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The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for five years, even as income inequality has more and more become a pressing issue. Yet as recently as a year ago, prospects for meaningful increase in base pay for the working poor seemed remote.
Now doubling the minimum wage is on the agenda.
Actually, that prospect just moved off the agenda and into official policy in one of America’s largest cities—Seattle—where the city council will on Monday unanimously approved implementation of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The specific accomplishment in Seattle is strikingly significant; as Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant says, “We forced them to lift 100,000 low-wage workers in Seattle out of poverty—to transfer $2.5 billion to workers at the bottom of the wage scale over the next ten years.”
What is just as significant is the context in which it has come, after what Sawant correctly refers to as “decades of wealth being transferred almost entirely from the bottom up.”
American is experiencing remarkable progress at a rapid rate on a vital issue.
A little over a year ago, when President Obama proposed raising the wage to $9 an hour, Republicans said the sky would fall. Democrats were cautious, although a few of them, led by California Congressman George Miller and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, suggested upping the ante to $10.10 an hour.
But no one in a position of power was talking about doubling it.
That call was raised by the fast-food workers who joined “strikes, marches, boycotts and other mobilizations” in May of 2013. They made the audacious demand for a living wage, putting the figure at $15 an hour.
It was such a bold proposal that Republicans didn’t even bother to ridicule those who advanced it. Even some allies of the Fight for 15 movement saw the “ask” more as an talking point than an actual prospect.
But in cities such as Seattle, the idea took hold. Activists with the group Working Washington say the walkouts that began in late May of 2013 sparked “a new movement to ensure every worker can support themselves, afford the basics, and contribute to the economy.”
Key unions took the idea seriously enough to put a $15-an-hour proposal on the ballot in the Seattle suburb of Sea-Tac, the home of the region’s international airport and a lot of low-wage workers. That made the idea real, especially when a high-spending campaign ensued.
At the same time, Sawant, the Socialist Alternative challenger to an incumbent member of the Seattle City Council, made the establishment of a city-wide $15-an-hour minimum wage the central focus of her campaign.
The Sea-Tac $15-an-hour proposal won.
So did Sawant’s campaign for $15 an hour.
The combination of street heat and electoral action made $15 a viable prospect in Seattle.
So viable that the city’s new mayor and senior council members took it up, adding to the momentum that led to Monday's approval of the $15 wage initiative for the largest city in the Pacific Northwest and the fastest-growing big city in the United States.
Sawant is hailing “a historic [victory] for low-wage workers, for the labor movement and for anyone who believes as I do that no one who works should have to live in poverty.”
Seattle Councilmember Nick Licata calls the plan “a national game changer,” saying, “Seattle, and other cities, are taking direct action to close our nation’s huge income gap because the Federal and state governments have failed to do so. Seattle’s new law opens the way for many workers to earn enough to meet their basic needs. It will raise their standard of living and by putting more dollars into our economy, stimulate greater business opportunities. By significantly raising the minimum wage, Seattle’s prosperity will be shared by more people and create a sustainable model for continued growth.”
While the crowds of union members and community activists packing Council sessions on the issue have regularly erupted in cheers as it has advanced, that does not mean that everyone is satisfied.
“What do we want?” goes the activist call.
“Fifteen!” answers the crowd.
“When do we want it?” call the activists.
“Now!” the crowd responds.
“Now” is the key word.
The Seattle law, as advanced by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, was framed by a mayoral advisory committee that included labor, business and representatives of nonprofit groups, and debated at public hearings and in official meetings. It features much of what activists wanted, but now everything. For instance, the wage hikes come in steps, rather than all at once, meaning that workers at even the biggest businesses in town will have to wait at least three years to get the $15-an-hour wage.
Sawant unsuccessfully proposed amendments to speed up wage hikes for employees of the largest businesses—those with over 500 employees—and to assure that tipped workers get the full benefit of the wage hike. And she objected to a provision that allows for paying some workers below the minimum, saying, “Any kind of teenage wage or sub-minimum wage goes against the principles of workers standing together. The sub-minimum wage is demanded and liked by businesses because it allows them to bring down wages in general. It’s harmful for workers as a whole.”
