achievable goal—a development that is as remarkable as it is welcome. But no one should be naïve. Net neutrality is not being guaranteed as a gift to citizens and consumers. It is being won by citizens and consumers. That win must be assured in the weeks to come. And it must be defended in the months and years to come.
Read Next: John Nichols on Scott Walker’s careerism
When Mitt Romney, who is anything but a fresh face in the Republican hierarchy decided to forgo a third run for the presidency, he announced, “I believe that one of our next generation of Republican leaders—one who may not be as well-known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started—may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee. In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case.”
Full-on Republican presidential contender Scott Walker just presumed that the man who Republican primary voters rejected in 2008, and who the rest of the American electorate rejected in 2012, was talking about a certain governor of Wisconsin.
Never mind that, in his book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, Walker ripped the party’s 2012 campaign—and, by extension, its nominee—for doing a “lousy job of presenting a positive vision of free market solutions to our nation’s problems in a way that is relevant to people’s lives.” Never mind that Walker griped just days before Romney quit the race that a 2016 run by the 2012 loser would be “pretty hard” to justify. Never mind that Walker, one of the most relentlessly negative campaigners in contemporary American politics, was more than ready to beat up on Romney if that was necessary to advance his own 2016 run. With Romney’s decision to sideline himself, Walker chirped, “I would love to have his endorsement.”
Walker actually went a step further, going on Twitter to suggest that he was precisely the sort of “next generation” leader Romney was referring to. “Had a great conversation w/ @MittRomney,” Walker announced. “He’s a good man. Thanked him for his interest in opening the door for fresh leadership in America.”
There’s only one problem with this calculus.
Scott Walker isn’t fresh.
The governor is a political careerist who has sought office—as a winner and loser—more times that Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz combined.
In a permanent campaign that began a quarter century ago—when he quit college and launched a losing state legislative campaign against future US Congresswoman Gwen Moore—Walker has run 24 primary and general election races. That doesn’t include a 2006 bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Wisconsin, which he scrapped after national party officials elbowed him aside in favor of another candidate, or his all-but announced 2016 presidential run.
Hyper-ambitious yet strikingly disciplined, Walker has used every office he has ever held as a platform from which to run for the next. Even when scandals have led to the arrests, indictments and convictions of campaign donors, campaign aides and official staffers, Walker has maintained a steady focus on climbing the political ladder that is perhaps most comparable to that of former President Bill Clinton.
As a state legislator, Walker backed an effort to recall the sitting Milwaukee County Executive and then jumped into the race for that job. After winning his first full term as county executive in 2004, Walker immediately began running for the 2006 Republican gubernatorial nomination.
When that run was scuttled, Walker sought and secured a second term as county executive in 2008, only to immediately begin running for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nomination. After securing the governorship, Walker quickly began positioning himself on the national stage—not just by picking high-profile fights with Wisconsin unions that would, ultimately, lead to a rare gubernatorial recall challenge but by jetting around the country to court the wealthiest campaign donors and to appear in the first caucus state of Iowa and the first primary state of New Hampshire.
Before his 2014 reelection race was complete, Walker was already visiting Las Vegas with other 2016 Republican presidential prospects seeking the favor of billionaire campaign donor Sheldon Adelson. Despite the fact that he said during that 2014 race that he intended to serve the full term he was seeking—“I want to be governor and that’s the only thing I’ve been focused on,” “My plan—if the voters approve—is to serve as governor for the next four years”—Walker was already actively preparing a 2016 run. He even wrote (well, sort of wrote, with the help of a politically connected DC insider who had worked as a speechwriter for George W. Bush) an autobiography/manifesto that was so transparent in its ambition that Glenn Beck’s The Blaze described as “the archetype of a book for a future Presidential candidate (written) without ever so much as hinting as to any intent to run for presidentWalker is now well beyond the hinting stage. And they run is going well, so far, with governor beginning to climb in the polls. One survey even puts him in first place among Iowa Republicans, one point ahead of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and further ahead of prominent prospects such as Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. No surprise there: Walker has a lot more experience contending for public office than most of the other Republicans who are preparing to run in 2016.
Walker ran his first campaign for elective office four years before Jeb Bush and eight years before Rubio. Walker was an elected official in Wisconsin seventeen years before Rand Paul was elected in Kentucky, and nineteen years before Ted Cruz was elected in Texas. Walker was running even before party elders such as Mike Huckabee, who won his first election in Arkansas in the summer of 1993—a month after Walker was first elected to the Wisconsin legislature.
