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When Thomas Paine called America into revolt against the British Crown with Common Sense, he explained at great length that there was nothing divine—nor minimally commendable—about the supposed “divine right of kings.” Warning that “a King hath little more to do than to make war and give away places (grants of power and wealth to favored families),” Paine observed: “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”
After outlining the many arguments against dividing society into kings and subjects, however, Paine wrote of an even more unsettling arrangement.
“To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity,” he wrote. “For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them.”
The United States has wisely eschewed formal monarchy. But it has, rather too frequently, accepted a dynastic politics that rests power in particular families. This has always been troublesome for those who take seriously the promise of an American experiment founded on the premise that all men—and women—are created equal.
The prospect of a 2016 presidential contest between representatives of two families that have claimed the presidency with some frequency in recent decades is doubly troublesome. This ought to inspire debate in both major political parties, and beyond their narrow boundaries, about whether it makes sense to give Americans a “choice” between the son and the brother of former presidents running as a Republican and the wife of a former president running as a Democrat.
So give former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley credit for opening the debate in an appearance on ABC News’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.When Stephanopoulos suggested that O’Malley sounded like he was ready to challenge presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, the host got no objection from the all-but-announced candidate.
Indeed, O’Malley went for it.
“I think that our country always benefits from new leadership and new perspectives,” he said. “Let’s be honest here, the presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families, it is an awesome and sacred trust that has to be earned, and exercised on behalf of the American people.”
That line got more attention than anything else O’Malley has said in two years of positioning for what everyone accepts would be an uphill challenge to the former First Lady.
O’Malley eschewed direct attacks on Clinton, whom he backed for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and took no great swings at potential Republican nominee Jeb Bush. The former governor avoided going off on tangents about Bill Clinton or Bush 41 and Bush 43. He suggested that his objection was to “any two families” trading off the keys to the White House.
This is the right objection.
In fairness to Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush—while both have benefitted mightily from family ties, and the campaign-treasury largesse that extends from them—neither of these prospective contenders is formally staking a purely dynastic claim on the presidency. Both have records to run on.
Perhaps Hillary Clinton is the best-prepared Democratic contender.
Perhaps Jeb Bush is the best-prepared Republican contender.
Should they run—as is expected—each will have a chance to make their case. And if Clinton and Bush secure their respective nominations, they will find themselves arguing with each other about who is better prepared. And, presumably, about who is more "of the people."
But Democrats and Republicans who dare to infuse their partisanship with reason and reflection should ask whether this is really the choice that they ought to offer the American electorate.
Democrats and Republicans who are of a serious bent have every right—and responsibility—to examine alternatives.
This should be recognized as a very American consideration.
It is difficult to imagine that Tom Paine would have expected—or wanted—Americans to have to pick their president from a select pair of experienced and entitled families.
As Paine is not with us to raise the concern, it is good that Martin O’Malley has done so.
Read Next: John Nichols on Harry Reid’s replacement
Fifty years ago, when Democrats were beginning finally to break the grip of Southern segregationists on their party, the way in which key congressional positions were filled was a major issue for the party. Southern members of the House and Senate tended to serve forever. As such, they took advantage of an archaic seniority system to secure committee chairmanships and even leadership posts—making a slowly progressing party seem still to be as reactionary as it once was.
A new generation of congressional Democrats, including Phil Burton of California in the House and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts in the Senate, sought to shake things up. Unfortunately, Burton lost a key race for House majority leader in 1976, as Kennedy had lost an equally important race for Senate majority whip in 1971.
The Democratic Party opted against more aggressively progressive leadership, weakening its message for years to come. Indeed, as David Broder would write late in Ronald Reagan presidency, when Wright had been designated as Speaker of the House and Byrd was in position to become Senate majority leader: “It may turn out that the luckiest break President Reagan has in his current time of trouble lies in the character of the Democratic leaders of the 100th Congress.”
As Senate Democrats consider replacements for minority leader Harry Reid, who announced Friday that he would not seek a new term in 2016, they should remember the mistakes of the past. This, in turn, should get them thinking in bigger and bolder ways about their available options for filling a position with enormous potential to define the party’s image and direction.
Reid has been a more progressive majority leader than his predecessor, former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, was right when he observed Friday that on a host of critical issues Reid has been “a fighter for the low- and moderate-income people of this country.
But Reid has not always been effective as a communicator of progressive positions or strategies.
What Democrats should be looking for now is a Senate leader who will be absolutely progressive and absolutely effective.
The immediate speculation about replacing Reid followed conventional wisdom, with the top prospects identified as New York Senator Charles Schumer and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. But, within hours, there were reports that Durbin was taking himself out of contention. Thus, any challenge to Schumer was likely to come from a “dark horse” contender—with prominent initial mentions going to Patty Murray of Washington and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
That sound you are hearing is the air going out of the party balloon.
That list is not the right place of beginning for Democrats who understand, now more than ever, that the party’s Senate leader is going to be ideologically and tactically strong. This is especially true if Republicans take the White House in 2016, in which case the leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus could well be the party’s most prominent national spokesperson. But the fact is that, even if Democrats retain control of the White House (as polls currently suggest is likely), the congressional party needs to step up.
There’s not much question that Schumer, a prodigious fundraiser with famously close ties to Wall Street interests, has the upper hand. That provides some explanation for why Durbin quickly sent signals about standing down. Durbin’s exit is unfortunate because, on some key issues, the Illinoisan has a more progressive record than Schumer. For instance, Durbin voted against authorizing George W. Bush to wage a war of whim in Iraq, while Schumer backed Bush’s agenda.
