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Now that the US Supreme Court has undermined historic controls on monopoly politics, corporate cash flows into election campaigns at an unprecedented rate.
But it does not always win.
Just ask the farmers of Oregon’s Jackson County.
They took on some of the largest chemical, biotechnology and agribusiness corporations in the world—Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, among others—in an election campaign where 95 percent of the money spent against them came from outside the county.
But when the ballots were counted Tuesday night, the farmers won.
Jackson County voted by a two-to-one margin to ban the genetically engineered crops.
“The voters here have many generations of fruit and vegetable growing, so they’re among the most educated voters. The opposition spent a million dollars and couldn’t convince the people,” explained Chuck Burr, the president of the Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association, which describes the region’s fertile valleys as “the perfect seed growing environment.”
It was a remarkable victory, which the corporate money power and its political allies did everything in their power to stop.
When Jackson County’s farmers learned that Syngenta AG, the Swiss agrochemical giant, was growing genetically altered sugar beet seeds in Jackson County fields, local farmers worried about the threat posed by cross-pollination of genetically modified seeds with their local and organic seeds. So they did what Americans are supposed to do. They gathered in local Grange halls and community centers and organized a petition drive to put a measure banning GM seeds on the ballot.
Then the firestorm hit.
The Oregon legislature, with encouragement from the chemical giants, quickly enacted what critics referred to as “The Monsanto Protection Act.” As it was happening late last year, Melissa Wischerath and Mary Beth Williams of Oregon’s Center for Sustainability Law argued in the Eugene Weekly that “the bill is based on corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) proposed legislation from 2007.”
The Center for Media and Democracy’s Rebekah Wilce has detailed how ALEC has been stepping into food fights, noting that in recent years the group has developed “model legislation” such as the “Preemption of Local Agricultural Laws Act.”
In fact, ALEC promotes a wide range of so-called “pre-emption bills,” which take authority away from cities and counties, where local democracy can often beat back big money, and moves it to the state level. There, generous campaign donations can sway legislators and expensive TV ads can swing referendum votes—as has happened on proposals for GM labeling in California and Washington, where the corporations and their allies spent tens of millions to prevail in 2012 and 2013.
But the pre-emption came too late to stop the farmers of Jackson County. Because they got their campaign going before the legislature acted, they were exempt from the top-down pre-emption.
They were not, however, exempt from the scare campaign that was coming their way.
In a county where the most expensive previous campaign on an initiative measure had cost around $100,000, Monsanto alone gave $183,294 to block the proposal. DuPont gave $129,647. Syngenta gave $75,000. Bayer CropScience gave $22,352. Dow AgroSciences $22,352. BASF Plant Science $22,352. And those were just the biggest checks. Groups affiliated with the Farm Bureau, which often aligns with agribusiness interests, sent substantial checks from states around the country. In all, according to media reports, the campaign to block the ban raised close to $1 million, and it flooded the local airwaves with ads claiming farmers would be burdened and that enforcement costs would eat up the county budget.
Ninety-five percent of the money came from outside the county.
“Indeed, they do want to squash us like a bug,” said Chris Hardy, an organic farmer who worked with the group GMO-Free Jackson County to qualify the initiative proposal. “This is about whether we are going to turn the keys to agriculture in the Rogue Valley over to a multinational corporation or we are going to say no and stand up to protect our family farms’ future.”
The farmers and their allies were outspent by more than two to one. But they used their resources wisely, organizing an “Our Family Farms Coalition” that secured endorsements from small businesses like Bad Ass Coffee and the Buttercloud Bakery and Café in Medford, Daddy’s Donuts & Juices in Grants Pass and the Four and Twenty Blackbirds Bakery in Ashland. They got the local chapters of the National Grange of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, one of the oldest family farm groups in the country, on board. They got help from Consumer Reports, the Center for Food Safety Fund and the Organic Consumers Fund, along with the local Ashland Food Coop and Ashland Alternative Health. And they got a lot of small donations from consumers and citizens.
But, above all, their campaign highlighted many of the 150 local farmers who were part of the coalition. Some who had grown genetically engineered crops in the past went on air to talk about why they backed the ban. One of the most effective ads featured a farmer whose family has worked the land in southern Oregon since the 1800s saying, “As a fiscally conservative Republican, I can say that the opposition’s claims that [the measure] would have high-enforcement costs, or threaten farmers’ rights, are pure political bull. Over 95 percent of their campaign funds are from outside our county and they’re trying to scare local voters with claims that just aren’t true.”
The farmers and their allies ramped up the campaign with a “tractorcade” that saw dozens of farm vehicles parading through downtown Medford.
And it worked.
When the ballots were counted Tuesday, 39,489 votes were cast to ban the growing of genetically engineered plants in the county. Only 20,432 voted as Monsanto and Syngenta said they should.
And it did not stop there. Inspired by the Jackson County drive, farmers in neighboring Josephine County put a GMO crop ban on their ballot, as part of a drive to create a “GMO-free Rogue Valley.” They got going after the legislature moved to pre-empt county actions. But the group GMO-Free Josephine County decided to proceed anyway—knowing they would likely face legal challenges.
“GMO-Free Josephine County contends that proceeding with this ballot measure despite possible state preemption (SB 863) is a win-win scenario,” the coalition declared. “Even if the state bill prevails, this ballot initiative can serve as an opportunity for the residents of Josephine County to assert their rights to self-governance, free from undue outside corporate influence and state or federal preemption of critical agricultural matters that affect our local food, farms and future. “
The voters agreed. They backed the ban by a 58-42 margin.
Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association hailed the Oregon results as a win for local farmers and “a victory for the national anti-GMO movement as it builds momentum for similar bans in counties in other states.”
The results, were, as well, a win for local democracy—in the face of federal inaction and state pre-emption.
“Farmers have the right to sow the crop of their choice, free from the risk of contamination,” said George Kimbrell, Portland-based attorney for Center for Food Safety. “Where the federal government has failed, local efforts like this are taking action.”
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Forty years ago, at a point when Americans were profoundly concerned about declining voter participation, democracy advocates proposed a fix: “instant voting.”
To remove barriers and increase participation in elections, the argument went, officials should make it possible for citizens to show up at a polling place, register to vote and then cast a ballot.
Instead of jumping through registration and participation hoops over a period of weeks, even months, people could just vote.
A handful of states—Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin—began to implement the idea and something exciting happened: turnout soared.
But the approach was controversial.
In my home state of Wisconsin, then-Governor Pat Lucey implemented the reform.
Lucey, who died last week at age 96, was a remarkable figure. He helped build the modern Democratic Party of Wisconsin, ushering an an era of two-party competition for a state where in the mid-1950s virtually every top official was a Republican. He was close to the Kennedys, playing especially important roles in the John Kennedy’s 1960 presidential run and Bobby Kennedys 1968 race. He bid for the vice presidency in 1980 as the running mate of liberal Republican John Anderson on a “national unity” ticket. As a prominent realtor in Wisconsin, he championed open housing as a part of a broad commitment to civil rights. As governor, he forged a strong university system, established fair and equitable funding for public schools, reformed criminal justice and the courts, fostered labor-management cooperation and economic growth, and appointed the first woman to the state Supreme Court.
But some of Lucey’s greatest accomplishments were as a political reformer, who championed open government and campaign finance reform—and who fought to make it easy to vote.
Pat Lucey believed in high-turnout elections. And Lucey was enough of a structural reformer to recognize that policies could contribute to making lofty rhetoric about popular democracy into an Election Day reality. Indeed, his support for Election Day voter registration was so significant that it helped to make this particular reform central to a national debate about how to expand the electorate.
In the mid-1970s, Lucey and his legislative allies moved to enact what the national media referred to as “instant voting”—a new set of rules designed to allow citizens to simply show up at a polling place, register and cast a ballot. This was a radical change from the restrictive rules that were in place in much of the country, many of which had their roots in the machinations of big-city bosses and Southern segregationists who were disinclined toward expanding the electorate.