It’s worth noting that, even when he was running in 1993, Walker was not considered “fresh.” When it endorsed him that year, the conservative Milwaukee Sentinel referred to Walker not as a newcomer but as what he already was decades ago: “an active Republican insider.”
Read Next: John Nichols on the promise of elections.
Elections are supposed to have consequences. When countries establish electoral processes that are sufficiently free and functional to ascertain the clear will of the people—and when those votes are cast and counted in an election that draws a solid majority of eligible voters to the polls—that will should be expressed as something more than a New York Times headline or a Fox News alert. It should be expressed in leadership, law and governance.
That governance should be sufficient to address poverty, tame inequality and conquer injustice. And if outside forces thwart those initiatives, that government should challenge them on behalf of the common good. After all, if meaningful economic and social change cannot by achieved (or at the very least demanded) with a stroke of the ballot pen, then what is the point of an election?
Questions about the point of elections are common in the United States, where the political process has decayed rapidly in an era of money-drenched campaigns, narrowly-defined debates, exceptionally low turnout elections and gridlocked government. On the eve of the 2014 mid-term elections in the United States, Gallup polling found that the percentage of Americans who said they were “extremely motivated” to vote had fallen to 32 percent—from 50 percent in 2010. An analysis of the numbers by Gallup’s editor-in-chief suggested that Americans might “have reached the point where they don’t believe their vote for a specific person, of either party, is going to change much.”
In fairness to today’s candidates and parties, the challenge of coherent governing is as old as the American experiment. There is no question, however, that the problem has been exacerbated in recent years by an increasingly rigid system in which two parties compete not just for votes but for the contributions of a billionaire class of campaign donors who extract a price from politicians of both parties: subservience to the demands of political paymasters when it comes to setting tax rates, regulating banks and establishing budget priorities.
What the populists and progressives of a century ago referred to as “the money power” now games the system to assure that it is never disempowered. Governments may be focused and empowered by high-turnout presidential elections, but they are quickly unfocused and disempowered by low-turnout midterm elections. There is no question that discussions of democracy reforms must include proposals to eliminate an Electoral College that can place the loser of the popular vote in the White House, to redistricting practices that can place the party that loses the popular vote in congressional contests across the country in charge of the House of Representatives, to close the loophole that allows governors to fill US Senate vacancies by appointment, and to guarantee the right to vote and to have that vote counted.
Yet, even if the process was designed to allow for more decisive and representative governance, the United States would still be stuck with a politics defined overwhelmingly by the whims and furies of billionaires—with very little room left for the ideas and ideals of citizens. Until this reality is addressed with a constitutional amendment declaring that money is not speech, that corporations are not people and that citizens and their elected representatives are free to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars, that reality will continue to limit prospects for governance of, by and for the people.
In other countries, however, there are different circumstances, different systems, different possibilities. Can their elections bring fundamental change? And can they teach the rest of the world—including countries such as the United States, where the democratic infrastructure has so decayed that barely one-third of the potential voters participated in the recent mid-term elections—something about how elections are supposed to work?
That’s the democracy question that arises in the aftermath of a Greek election that has the potential to transform not just one country but the global debate about austerity. Even those who might not agree with the policies of Syriza—the radical coalition of parties and ideological tendencies that has swept to power on a promise to renew civil society in a country battered by imposed austerity—should recognize that what is at stake is more than economic policy. What is at stake is the question of whether the democratic impulse, which can be traced to ancient Greece, will have meaning in the modern world.
As Sunday’s election results confirmed that Syriza had surfed a wave of anti-austerity sentiment into a first-place finish that positioned it to form the next Greek government, the headline in Britain’s Guardian newspaper declared: “Voters Reject EU Austerity for Radical Alternative.”
There was little question regarding the rejection of austerity. Close to 65 percent of the Greek electorate participated in Sunday’s election, as opposed to last November's turnout in the United States of just 33 percent of the voting age population (and 36 percent of the “voting eligible population”). And Syriza, after increasing its share of the vote by almost 10 percent, won 149 of 300 seats in the parliament; the next-closest party (that of the defeated prime minister) won just seventy-six.
Those results earned notice far beyond Europe, as the political struggle against economic austerity is a global concern. “The Syriza victory in the Greek elections tells us that people around the world will no longer accept austerity for working families while the rich continue to get much richer," said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. "The top 1 percent of the world’s population will soon own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent. This is wrong and unsustainable from a moral, economic and political perspective.”
