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Rev. Martin Luther King joins hundreds of thousands during March on Washington, 1963. (American Jewish Historical Society via Wikimedia Commons)
As the anniversary of the March on Washington approached, Senator Bernie Sanders returned to the Lincoln Memorial where hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered on August 28, 1963. “I remember that very well, not by simply seeing it on TV or reading about it,” explained Sanders. “I was one of the several hundred thousand people who was here. I came in on a bus from the University of Chicago, where I was then going to school.”
The independent senator from Vermont heard Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. address the crowd that day. And he heard the message that the organizers of the March intended.
“What King was talking about was not only racial justice,” recalled Sanders. “He was talking about economic justice.”
Those economic themes were central to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which the civil rights leader declared:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.
But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
The Americans who converged on the National Mall on that August day in 1963 came to challenge racial injustice.
But they also came to challenge economic injustice.
It was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
That reference to jobs was not a casual one.
The 1963 march was called by a labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the first African-American to serve on the executive council of the American Federation of Labor. Along with allies like King and the great organizer Bayard Rustin, Randolph framed the message of the March.
One of the nation’s most prominent socialists and longest-serving labor leaders, Randolph recognized the March on Washington as a pivot point—not the culmination of journey but a place at which to define the demands of that struggle. Yes, there would be a call for voting rights in the South. And for civil rights in the whole of the republic. But there would also be a clear call for economic rights.
“We will need to continue demonstrations,” declared Randolph on the day following the March. And in the months and years afterward, Randolph, Rustin and King worked together to develop and promote a groundbreaking “Freedom Budget,” which proposed:
1. The abolition of poverty.
2. Guaranteed full employment.
3. Full production and high economic growth.
4. Adequate minimum wages.
5. Farm income parity.
6. Guaranteed incomes for all unable to work.
7. A decent home for every American family.
8. Modern health services for all.
9. Full educational opportunity for all.
10. Updated (and expanded) Social Security and welfare programs.
11. Equitable tax and money policies.
It was the fight for the Freedom Budget, which began with White House meetings but eventually moved to the streets, that led King to propose a radical intervention in the status-quo politics of the late 1960s: the Poor People’s Campaign.
In arguing for protests by the poor and working people, King said: “Timid supplication for justice will not solve the problem. We have got to confront the power structure massively.”
No one imagined that confrontation would be won with one march, or with one campaign. That is why so many Americans who marched in Washington in August 1963 are still marching today.
For those who marched, and who went on to become champions of economic justice, the understanding of that necessity extends beyond a mere sense of duty to address inequity. There is a sense that by addressing that inequity, it might eventually be possible to achieve the full transformation that A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. imagined.
David Newby, who marched in Washington in 1963, went on to teach at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Then he joined the union movement, serving for sixteen years as president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and joining the same national labor executive board on which A. Philip Randolph sat. Newby is still marching— as the head of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition and a leading figure in national groups such as the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare and U.S. Labor Against the War.
The other day, I heard Newby at a Veterans for Peace convention, telling the crowd: “Together, we can transform our country into one which values human rights, civil rights, workers’ rights. It can be done, if we act in coalition and solidarity.”
Fifty years changes a lot of things.
But some visions transcend time.
It was right to believe in not just the necessity but the possibiliy of transforming the America of 1963.
It is right to believe in not just the necessity but the possibility of transforming the America of 2013.
“We have come a long, long way in a lot of areas in fulfilling some of the visions that this great man had,” Bernie Sanders said as he reflected on Dr. King and the march he attended fifty years ago. “But, on the other hand, let us not forget for one second that a lot of what he talked about, a lot of his dreams, still have not been fulfilled. So we have got a lot of work that remains in front of us if, in fact, we are going to fully honor and give respect to this very, very great man.”
John Nichols is the author of The S Word (Verso), which recounts the role played by A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and other radicals in organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and in advancing the Freedom Budget.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 13, 2011. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
How’s this for irony:
When the City of Kenosha, Wisconsin, was preparing to formally petition Congress to take the necessary actions to get corporate money out of politics and to restore grassroots democracy, the congressman who represents the community was meeting secretly with the Koch brothers to plot election strategies and policy agendas.