When Wisconsin enacted rule changes to remove barriers to voting, it was national news. The New York Times highlighted Wisconsin’s 1975 plan for “easy and instant voting.” Critics screamed that this was a recipe for fraud, expressing particular concern about language that allowed for registration with a Wisconsin driver’s license, a student ID or fee card “or any other ID judged to be acceptable by local election officials.” There were demands for monitoring of elections by the US attorney’s office in Milwaukee and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But after a review of the 1976 election, officials confirmed that the FBI “found no evidence of fraud or voter theft.”
What was found was high turnout. In November 1976, 210,000 Wisconsinites—11 percent of the total electorate—registered at the polls. The Times reported that “in Milwaukee, for example, registration in 1974 was at the comparatively high level of 65 percent. After Wisconsin adopted Election-Day registration in 1976, registration jumped to 86 percent.” Hailing the Wisconsin accomplishment, along with more modest advances in Minnesota (which also embraced Election Day registration), the paper argued that all America should “trust democracy by enlarging it.”
President Jimmy Carter agreed. He tried to take the Wisconsin model national, with a proposal for universal Election Day registration. It never quite happened. This country continues to have a patchwork of different registration rules, some of them absurdly restrictive. And there have been efforts in a number of states, including Wisconsin, to eliminate Election Day registration and limit related reforms such as those allowing for early voting.
These are moves in the wrong direction. So wrong that they have frequently been blocked by responsible legislators and the courts. But Maine Governor Paul LePage and his allies actually did eliminate Election Day registration in that state in 2011—only to have it restored by a 60-40 popular vote in November of the same year. Former American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Director Shenna Bellows, who helped get the issue on the ballot and who now is a US Senate candidate, said at the time, “Maine voters sent a clear message: No one will be denied a right to vote.”
Voters like Election Day registration, and for good reason—Election Day registration works.
As Demos notes:
Voting rights advocates have long argued that no voter should lose their access to the ballot just because they missed a registration deadline, or because a paperwork error left them off the rolls. Any number of studies have found that turnout will get a boost if people can register on Election Day, and that argument is backed up by the (data analyzed Nonprofit VOTE, a nonpartisan group that encourages nonprofits to engage voters).
Among states that allow residents to establish or update their registration the same day they vote, turnout was 71.3 percent on average—far above the 58.8 percent for the remaining states. Five of the Same Day Registration states appear in the top 10.
This effect can’t be explained away by other factors. For example, one useful predictor of voters’ inclination to participate was the margin in the presidential race—turnout was highest in the 10 swing states where the Obama and Romney campaigns battled most intensely. But even among these 10 swing states, the three that allow Same Day Registration easily beat out the others in turnout, with Colorado the only exception.
Unfortunately, Election Day registration is not universal, as Pat Lucey, Jimmy Carter and the reformers of the 1970s hoped it would be.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, less than a third of US states “currently offer, or have enacted laws which provide for Election Day registration, allowing eligible citizens to register or update their records on Election Day.” Several states have moved recently to create the option, including California, Maryland and Hawaii. But most Americans, especially those in Southern states with historically low turnout patterns, don’t have it.
So Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, has proposed a Same Day Registration Act, which would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to require states with a voter registration requirement to make same-day voter registration—or revision of an individual’s voter registration information—available at the polling place on the date of election itself. The Ellison proposal would also make those options available during early voting periods. The congressman says the United States can and must “ensure [that] our nation lives up to its ideals and protects the most fundamental right in our democracy.”
That was what Pat Lucey did almost four decades ago with his push for “instant voting.” History has proven Lucey and the voting advocates of the 1970s right. They recognized, as we all should, that the promise of democracy is made real when voting is easy and turnout is high.
America was always going to have a great debate about net neutrality.
Cable and telecommunications companies stand to reap billions if the Internet’s guarantee of equal protection for all communications is scrapped. Without net neutrality protections, they would be freed to create a pay-to-play Internet where they could charge corporations and special-interest groups to provide high-speed service, while consigning websites without benefactors to a digital dirt road.
That’s too lucrative a prospect for the profiteers to give up on.
By the same token, millions of Americans recognize that, if net neutrality is compromised, they will lose what is best about the Internet—its infinite variety, its affordability, its openness and freedom. And democracy activists know, as well, that without net neutrality another media platform will be colonized by the economic and political elites that have already narrowed and warped the national discourse.
So the battle lines have been drawn for a long time.
Now, the battle begins.
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to formally open the latest stage of that debate. That is all that has happened. But, for defenders of net neutrality, the significance cannot be underestimated. This really is the period in which the future of the Internet will be decided.
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn made that point when she told the crowd of net neutrality supporters who gathered for the vote that, “The real call to action begins after the vote today. This is your opportunity to formally make your points on the record. You have the ear of the entire FCC. The eyes of the world are on all of us.”
Clyburn was emphasizing the vital importance of public input to support maintaining a free and open Internet.
That input must be directed, in particular, toward the Democratic majority on the commission. And it must argue for a specific strategy: reclassification of Internet providers as “telecommunications services” that can be regulated in the public interest.
It is a mistake to think that the Democrats are on the same page. While they share some basic premises, they have important differences with regard to the approach the commission should take.
What the three Democrats agree on is this: the FCC has a role to play in defining net neutrality. That distinguishes them from the two Republican appointees, whose “no” votes were intended to say that this issue should be resolved by the US House and the US Senate—where the influence of the telecommunications conglomerates is great.
The Democrats are right to believe that the issue can and should stay with the FCC.
The Democrats do not appear to be in agreement, however, on how the FCC should resolve the net neutrality debate.
FCC chair Tom Wheeler, a former industry lobbyist appointed last fall to a Democratic seat by President Obama, created a firestorm when he proposed to establish an Internet fast lane that would favor free-spending corporations and special-interest groups, while discriminating against those who cannot pay to play. Wheeler’s assault on net neutrality, has been met with determined opposition from Americans who want to maintain honest competition and a democratic discourse in the digital era.
The opposition has been so broad, in fact, that Wheeler tinkered with his initial proposal in hopes of easing the outcry and securing support for his response to court rulings that have required the FCC to revisit issues of Internet speed and access. He got that support Thursday from Democratic commissioners Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel.
But both Clynburn and Rosenworcel expressed reservations about Wheeler’s approach. And rightly so.
The official line from the FCC, in anticipation of the Thursday vote, was that Wheeler’s revisions “clearly reflects public input the commission has received” and that Wheeler is now “explicit that the goal is to find the best approach to ensure the Internet remains open and prevent any practices that threaten it.”
Wheeler had felt the heat. His revised approach—which the commission has now approved for consideration—contains some of the language of critics, and expresses an openness to debate about what a growing consensus among responsible members of Congress and advocacy groups says is the right response to the issue: the reclassification of Internet providers as “telecommunications services.”
But Wheeler never moved as far as the official pronouncements suggests. Indeed, according to The Wall Street Journal, despite the talk of “tweaks” to the initial plan, the chairman “is sticking to the same basic approach.”
An analysis from Matt Wood, a public interest lawyer who formerly worked with the Media Access Project and now works with Free Press, concludes that the revisions proposed by Wheeler “fall far short.” Indeed, argues Wood, “Unless the chairman reverses his fundamentally failed approach, we won’t have real net neutrality—and we will have rampant discrimination online.”
Wheeler has not reversed course.
Now, with the commission vote to open debate on how to maintain net neutrality, there will be many efforts to fuzz the margins of the debate. Some corporate interests will attack net neutrality itself, as will their congressional allies. Savvier players will attempt to suggest that Wheeler is trying to “strike a balance.” But a balance with Internet “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” is tipped against citizens and consumers. And that’s the problem with Wheeler’s revision—and, as such, with the core plan that the commission will consider. For all the talk of progress, Michael Weinberg, vice president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge, says he and his group remain “concerned that the FCC is considering some kind of paid prioritization.”