Syriza’s alternative to the savage cuts in human services, high unemployment, scorching inequality and hopelessness—which were forced upon Greece by the “troika” of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund after bankers gone wild crashed the global economy—will not be easily achieved. The demand for an upending of policies that have “reduced [Greece] to penury” places the new government on what The Guardian suggests will be a “collision course” with the politicians and bankers who have imposed austerity policies and the concentration of wealth and power that extends from them.
But, finally, Greece has a government that is prepared to fight on behalf of its people, rather than to sign away their future. And that fight, which begins with a demand for a European conference to write down unsustainable debt, is about much more than Greece. Syriza’s victory, a spokesman for the party explained Sunday night, “sends a message that does not only concern the Greek people but all Europeans.”
Everyone who has been paying attention in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland—countries that have been brutalized by austerity policies—recognizes precisely what is at stake. “There is only one place for Ireland to be at this moment of truth and it’s not on the fence,” the Irish essayist Fintan O’Toole wrote in a pre-election column. “It’s with Syriza.”
Greece is the most striking example of what happens when political matters are being dealt with by economic powers. The fact that non-democratic entities such as the European Central Bank or the IMF sort out problems which were created by those same economic powers in the first place, is a serious step back regarding the concept of democracy as a whole, which used to guarantee that the citizens’ decision was the most sacred contract within European societies.…
We think that Syriza’s victory can be the starting point of what will stop the trend which, in the name of financial speculation, is destroying economies, the environment and the well-being of the people.
The struggle of the coming weeks and months will be about more than economics.
At a polling place in Athens on Sunday, a voter told a reporter, “I just voted for the party that’s going to change Greece. In fact, the party that’s going to change the whole of Europe.”
That change begins with the faith of voters that an election can change a country, a continent, a world.
This is what democracy is supposed to mean for citizens.
This is what democracy is supposed to look like.
Democracy is not supposed to be boring. It is not supposed to be so predictable that elections can be called before campaigns have begun. It is not supposed to sustain an unfair and unequal status quo. It is not supposed to dull the appetite for real reform. It is not supposed to be so frustrating and dysfunctional that the great mass of potential voters is turned by the political process itself into the great mass of non-voters.
Countries that have not developed a democracy sufficient to the challenge of producing meaningful change—or that have allowed their democratic infrastructure to decay so thoroughly that little faith remains in the prospect of real change, in the prospect of an election that might produce “a new birth of freedom” or a “New Deal” or a “Great Society”—should recognize in the results from Greece an example of democracy’s potential.
That does not mean that Syriza and its allies in other European countries will succeed in charging every economic policy, or even most economic policies. That does not mean that everyone can or will agree with Syriza’s approach to every issue. The party’s political progress has won support from Greek voters who differ with elements of Syriza’s manifesto, just as it has been cheered on by Europeans who do not occupy the same space on the ideological spectrum as Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras.
This support is grounded in a belief, or at the very least a hope, that elections still matter in these times—that politics can be more than mere theater, more than a game played by elites that are already rich and already powerful. This is not a new faith. It is an old faith that democratic experiments begun long ago, with all the inspiration and energy of the enlightenment, might yet begin the world over again.
Read Next: John Nichols on Bernie Sanders.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker thanked the crowd of potential 2016 Republican presidential caucus attendees at Saturday’s “Iowa Freedom Summit” for praying for him when he was taking away the collective-bargaining rights of teachers and snowplow drivers and custodians in their neighboring state.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz built his campaign list by telling the crowd of conservative believers to text the word “Constitution” to a cellphone number associated with his campaign.
Dr. Ben Carson got heads spinning with his immigration calculus: “There wouldn’t be people coming here if there wasn’t a magnet… you have to reverse the polarity of that magnet.”
And former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum trumped Carson by explaining that he’s not just bothered by people coming to the United States without proper documentation. “We also have a problem with legal immigration,” declared the guy who won the last round of Republican caucuses in Iowa.
So it went at Saturday’s cursory visit with actual voters by at least ten of the all-but-announced candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination who are not topping the polls in Iowa—or across a country where Republicans continue to long nostalgically for Mitt Romney or another Bush. It was all good theater, but nothing more.
Everyone knew the real action wasn’t in Des Moines on Saturday.
It was in Palm Springs on Sunday.
Yes, Palm Springs in California—which, it should be noted, is not the first-caucus state or the first-primary state or the first-anything state on the 2016 Republican calendar.