It is not just on foreign policy that Schumer has been disappointing. The New Yorker has cast some lousy votes on trade policy For instance, he supported permanent normalization of trade relations with China, when responsible senators such as Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold were voting “no.”
Murray’s record is even worse on trade, and it is hard to forget the compromises she made when “negotiating” with then House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan on the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.” Besides, most of the talk Friday was not of a run for the top job by Murray but of the prospect that she might challenge Durbin for the caucus whip post that the Illinoisan now holds. As for Bennet, he’s been on the wrong side of a lot of education debates; and he’s the guy who, when asked whether he would back the removal of barriers to labor organizing with an Employee Free Choice Act proclaimed, “I would not support the language in that bill.”
The records of the mentioned prospects ought to be taken seriously. But the other measure that should be applied, in what for better or worse is a media age, ought to be the ability of potential leaders to communicate progressive ideas with passion and a clear sense of commitment.
For that reason, Democrats who want their next Senate leader to be an actual leader ought to cast a wider net.
Should they consider the “star” of the moment: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren? Of course. But don’t assume that Warren—whose office says she is not seeking the leadership post—is the only progressive prospect.
Warren’s name was floated Friday as a potential leader for a good reason: she is seen by a lot of Democrats as a leader.
As soon as Reid made his announcement, there was immediate advocacy for Warren to consider a leadership leap. “If Elizabeth Warren doesn’t run for president, she should definitely run for leader of the Senate,” says Neil Sroka, of Democracy for America, which has been part of the move to draft Warren as a 2016 Democratic presidential contender. “The election for Senate leader is not going to be a slam dunk for any early front-runner, especially someone like Senator Schumer. He’s closer to Wall Street while the Wall Street wing of the party is dying and the Elizabeth Warren wing is rising. It only makes sense that the next leader of the US Senate is either from that wing or deeply understands how to work with that wing.”
“There will likely not be a coronation to replace Harry Reid, and Elizabeth Warren is right up there with others as someone who would be taken very seriously,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has worked closely with Warren, declared. “Warren’s lifetime of fighting for the little guy against Wall Street power—including her upset victory on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—shows she can think big, wage tough fights against powerful interests, and win key votes in the Senate. She’s the definition of a leader, and that’s why her colleagues and millions of Americans respect her and are inspired by her rise.”
Warren’s strengths are well known: the base loves her, the media pay attention to her and the party needs her ideas. Reid, Durbin and Schumer have acknowledged the importance of what Warren has to offer the caucus—fashioning a position on the leadership team for her after Democrats lost control of the chamber in 2014. But even some of Warren’s most ardent enthusiasts argue that her talents might be better utilized in the White House, or as an outspoken rank-and-file senator. (Remember that Ted Kennedy survived his leadership defeat to become a definitional legislator.)
The best argument for putting Warren at the head of Senate Democrats is that—if she is not going to seek the presidency, as she says she won’t—then she ought to seek the best platform that is available for advancing an agenda.
The simple reality is that Democrats need national leadership with more than bully pulpits. The party needs national leadership that can move from a position of strength at the legislative level. That does not necessarily mean that Warren is the right candidate to lead Senate Democrats. But it definitely means that Democrats who are serious about the party’s future have every right, and every reason, to suggest her for the post.
There are other prospects who should be on the list, as well.
Consider Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who is every bit as populist as Warren and has a particularly strong record as a leader in fights for breaking up big banks and against failed trade policies. On top of that, Brown voted (as a House member) against going to war in Iraq and against the Patriot Act.
Brown has won two tough elections in the ultimate swing state of Ohio. And he has done so by figuring out how to be very progressive and very appealing to a broad cross-section of voters. He’s close to labor, but he is also close to farm and rural groups. He has never had it easy politically, and this has made him a unique senator—with strong skills when it comes to effectively communicating a progressive vision on complex economic and political issues. That’s something Senate Democrats could use.
Consider, also, Jeff Merkley, the progressive Democrat from Oregon who, with Tom Udall of New Mexico (another appealing leadership prospect), has been in the forefront of working to reform both the Senate and a broken political process. Merkley is especially well qualified for leadership of a party caucus and a legislative chamber, as the former Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives.
The bottom line is that the selection of a new Senate Democratic leader need not be a contest among senators who simply happen to be senior, predictable choices or compromise candidates. It’s an opportunity for Democrats to think bigger, and better, about leadership. And if ever the party needed to do that, it’s now.
Read Next: John Nichols on the People’s Budget
A proper budget is a moral document, which well expresses the values and aspirations of a civil society.
As such, the measure of any budget is its combination of fiscal and social responsibility.
By this measure, there was only one proper budget proposal floated in the current Congress. And it did not get very far.
Only ninety-six House Democrats voted Wednesday for the People’s Budget, as it was proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The budget was opposed by 330 House members, including eighty-six shame-on-them Democrats and 244 Republicans.
The record of Wednesday’s roll call is worth reviewing, especially because it identifies the Democrats who got this most important vote wrong.
Of course, no one expected the People’s Budget to be enacted. But that is not a poor reflection on the CPC plan, which better met the tests of fiscal and social responsible than any of the other official or alternative proposals that are currently in play. It is a reflection on this Congress, which cannot get anything right, and on a political process that is now so flawed—because of gerrymandering, big money and failed media—that the United States ends up with, well, this Congress.
Despite the fact that if it was not expected to prevail, the People’s Budget was serious.
Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves on the House Budget Committee and as vice chair of the CPC noted, it sought to address the fundamental issue of our time—inequality—with a focus on “leveling the economic playing field by increasing wages for middle- and low-income workers.”