“Paid prioritization” would recreate the Internet as a place where, potentially, there would be superhighway service for big-ticket customers and dirt roads for small businesses, creative artists and citizen groups. In a political context, it has the potential to narrow access to ideas and reduce the range of debate. As the American Civil Liberties Union warns:
Profits and corporate disfavor of controversial viewpoints or competing services could change both what you can see on the Internet and the quality of your connection. And the need to monitor what you do online in order to play favorites means even more consumer privacy invasions piled on top of the NSA’s prying eyes.
That’s the fundamental fear of activists, who have contacted the FCC urging rejection of Wheeler’s flawed initiative. Ironically, citizens who phoned the agency this week to express support for a free and open Internet were urged, because of the overwhelming volume of calls, to use the Internet to communicate their objections. Of course, a top objection is that, if Wheeler gets the commission to undermine net neutrality, the effectiveness of the Internet as a tool for challenging corporate abuses and bad policies will be undermined.
To keep the flow of communications going to the FCC, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a net neutrality advocate, created a special form on his Senate website for citizens to use. On Tuesday, his office delivered nearly 19,000 new comments to the agency. They were added to hundreds of thousands of communications to the commission from net neutrality supporters.
Wheeler misread things when he imagined that Americans are interested in compromising when it comes to net neutrality—that, beyond the corridors of corporate and political power, there is a constituency for surrendering a little bit of Internet freedom here, a little bit of Internet openness there. There’s no popular enthusiasm for creating a pay-to-play Internet. Americans in growing numbers recognize that once net neutrality is undermined, the Internet will no longer be free and open.
The simple, right and necessary response to the whole question of how to maintain net neutrality is to reclassify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service that can be regulated in the public interest. Indeed, as media reformers note, “The FCC can’t prevent online discrimination and blocking unless it reclassifies broadband providers as common carriers.”
While Wheeler and his aides say they will accept some discussion of reclassification, Broadcasting & Cable magazine reports that the chairman sees the use of existing rules—rather than reclassification—as the “effective path forward.”
That is a mistake.
And it is a mistake that must be countered by opponents, whose most important work on the issue of net neutrality begins now.
“Millions of people have put the FCC on notice. A pay-for-priority Internet is unacceptable,” explained Free Press president Craig Aaron. “Today, both Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel stated that they support prohibitions on paid prioritization and other forms of unreasonable discrimination. Tom Wheeler spoke passionately about the open Internet, but his rousing rhetoric doesn’t match the reality of his proposal. The only way to accomplish the chairman’s goals is to reclassify Internet service providers as common carriers.”
“The Commission says it wants to hear from the public; it will be hearing a lot more. This fight will stretch into the fall, but there’s one clear answer: The American people demand real net neutrality, and the FCC must restore it.”
Reclassification is clearly an option.
When a clumsy previous attempt by the FCC to establish net neutrality protections was rejected in January by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the court did not say that the commission lacked regulatory authority—simply that it needed a better approach. As David Sohn, general legal counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, has noted, the court opinion laid out “exactly how the FCC essentially tied its own hands in the case, and makes it clear that the FCC has the power to fix the problem.”
“The Court upheld the FCC’s general authority to issue rules aimed at spurring broadband deployment, and accepted the basic policy rationale for Internet neutrality as articulated by the FCC,” explained Sohn. “The arguments in favor of Internet neutrality are as strong as ever, but prior FCC decisions on how to treat broadband have painted the agency into a corner. Those decisions are not set in stone, however, and the ball is now back in the FCC’s court. The FCC should reconsider its classification of broadband Internet access and re-establish its authority to enact necessary safeguards for Internet openness.”
That’s the message that will be delivered by net neutrality defenders.
Recent days have seen new expressions of opposition from members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, newspaper editorials, democracy advocates, forward-looking businesses and artists. On Tuesday, rockers like Tom Morello, the Rage Against the Machine guitarist who is now playing with Bruce Springsteen; Aerosmith’s Joe Perry; Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters; Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder; and REM’s Michael Stipe; along with Hip-Hop pioneer Davey D, songwriters Neko Case and Erin McKeown and the contemporary-classic innovators of the Kronos Quartet, all signed an open letter to Tom Wheeler and the Federal Communications Commission declaring:
The open Internet’s impact on the creative community cannot be overstated. The Internet has enabled artists to connect directly with each other and with audiences. It has eliminated the barriers of geography and taken collaborations to new levels. And it has allowed people—not corporations—to seek out the film, music and art that moves them.
Allowing broadband providers to control this once-open platform shifts power away from individual artists and creators and interferes with freedom of speech and expression. Unless the Commission restores strong nondiscrimination protections based on a solid legal framework, creativity, cultural commerce and free expression will suffer.
Your proposed path would open the door to widespread discrimination online. It would give Internet service providers the green light to implement pay-for-priority schemes that would be disastrous for startups, nonprofits and everyday Internet users who cannot afford these unnecessary tolls. We urge you to scrap these proposed rules and instead restore the principle of online nondiscrimination by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service.
The FCC does not need to have a tortured debate about trying again to do what has failed in the past.
It can reject wrongheaded proposals and destructive “compromises” and pursue the reclassification option.
The point of beginning ought to be with an “unwavering commitment” to maintaining net neutrality. That’s not a radical stance. In fact, it is the stated position of FCC member Clyburn.
“There is no doubt that preserving and maintaining a free and open Internet is fundamental to the core values of our democratic society, and I have an unwavering commitment to its independence,” argues the commissioner, who has been an FCC member since 2009.
That’s the smart starting point, as is Clyburn’s argument that the January decision by the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit to reject the commission’s previous approach to net neutrality not as a crisis but as opening to get things right. “Unlike many,” explains Clyburn, “I actually see this remand as a unique opportunity for us to take a fresh look and evaluate our policy in light of the many developments that have occurred over the last four years.”
Clyburn and Commissioner Rosenworcel have offered indications that they are not happy with Wheeler’s approach. Rosenworcel said Thursday, “I believe the process that got us to this rulemaking today is flawed. I would have preferred a delay. I think we moved too fast to be fair.”
She did not get her delay. But she can now assure flawed process does not lead to a flawed decision to undermine net neutrality.
There is no space for compromise on that point.
The notion that a debate about net neutrality might find some digital common ground where some pay-for-prioity “fast lanes” would be allowed is rooted in a misunderstanding of how net neutrality works. Any final plan that allows for Internet “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” does not alter net neutrality; it ends net neutrality.
What is needed is a clear commitment to reclassification, rooted in recognition that “a free and open Internet is fundamental to the core values of our democratic society.” If the three Democratic appointees to the commission—Clyburn, Rosenworcel and Wheeler—make that commitment, they can move quickly and responsibly to maintain net neutrality.
Reclassification is not complicated. But it is necessary.
Minnesota Senator Al Franken explains the calculus well.
“To my mind, you have to say that internet is telecommunications. That’s all you have to do. That’s the response to [court rulings that require a better plan from the FCC],” says Franken. “So you say, it’s telecommunications, and then the FCC has the power to enforce Net Neutrality and continue to try to solve network management problems and we continue to have the kind of innovation that we’ve had, that has made the Internet what it is.”
John Nichols is a cofounder with Robert W. McChesney of Free Press, the nation’s media-reform network. With McChesney, he is the author of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books).
Northampton, Massachusetts—When Bernie Sanders said in a Nation interview in March that he was prepared—not at all certain, but prepared—to run for the presidency, that got a lot of political activists thinking.
They were thinking about the prospect of a presidential run by a progressive populist who speaks bluntly about the need for a “political revolution” to tip the balance away from oligarchy and toward democracy. But they were also thinking about the ballot line on which the senator from Vermont might seek to build a movement-driven campaign not just for the presidency but for a new American politics.