Why? It was to Palm Springs that Walker, Cruz, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Florida Senator Marco Rubio traveled Sunday to bow and scrape before brothers Charles and David Koch -- and their network of very rich conservative donors. Rubio set the tone for the session by announcing to the assembled billionaires and lesser millionaires that he had no taste for any of the "anti-business rhetoric" coming out of Washington these days.
The Kochs hold their annual winter gathering of oligarchs at a swank resort that is about as far from Iowa as you can get, yet invited presidential prospects are more than willing to fly into the warm embrace of the billionaire class. That's because, while the Kochs are important, the Palm Springs meeting is about a lot more than brothers Charles and David -- especially now. One of two yearly events at which the wealthiest conservatives from across the country come together to meet with rising right-wing "stars," this year's winter gathering was held as the 2016 Republican race is rapidly picking up steam.
According to The New York Times, "The political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign, an unparalleled effort by coordinated outside groups to shape a presidential election that is already on track to be the most expensive in history." That $900 million figure is more than the combined spending of the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2012. So it is the kind of number that gets the attention of any presidential contender, and especially of contenders who are still be a little lacking in the national stature and campaign accounting departments.
If a second-string Republican contender such as Walker or Rubio were to make a big impression with the assembled donors, that candidate could end up with the money power to compete with the fund-raising apparatus of likely leaders in the race such as Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. Everyone knows the new math of American politics, which puts "the money primary" ahead of any contests involving actual voters. So invitations to Palm Springs were not just accepted -- they were coveted.
"Americans used to think Iowa and New Hampshire held the first caucus and primary in the nation every four years. Not anymore,”explains Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.“Now the ‘Koch brothers primary’ goes first to determine who wins the blessing and financial backing of the billionaire class. This is truly sad and shows us how far Citizens United has gone to undermine American democracy.”
Sanders was referencing the five-year-old US Supreme Court ruling that struck down barriers to corporate spending to buy elections—one of a series of decisions that have dramatically increased the influence of not just of corporations but of billionaires like the Koch brothers.
On Wednesday, Sanders introduced a constitutional amendment that would undo the High Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision and a host of other rulings that ushered in an era of billionaire-defined presidential campaigns.
“People across the political spectrum are demanding that billionaires not be able to buy American democracy,” says Sanders, noting that sixteen states and more than 600 communities have called on Congress to begin the process of amending the Constitution to say that money is not speech, corporations are not people and citizens and their elected representatives have a right to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars.
Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, has been encouraged to seek the presidency in 2016.
Sanders is still in the process of deciding whether to run—and how. Though he has run all of his US House and Senate campaigns as an independent, the Vermonter might enter the Democratic primaries as a challenger to presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders will not, however, be entering "the Koch brothers primary."
More importantly, he is challenging "the money primary" mentality that has made the Kochs and their kind outsized players in American politics.
President Obama kicked off what he refers to as “the fourth quarter” of his presidency with a State of the Union address that detailed a pragmatic progressive agenda with the potential to influence much of this year’s DC wrangling and all of next year’s presidential race. In so doing, Obama rejected the “lame-duck” status his Republican rivals were desperately hoping he would accept. The president’s rhetoric was often bolder than his specific proposals; and this was certainly not the “very European” manifesto that New York Times columnist David Brooks imagined in his post-speech assessment for PBS.
Yet there is good reason to cheer any address that recognizes, however cautiously, that a serious effort to address income inequality must redistribute some of the wealth that has been locked up by the billionaire class and their banks. At the very least, with proposals to hike capital gains taxes and close loopholes in order to fund tax breaks for working families and provide free access to community colleges, Obama has offered up an appealing alternative to the relentless austerity agenda of Republican stalwarts such as House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan.
Unfortunately, Obama’s playing this fourth quarter against the most conservative Congress of his presidency. If there was any question of the difficulty the president will face in advancing proposals for taxing the rich, regulating too-big banks, funding free community-college education and making real the democratic promise of the Internet, leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate confirmed their rigidity by handing State of the Union “response” duties off to Iowa Senator Joni Ernst. An acolyte of the right-wing Koch brothers, Ernst’s answer to Obama’s appeals for cooperation on behalf of the common good could essentially be translated as “not gonna happen.” Indeed, the major initiative from the president’s sixth State of the Union address that most excites newly empowered Republicans—granting the president “fast track” authority to negotiate corporate-friendly “free trade” agreements—is the major initiative on which both the president and the Republicans are most wrong.