Sawant and her allies are not done with the fight. They are gathering signatures for a city charter amendment that would have large businesses paying $15-an-hour starting January 1, 2015, while small business and nonprofits would have a three-year phase-in period. The charter amendment will, if it qualifies for the ballot, face significant opposition from Big Business. And there will be those who suggest that the 15 Now activists are asking for more than can be reasonably obtained.
But just a year ago, there were plenty of folks who said $9-an-hour was an unreasonable goal. Now the debate in Seattle is about how quickly to go to $15. And that debate is spreading to communities nationwide.
What’s clear is that, while Seattle is taking the lead, something big is happening nationally. What once seemed like the boldest of all proposals is rapidly moving into the mainstream, as Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities consider big boosts in wages.
The activists with Working Washington place appropriate emphasis on the timeline. “On May 30th of last year, Seattle fast food workers went on strike for $15 because they knew that raising pay was necessary—even if in those first days it might not have seemed possible we could get there. But their leadership and commitment helped spark an extraordinary grassroots workers’ movement that rapidly built support across the entire city. 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.”
The Working Washington activists says this is “an incredible accomplishment.”
They are right.
And they are also right when they say that, while Seattle will be the first city to raise the minimum wage to $15, “we won’t be the last.”
Read Next: The Working Families Party has given Cuomo its ballot line.
Zephyr Teachout, with her roots in the insurgent Howard Dean presidential campaign, ties to the Occupy movement and history of spirited activism of democracy issues, reflects the inside-outside sensibility of many progressives who have maintained a frustrated relationship with the Democratic Party.
She’s worked inside the party, developing groundbreaking online strategies for Dean’s 2004 campaign, yet she has been outspoken in her criticism of Democrats who fail to uphold progressive values. Just two weeks ago, after Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler advanced a proposal that would undermine net neutrality, Teachout wrote a Politico piece headlined “Obama Should Fire His FCC Chair.”
And Teachout has been at odds with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, pressuring the business-friendly Democrat to use his political muscle to reform campaign finance laws and reduce the influence of corporate cash on elections and government. Cuomo has disappointed plenty of progressives in New York, not just on the campaign finance issue but on everything from fracking to education policy. And now there is a prospect that Teachout will offer them an alternative on the ballot line of the state’s Working Families Party.
“It feels like Cuomo is part of this broken system, and he is not going to fix it,” she says. “Voters in New York want a real choice, and right now, with just [Republican Rob] Astorino and Cuomo—they seem to just be fighting about who can give more tax breaks to the billionaires.”
The tech-savvy academic, who teaches law at Fordham University, is up with a website on which she declares, “I’m running because New Yorkers need an economy and democracy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected.” She’s identifying herself as the “Working Families Democrat for Governor.”
The WFP has not yet committed to back a Teachout run. But the party’s leadership will debate the prospect this weekend.
A powerful force in the politics of New York City and the state, the WFP backed Cuomo in 2010—giving its nomination to the Democratic candidate, as is allowed under New York’s fusion rules for combining the votes of candidates on various ballot lines. But this year, party activists have wrestled with the question of continuing to support a governor who often veers to the center on economic and environmental issues.
For weeks now, there has been talk of running an alternative to Cuomo, with names such as Diane Ravitch, a former US assistant secretary of education who has emerged as an outspoken champion of public education, surfacing as prospects. (Ravitch isn’t running, but she remains critical of Cuomo.)
A number of key labor leaders and top elected officials with close ties to the WFP, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have backed Cuomo, but have reportedly urged him to make concessions to the WFP in hopes of obtaining its ballot line this year. The governor has signaled a willingness to move on some issues, but the frustration runs deep on the WFP state committee, which will meet Saturday to consider how to approach the governor’s race.