The People’s Budget proposed the only approach that can work: Start by first asking the wealthy to pay their fair share and making smart cuts to the bloated Pentagon budget, and then use the money to invest in repairing infrastructure repair and expansion, in upgrading energy systems to address climate and providing for debt-free college, workforce training and small businesses expansion. This is a job-creation, investment and growth agenda, as opposed to the austerity and stagnation budgets of Paul Ryan, the former House Budget Committee chairman who now chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
Above all, the People’s Budget recognized that, as CPC co-chair Keith Ellison explained, “Too many working Americans open their paychecks each week and ask themselves how they will make ends meet by [with a plan to] fully fund childhood health, education and affordable housing to help working families stretch their paychecks [and] a blueprint of proven investments to end grinding poverty, promote economic mobility and enable shared prosperity.”
That prospect is what was lost when the House rejected the People’s Budget.
Susan Harley of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division was right when she said after the House vote that “Congress should have passed the People’s Budget.”
“The People’s Budget proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) was a better alternative to the budget resolution approved today by the U.S. House of Representatives and should have received a majority vote,” she explained. “By focusing on policies like fairer corporate taxation as a way to pay for spending on essential government services such as improved health care and public financing of elections, the People’s Budget would have put America on a clearer path to a more just and democratic society.”
The People’s Budget also would have instituted a tax on Wall Street trades, known as a financial transaction tax, which is a commonsense way to both increase revenue and calm markets now plagued with volatile high-frequency trading.
The People’s Budget also called for important changes to our tax code, such as ending deferral on foreign-made profits of U.S. companies and limiting the ability of companies to invert and reincorporate in a foreign jurisdiction to avoid their fair share of taxes.
Though it did not garner majority support in the McConnell-Boehner, corporate-controlled 114th Congress, it surely would win majority support from the American people.
And, of course, in a democracy that is the final measure of a proper budget.
Read Next: John Nichols on the “Draft Elizabeth Warren” campaign’s momentum
The first element of a movement to draft a candidate for the presidency—and, make no mistake, a serious effort to draft Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren into the race for the 2016 Democratic nomination is now afoot—involves popular mobilization. Grassroots activists have to get engaged in the development of a campaign that tells a reluctant candidate that there really is a base of support out there in first-caucus and first-primary states—and across the country. This has happened, as an increasingly ambitious “Run Warren Run” movement has taken shape in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states.
The second element is trickier. To the grassroots mobilization must be added a measure of elite opinion that might tip a reluctant prospect (as Warren surely is) toward serious consideration of a candidacy. Prominent figures with something to lose, or perhaps to gain, must step up to support the draft effort. That began to happen when former secretary of labor Robert Reich, who served in the administration of President Bill Clinton and was seen as a likely supporter of presumed 2016 Democratic fron-trunner Hillary Clinton, said early in March that Hillary Clinton should face a primary challenge and “I wish that challenger would be Elizabeth Warren.”
Reich’s support, like that of the Working Families Party, a growing number of legislators in key states, and actors and activists such as Mark Ruffalo and Susan Sarandon, offered an indication of the interest in the effort to draft Warren. And now The Boston Globe has provided formal confirmation of the enthusiasm.
The largest newspaper in Warren’s home state, a significant media force in southern New Hampshire (where its endorsements are sought and prized), and one of the most influential old-line daily newspapers in the country, the Globe surprised a lot of Democrats Sunday with an editorial headlined: “Democrats need Elizabeth Warren’s voice in 2016 presidential race.”
The editorial—published as criticism of Hillary Clinton for her use of a private e-mail system while serving as secretary of state has raised old doubts about the former first lady—bluntly declared, “Democrats would be making a big mistake if they let Hillary Clinton coast to the presidential nomination without real opposition…”
“Clinton’s deep reservoir of support, from her stints as first lady, New York senator, 2008 presidential candidate, and secretary of state, no doubt poses a formidable obstacle. But Barack Obama overcame Clinton’s advantages in 2008, and Warren or another candidate still could in 2016,” noted the Globe editors. “Even if they don’t, Clinton herself would benefit from a challenger. As former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick put it recently, ‘My view of the electorate is, we react badly to inevitability, because we experience it as entitlement, and that is risky, it seems to me, here in America.’ Fairly or not, many Americans already view Clinton skeptically, and waltzing to the nomination may actually hurt her in the November election against the Republican nominee.”
The Globe made it clear, as do supporters of the “Draft Warren” movement, and of other potential contenders such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, that this is about more than Clinton’s strengths and weaknesses. This is about core issues, and fundamental questions regarding the future of the Democratic Party and the country.
“[The] Democratic Party finds itself with some serious divides that ought to be settled by the electorate. Some are clear-cut policy differences, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an enormous free-trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations that Warren opposes and Clinton backs. Even in areas where the candidates agree, there are bound to be different priorities: It’s hard to imagine a President Clinton defending and enforcing the Dodd-Frank legislation with as much vigor as a President Warren, for instance,” explained the Globe editorial, which added:
Indeed, the big-picture debate on financial regulation and income inequality is what’s most at peril if the Democratic primaries come and go without top-notch opponents for Clinton. While she has a great many strengths, Clinton seems far more likely to hew to a cautious approach on economics. Her financial backing from Wall Street, her vote in the Senate to reduce bankruptcy protections and her past reluctance to raise capital-gains taxes are no secret. Nothing about her record suggests much gumption for financial reform or tackling the deeply entrenched economic problems that increasingly threaten the American dream.
In contrast, the editorial suggested, “unlike Clinton, or any of the prospective Republican candidates, Warren has made closing the economic gaps in America her main political priority, in a career that has included standing up for homeowners facing illegal foreclosures and calling for more bankruptcy protections. If she runs, it’ll ensure that those issues take their rightful place at the center of the national political debate.”