So what’s the point of a reasonably progressive, and at times strikingly populist, State of the Union address delivered to stone-faced Republicans? Aside from inspiring justified grumbling among progressives about the president’s timing—“Where was this Obama the last six years?—what comes of a presidential address that proposes good ideas to a Congress that is disinclined to embrace any of them?
The answer has a little to do with 2015 and a lot to do with 2016. Since Obama adopted a more activist and progressive approach in the aftermath of what for Democrats was a disastrous 2014 midterm election cycle, his approval ratings have spiked. Aggressive moves to ease the circumstances of immigrant families, defend net neutrality, end the embargo against Cuba and develop global alliances to address climate change have proven popular with Obama’s base, and an improving economy is helping to restore some of the president’s political swagger. That bugs Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who says, “Any president in this situation has a choice. He can sort of act like he’s still running for office or he can focus on the things that we have a chance to reach an agreement on.”
McConnell obviously hopes the president will acquiesce. But why should Obama take advice from a fierce Republican partisan who proudly serves as Wall Street’s man on Capitol Hill? Why shouldn’t Obama take his cue from previous presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, who responded to midterm setbacks by seizing the bully pulpit to promote agendas that might prove to be more popular with the American people than the congressional opposition? On some issues—raising the minimum wage, developing paid sick-leave protections, expanding access to education, investing in infrastructure—he might be able to generate enough popular pressure to get even this Congress to take modest steps in the right direction. On other issues, such as defending net neutrality and clearing the way for municipalities to develop broadband Internet service as a high-speed, low-cost “public option” alternative to telecommunications monopolies, he can create cover for the Federal Communications Commission and other regulators to do the right thing. On issues such as blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, defending abortion rights and blocking ill-thought sanctions against Iran, he can generate support for vetoes—and energize grassroots activists to keep wavering Democrats in line when the inevitable House and Senate override votes are scheduled.
Even on issues where he and the Congress are likely to remain aggressively at odds, including his centerpiece plan to increase taxes on capital gains and close loopholes that currently shelter America’s wealthiest families from fair taxation, Obama can position himself and his party on the right side of history.
That may not get Obama immediate legislative wins in the fight to address income inequality. But if he uses his bully pulpit to forge a genuine economic-justice message—and if he avoids the coalition-splintering damage that would be done by engaging in a foolhardy push for “fast track” (and the inevitable compromises of principle and policy that go with attempts to enact unpopular trade deals)—he could build sufficient momentum to frame the 2016 election debate . In so doing, the president could set the stage for electing a new Democratic president, restoring Democratic control of the Senate and developing a governing trajectory where—as with FDR and Truman, and as with Reagan and George H.W. Bush—initiatives begun by one president are completed by the next. In such a scenario, this president can reject the lame-duck status to which McConnell so hopes to consign him and make his “fourth quarter” an essential pivot point in what Obama hails as “the work of rebuilding America.”
Considering the sorry circumstance of Republicans who have been tapped to deliver responses to President Obama’s State of the Union addresses, the party leaders who chose Joni Ernst to answer this year’s speech may not have been doing the newly elected senator from Iowa any favors.
But the party bosses were respecting the influence of billionaire campaign donors Charles and David Koch, who were early and enthusiastic proponents of Ernst’s leap from the Iowa legislature—where she had served a mere three years—to the United States Senate. A year ago, Ernst was still something of a long-shot contender, even in the race for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Polls had her trailing former energy-industry CEO Mark Jacobs, a millionaire who was prepared to spend a lot of his own money to secure the nomination, and to take on Democrat Bruce Braley, a sitting congressman who had the advantages of name recognition and a substantial campaign treasury.
But Ernst had some friends who would help her beat the odds. She had been active with the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, a network of right-wing legislators who sponsor “model legislation” crafted in conjunction with representatives of multinational corporations.
According to The Hill, the Kochs took a “particular interest in helping her campaign.” Ernst was the first candidate in an open 2014 Senate race to benefit from “maxed out” personal contributions by the Kochs. And Koch-backed groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the Freedom Partners Action Fund poured millions of dollars into Iowa, where Ernst enjoyed a $14 million outside-spending advantage over Braley.
Ernst was appreciative.
Last June, she flew to California to attend a Koch-sponsored summit at the St. Regis Monarch Beach resort. There, she credited the Kochs and their billionaire allies for making her a contender.
Noting that she had attended a secretive summit, held in New Mexico in August of 2013, at which the Koch brothers had introduced candidates they liked to major donors, Ernst said at the June, 2014, event:
I was not known at that time—a little-known state senator from a very rural part of Iowa, known through my National Guard service and some circles in Iowa. But the exposure to this group and to this network and the opportunity to meet so many of you, that really started my trajectory.