Kenosha is the largest city in Wisconsin’s first congressional district, which Congressman Paul Ryan has represented since 1999—thanks to gerrymandered district lines and heavy infusions of cash from out-of-state special interests. With Congress out of session for the August recess and Ryan expected to head home to meet with constituents, members of the Kenosha City Council decided to deliver a message. They voted overwhelmingly to ask Ryan and other Wisconsin representatives “to amend the Constitution to bar corporate wealth from unduly influencing elections.”
That’s not a particularly radical request.
Sixteen states and roughly 500 communities have petitioned Congress to support a constitutional amendment to restore the power of the people—through their federal, state and local representatives—to place limits on the influence of big money, especially corporate money, in American politics. The official calls from states across the country, and from cities such as Kenosha, come in response to the High Court’s decision to remove restrictions on corporate spending to buy elections, which capped a series of rulings that undermined limits on the power of wealthy Americans to dominate the political and governing processes of the nation with unprecedented infusions of campaign money.
Ryan has been among the prime beneficiaries of the money-in-politics moment ushered in by the High Court. As the House Budget Committee chairman, he has collected millions of dollars from individuals and groups that stand to benefit from initiatives such as Social Security privatization and the development of voucher schemes to “reform” Medicaid and Medicare. The congressman has become a favorite of many of the biggest donors in the country, including billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
The Koch brothers, prime funders of conservative causes and Republican politicians, were enthusiastic backers of placing Ryan on the 2012 Republican ticket. That move entered in a fiasco that saw Ryan fail to deliver Wisconsin for the ticket led by Mitt Romney. Ryan not only lost his hometown of Janesville but many of the other communities in his district, including Kenosha.
Casual observers might guess that Ryan would be listening a little more to his district, especially to the voters in cities such as Kenosha.
But they would guess wrong.
As Kenosha was petitioning for the redress of money-in-politics grievances, the congressman was at a posh resort near Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he had flown as soon as Congress went on recess. The Koch brothers had rented the entire Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and set up a private security perimeter so that no media—and certainly no citizens—could get near the elite retreat. And they invited Paul Ryan to spend several days with them as their guest of honor. Along with House majority leader Eric Cantor, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks and a few other worthies, the Kochs and their wealthy friends wined and dined with Ryan.
A source that spoke to Politico reported that Ryan was “well-received by donors.” According to the Politico report, “Ryan has developed deep ties to Koch World”—the vast network of political operations controlled by the billionaire brothers.
The question is whether the congressman retains deep ties to Kenosha.
In case the congressman missed the message, the Kenosha City Council was joined in mid-August by the Kenosha County Board—the governing body of the populous southeastern Wisconsin county that is entirely within Ryan’s district—in calling for an amendment to overturn Citizens United. And constituents like Jennifer Franco, of Kenosha, are saying it’s time for their elected representatives to “stand with the people to proclaim that money is not speech, that artificial entities are not persons, and that every person’s voice carries the same weight.”
The juxtaposition of events in New Mexico and Wisconsin leaves Ryan with a clear choice to make: he can either stick with the Koch brothers or he can respond to the call from Kenosha for a meaningful response to the threat posed to democracy by the buying of elections and the policymaking process.
John Nichols and Robert McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Thom Hartmann says: “Dollarocracy is the most important political book of the year, maybe of our times. Nichols and McChesney provide an original and painstakingly researched account of how corporations and billionaires have come to dominate the political process, as well as the contours of what they term the ‘money-and-media election complex.’ Although I study politics for a living, I learned more about how political advertising works, the crucial role of media corporations and dreadful election journalism than I would have ever imagined possible. In the smartest treatment I have seen, Dollarocracy also details how the Internet is being incorporated into the system; its fantastic potential to empower citizens to battle big money has been effectively neutered.”
Why are North Carolina Republicans escalating attacks on student voting?
Senator Ted Cruz during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on what lawmakers should do to curb gun violence on January 30, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
“He’s a Canadian.”
So says Toronto lawyer Stephen Green, the past chairman of the Canadian Bar Association’s Citizenship and Immigration Section, of Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
Cruz, the in-a-very-big-hurry Republican who started making noises about running for president before the ink on his Senate stationery had dried, was born in Canada.