Sanders caucuses with the Senate Democrats, but he has never been a Democrat. He started in politics as a candidate seeking statewide posts in the 1970s on the ballot line of Vermont’s left-wing Liberty Union Party. He was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981 as an independent who went on to beat the Democrats and the Republicans in election after election. His tenure in Burlington spurred local third-party activism, laying the groundwork for the Vermont Progressive Party, which is today one of the most successful state-based progressive parties in modern American history. Sanders was elected to the US House and the US Senate as an independent. And his criticisms of the compromises made by both major parties—harsher toward the Republicans, but plenty pointed toward the Democrats—are central to the message he delivers on the stump, in media appearances and in Washington.
So, if Sanders were to run for the presidency, would he do so as a Democrat, taking on the prospective candidacy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and perhaps others in the 2016 caucuses and primaries?
Would he consider running as a Green, embracing a party that has secured and maintained ballot lines in states across the country and that has had significant success electing local officials in a number of regions?
Or would he mount an independent campaign, perhaps with an eye toward building a new party politics that combines economic populism, environmental advocacy and a commitment to social justice?
There are now “Run Bernie Run” websites, “Draft Bernie” Twitter accounts and “Ready for Bernie” Facebook pages. Groups are petitioning, organizing meetings and making appeals to the senator and to the grassroots activists who the senator says would have to be the essential players in any insurgent campaign.
Last weekend, Progressive Democrats of America, a group that has worked for a decade to get the party to turn left—with an explicitly economic populist and anti-war agenda summed up by its slogan “Healthcare Not Warfare”—presented Sanders with petitions signed by close to 12,000 activists who are asking the senator to run as a Democrat.
The petition drive, initiated by Tim Carpenter, a veteran political organizer and PDA National Director who died last month, is not finished. But an appearance by Sanders Saturday at PDA’s national conference in Northampton prompted the decision to deliver the first stack of signatures. “We want him to know that there’s enthusiasm for a run, and to run as a Democrat,” said actress Mimi Kennedy, the PDA board chair who delivered the petition that announces, “We, the Undersigned, make this call for a primary challenge in full recognition of the need to prevent the current crazed, mean, and dangerous incarnation of the Republican Party from seizing total power; and…We, the Undersigned, do declare that we will knock on doors, donate, make phone calls, use social media, and do everything we can to elect Bernie Sanders the next president of the United States.”
At the same time, individual Green Party activists are arguing that Sanders, who has long been outspoken on a range of economic and social justice, peace and sustainability issues that animate the party, should seek a Green endorsement and a place on the party’s November ballot lines. A change.org petition declares: “Senator Bernie Sanders must run for president as a Green Party candidate if he wishes to remedy any of the grave problems that he speaks about.”
A recent article in Socialist Alternative, the national newspaper of the group with which Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant is allied, made the argument that Sanders, a democratic socialist, should try to do nationally what Sawant did last fall with her development of a movement-based candidacy that upset the traditional political calculus in Seattle. “Our view, again, is that there has not been a more propitious time in modern American history to begin to build a pro-working class political force. Kshama Sawant’s resounding success is a very small indication of what is possible if progressive forces, and especially a section of the labor movement, decided to make a decisive break with the Democrats,” declares the piece. “We are not, of course, pretending that a mass party of the 99 percent could be built overnight, but if Sanders decided to run as an independent left candidate for president on the basis of using his campaign to help galvanize the forces to launch such a party, it would be an enormous step forward. Concretely, his presidential run could be linked to a national effort to stand a slate of credible left candidates in local and national races in 2016 on an independent basis.”
Sanders admits that he wrestles with the issue. As recently as Friday night, when we participated in a town meeting in Northampton where “Run, Bernie, Run” chants broke out several times, the senator reflected on the question at some length, asking rhetorically, “What’s the advantage of running as an independent? The advantage of running independent is, right now, most people in this country do not have a lot of faith in either political party. So when you say you’re an independent, people say ‘Well, you’re not a Democrat or a Republican, that’s pretty good.’ What’s the disadvantage? The big disadvantage is…you would have to build an entire political infrastructure. That, in itself, would cost a huge amount of money and require people to do nothing else but try to get you on the ballot. We want to talk about issues, right? Now, getting on the ballot is important and we have to explain democracy to folks as well. But, more importantly, our energy should be on talking about national healthcare, distribution of wealth and all of the issues we feel strongly about…”
Sanders has considered the various possibilities, and he says he can see the appeal in each approach. Yet, he says that he would not run as a November spoiler. That means that to mount a third-party or independent campaign, he and his supporters would need to build a big enough movement to be a serious contender in a race with the Democrats and the Republicans—or be prepared to fold the outsider run before the November vote.
The history of prominent progressives who have tried the third-party and independent route—from Eugene Victor Debs to Theodore Roosevelt to Bob La Follette to Norman Thomas to Henry Wallace to Benjamin Spock to Ralph Nader—is a frustrating one. While there are many historical examples of third-party and independent presidential campaigns forcing the major parties to address issues, and even to change direction, there are fewer examples of sustainable movements that have been developed. And there is just one example of a radical party that cracked the upper tier of American politics: the Republicans of the 1850s.
With that history in mind, the senator mentioned in Northampton that running as a Democrat offered the advantage that “it’s kind of easy to get on the ballot, you’re in the debates—that’s a big deal—and the media can’t quite ignore you.”
Sanders will be testing that theory in coming weeks. Having already visited the first Democratic primary state of New Hampshire, for an April speech at St. Anselm College in Manchester, Sanders will travel next weekend to Iowa, where he will appear as the featured speaker at the Clinton County Democratic Party’s annual dinner.
Jeff Cox, a former Johnson County (Iowa City) Democratic Party chair who has been organizing an effort to get the senator to mount a campaign in the 2016 caucuses, says Sanders could renew “the kind of New Deal Democratic approach to economics that has been lost to the Democratic Party.”
That is an argument that Sanders has considered, and plenty of analysts will take from the New Hampshire and Iowa visits a signal of his intentions. Yet, when I asked on Friday if he had settled the issue in his own mind, the senator’s reply was “Nope.”
That may frustrate activists of various partisan and ideological stripes. But to my mind, there is something healthy about a broad exploration of approaches to a broken politics. At his most frustrated, Gore Vidal, himself a former Democratic candidate for the US House from New York and the US Senate from California, observed, “Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” In such a circumstance, a freewheeling consideration of the various routes to getting a serious discussion of issues, a broader range of candidates and more genuine choices is an encouraging development. A good part of that discussion is focused at this point on Sanders. But it need not begin or end with him. The real point is to engage in a deep discussion, at once idealistic and practical, about how to get a better politics—and to make real the promise of American democracy.
Read Next: The Nation’s recent exclusive interview with Bernie Sanders
If the US Senate really is the world’s greatest deliberative body, it ought to consider consequential questions. That does not happen often in a Senate where trivia tends too frequently to triumph over issues of substance. But Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, raised what might just be the most substantial issue of all Wednesday, at a Joint Economic Committee hearing where Federal Reserve board chair Janet Yellen was testifying.
The senator began with the facts: “In the US today, the top 1 percent own about 38 percent of the financial wealth of America. The bottom 60 percent own 2.3 percent. One family, the Walton family, is worth over $140 billion; that’s more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people. In recent years, we have seen a huge increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires, while we continue to have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. Despite, as many of my Republican friends talk about ‘the oppressive Obama economic policies,’ in the last year Charles and David Koch struggled under these policies and their wealth increased by $12 billion in one year. In terms of income, 95 percent of new income generated in this country in the last year went to the top 1 percent.“
Sanders then introduced an academic study, by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, that concludes, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
That sounds like an oligarchy.