Rejecting tortured arguments that Warren could do more in a gridlocked Senate than with the bully pulpit of a presidential candidacy. “As a member of the minority party in the Senate, her effectiveness is now much more limited than when she first won election, since Republicans control the legislative agenda,” the Globe explains. “Democrats face an uphill challenge to reclaim the Senate in 2016 and face even slimmer prospects in the House. For the foreseeable future, the best pathway Warren and other Democrats have for implementing their agenda runs through the White House.”
That’s a strong argument, coming from a newspaper that Warren must—and does—take seriously. This does mean that Warren, who has repeatedly said she does not intend to run, will suddenly change course and enter the 2016 race. But it does mean that the “Draft Warren” movement is developing the scope and character of a classic draft effort. And a classic draft effort—with grassroots energy and validation from former cabinet members and major media—is hard to ignore.
Read Next: John Nichols remembers Danny Schecter
It is impossible to fully explain media criticism—and media understanding—as it exists today without recognizing the remarkable contribution of Danny Schechter.
Two years before Ben Bagdikian took apart the fantasy that American media was liberal, with The Elite Conspiracy and Other Crimes by the Press (Harper & Row), more than a decade before Bagdikian exposed the corporate infrastructure of news-gathering with The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press), more than fifteen years before Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) began its ongoing exploration of the abuses and excesses of that corporate media, and almost twenty years before Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky put it all together with Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media (Pantheon), there was this news director on the coolest radio station in Boston, WBCN-FM, who started his daily show with the announcement, “This is Danny Schechter, your news dissector.”
Dissecting the news was Schechter’s thing. He reported to listeners what was happening, then he explained why it was happening, and then he revealed why other media outlets did not tell the whole story. It was bold and daring, and the word of what Danny Schechter was doing on one progressive-rock station in Boston spread far and wide. “As ‘News Dissector’ on Boston radio,” recalled Chomsky, “Danny Schechter literally educated a generation.”
What distinguished Schechter, who was died too young at age 72, was his merging of a stark and serious old-school I.F. Stone-style understanding of media power and manipulation with a wild and joyous Yippie-infused determination to rip it up and start again.
Schechter was of his times. He marched for civil rights and against wars. He made common cause with hippies and Yippies. He danced and sang and inhaled. He was, he recalled, ”a participatory journalist, a down-with-the-movement reporter, a manic media maven.”
But Schechter also came to recognize “how naive we were, how arrogant, how out-maneuvered” the movements of the 1960s and early 1970s were. And he made it his purpose over the ensuing decades to tell the whole story of the real stories of protest and power, and of how media and political and economic elites manipulate democracy.
Schechter did not always do so as an outsider. After his gig at WBCN, he went national, as a producer for the ABC newsmagazine 20/20, where he won two Emmy Awards. He helped to get CNN started, served as an executive producer for Globalvision and as executive editor for MediaChannel.org. He developed and served as executive producer for the remarkable South Africa Now news magazine, which played a critical role in revealing the true story of apartheid and of the global anti-apartheid movement. He used television and film and books and the Internet—where he was a pioneering blogger on media issues—to reveal and challenge the failure of major media to expose human rights abuses abroad and corporate abuses at home.
Schechter always recognized that he had antecedents as a critic of corporate and stenographic media—George Seldes and I.F. Stone, among them—and he was always there to counsel, to cheer on, to poke and prod those who carried the critique forward.
He could do so because he had stood at the pivot point where the mediasphere was getting more consolidated and less courageous, and he had recognized this as an affront to cherished premises of a free press and democracy itself. He finished his career as he began, fierce and fun, unrelenting in his critique yet optimistic about what might be made of media.
One of Schechter’s great fights was to maintain local public-access television programming and new-media interventions by citizen journalists. That wasn’t a fight that many Emmy Award winners took on. But the guy who used to dissect the news on rock station out of Boston understood why it mattered.
“A growing segment of the public wants to be involved with new media. The boom in on-line computer networks and even radio talk shows demonstrates the demand and the need—which the media giants are unlikely to satisfy,” he wrote for Newsday in 1993. “Let’s hope that the Congressional watchdogs who are questioning the anti-trust implications of these new monopolies-in-the-making will speak out to preserve public access. In commercial television, everything is slick, but little matters. Its edges may be rough, but public access should matter to us—not only for what it is, but for what it can become.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Oregon’s radical innovation
Here is a novel notion: Why not make democracy easy?
Why not take the trouble out of registering to vote—and out of voting?
It can be done. Other countries, where voter turnout is dramatically higher than in the United States, craft their laws to encourage voting.
Unfortunately, politics gets in the way of voting-friendly elections in the United States.
At least in most states.
It is no secret that these have not been easy times for the cause of voting rights.
An activist majority on the US Supreme Court has invalidated key sections of the Voting Rights Act, and the traditional defenders of the franchise—Congressmen John Conyers, D-Michigan, and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin—are struggling to renew the bipartisan coalition in support of robust protection for free and fair elections.
Beyond Washington, the debate frequently takes a turn for the worse. According to a Brennan Center review last year, almost two dozen states have since 2010 enacted laws making it “harder to vote.” And that is only the beginning of the story; The Nation recently reported that “From 2011 to 2015, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced in forty-nine states.”
Lots of bad news for democracy, to be sure.
But not all bad news.
Some states have acted to expand voting rights—and get high-turnout elections to shape governments that reflect the will of the people.
Famously, Oregon has since 1998 used a vote-by-mail model as the standard mechanism for voting. (Washington state and Colorado now do the same.)