He has a Canadian birth certificate.
He spent his formative years in Canada.
But he says it never occurred to him that he was a Canadian until The Dallas Morning News reported that the senator is indeed a true son of America’s neighbor to the north.
“If a child was born in the territory, he is Canadian, period,” France Houle, a law professor at the University of Montreal, told the Texas paper. “He can ask for a passport. He can vote.”
Indeed, since the requirements to gain election to the Canadian House of Commons hold that the candidate be a citizen and of voting age, and since prime ministers are invariably parliamentarians, Cruz could be excused for imagining himself not just as a potential US presidential prospect but a potential prime minister of Canada. (Former Canadian Prime Minister John Turner was born in Britain and arrived in Canada at the age of 3.)
Cruz is not just Canadian. He is also American. His mother was a US citizen outside the country at the time of his birth, and that makes her son a dual citizen.
Just to assure that there are no questions about his loyalties, however, Cruz says he’ll renounce his Canadian citizenship. As he puts it, “I believe I should be only an American.”
The whole “Canadian Ted” thing is tiresome.
In fact, the whole discussion about candidate citizenship and birth certificates and the Americanism of potential presidents is tiresome.
It should be put to rest.
The US Constitution should be amended to remove the section that reads, “No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President.”
Anyone who is a citizen and who meets the other requirements for seeking and holding the presidency should be able to lead the country. The “natural-born citizen” language does not merely limit the ability of otherwise qualified candidates to seek the presidency or vice-presidency—former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who was born in Canada, or former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin, who was born in Switzerland. It also limits the ability of voters to choose from candidates who would be credible contenders except for an accident of birth.
A decade ago, when there was a brief enthusiasm among Republicans for a presidential run by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born movie star who had recently been elected governor of California, one of the leading Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Utah’s Orrin Hatch, proposed “The Equal Opportunity to Govern Amendment.”
The measure would have repealed the “natural-born citizen” clause and allowed anyone who has been a US citizen for twenty years to seek the presidency or vice-presidency. The language Hatch wanted to add to the Constitution declared, “A person who is a citizen of the United States, who has been for 20 years a citizen of the United States, and who is otherwise eligible to the Office of President, is not ineligible to that Office by reason of not being a native born citizen of the United States.”
Hatch’s amendment did not get very far after its introduction in 2003. A Judiciary Committee hearing was held in 2004, but the full Senate never took up the proposal. It should now—not for the sake of Ted Cruz or any other candidate but for the sake of the American experiment in democracy.
Despite the fact that seven of the thirty-nine men who signed the US Constitution in 1787 did not meet the “natural-born citizen” standard, there was just enough fear at the time that a foreign-born monarch would take charge of the newly formed United States to cause the clause to be added.
The line’s inclusion was at odds with the Enlightenment vision of the best of the founders (including British-born Thomas Paine) and, as constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar noted at the 2004 Judiciary Committee hearing, the rest of the Constitution “repudiated this [English] tradition across the board, opening the House, Senate, Cabinet and federal judiciary to naturalized and native alike.”
It is time to get over the fears of 226 years ago and embrace the Enlightenment vision, recognizing that Amar was right when he told the Judiciary Committee that “modern Americans can best honor the Founders’ generally egalitarian vision by repealing the specific natural-born rule that has outlived its original purpose.”
John Nichols and Bob McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), which outlines an agenda of constitutional reforms to extend American democracy.
Why did Chris Christie back down on gun control?
In this January 3, 2011, photo, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at an inauguration ceremony at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
The first great test of the American Constitution came in 1798, when President John Adams became so agitated with his critics that he disregarded the Bill of Rights and the rule of law and arranged for the arrest of dissenting elected officials and editors.
Adams was so lawless that his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson, organized the opposition. Two years later, Adams was the first American president to be removed from office by the electorate. And rightly so.
James Madison, the essential drafter of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, referred to the “Alien and Sedition Acts” that Adams and his associates used to justify their assault on the First Amendment as “a monster that must forever disgrace its parents.”