A tape of the closed-door event (obtained by The Undercurrent and shared with The Nation and Huffington Post), revealed Ernst and other candidates offering effusive thanks to the billionaires for the money they had provided at critical points in their campaigns. Ernst is heard praising “the folks in this room that got [me] my start…that backed me in this election cycle and primary…” And she told them that what they were investing in was more than just a Senate candidate in Iowa. Ernst declared that “we’re setting the stage for the presidency”—referencing the 2016 presidential race that will get its start with the Iowa caucuses.
Keep that in mind when Joni Ernst responds to President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight. She probably won’t mention the Koch brothers or the other billionaire donors she praises in private for putting her in position to answer the president’s address. But she will be still be working on their behalf. As she challenges Obama’s message, she will be sounding the themes favored by her elite donors and setting the stage for their grab at the presidency in 2016.
Read Next: John Nichols on Obama’s economic calculus
Warren Buffett explained the secret to addressing a lot of the economic challenges facing the United States during President Obama’s first term. In a short commentary written for The New York Times—headline: “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich”—Buffett explained, “My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”
President Obama was always cautious when it came to taking Buffett’s advice.
But as Obama enters what he refers to as “the fourth quarter” of his presidency, he has begun to embrace a proper, if still judicious, populism.
With an eye toward addressing income inequality, the president will use his State of the Union Address to propose new taxes and fees on very rich people and very big banks. In any historical context, the tax hikes and fees are “modest.” But after a period of absurd austerity and slow-growth economics (in which all the sacrifices were made by working families, while all the advantages accrued to very rich families and very big banks), Obama’s move is as important as it is necessary.
At a point when there is broadening recognition of the social and economic perils posed by income inequality, the president is talking about taking simple steps in the right direction. Congress is unlikely go along with him, but the American people will—Gallup polling finds that 67 percent of likely voters are dissatisfied with income and wealth distribution in the United States. And as this country prepares for the critical presidential and congressional elections of 2016, the president’s clarifying of the terms of debate on taxes becomes vital.
According to Obama aides, the president will on Tuesday propose to alter a “trust-fund loophole” provision that, according to The New York Times, “shields hundreds of billions of dollars from taxation each year.” Obama also wants to raise the highest capital-gains tax rate from 23.8 percent to 28 percent for couples with incomes above $500,000 annually.
The president will, in addition, propose a new fee on huge financial firms—those with more than $50 billion in assets—in order to discourage risky borrowing. Under the plan, a fee of seven basis points would be imposed on the liabilities of the biggest banks.
The White House calculus says these initiatives would raise roughly $320 billion over the next ten years. Most of the money would be used to provide tax breaks and benefits for working families: a $500 credit for families with two working spouses, improved structures for retirement saving, a tripling of the tax credit for childcare to $3,000 per child. In addition, the revenues would cover costs associated with the president’s recently-announced plan for free tuition at community colleges.
This is not a radical plan. It redistributes a very small amount of wealth, and most of that wealth will be steered right back into the economy by working families that—even as employment rates slowly improve—continue to struggle to make ends meet in an era of stagnant (or, at the very least, exceptionally slow) wage growth.
To get a sense of how modest the Obama proposal is, consider this: the capital gains tax rate increase he proposes will only return the rate to what it was when Ronald Reagan was president. So Obama is only undoing the damage done; he is not going anywhere near the robust rates seen under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nor is he even talking tax reforms that would return the marginal tax rate for the wealthiest Americans to 91 percent: the rate seen during the presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower, a period during which a booming US economy saw rapid expansion of employment and wages.
Of course, these details will not inspire the Republicans of the current day—who long ago abandoned the fiscal realities understood by Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and even Reagan for a fantasy-based economics—to go along with Obama. Before even seeing the plan, the Wall Street–aligned leaders of the new Republican-controlled Congress were crying foul, with House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s office declaring, “This is not a serious plan.”
Perhaps not for this Congress.
But it is a serious plan for these times—or, at the very least, the beginning of a serious plan.
The State of the Union Address, when delivered by a lame-duck president to a Congress controlled by the opposition party, rarely sets the legislative agenda.
But a president, using his bully pulpit well and wisely, can frame the political debate. And that political debate in 2015 and 2016 should begin with the premise that it is time to stop coddling the super-rich.
Read Next: John Nichols on Obama and the digital divide.