The results have been pretty impressive for Oregon: In 2014, while voter turnout nationally was just 36 percent, Oregon voter turnout was well over 50 percent.
The Oregon Secretary of State at the time of the 2014 election was an enthusiastic pro-democracy campaigner named Kate Brown. After the state again registered some of the best voter-participation numbers in the nation, Brown explained, “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we see high turnout because of vote-by-mail. It’s extremely convenient and accessible; it’s secure and cost-effective.”
But Brown was not satisfied. As the state’s overseer of elections, she developed legislation designed to take the hassle out of registering to vote by enacting a groundbreaking plan to automatically register voters using drivers’ license data.
This is a big deal, as it adopts a proactive approach to voter registration; instead of requiring eligible voters to jump through hoops to get on the election rolls, the state does the work. The approach reflects the sensibility of high-registration, high-turnout countries around the world, where democracy is made easy rather than hard. The approach is reliable and cost-effective, as it utilizes existing state data. And it allows citizens who do not want to be voters to opt out.
Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Democracy made easy may make sense to those who see a value in high-turnout elections and governing that reflects the will of the great mass of people. But it makes no sense to those who prefer governing to be the exclusive preserve of monied elites and their official minions—and for whom the notion of a truly representative democracy is truly frightening.
So Brown had to work the chambers of the Oregon legislature, where she faced plenty of opposition from Republicans and even the occasional Democrat. There really are a lot of politicians who share the view of the former Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, who vetoed a proposal for automatic voter registration in Minnesota with the message that “registering to vote should be a voluntary, intentional act.” Translation: citizens should have to jump through some hoops before they can become voters.
When Brown was promoting her plan, one Oregon legislator griped, “It’s already so easy to register, why would we make it easier?”
“My answer,” Brown recalled, “is that we have the tools to make voter registration more cost effective, more secure and more convenient for Oregonians, so why wouldn’t we?”
The arguments eventually took and the measure was approved by the state House and the state Senate.
The thing is that Brown is no longer the secretary of state. With the resignation of former Governor John Kitzhaber in February, Brown took over as governor.
So, this week, Brown signed her bill into law.
The Oregon Statesman Journal reported that “The bill’s authors estimate it could add 300,000 new voters to the state’s current 2.2 million registered voters.”
But Brown is still not satisfied.
When she signed Oregon’s first-in-the-nation law, the governor announced, “Oregon is a true leader in accessibility to voting and I challenge every other state in this nation to examine their policies and find ways to ensure there are as few barriers as possible in the way of the citizen’s right to vote.”
That’s a good challenge. It might even make real the promise of Leonard Cohen’s great song of almost a quarter-century ago: “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”
That prospect may be hard to imagine in states that are still debating restrictive “voter ID” laws and trying to limit early voting and same-day registration.
But if democracy can come to Oregon, why not the USA?
Read Next: John Nichols on bold, progressive Donna Edwards entering a key senate race
It is not often that a serious contender for a US Senate seat announces her candidacy with talk of grassroots environmental activism, fighting for union jobs and “protecting women’s reproductive rights from Tea Party attacks,” or with a pledge to answer proposals to “compromise away Social Security and Medicare” with absolute opposition—“no ‘ifs,’ ‘ands,’ ‘buts’ or ‘willing to considers.’”
Then again, it is not often that Senate races feature candidates like Donna Edwards, the Maryland congresswoman who entered politics only after a long career as an activist on the outside demanding that Congress act on behalf of women, people of color, workers and abandoned communities.
When US Senator Barbara Mikulski decided not to seek a sixth term in 2016, one of the most prominent and powerful Democrats in Congress, US Representative Chris Van Hollen, moved immediately to claim the seat. A Capitol Hill veteran with a reasonably liberal record and a history of working closely with the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, Van Hollen scored an early endorsement from Senator minority leader Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the chamber who is working hard to reclaim the majority status that his party lost in 2014. He’s also secured important endorsements in Maryland, including that of former state Democratic Party chair Susan Turnbull, who hailed the congressman as an “incredibly effective fighter for progressive causes.”
Van Hollen’s opening gambit was strong, but not strong enough to shut down the competition. The race was always expected to attract a number of candidates, as Senate seats do not come open all that frequently in Maryland. And the prospect of a competitive Democratic primary caught the attention of activists who want the party’s Senate caucus to focus on economic and social justice fundamentals and on constitutional reform of a broken political process.
Progressive groups began last week to openly urge Edwards to consider a run. Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched campaigns to draft Maryland’s first African-American congresswoman into the contest. “Donna Edwards has proven time and again that she’s a bold progressive,” wrote PCCC’s Adam Green in a “Donna’s On Our Side” message.
“She’s not just an ally—she’s one of us,” declared Green.
Serious and issue-focused, Edwards has a record of getting out front on behalf of bold positions—even when her party is going slow. She got elected to Congress the hard way in 2008, by mounting a successful anti-war, economic-populist primary challenge to an entrenched Democratic incumbent.
But her entry into electoral politics came after years of grassroots and policy activism.
The first executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which she co-founded, Edwards played an important role in advocating for passage of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. She also worked with Public Citizen and served as executive director of the Center for a New Democracy before becoming executive director of the progressive Arca Foundation, where she was a champion of media reform and efforts to clean up American politics.
It was her activist zeal, and her sense that the Democratic Party was insufficiently engaged at the grassroots, that led Edwards to run for Congress. Edwards said from the start that she was not just running against the conservative agenda; she was running to “push the limits” of the Democratic Party and American politics. “As Democrats, we’ve been too timid in terms of what our expectations are,” she explained. “I think a lot of us have come to realize that it’s important to be on the inside. Years ago, Paul Wellstone used to ask me to work in his Senate office. I would say, ‘No, no, I’m much more comfortable on the outside.’ Now, like a lot of progressives, I’ve realized that Paul was right. The work progressives do on the outside is essential, but more of us have to be on the inside if we’re going to make the Democratic Party the ally we need to change the Congress and the country.”