So Sanders asked Yellen: “In your judgment, given the enormous power held by the billionaire class and their political representatives, are we still a capitalist democracy or have we gone over to an oligarchic form of society in which incredible enormous economic and political power now rests with the billionaire class?”
Yellen did not answer “yes.” But she did say, “There’s no question that we’ve had a trend toward growing inequality and I personally find it a very worrisome trend that deserves the attention of policy makers.”
She also expressed concern that trends toward growing inequality “can shape [and] determine the ability of different groups to participate equally in a democracy and have grave effects on social stability over time.”
Sanders asked another question, as well: “There comes a point where the billionaire class has so much political power, where the Koch brothers are now because of Citizens United able to buy and sell politicians; they have so much political power, at what point is that reversible?”
The senator did not press Yellen for an answer to that question. And her responses to inquiries about Republican proposals to cut the estate tax and otherwise steer wealth upward suggested that the Fed chair believes Congress has policymaking duties in this regard.
Ultimately, questions about oligarchy come back to politics, something Sanders well understands. He’s been arguing that core question regarding the concentration of economic and political power need to be addressed not just by politicians but by voters—with choices made in 2014 and 2016. As he explained recently, “[This] country faces more serious problems than at any time since the Great Depression, and there is a horrendous lack of serious political discourse or ideas out there that can address these crises, and that somebody has got to represent the working-class and the middle-class of this country in standing up to the big-money interests who have so much power over the economic and political life of this country.”
The issues are so consequential, Sanders says, that he is thinking about mounting a presidential campaign that would ask the American people whether they want to live in an oligarchic form of society.
* Bernie Sanders will join John Nichols is a conversation about economic policy and politics Friday, May 9, at 7 pm, at the Free Churches of Northampton in Northampton, Massachusetts. The event is free and open to the public.
House Speaker John Boehner and his cronies removed North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones from the House Financial Services Committee in late 2012, as part of a purge that removed Republicans who were not all in for Wall Street—and for Boehner’s brand of “service” to the industries that are supposed to be regulated by Congress—from the one panel with the power to hold bankers and brokers to account.
But Jones, who had opposed bank bailouts and favored Wall Street regulation, did not go quietly. He spoke up about the purge and made little secret of his sense that—though he had split with Boehner on a number of issues—his biggest “sin” in the eyes of the party leadership was his refusal to bow to the demands of big campaign donors.
“This whole place is all about money. Money is more important than policy,” complained Jones, who has in recent years co-sponsored most major pieces of campaign-finance reform legislation in the House—including a call for a constitutional amendment designed to restore the ability of federal, state and local officials to regulate campaign spending.
The congressman’s bluntness did not go over well with the masters of the universe on Wall Street. So, this spring, they set out to purge Walter Jones from Congress altogether.
They found a consummate DC insider with close ties to the financial-services industry, Taylor Griffin, and filled the challenger’s campaign treasury with PAC checks from JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, as well as political powerbrokers like former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour and Wayne Berman of the Blackstone Group.
It did not stop there.
Jones’s independence extended far beyond debates over Wall Street bailouts and regulation.
The Republican is a social and economic conservative—make that a social and economic very conservative—but he has repeatedly broken with the party establishment on issues of war and peace, privacy rights, trade policy and budgets. He even voted against proposals by the darling of Wall Street and the party establishment, Congressman Paul Ryan.
Bush administration aides and apologists rushed in with public statements and “independent” expenditures to attack Jones for his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for his refusal to go along with moves that might lead to wars with Iran and other countries. Former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer gave his enthusiastic backing to Griffin, as did former national security adviser Juan Zarate. Sarah Palin, one of the party’s most consistent militarists, came in big for Griffin, who hailed her as an “old friend.” A neoconservative group, the Emergency Committee For Israel, spent at least $250,000 on ads that claimed Jones “preaches American decline.” What Jones actually said was, “Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney.”
At the same time, the wealthy champions of Ryan’s crony-capitalist approach to budgeting were in with big money for TV ads and direct mail from the “Ending Spending Action Fund”—a Super PAC backed by billionaire businessman Joe Ricketts.
By a lot of DC measures, Jones should have been doomed.
But the ten-term congressman bet that the voters of eastern North Carolina would stick with him. “I’m not going to sacrifice my integrity for anyone or any party,” he said. “It’s the price you pay. I didn’t come [to Washington] to be a puppet for anyone. And I think the public back in my district, which is the most important, has seen I’m willing to do what I think is right.”
It was the right bet.
Read Next: Lee Fang reports on the money behind Wall Street’s attack on Walter Jones.
The Republican Party is not yet a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wall Street.
There are still a few Republicans, some of them stalwart conservatives, who think they owe a greater duty to their ideals and their constituents than to the bankers and bundlers who write campaign checks.
That unsettles bonus-rich CEOs, insider traders, short-selling speculators and the political grifters who serve their interests in Washington. So they are using their immense wealth, and their immense influence within the political sphere, to try to create a Republican Party that is entirely in their image. An essential test of the strategy comes Tuesday, in a North Carolina Republican primary, where a conservative congressman who says “no” to big banks and big money faces a corporatist challenger who is an enthusiastic yes man for Wall Street and the politics of plutocracy.
For those who imagine that American electoral politics is a simplistic team sport, pitting ideologically-and-practically identical Republicans against ideologically-and-practically identical Democrats, the incumbent, ten-term House member Walter Jones, appears to be an outlier. Conventional-wisdom peddling pundits refer to the congressman as “an iconoclast” and a “maverick.” But for those who understand the real struggles going on within our politics, Jones is the Washington face of a phenomenon that is hard to see in Washington but reasonably common in the states: that of the Republican reformer.
There really are Republicans who want to work with Democrats, Greens, Libertarians and independents to get big money out of elections and to renew a politics where Main Street matters more than Wall Street. They are essential to the building of coalitions that will overwhelm the money power and enact a constitutional amendment to say corporations are not people, money is not speech and citizens have a right to demand the organization of elections where the vote matters more than the dollar.
What scares the bankers and the billionaires—not just about Walter Jones but about the broader phenomenon—is that the coalitions are being built.
Across the country, at the grassroots level, Republicans have formed alliances with Democrats to demand that the influence of money in our politics be reduced. As the reform group Free Speech for People noted last year, dozens of Republican legislators have backed calls by states for a constitutional amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but other barriers to the regulation of money in politics. With backing from third-party and independent legislators, as well, the passage of the state resolutions highlights what the group refers to as “a growing trans-partisan movement…calling for the US Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) to be overturned, through one or more amendments to the US Constitution.”
In Washington, however, Republican reformers are harder to come by—as was evidenced by the celebrations of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling by GOP congressional leaders. Leaving no doubt about his faith that those with the most money get to speak the loudest in our elections, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, hailed the Court’s decision to strike down limits on aggregated campaign donations by wealthy Americans with an announcement that “freedom of speech is being upheld.” At the same time, one of the attorneys who argued for elimination of the cap on aggregate donations said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell—who Kentucky media noted “filed an amicus brief on the McCutcheon v. FEC case as a part of his continued crusade against campaign finance reform”—had been “extremely helpful” in pushing the Court to go even further than McCutcheon’s legal team had initially proposed.
Yet, despite Boehner’s enthusiasm and McConnell’s ambition, the party leaders do not speak for every Republican in Washington.
Three years ago, Congressman Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, signed on as a co-sponsor of one of several proposals to amend the Constitution in order to renew the power of the people and their elected representatives to regulate money in politics. More recently, he co-sponsored a proposal by Congressman Jim Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, to develop public financing for congressional elections. Jones is on board with Government By the People Act of 2014, a “matching-funds” plan offered by Congressman John Sarbanes, D-Maryland. And he is the only Republican co-sponsor of the Empowering Citizens Act, a plan by Congressman David Price, D-North Carolina, to renew the public financing system for presidential elections.