Unfortunately, the monster still breaks loose. And not just in Washington.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is no John Adams. But prospective Republican presidential candidate’s delusions of imperial grandeur have led him to cobble together a set of rules that he is using to have dozens of dissenters (including veterans, grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers with children and top teachers) arrested for assembling in the rotunda of the state capitol and singing labor songs.
Never mind that the “Solidarity Sing Alongs” were held peacefully, and without significant incident, before the governor’s crackdown began this summer.
The arrests escalated on Thursday. And, though Walker plays on a small stage, those familiar with the basic outlines of American constitutional history will note a certain historical irony in the drama the governor has scripted.
First, an elected official, Madison Alder Mark Clear, the former president of the city council, was arrested for joining in the singing of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Then, just a few minutes later, Progressive magazine editor Matt Rothschild was detained when he attempted to record what was happening. Rothschild informed the arresting officers that he was a journalist and that he had every right to cover the story.
Clear and his fellow singers can point to a US Constitution that guarantees that Americans may assemble and petition for the redress of grievances—and to a Wisconsin Constitution that is even more explicit, declaring, “The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
Rothschild can point to a US Constitution that guards against any abridging of the freedom of the press—and to a Wisconsin Constitution that is even more explicit, declaring that “no laws shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.”
Yet, both men were arrested. The governor and his allies argue that a federal court ruling that allows officials to establish permit requirements has cleared the way for a wholesale rejection of constitutional values. They will find they are wrong, just as Adams and his associates did when they had Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon and editor Benjamin Franklin Bache arrested. But the fact that judges and juries will eventually reject Walker’s flawed premises does not clean up the mess that the governor has made. When local elected officials and magazine editors are being arrested, real damage is done to the rule of law and to the broad understanding of basic liberties.
But the damage will eventually be undone. Walker is going too far, just as Adams did. And, as Jefferson explained in the darkest days of his struggle, “A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of the new book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books).
Does gun ownership make people more Republican?
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie answers a question during a campaign event in Manville, New Jersey, Monday, May 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Scheduling matters—especially when it comes to manipulating election dates.
Just ask Chris Christie. He’s choreographing a confusing series of statewide elections in New Jersey this fall—all with the goal of benefiting Chris Christie.
And what benefits Chris Christie most is diminished democracy. So the governor—and potential 2016 Republican presidential contender—has managed his election schedule with an eye toward keeping voter turnout low.
Very, very low.
The first step in the process went according to plan. On Tuesday, New Jersey held US Senate special election primaries to choose candidates to finish the term of the late Frank Lautenberg.
From a crowded and competitive field of Democrats, Newark Mayor Cory Booker was nominated with almost 60 percent of the vote.
In a two-person Republican race, former Bogota, New Jersey, mayor and Americans for Prosperity operative Steve Lonegan prevailed.
But almost no one voted. One New Jersey newspaper summed things up when it described voter participation as “little to none.”
When all the ballots were counted, the turnout figure was around 9 percent.
So 91 percent of eligible voters did not participate, despite the fact that these definitional primaries featured a celebrity contender (Booker), two sitting members of Congress (Rush Holt and Frank Pallone), a prominent legislator (Sheila Oliver) and one of the state’s most outspoken conservative leaders (Lonegan).
The primaries were a small-“d” democratic disaster and the October 16 general election, in which Booker is a favorite, could be even worse.
In other words, everything is going as Chris Christie prefers.
The governor created a schedule designed to downplay the Senate race—primaries in the middle of August vacation season, general election in October rather than November—because it was expected to generate higher interest among Democrats than Republicans. He didn’t want it to conflict in any way with his own November 5 re-election run.
True, the schedule hurts his fellow Republican Lonegan, who would have benefited from being on the same ballot as Christie.
But is also hurts Christie’s Democratic challenger, State Senator Barbara Buono, who would have benefited from being on the same ballot as Booker.
By using his authority as governor to establish a separate election schedule for the Senate race, Christie insulated his re-election run against unexpected electoral developments. He also assured that voter turnout would be, as The Jersey Journal reported Tuesday, “very poor.”
So what’s bad for democracy is good for Chris Christie.