Since her election, Edwards has often made the connection between grassroots activism and congressional action. After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, when most Democrats were talking about tepid reforms, Edwards proposed a constitutional amendment to restore the ability of citizens and their elected representatives to enact meaningful campaign finance laws—and to prevent the bartering off of elections to the highest corporate bidder.
Now, five years after the Citizens United ruling, President Obama and most Democratic senators back some sort of constitutional amendment as a response to the Supreme Court majority’s political meddling on behalf of billionaires and corporate interests. When Edwards stepped up in February 2010, however, she was way ahead of her party. Yet the congresswoman was not cautious in her approach. She said at the time that an amendment was not a strategic option—it was a democratic necessity. “The ruling reached by the Roberts Court overturned decades of legal precedent by allowing corporations unfettered spending in our political campaigns,” explained Edwards. “Another law will not rectify this disastrous decision. A Constitutional Amendment is necessary to undo what this Court has done.”
That kind of talk won’t go down well with the billionaires and the corporate interests who have come to control so much of our politics. And Edwards acknowledges that, in her Senate race, “The corporate special interests are going to come at me with all their money…”
But Edwards has always had a clear sense of which side she is on in the equation proposed a century ago by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
“Justice Brandeis got it right: ‘We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,’” she said when she introduced her amendment. “It is time we remove corporate influence from our policies and our politics. We cannot allow corporations to dominate our elections, to do so would be both undemocratic and unfair to ordinary citizens.”
Read Next: John Nichols on police reform in Wisconsin
President Obama spoke in Selma Sunday about the past and the present, making a link between the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the contemporary movement to address the killings of unarmed African-American men by police officers in so many communities across this country. The president reminded the crowd that “citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago—the protection of the law.”
Unfortunately, the laws that are needed are not always in place; as a result, one of the first questions that arises after an officer-involved death is: “Are the police going to investigate the police?
This is a critical question—so much so that one of the chief recommendations of the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing was for independent investigations of police-involved deaths.
In Madison, Wisconsin, where a 19-year-old African-American man was shot and killed Friday night by a local police officer, there’s a better answer to the question than in most places, thanks to state Representative Chris Taylor.
Taylor was on Madison’s Williamson Street Friday night when Tony Robinson, who police acknowledge was unarmed, was killed. She was getting gas as a nearby station when the shots that took Robinson’s life were fired. She has been present as activists with groups such as the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition have demanded accountability and sweeping changes in police practices with a series of demonstrations that have filled the streets and, on Monday, the rotunda of the state Capitol.
But Taylor’s connection to what the legislator refers to as an “unspeakable tragedy,” and to the policing issues that have been raised, runs deeper.
Several years ago, after the shooting in the same neighborhood of a white unarmed young man, Paul Heenan, an internal investigation by the Madison Police Department determined that the officer involved had not violated department policies or procedures. That raised a community outcry; there were protests, petitions and calls for a better system of investigating shootings by police officers.
Their voices joined a broader chorus of Wisconsinites calling for independent reviews of police shootings—a chorus that included Michael Bell, whose son was killed in 2004 by police in Kenosha. No officer was charged with wrongdoing in the death of Michael Bell Jr., but the Bell family received nearly $1.75 million in a settlement with the city. Michael Bell became a prominent campaigner for an independent-review law. He did not portray it as a panacea, but he would suggest that such legislation could provide “a little more confidence” in the process.
“What this is about, too, is moving from internal affairs of a particular police department to outside the department,” Bell would explain. “[Opponents of the change] say [the status quo] is a good check and balance, and we’re saying it’s not. That’s why we’re moving it outside.”
Taylor heard the chorus. And she determined to make the change. It was not easy. She was serving her first full term as a state representative. She was a progressive Democrat in an overwhelmingly conservative and overwhelmingly Republican Assembly. But Taylor is not easily dissuaded.
The Madison attorney started looking for a Republican ally. She found one in Garey Bies, a former deputy sheriff from Sister Bay in Door County. Two years ago, the pair proposed Assembly Bill 409, which was written to require that investigations of officer-involved deaths be led by investigators from outside the police agencies with which the officers serve. The bill also proposed that families of shooting victims be informed of their legal rights and that the results of investigations that do not lead to criminal charges be made public.
“Law enforcement officers have one of the hardest jobs in the world and are confronted with life-threatening situations on a regular basis,” argued Taylor and Bies. “Yet their ability to do their jobs depends on the trust of their community. This bill reasonably balances these realities with a uniform statewide structure to ensure a better process when officer-involved deaths occur anywhere in Wisconsin. This improved process will strengthen trust between law enforcement and communities.”
The Republican state attorney general opposed the bill. Yet Taylor and Bies assembled a coalition of supporters that included the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the Badger Sheriffs Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. And Taylor kept talking to Republican legislators with whom she frequently clashed on other issues.
Remarkably, in a time of so many partisan and ideological divisions, the bill advanced. In the spring of 2014, after securing unanimous support in the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate, this quite progressive piece of legislation was signed into law by the very conservative Governor Scott Walker.
Taylor and Bies said the governor would “make history by signing this critical bill, making Wisconsin the first state in the nation to require an independent investigation of officer-involved deaths.”
Since that signing occurred in the spring of 2014, legislators in other states have begun looking for ways in which to get this piece of the criminal-justice equation right.