On his own, Jones has sponsored legislation to bar the use of political funds for personal purposes.
What is Jones thinking? “I think Citizens United was one of the worst decisions by the Supreme Court in my adult lifetime,” the congressman said last year. “In Washington, the problem is that the leadership in both parties—and I want to be fair about that—both parties—seem to like the system the way it is.… When the Democrats were in the majority, it was very difficult for those [reform] Democrats to get the bills moving on their own side. And on my side, it’s almost like it’s a dead issue, which disappoints me greatly as a Republican. Now, I will work this year, across party lines, to reform the campaign laws of our nation.”
Like many of the most progressive reformers in the country, the conservative congressman speaks specifically about the link between special-interest influence on elections and political dysfunction in Washington. “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed,” he says. “The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.”
Congressman Jones is noting something that too many DC insiders, be they Republicans or Democrats, members of Congress or pundits, fail to recognize: millions of Americans are already engaged on this issue. Support for real reform is widespread, crossing lines of partisan and ideological division. Sixteen states and more than 500 communities have called for amendments with varied language but one point: that “based on the American value of fair play, leveling the playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity to have their political views heard, there is a valid rationale for regulating political spending.”
Now, however, Jones faces a Republican primary challenge from a classic Washington power player, Taylor Griffin, a former aide to the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain who has been a consultant for big banks and trade groups and who put in a stint as the senior vice president for the Financial Services Forum, the DC voice of some of the biggest Wall Street banks. “[No] matter how he casts himself,” writes Politico, “Griffin is an insider.”
Griffin’s gripe with Jones appears to be that the veteran congressman is too independent-minded. And it is true that Jones breaks rank with party orthodoxy. For instance, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of US military adventurism, often working with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, on issues of war and peace. This has put him at odds with the Bush and Obama administrations, and more recently with House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, whose 2013 budget Jones said was too lavish in its funding of wars. But Jones is hardly a left-winger. He echoes the “old-right” language of conservative icons such as former Ohio Senator Robert Taft Sr. and former Nebraska Congressman Howard Buffett, and of some younger libertarian-leaning House members such as Michigan Republican Justin Amash.
What really bugs Griffin and his DC backers is that Jones does not follow the party line when it comes to doing Wall Street’s bidding. For the past decade, he’s been one of the steadiest congressional critics of free-trade agreements; and he recently joined twenty-one of his House Republican colleagues in expressing opposition to “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority. And he’s been a steady critic of big banks, opposing bailouts, supporting regulation and arguing with Congressman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and others for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial and investment banking. Those stances undoubtedly played a role in getting Jones kicked off the House Financial Services Committee in Speaker John Boehner’s purge of so-called “rebellious Republicans.”
Now Jeff Connaughton, the former Senate aide who wrote the book The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, suggests that Jones’s independence has earned him a challenge from Griffin in the May 6 Republican primary. “I doubt anyone in North Carolina needs me to point out this is a Wall Street bank hit job,” says Connaughton, who helped frame the fight for the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.
Bloomberg reports: “JPMorgan Chase (JPM) & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) are lining up behind Jones’ primary challenger, Taylor Griffin, an aide in President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department who later worked for groups that advocated in Washington for the biggest financial services companies.” Former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a top lobbyist, is a Griffin donor, as is former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Sarah Palin, for whom Griffin once worked, is busy hailing the Washington insider who just moved back to North Carolina last year, as a “patriot” who is ready to shake up the status quo.
The status quo, at least as it exists inside the Beltway around DC, and inside the boardrooms on Wall Street, adores Griffin. “To pull off the coup against the ten-term congressman, Griffin has had some big help in the race,” DC’s The Hill announced Monday. “The Emergency Committee for Israel, a neoconservative group run by The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and evangelical leader Gary Bauer, and the fiscally conservative Ending Spending super-PAC have combined to spend nearly $1 million against Jones. A number of big banks, including JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Bank of America have also donated to Griffin because of Jones’s vote for the Wall Street regulatory reforms.”
At the same time, observes Politico, Griffin’s campaign has been enjoying a late-in-the-race blizzard of cash from some of the most high-profile Republican lobbyists in Washington.
That’s helped the challenger get competitive with Jones, a rare accomplishment for a primary challenger. And as the May 6 election approaches, Griffin’s got the connections to bring in a lot more money. Like Mitch McConnell, he is a classic example of a candidate who benefits in a big way from the Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings.
Walter Jones has had a much harder time tapping top Wall Street donors than Taylor Griffin—in no small part because of the incumbent’s record of saying “no” to the banks.
Most members of Congress find it difficult to object to the demands of bankers in particular and big money in general. That’s one of the reasons why Jones has advocated for both financial services reform and political reform. The two go together. Indeed, in this era of Citizens United and McCutcheon, the measure of political independence must begin with a willingness to address the influence of money on our elections. It is Jones’s recognition of that fact that has made him a conservative advocate for reform. He understands that some truths go beyond partisanship and ideology, and the first of these is that, “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed.”
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: The most popular tax in history has real momentum .
The dramatic progress of the movement to make the minimum wage a living wage was highlighted on May Day when Seattle Mayor Ed Murray unveiled a plan to double the base pay for workers over the coming decade.
A year ago, President Obama and others saw raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour as the great leap forward.
This week, the newly elected mayor of one of America’s largest and most prosperous cities proposed a plan that would, in a series of steps over the coming decade, take the base wage as high as $18 an hour. Something big is happening; the activist coalition Working Washington hailed the announcement of the mayor’s plan as “an incredible accomplishment.” Recalling “strikes, marches, boycotts and other mobilizations” by fast-food workers in Seattle that raised the call for a $15-an-hour basic wage, the labor-backed group noted that, “Less than a year later, we are on the verge of achieving a $15 minimum wage that ensures every worker in Seattle can support themselves, afford the basics, and contribute to the economy.”
Even as they celebrate the progress that has been made, however, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and others say they hope to improve upon the mayor’s plan. The councilmember says she’ll be working in coming weeks for changes that would speed up the implementation of wage increases, eliminate loopholes for big businesses and protect the interests of workers who rely on tips. “Our work is far from done,” says Sawant, who has helped to organize a grassroots 15 Now movement for a rapid increase in wages. “This is a historic moment to recognize the power of grassroots organizing,” she said after the mayor’s plan was announced. “It is a call to action.”
Seattle and the state of Washington have histories of recognizing the need to raise wages so that working people will not face the reality of putting in a forty-hour week while remaining stuck in poverty. The current minimum wage for Washington workers is $9.32 an hour, the highest state rate in the nation. But the basic premises of the debate were jolted last fall by the election to the city council of Sawant, an Occupy activist and Socialist Alternative candidate who made advocacy for a $15 wage central to her bid. At the same time, voters in the nearby city of Sea-Tac backed a $15-an-hour proposal.
The Seattle election results shook that city and the nation into a new way of thinking about the minimum-wage debate. The Fight for $15 movement of fast-food workers, which Sawant and others credit for laying the groundwork for wage-hike campaigns in Seattle and cities across the country, has been strengthened by the fact that its proposals were being embraced by voters and policymakers. Activists nationwide are ramping up demands for wage hikes that will address poverty and income inequality. And instead of proposing only incremental changes that might be grudgingly accepted by business interests and conservative politicians, progressive Democrats have begun to notice the polling data that shows broad support for major wage increases.
In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama embraced a proposal by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and California Congressman George Miller for a $10.10 hourly wage, and that popular position has become a baseline standard for progressives seeking state and federal posts in the 2014 election cycle.
But in expensive cities like Seattle, $10.10 an hour can still be a poverty wage. So, according to The Seattle Times, “Murray’s plan calls for the city’s minimum wage to climb to $15 an hour, phased in over three to seven years depending on the size of business and whether workers receive tips or benefits in addition to salary. After that, the wage would be tied to the Consumer Price Index, with estimates showing it rising above $18 an hour by 2025.”