That’s how the governor rolls.
Christie’s entire political career has benefited from election scheduling that favors Republicans in a Democratic state. New Jersey elects its governors in odd-numbered years when there are no federal elections. Since federal elections, especially presidential elections, tend to attract a lot of Democrats to the polls, Christie has enjoyed a dream scenario for a Republican seeking statewide office in a state that has not backed a Republican for president since it picked George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Christie is not alone in benefiting from Republican-friendly scheduling.
The vast majority of states hold gubernatorial elections at the “midterm” point in the tenure of presidents, rather than on a schedule aligned with presidential voting. This means that most governors are elected when most eligible voters don’t cast ballots. This explains why states that vote solidly Democratic in presidential election years—such as Wisconsin, which has not backed a Republican for president since 1984; or Maine, which has not backed a Republican for president since 1988—have right-wing governors like Scott Walker and Paul LePage.
As former US Senator Russ Feingold has noted, if all major elections were scheduled with an eye toward getting the clearest reflection of popular sentiments, America would have a dramatically different politics—and governance.
Politicians know this.
And politicians who are not quite so honorable as Feingold are more than willing to game the process to assure that they get the electorate they want, even if that means creating circumstances where turnout is atrociously low.
That’s what Christie did when he scheduled the special election to fill the US Senate seat to assure the lowest possible level of participation.
The scheduling stunt will cost New Jersey $25 million that it did not need to spend and it has created a good deal of confusion.
But Christie’s fine with the cost, and the confusion.
Her campaign accuses the governor of using “a cynical and arrogant” scheduling scheme to “needlessly disenfranchise voters.”
But, as New Jersey Working Families Alliance executive director Bill Holland notes, the disenfranchisement will undoubtedly be most severe for voters who are most likely to disagree with Chris Christie.
That, of course, is the point.
As Holland explains, Christie’s approach “guarantees that turnout will be low, and that those whose voices are not being heard in Washington will be heard even less.”
John Nichols is the author with Robert W. McChesney of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). It explores the many vehicles by which powerful interests manipulate election processes, including the gaming of election schedules.
What are the three questions that will decide the fate of voting rights in North Carolina?
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Advisor Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Reuters Future Face of Finance Summit in Washington, March 1, 2011. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
No presidential appointment, no Senate confirmation, matters more than the one that will soon come for the post of chairman of the Federal Reserve.
If ever there was a time to ask for more—and better—this is it.
Yet, for the most part, official Washington is on autopilot, preparing for the replacement of outgoing Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke with another predictable insider—perhaps even the ultimate predictable insider: former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.
President Obama, who says he will make his selection this fall, has defended Summers. A number of prominent Democratic senators have suggested that the president consider a more appealing prospect: Janet Yellen, the vice chair of the board of governors of the Fed.
But not everyone is satisfied with predictable prospects, or politics as usual.
Senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, keep making the right demands and asking the right questions.
Several weeks ago, Sanders suggested that, instead of narrowing the choice to Summers—and Yellen—Obama should be considering a wider range of contenders, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz or former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.
There’s every reason to talk up Stiglitz and Reich.
But, no matter who the nominee is, Sanders and Warren argue this week in a Huffington Post column that “the next Fed chair will have an opportunity to get our economy back on track and to help rebuild America’s middle class. But that will require the right temperament and a willingness to take on Wall Street CEOs when necessary. It is critical that the next Fed chair make a genuine, long-term commitment to supporting those who don’t have armies of lobbyists and lawyers to advance their interests in Washington—working and middle-class families.”
To that end, the senators have developed a set of questions that need to be answered by whomever is chosen to replace Bernanke.
1. Do you believe that the Fed’s top priority should be to fulfill its full employment mandate?
2. If you were to be confirmed as chair of the Fed, would you work to break up “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions so that they could no longer pose a catastrophic risk to the economy?
3. Do you believe that the deregulation of Wall Street, including the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and exempting derivatives from regulation, significantly contributed to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?
4. What would you do to divert the $2 trillion in excess reserves that financial institutions have parked at the Fed into more productive purposes, such as helping small- and medium-sized businesses create jobs?