Just this past weekend, when so many gathered in Selma to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of a great turning point in the struggle for racial justice in America, an Alabama legislator was interviewed on MSNBC about where the struggle stands today. She spoke of fights over voting rights and so many other issues. Yet she also spoke, hopefully, of efforts to pass legislation to provide for independent review of officer-involved deaths.
When Alabama state Representative Merika Coleman-Evans began talking about the Alabama initiative in January, the Associated Press reported that “The proposal is part of a wave of legislation being introduced across the country in the wake of protests over police killings in Missouri and New York.”
Wisconsin’s law was on the books before the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City sparked protests that gained national attention.
Now, as news of a shooting in Madison draws national attention, Wisconsin’s law has provided at least a measure of breathing space in a difficult moment.
When the Robinson shooting occurred, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval announced, “Obviously in light of the fact that we are completely bound by state law, which indicates that an independent oversight and investigation should be conducted outside of the Madison Police Department, we respected that from the moment we took the scene, froze the scene, and waited for the DCI to arrive.”
That was an important statement, one that in a tense moment provided a framework for how Madisonians, and people beyond Madison, might consider the investigation. The law that Taylor and Bies crafted does not address every issue that emerges following an officer-involved shooting. It does not resolve every concern about policing and criminal justice. “The law that we passed is not perfect,” says Taylor. “It’s a first attempt to get a more open, transparent, independent process.” But the law does provide that framework, a potential for establishing some measure of confidence and trust.
This is what lawmakers can and must do, even in times of deep division and partisan wrangling. It matters that Chris Taylor did not simply complain. She did not merely talk about what could not be done. A progressive Democrat recognized a breach in the system and, with a Republican colleague, she set out to repair it. This does not make Taylor and Bies heroes. This is what we should expect of our elected officials.
Unfortunately, because our politics and our governance has become so disappointing, so frustrating, so frequently pointless, Taylor and Bies stood out as something rare in the Wisconsin Capitol: problem solvers. Like a number of senior Republicans, Bies decided not to seek re-election in 2014. But Taylor is still serving, still speaking up and still arguing that it is possible to bridge the chasms of political division to make those first attempts to get a more open, transparent, independent process.
Read Next: John Nichols says Elizabeth Warren should challenge Hillary Clinton
Former secretary of labor Robert Reich says Hillary Clinton should face “a tough primary challenger” and he knows who he would like to see mount a run against the presumed Democratic front-runner.
“I wish that challenger would be Elizabeth Warren,” Reich explained Friday, in a short statement that has energized supporters of a burgeoning movement to draft the senator from Massachusetts as a populist alternative to Clinton.
Battered in recent days by revelations about her use of a private e-mail account when she served as the Obama administration’s secretary of state, and by reports of foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton has been scrambling to retain the presumption of inevitability that has framed her potential candidacy.
Reich is not suggesting that the controversies will necessarily derail Clinton, who is well ahead in the polls. Rather, as an ardent advocate for a progressive populist response to the crisis of income inequality, he is arguing affirmatively in a Facebook post for the logic of a Warren run.
Reich has always spoken well of Warren, with whom he shares many positions. They have worked together. And he has spoken about the prospect that she might might challenge Clinton. But this is more than just an expression of ideological sympathy, and more than punditry. This is a former Bill Clinton cabinet member saying, specifically, that he hopes Warren will run.
Coming as the current Clinton controversies are grabbing headlines, Reich’s move is going to garner attention.
Reich knows this. He is a savvy veteran of the political fights of the past four decades (who has campaigned for many Democrats, advised many more and once sought the Democratic nod for governor of Massachusetts). He is an important figure on the left of the Democratic Party. And he has a following—indeed, there has been soft speculation about the prospect that Reich, himself, might be a presidential prospect.
With all of this is mind, here’s how Reich frames his intervention in the current discussion about 2016:
I’ve been getting lots of calls from reporters wanting to know if Democrats should have a “plan B” if Hillary’s candidacy implodes. I tell them (1) it’s still way too early (there’s not even a plan A because she hasn’t yet declared, and it’s more than a year and a half before Election Day anyway), (2) if she runs the odds of her imploding are very low; she’s been through all this three times before (once as a candidate and twice as Bill Clinton’s de facto campaign manager) and will be a strong candidate, (3) but it would be good for the Democrats and the country—and good for her (it will make her an even stronger candidate)—to have a tough primary challenger, and (4) I wish that challenger would be Elizabeth Warren.
Reich’s statement was embraced by backers of the movement to draft Warren, with Erica Sagrans, the manager of the “Ready for Warren” draft campaign, suggested that “Having Robert Reich, a leading voice for working families, join our push to draft Elizabeth Warren could go a long way to getting Warren to consider a run.”
Activists noted that, barely a month ago, Politico was reporting that Clinton aides were seeking Reich’s backing in an effort to increase her appeal among progressives. “One component of Hillary Clinton’s emerging strategy involves quietly but aggressively courting key endorsers from the left, who could help increase progressives’ comfort level and take the wind out of a potential challenge,” read the Politico report. “Two top targets: Robert Reich, the economist and former labor secretary in her husband’s administration, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon.”
Lewis said several years ago, when discussing the possibility of a Clinton 2016 run, “I won’t make an endorsement, but I will say this: If she makes a decision to run, I would be with her.” Of course, it can be noted that, in 2008, the Georgia congressman initially endorsed Hillary Clinton and then switched to Barack Obama.
Because of his long history with the Clintons, Reich has often been portrayed as a Clinton ally. But now he’s talking up Warren.
And “Draft Warren” campaigners say he is not alone.