The party committee could back Cuomo. It could back Teachout as a challenger. It could name Teachout as a so-called “placeholder” while continuing to pressure Cuomo.
But the party must have a nominee. Under New York law, the party must have a candidate for governor topping its ticket in 2014, and that candidate must attract 50,000 votes in order to maintain ballot status. With Cuomo as the nominee, the votes would be assured, as liberals who want to send a signal to the governor to move left could vote for him on the WFP line. But would it work with a lesser-known candidate such as Teachout?
When Siena College polled New Yorkers early in April, Cuomo was at 58 percent, while his Republican challenger, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, was at 28 percent.
When the Siena poll asked what voters would do if an unnamed WFP challenger running to the left of Cuomo were to enter the race, however, the governor dropped to 39 percent, Astorino dropped to 24 percent and 24 percent for the hypothetical contender.
Similar numbers have turned up in other public and private polls.
So, does that mean that Teachout, if nominated, would start with a quarter of the vote?
Not necessarily. Hypothetical prospects in polls often get bigger numbers than named contenders. And Cuomo is working to shore up his left flank. At last week’s Democratic convention, Cuomo was endorsed by Mayor de Blasio and a host of progressives in a video that featured New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, musician and activist Harry Belafonte and labor leaders from unions with a strong presence in New York City (and its politics), such as the Local 1199’s George Gresham and key figures with other Service Employees and Communication Workers of America locals.
Just as President Harry Truman did in 1948, when he was challenged from the left by former Vice President Henry Wallace, Cuomo has space to move left and to work with key unions to attract votes from folks who have been dissatisfied with him. Already, he’s sounding progressive themes, telling the Democrats who renominated him last week that he wants to address the “social tragedy that a majority of children from wealthy families attend college, but only 10 percent of children of poor families attend college.”
Additionally, if poll numbers showed Astorino becoming competitive, the fear of a Republican win could cause many Democrats to “come home” to a governor who does not always meet their approval.
But is there also space for Teachout?
New York’s third parties are fluid projects. They can run strong, go weak and run strong again. They have lived and died, gained ballot lines and lost them. They have provided margins of victory in presidential races. They have won major elections in New York City and statewide. Former New York Mayor John Lindsay was re-elected in 1969 on the old Liberal Party line. James Buckley was elected US Senator in 1970 on the Conservative Party line. Before becoming New York City’s Public Advocate, Tish James started her political rise by winning a city council seat on the Working Families Party line.
Teachout does not start with the advantages of a Lindsay or a Buckley. But the rise of progressive activism on election reform, income inequality and environmental issues gives her room to run. And the greatest accomplishments of New York’s third parties, on the left and the right, have not always been electoral wins; often, they have used their ballot lines to pull the politics of the state toward new ideas and new approaches.
In that sense, Teachout is a particularly intriguing prospect.
She’s always been ideas-driven. And she knows how to communicate—in person and on the digital platforms that are increasingly definitional in our politics.
If the WFP nominates her, it’s a safe bet that she’d get the 50,000 votes needed to keep the ballot line. And she could get a lot more with what she promises would be a populist “people-powered campaign” that is “dedicated to breaking up the power of Wall Street banks” and “committed to making our politics more responsive to the needs and values of working and middle-class families.”
Read Next: What lies in the future for New York City’s welfare system?
Dr. Maya Angelou wrote in her tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, “A Brave and Startling Truth,” that “We must confess that we are the possible…. We are the miraculous, the true wonders of this world.” And Angelou was one of the wonders of the world. Her personal story was so rich, so varied, so remarkable in its diversity of experience that Walt Whitman must have imagined her when he spoke of the poet containing multitudes.