These are telling questions, especially for Summers who, for instance, played a critical role in “the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act” that is mentioned in Question 3.
So be it.
No one should head the Fed if they cannot provide the right answers—"yes” to the first three queries, and specifics for number 4—to all the questions being asked by the senators who have refused to bow to the bankers.
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Author Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.'
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a voter suppression law yesterday and it is already being challenged by two different lawsuits.
ALEC protesters in Chicago on August 6, 2013. (Courtesy of Flickr)
The American Legislative Exchange Council is better known today than at any time in its forty-year history.
For most groups that seek to influence the governing process that would be something to celebrate. But ALEC, the corporate-funded project that develops “model legislation” to be introduced by conservative legislators across the country, historically worked off-radar.
The group highlighted by the 2011 “ALEC Exposed” project of the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation has in recent years been the subject of investigations and inquiries by media outlets across the country. It has been the focus of a nationally broadcast “United States of ALEC” documentary by Bill Moyers & Company. It has been called out by groups such as Color of Change and Common Cause. It has been abandoned by forty-nine corporations (from Amazon.com to Walmart) that once paid for its initiatives.
ALEC has been decried by labor, environmental and clean government groups in state capitols across the country. National political figures, such as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, are launching inquiries into how the group promotes its legislative agenda. And this week, as ALEC gathers its corporate and legislative “members” in the city of its founding to celebrate four decades of service to special interests and ambitious politicians, demonstrations against the group have drawn thousands of union members, civil rights activists and social justice campaigners into the streets of Chicago.
An organization that once held its annual meetings virtually unnoticed is now met with mass protests so large that streets around its hotel were closed Thursday as activists staged “die-ins” recalling ALEC’s role in the passage of so-called Stand Your Ground laws and headlines screamed, “ALEC convention protests: Labor vs. lobbyists.”
ALEC has felt the pressure of public scrutiny. Last year, the group distanced itself from some of its more controversial initiatives, such as restrictive voter ID laws and the Stand Your Ground measures that gained national attention after the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Yet, with continued backing from longtime allies such as the Koch brothers and the support of corporations that have disregarded calls from civil rights groups for them to quit the council, ALEC remains a defining force in statehouses across the country. A new report from the Center for Media and Democracy details the extent of the group’s ongoing engagement.
CMD has identified 466 ALEC bills that were introduced in state legislatures during 2013 sessions. At least eighty-four of these measures have become law.
According to CMD:
• One hundred and seventeen ALEC bills that seek to restrict worker rights, weaken unions, promote privatization and undermine advocacy for wage hikes. At least fourteen of these measures have become law.
• One hunded and thirty-nine ALEC bills that address education issues with proposals to use taxpayer dollars to fund private schools among the favorites. At least thirty-one ALEC education measures have become law.
• Seventy-seven ALEC bills that CMD says “promote a fossil fuel and fracking agenda and undermine environmental regulations.” At least seventeen of these measures have become law.
ALEC’s influence is broad, as is its legislative legacy. The CMD report explains: “Despite ALEC’s effort to distance itself from Voter ID and Stand Your Ground by disbanding its controversial Public Safety and Elections Task Force, 62 of these laws were introduced: 10 Stand Your Ground bills and 52 bills to enact or tighten Voter ID restrictions. Five states enacted additional Voter ID restrictions, and two states passed Stand Your Ground.”
Indeed, among the featured speakers at ALEC’s fortieth annual meeting is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who signed the Stand Your Ground law that provided the outline for the group’s model legislation.
So ALEC is still very much what ALEC has been for decades: a key player, perhaps the key player, in advancing the corporate agenda on a host of issues in statehouses across the country.
What has changed for ALEC is that a lot more Americans are now paying attention to its advocacy.
New national campaigns to get corporations and foundations to quit ALEC are ramping up.
So, too, are efforts to ask whether ALEC, which says it is not a lobbying group, should have to follow federal and state rules that are supposed to regulate groups that seek to influence the legislative process.
Legislators in a number of states have proposed that ALEC be required to follow existing lobbying laws when, as Center for Media and Democracy executive director Lisa Graves says, they are “[advancing] the lobbying agenda of special interests to the detriment of ordinary Americans.”