Outlined with the aid of a large “Income Inequality Advisory Committee,” and assembled after weeks of negotiations involving council members, community activists, labor and business, the Murray plan comes with significant support. And it is moving forward rapidly. After setting a May 5 session to begin reviewing the proposal, Seattle Councilmember Sally J. Clark, who chairs the council’s Select Committee on the Minimum Wage and Income Inequality, said,“It’s my hope we can launch quickly into our review and decision-making.”
Moving to double the minimum wage may sound bold, and there will still be plenty of naysaying in Seattle and nationally. But we’ve been here before. President Harry Truman, fresh from his 1948 re-election on a platform that promised to renew the liberalism of the New Deal era, proposed an across-the-board increase in the federal minimum wage from 40 cents an hour to 75 cents an hour. Truman also proposed raising the base wage to $1 per hour in some industries. Truman adviser Clark Clifford said the president wanted “to strike a new high ground.”
Truman did not get everything he asked for from a Congress where conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats resisted progressive legislation. But by the fall of 1949, the president was signing a 75-cents-an-hour minimum wage into law.
What’s significant is that Truman nearly doubled the wage in a year. Seattle’s 15 Now activists are concerned that Murray’s plan, while generally headed in the right direction, drags the process out. They’ve been petitioning for a citywide vote on raising the base wage to $15 an hour by January 1, 2015.
“The fact that the City Council of a major city in the US will discuss in the coming weeks raising the minimum wage to $15 is a testament to how working people can push back against the status quo of poverty, inequality, and injustice. The movement, starting with fast food workers nationwide, and pushed forward by SeaTac and 15 Now, is forcing business and the political establishment to accept raising our wages,” says Sawant. “The proposal that has been announced is a result of the pressure from this movement. Unfortunately, it also reflects the attempt of business to water down what the working people of Seattle want. While business has lost the public battle on 15, they were given a seat at the table to pursue their wish list, while low-wage workers were left out.”
Sawant says she will work for “a strong $15” with grassroots organizing and in council debates on the plan advanced by Mayor Murray.
In particular, she seeks to narrow the timeline for implementation of wage increases by large businesses such as McDonald’s and Starbucks.
“Every year of phase-in is another year that a worker has to live in poverty,” the councilmember explained. “So we have to keep fighting. We will keep building the pressure from below.”
Specifically, Sawant says, “We still need a backup option should the city council fail to pass 15, which is why we need to keep up the pressure through signature collection [for the initiative proposal].”
And don’t think that this is just a Seattle thing. Fast-food workers and their allies across the country will be rallying in coming weeks for a $15 wage, and there are campaigns in communities and states across the country for wage-hike resolutions and referendums. What was once a debate about the minimum wage is becoming a debate about a living wage.
Read Next: Living undocumented: a conversation with Jose Antonio Vargas
The most under-covered yet dynamic grassroots movement in the United States seeks to restore the right of citizens and their representatives to organize elections so the votes of the great mass of American citizens matter more than the dollars of billionaire campaign donors and multinational corporations.
Sixteen states have formally demanded that Congress take action to amend the US Constitution to undo the damage done by the US Supreme Court’s decisions to eliminate century old barriers to the buying of elections. Close to 600 towns, villages, cities and counties have also made the ask. During the first weeks of March in New Hampshire, forty-seven town meetings called for a constitutional amendment. In early April, thirteen Wisconsin communities voted overwhelmingly to call on their elected representatives to begin the amendment process.
Now, Washington is listening.
The US Senate will vote this year on a proposed constitutional amendment, according to Senate Rules Committee chairman Charles Schumer, D-New York, who declared Wednesday that “The Supreme Court is trying to take this country back to the days of the robber barons, allowing dark money to flood our elections. That needs to stop, and it needs to stop now. The only way to undo the damage the court has done is to pass [an] amendment to the Constitution, and Senate Democrats are going to try to do that.”
The announcement came as the Rules Committee was meeting to hear from former US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who has urged consideration of an amendment “because of a very strong state interest in trying to establish equality of opportunity for competing candidates to get elected.”
Echoing the sentiments of the millions of Americans who have called for amending the Constitution, Stevens says that under the system created by the court rulings in cases such as Citizens United v Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission, “The voter is less important than the man who provides money to the candidate.” In order to address what Stevens identifies as “a giant step in the wrong direction, an amendment is needed to allow Congress and the states to impose “reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns.”
The amendment that the Senate will take up does this by restoring the authority of Congress to regulate the raising and spending of campaign money (including independent expenditures by so-called “Super PACs”). It would, as well, renew the ability of states to regulate campaign finance at their level.
Sponsored by US Senator Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, the proposed amendment now has thirty-five co-sponsors. In addition, there are a number of senators who has sponsored other amendment proposals who could be expected to sign on. At this point, there are no Senate Republican supporters of the amendment strategy, although Congressman Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, has supported a similar amendment in the House.
There remain obstacles to securing a vote in the Senate, where Republicans have obstructed votes on numerous major issues and could be expected to erect barriers to consideration of a constitutional intervention on a matter that has long been a focus of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. And no one expects that action in the Republican-controlled House will come quickly, or easily. But the history of the constitutional amendment process reminds us that a critical turning point in any struggle to enact an amendment comes when it begins to be seriously considered by the House or Senate. With that in mind, Schumer’s announcement represents significant progress.
“With the vote, every senator will be required to take a stand: Do you side with the forces of dark money or the American people? Are you for plutocracy or democracy?” said Public Citizen president Robert Weissman, whose group has been active in organizing at the local and state levels on behalf of an amendment.
Organizers with Public Citizen’s “Democracy is for People” project and groups such as Free Speech for People, Move to Amend and Common Cause—organizations that have backed a variety of amendment proposals and strategies—noted Wednesday that the prospect of Senate action was likely to inspire more grassroots activism across the country. That is especially the case in states represented by Democratic senators who have not yet endorsed a constitutional response to Citizens United and McCutcheon, and in states where responsible Republicans might be pressured to at least allow a vote.
“Today marks another important milestone in the growing grassroots movement across the country to end the dominance of big money in our elections and to restore our republican democracy to the people,” said Free Speech For People president John Bonifaz, who added, “The Supreme Court has hijacked the First Amendment for the wealthy few, allowing them to drown out the voices of everyone else. We must now use our amendment power under Article V of the US Constitution to defend our democracy. We have done this before in our nation’s history. We can and we must do it again.”
Specifically, Bonifaz said the Udall amendment would “overturn the Supreme Court’s egregious rulings that have so threatened our democracy and the fundamental American promise of political equality for all.”
It would do so by adding to the Constitution language that reads:
Section 1. To advance the fundamental principle of political equality for all, and to protect the integrity of the legislative and electoral processes, Congress shall have power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents with respect to Federal elections, including through setting limits on—
(1) the amount of contributions to candidates for nomination for election to, or for election to, Federal office; and
(2) the amount of funds that may be spent by, in support of, or in opposition to such candidates.
Section 2. To advance the fundamental principle of political equality for all, and to protect the integrity of the legislative and electoral processes, each State shall have power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents with respect to State elections, including through setting limits on—
(1) the amount of contributions to candidates for nomination for election to, or for election to, State office; and
(2) the amount of funds that may be spent by, in support of, or in opposition to such candidates.
Section 3. Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress the power to abridge the freedom of the press.
Section 4. Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Udall, a former federal prosecutor and New Mexico Attorney General, says that, “James Madison argued that the US Constitution should be amended only on ‘great and extraordinary occasions’,” Udall said. “I believe we have reached one of those occasions. Our elections no longer focus on the best ideas, but the biggest bank accounts, and Americans’ right to free speech should not be determined by their net worth. I am proud to be [advancing] this amendment to change the way we do business in Washington and get money out of a broken system that puts special interest over people.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Tim Carpenter’s radical politics of inclusion.