“To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn’t have to go through half the things she has,” my colleague Gary Younge wrote several years ago of the woman who danced with Alvin Ailey, cut a fine calypso album, sang at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, performed in the touring company of Porgy and Bess, appeared in the television mini-series Roots, wrote songs with Roberta Flack, compared notes with James Baldwin, earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her poetry and global acclaim for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the 1969 book that was the first of a series of genre-expanding autobiographies. When President Obama presented her with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he noted that Angelou had “spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya.”
Her artistic accomplishments alone would have been more than sufficient for a lifetime. But Angelou was, as well, an activist on behalf of the transformational causes of the eras in which she lived, from her birth in 1928 to her death Wednesday at age 86. She chronicled the anticolonial struggle in Africa (as the only woman editor of the Arab Observer newspaper); she knew Nelson Mandela before the South African freedom fighter began his long captivity; in Accra she was part of an expatriate community that included W.E.B. Du Bois; she joined Malcolm X in planning for an Organization of Afro-American Unity; she marched with Gloria Steinem; she inaugurated Bill Clinton; and she personally lobbied legislators on behalf of marriage equality—reminding them, “To love someone takes a lot of courage. So how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex and the laws say, ‘I forbid you from loving this person’?”
Maya Angelou was not only a participant in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. She was on staff. Inspired after hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at a church in Harlem, Angelou and actors Godfrey MacArthur Cambridge and Hugh Hurd organized a historic fund-raising revue for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a “Cabaret for Freedom” at the Village Gate jazz club. The show, for which Angelou served as writer and co-producer, proved to be such an artistic and financial success that the great organizer Bayard Rustin asked her to replace him as the director of the SCLC’s New York office. She took the job, joining a circle of organizers and activists that included Rustin, labor leader A. Philip Randolph and Dr. King.
At a time when the profile of the movement was rising, Angelou helped to raise the resources that allowed King and others to organize historic challenges to the Jim Crow brutality she would later examine so brilliantly in her books. After Angelou left the SCLC, to marry an anti-apartheid organizer and then to move to Egypt, she remained deeply engaged with the civil rights struggle. She was in Ghana when the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place. But Maya Angelou still marched.
Outside the American Embassy in Accra, Angelou and others rallied with signs calling for an end to segregation and apartheid.
Angelou returned to the United States in the mid-1960s and again found herself in the circle of civil rights activists. King, Rustin and Randolph had turned their focus toward economic justice issues, developing a “Freedom Budget For All Americans” that had as its goals:
* the abolition of poverty
* guaranteed full employment
* fair prices for farmers
* fair wages for workers
* housing and healthcare for all
* the establishment of a progressive tax and fiscal policies that respected the needs of working families.
As King prepared for the 1968 “Poor People’s Campaign,” he met with Angelou and asked her to tour the country to help promote the initiative. She agreed. Before she embarked on the tour, she learned, on her fortieth birthday, that King had been assassinated. It was a devastating development that would, as Angelou recounts in her book A Song Flung Up to Heaven, turn her toward a deeper focus on writing. Yet, that writing remained infused with the sense and the spirit of the civil rights movement. That sensibility was so very present in “On the Pulse of Morning,” the poem Angelou composed for the Clinton inaugural, with its lines:
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear…
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Dire reports about the failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide adequate care for those who served in this country’s military forces are not just a serious issue for veterans. They are a serious issue for every American who believes the federal government can and must meet the basic commitments necessary to maintain a civil society.
Unfortunately, that seriousness is not reflected in the frenzy of finger-pointing that has developed as a response to “the public’s outrage over excessive wait times and rigged record-keeping at Veterans Affairs hospitals”—an outrage that the president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents caregivers for vets, refers to as “more than justified.”
There is no question that the VA has a problem that must be addressed.
The question is whether the politicians in Washington are ready to address it.
The most predictable of the political careerists, Republican and Democrat, seem to think that firing VA Secretary Eric Shinseki will somehow “fix” things, or that the removal of a few failed managers will suddenly create a functional VA. But that is an absurdly insufficient response.