Neil Sroka of Democracy for America, a group that has highlighted Reich’s work to address income inequality, noted Friday that “Reich’s comments are very much in line with what we’re hearing from many who are backing the Draft Warren effort.”
Sagrans says there’s a broad understanding at the grassroots of the points Reich and others have begun to make about the need for a competitive race. “Reich understands the system is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful and knows that having Warren in the race, speaking truth to that power, will ultimately strengthen the Democratic Party and our democracy,” she explained. “We hope that others will join Robert Reich, Van Jones and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have come forward to urge the Senator to run, so that voters have a real choice in this election.”
Read Next: John Nichols on the corporation hiding unions from children
The American trade union movement has achieved remarkable progress with its fights for fair wages and benefits, for an eight-hour day, for protections against child-labor abuses for pensions for retirees and workplace safety. And the movement’s accomplishments have extended beyond the workplace to the community and the nation as a whole, especially when it has marched on the front lines for civil rights and social justice. Those gains have required sacrifice and struggle, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. explained when he addressed the AFL-CIO national convention in 1961.
“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth,” said King. “The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed. And as we stand on the threshold of the second half of the twentieth century, a crisis confronts us both. Those who in the second half of the nineteenth century could not tolerate organized labor have had a rebirth of power and seek to regain the despotism of that era while retaining the wealth and privileges of the twentieth century.”
So it really has never been easy.
There have always been haters and baiters.
But it does seem now—at a time when unions are under constant assault from bad trade policies, congressional initiatives to undermine the National Labor Relations Board and existing labor law, transparently irresponsible privatization schemes and the “right-to-work” sneak attacks of Republican governors—that the labor haters and labor baiters are upping the volume. And the anti-labor propaganda has gone over the top.
Consider this: In a matter of days, American unions have been reimagined as threats so menacing that simply responding to them prepares an otherwise inexperienced presidential contender to deal with the cruelest global threats. And unions are being blamed for… displacing the Junior Optimist Baseball League
First, there was the bluster and bombast of 2016 Republican presidential prospect Scott Walker, who responded to a question about what he would do as president to stop the advance of Islamic State (ISIS) by saying: “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”
The governor of Wisconsin got a lot of blowback for that remark at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Forget about the liberals, even conservative commentators allowed as how the challenges of responding to the teachers and librarians who marched on the state Capitol in 2011 might not have fully prepared Walker to see off threats posed by terrorists. But Walker doubled down on the anti-labor line two days after the CPAC gathering, telling a Club for Growth event that “the most significant foreign policy decision in my lifetime… was in August of 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers.”
Just to be clear, the members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization were Americans who were exercising their right to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances, just like the teachers and librarians in Madison.
But, apparently, both were so intimidating—in Walker’s eyes—that thwarting the demands of union members provided preparation for tackling the toughest international challenges.
Walker’s critics are right when they suggest that all of this says more about the prospective candidate’s fragile worldview than it does about labor relations or foreign affairs.
Unfortunately, Walker is not alone in imagining that unions are super scary.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the corporation that owns a major refinery is blocking baseball players aged 4-to-14 from using fields on the edge of its property because the company fears children might be exposed to trade unionists.
Headlines in local papers last week announced that a strike by refinery workers had forced adolescent baseball players off the fields. The Contra Costa Times reported that ” Hundreds of displaced youth baseball players won’t get to play ball on their home fields until striking Tesoro steelworkers return to work, the refinery says.” The paper explained:
The 49 baseball and softball teams in the Junior Optimist Baseball League have been locked out of the 15 North Concord ball fields they rent from Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery since Feb. 2, when the United Steelworkers walked off the job at Tesoro and eight other refineries across the country to protest safety conditions, health care costs and the use of outside contractors for maintenance.
Initially, Tesoro said it closed the league’s fields—plus two soccer fields and another baseball field used by other youth sports groups—as a safety precaution because workers are picketing outside the refinery’s front gates…
Declaring that the gates won’t be opened until the strike is over, Tesoro spokeswoman Patricia Deutsche told a local website that, “It’s for the safety of the kids and the parents and spectators that would have to cross picket lines. We just don’t want to expose them to any negative interactions.”
“Noting that demonstrators from the California Nurses Association, Communities for a Better Environment and the Occupy movement have swelled the ranks of the picketing refinery workers, Deutsche said the company believes the situation is unsafe,” reported the Contra Costa Times.
Calfornia Nurses Association spokesman Chuck Idelson was incredulous. “Nurses are a threat to kids playing baseball?” said Idelson, who suggested that it was “disgraceful” for the energy conglomerate “to be blaming anybody else but themselves.”
It is worth noting here that the steelworkers are not targeting baseball. “There’s just absolutely no way we’d picket a Little League field,” announced Tracy Scott, a staff representative with United Steelworkers Local 5. The striking workers, many of them parents and active members of the community, are focused on exceptionally serious issues, including health and safety concerns—which is one of the reasons why the nurses union has gotten engaged. “These refineries are notorious for blowing smoke,” says California Nurses Association/National Nurses United executive director Rose Ann De Moro. “The real danger to the young baseball players and the people in their community is the toxic pollution from refinery emissions and accidents. Central to the strike is the workers seeking to have a stronger voice on health and safety issues for themselves and their community.”
Unions work hard to present themselves as robust representatives for their members.
There are times when individual locals, international unions and the whole of the AFL-CIO must stand strong.
There are times when tensions on picket lines or in the corridors of power can rise.
But the notion that steelworkers or nurses pose a threat to Junior Optimist Baseball is as silly as the notion that being unreasonable with teachers and librarians in Wisconsin prepares a candidate to tackle terror in the Middle East.
Read Next: John Nichols on remembering Mr. Spock