Tim Carpenter never lost faith in the very real prospect of a very radical change for the better. And he never lost his organizer’s certainty that the tipping point that would make the change was just a few more phone calls, a few more rallies, a few more campaigns away.
So he kept on organizing.
To the last.
Carpenter, the lifelong social and economic justice campaigner who nurtured Progressive Democrats of America from its founding a decade ago into a national movement, died Monday at age 55 after a long battle with cancer.
Not many hours before I learned that he had passed, Tim was on the phone with me, running through the latest numbers from a national petition drive he and PDA had organized to urge Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to seek the presidency. They were over 10,500. A few hours after the call, he e-mailed me, with more numbers. They were over 11,000. That was typical Tim. His enthusiasm for politics was immeasurable, and infectious.
But Tim’s was never a typical politico. He knew the drill: he had been at the side of presidential candidates, developed winning electoral strategies and helped to organize movements around every essential issue of the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush (again) and Obama eras. But Tim was always about something more; he was never satisfied with an election victory, or a legislative success; he wanted to transform politics because he wanted to transform America into a land that realized what he believed was an irrevocable promise of liberty and justice for all.
To achieve that end, Tim knew it was necessary to transform a too-often centrist, too-frequently compromised Democratic party into a dramatically more militant and more meaningful organization than it has been for a very long time. Mixing memories of the New Deal with elements of the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements, linking the vision of the Rainbow Coalition with the new energy of fast-food and retail workers demanding a $15 minimum wage, Tim sought to define and achieve what one of his heroes, author and Democratic Socialists of America chair Michael Harrington, described as “the left wing of the possible.”
Tim refused to compromise with politics as usual. Yet, he refused just as ardently to be pushed to the margins. He waded into the middle of every new fight, grabbed a stack of precinct lists, distributed them to the activists he’d brought along in that beat-up car with Bob Dylan blasting on the stereo, and headed for the doors shouting, “Teamwork!”
“The Progressive movement is driven by people, but it is only successful because of people like Tim Carpenter,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, a PDA board member who got it right when he said, “Tim showed the kind of determination and courage that was contagious. His passionate idealism was matched only by his inexhaustible commitment to making those dreams a reality.”
Combining his encyclopedic knowledge of movement history and electoral strategy with the knowing optimism of one who had actually bent the long arc of history toward justice, Tim embraced an “inside-outside strategy” that was designed to go around the party elites and link insurgent campaigns to grassroots movements.
“In the polling booth and in the streets” was his vision, and if that meant breaking with the party establishment and aligning with the demonstrators outside the party convention, or outside the White House of a Democratic president, so be it. The principles were the point, and while Tim could join a coalition with folks who might not share every one of his positions, he believed his mission was to pull that coalition to the left.
Tim was a Democrat—to the frustration of his Green, Socialist and social Libertarian friends—but he was never a member of the Democratic Party establishment. He was the thorn in its side, declaring, “I’m not satisfied with the party as it is. I want the party as it should be.”
Tim cut his teeth on campaigns that recognized the connection between transforming politics and transforming the country: as a kid working “behind the Orange Curtain” (in then hyper-conservative Orange County) for George McGovern in 1972 and for the remarkable radical intervention that was Tom Hayden’s 1976 US Senate bid. Tim was a trusted aide to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 “Rainbow Coalition” run for the presidency, an inner-circle strategist for Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential run (addressing that year’s Democratic National Convention and urging delegates to “Save Our Party” from ideological compromises and corporate influence), a key figure in Dennis Kucinich’s antiwar presidential campaign of 2004.
Tim worked on plenty of campaigns that lost—as well as winning campaigns such as those of Congresswoman Donna Edwards, D-Maryland, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and, to his immense delight, Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts—but he didn’t count wins and losses. He was interested in movement building. Drawing together veterans of the 2004 Kucinich and Howard Dean campaigns, Progressive Democrats of America grew, with Tim as its national director, into a network of activists and elected officials on the left of the party.
At the core of the mission was Tim’s vision of a movement-guided politics.
It was the same vision that shaped Tim’s grassroots activism, as a Catholic Worker advocate for the homeless who slept on the streets of Santa Ana to challenge police harassment; as an organizer of the anti-nuclear Alliance for Survival who counted musician-activists Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt as friends and comrades; as an organizer and champion of groups that opposed not just wars but the overreach of a military-industrial complex—from United for Peace and Justice to Democrats for Peace Conversion. To begin to list Tim’s causes, his victories and his ongoing struggles would take days—or weeks, if Tim was still telling the stories. But suffice it to say that for more than four decades, he was there—behind the scenes, sleeping on the floor, risking arrest, flying in with the rock stars, counseling the presidential candidates, remembering the name of every son and daughter of every activist, making the money pitch, organizing, always organizing.
The Nation named Tim as its “Progressive Activist of the Year” some years back. And it was far from the only honor accorded him. When Congressman John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who is the senior progressive in Congress and arguably in America politics, learned that Tim was sick, he told the US House, “Tim has been indefatigable in pressing forward progressive ideals to help strengthen our American democracy. He has been in the forefront of progressive causes, from promoting nuclear disarmament to fighting to abolish the death penalty to establishing health care as a human right, as well as securing voting rights and jobs for all.”
Around the same time, Tim’s daughter ran up to him with an envelope from the White House that had arrived in the mailbox of the family’s Florence, Massachusetts, home. When they opened it, there was a note from President Obama, wishing Tim well while celebrating his resilience.
That was how most of us took the news that Tim was ailing. Knowing he had beaten cancer before, we wanted to believe that Tim was unstoppable. When he warned “it’s pretty serious this time,” we paid attention to his actions, not his words. Because even as he made the rounds of doctors and hospitals, treatments and hospice preparations, he was still on the phone, still texting, still e-mailing, still organizing.
Tim was determined that Progressive Democrats of America, a group founded when Democrats were not doing enough to oppose the war in Iraq or to advance a “Medicare for All’ reform of a broken healthcare system—PDA’s slogan: “Healthcare Not Warfare”—would keep embracing new issues: amending the US Constitution to end the buying of elections by billionaires and corporations, getting Washington to take seriously the threat of climate change, blocking “Fast Track” and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Tim believed every battle could be won, by building bigger coalitions, by getting more people engaged.
Tim had a remarkable gift for what actress and PDA advisory board chair Mimi Kennedy referred to as “radical inclusivity.” He was always welcoming young activists into the fold, flying off to meet with folks who might form a new PDA chapter, asking people to tell him what new issues they were working on—and then asking how he could help. He had a faith that the change was going to come: a faith born in having won and having lost but never having surrendered the organizer’s dream of a movement that would be unstoppable.
We were in California last year and Tim beseeched a crowd: “Help us grow this movement. Help us to put 435 activists in every congressional office, and another 100 activists in every Senate office to say not only is it time to end this war, not only is it time to bring about healthcare as a human right, but it’s time for our community to stop turning our back on those who so desperately need us. To stop talking just about the middle class.… It’s time to talk about the 50 million Americans who are poor.”
A politics that speaks not only for the middle class but for the poor—proudly, energetically, radically—jumps boundaries that many top Democrats still avoid. But that was what Tim Carpenter wanted.
“It’s our responsibility to build that movement, your responsibility, my responsibility,” Tim said, even as he warned, “I may not be with all of you when you are out there in those streets, in those struggles, but I will be with you in spirit.”
If we did not fully understand then, we do now.
Tim Carpenter was right. The building of the politics he wanted—more powerful than any party or politician—is now our responsibility. But Tim is with us in spirit, still telling us that the key is not money or television ads, not caution or compromise. It’s a passion for justice. It’s a belief that peace is possible. And like Tim said, it’s “teamwork!”
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