Depending on what reports regarding the agency reveal, there may well be a place for new leadership and a management shakeup. And those changes might briefly produce a fantasy of action and improvement. But that is all it could be: a fantasy. And a cruel fantasy, at that.
Neither the immediate crisis, nor serious issues relating to the long-term future of the VA, will be settled with a mere reorganization of upper management. The real issues are closer to the ground. The VA needs to have enough doctors, nurses and aides to provide the care that is needed—and the doctors, nurses and aides who are now on duty must have the resources and the flexibility to assure that this care is delivered in a timely and responsible manner.
That is not now the case.
“When we look deeper into this issue of extended wait times for veterans to receive an appointment, we have to recognize that understaffing is a major culprit,” explains AFGE president J. David Cox Sr. “All around the country, medical facilities are understaffed, with numerous frontline care positions going unfilled. How can the VA expect to keep up with the growing needs of our nation’s heroes if it doesn’t properly staff its facilities?”
“According to the Independent Budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs, developed each year by leading veterans groups, funding levels will remain an estimated $2 billion short in FY 2015 and approximately $500 million short for FY 2016,” the AFGE notes.
Members of Congress—at least those who pay minimal attention to veterans issues—have for some time been aware of the funding shortfall. Yet too many of them have resisted calls for action.
The reason is that the current Congress is packed with partisans who are more concerned with maintaining an austerity agenda than with caring for Americans who are in need.
Too many members of Congress continue to prattle on about how government is the problem, about how spending must be cut to meet their imagined bottom lines, about how the resources are not there to keep promises to vulnerable Americans—even if the resources are always there for wars of whim and a military-industrial complex that provides daily evidence of the extremes to which waste, fraud and abuse can be taken.
The current Congress includes a striking number of members who express open antipathy to meeting the guarantees that have been made to all Americans, including veterans. These members of Congress are so unthinking in their approach, so cruel in their budgetary calculus, that they casually, in some cases gleefully, presided over a government shutdown last fall.
Republicans get blamed for advancing the austerity agenda, but it is important to remember that more than a few Democrats have compromised with it. And the difference between those who promote austerity and those who make the compromises that allow for austerity means very little to Americans who are stuck on the waiting lists that are created by budgeting that owes more to Ayn Rand tomes than accounting textbooks.
The VA crisis is a wake-up call.
It is time to get serious. It is time to abandon austerity, and to recognize that core commitments cannot be compromised in order to maintain ideological fantasies.
Senate Veteran Affairs Committee chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, tried to get ahead of a host of issues concerning veterans in February, when he proposed comprehensive legislation to improve VA healthcare, education and job-training. Though it was strongly backed by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and other organizations representing vets, the measure was blocked when most Senate Republicans opposed it. To Republicans who suggested the measure was too expensive, Sanders said, “If you think it’s too expensive (to fund veterans programs), then don’t send them off to war.”
Last week, Sanders announced that he would reintroduce his plan to allocate $21 billion more for veterans initiatives over the coming decade. He is, as well, proposing a new VA accountability measure. The latter legislation removes bureaucratic barriers and makes it easier for the secretary of veterans affairs to make management changes that are necessary to protect those who have served in the military.
The Sanders approach recognizes the need to move beyond the failed responses of America’s austerity-minded politicians while at the same time increasing accountability. It’s a smart long-term fix that eschews the easy sloganeering and empty promises of those who would politicize the VA crisis.
Conscious of the urgency of that crisis, the senator plans to move quickly to get both measures to the Senate floor. “In recent years, as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 1.5 million more veterans have entered the VA health care system,” says Sanders. “Congress must do everything possible to make certain that the VA has the financial resources and administrative accountability to provide the high-quality health care and timely access to care that our veterans earned and deserve.”
Read Next: George Zornick explains why politicizing the VA is not the answer.
Tune in at 7:30 pm Eastern time today, May 22, to hear John Nichols speak live from the Kansas City Public Library about the toxic influence of money and the media election complex on our country as detailed in his new book, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America.
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.