On Monday, Common Cause and CMD submitted a joint letter to the IRS requesting “an immediate investigation into the American Legislative Exchange Council’s massive underreporting of payment for state lawmakers’ travel on its Form 990s, filed with the Internal Revenue Service.”
The letter charges that ALEC “engaged in an impermissible amount of lobbying and served private rather than public interests.”
In addition to asking for the federal examining of whether ALEC’s approach is appropriate in light of its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, the groups are also asking state ethics officials to determine if ALEC’s “scholarship” programs complies with state gift and disclosure laws.
Common Cause and CMD argue that the conflict is clear.
“Ultimately,” the groups argue in their letter to the IRS, “ALEC’s scholarship fund activity provides private benefits to two core constituents: (1) state legislators, who receive all-expense-paid vacations, and (2) corporate donors, who are able to obtain “business-friendly” legislation through this influence peddling.”
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), which examines the role played by ALEC and other national groups in shaping policy at the state and local levels of government.
Can Chris Christie change the gun control debate?
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder presents his third state budget before the state legislature in Lansing, Michigan, February 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
A hundred and fifty years ago, in the thick of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln rejected the counsel that suggested he might postpone the 1864 presidential election on the grounds that the national circumstance was too chaotic for voting.
“We cannot have free government without elections,” declared the sixteenth president. “If the rebellion could force us to forgo, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
Lincoln’s commitment to maintain regularly scheduled elections despite all the challenges facing the nation was essential to the formation of the American democratic standard. But what happens when elections are held but those who are elected are not allowed to govern? Can we tell ourselves that democracy has been maintained if it is not respected in any realistic sense by state and federal officials?
That’s a question that the voters of one of America’s great cities, Detroit, are in the process of answering.
Detroit voters trooped to the polls Tuesday to nominate candidates for the city’s top posts in one of the more unsettled—and unsettling—elections in American history.
The voters selected candidates for mayor, city clerk and the city council—all the officials who normally would guide the affairs of one of America’s largest municipalities.
The chosen candidates are running serious campaigns. They will compete in traditional fall contests, with some elected and some defeated. The winners will take office shortly after the election results are certified. And then, the new leaders of Detroit will in all likelihood be forced to sit in official chambers and watch as their city is dismantled by an appointed—not elected—“emergency manager” and a federal bankruptcy judge.
They will not do so willingly. The candidates that initial returns suggest Detroit voters have nominated to replace outgoing Mayor Dave Bing—Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and, with a surge of write-in votes being counted for him, former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan—have made it clear that they are ready and willing to govern. Summing up the sentiments of most Detroit candidates this year, Napoleon, a former Detroit police chief, says that “the mayor should be able to set the priorities.”
But that won’t happen, because Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has taken control of Detroit, using an “emergency manager” law that he cobbled together late last fall.
Snyder had to develop the new “emergency manager” law after a previous version of the legislation—which he had used to take over smaller cities—was overturned by the voters of Michigan in a statewide referendum. In Detroit, 82 percent of voters said they did not want the “emergency manager” law. But they got it anyway. So it is that, while Detroit’s next mayor may eventually be allowed to govern, he won’t be calling the shots at the critical juncture when the city faces bankruptcy and dismantlement.
This is a vital distinction to recognize as Detroit faces the federal bankruptcy process—initiated at Snyder’s behest—that has been so much in the news.
“Let’s get one thing straight, the city of Detroit has not filed for municipal bankruptcy. The emergency manager (EM) filed the bankruptcy petition, and he is an appointee of the governor of the state of Michigan based on Act 436—a law formerly known as PA 4—which was repealed by 2.3 million Michigan citizens statewide on Nov. 6, 2012,” explains retiring Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson. “The EM is only accountable to the governor, the EM only answers to the governor, and the EM can only be ‘checked and balanced’ by the governor.”
The new mayor and the new city council will not have the authority to “check and balance” the emergency manager—or to guide the process that Watson argues “has clearly been crafted in a right-wing playbook to seize assets, dismember electorate voting powers, dismantle unions and the families/neighborhoods supported by union jobs, disable local elected officials, smear and tarnish the image and viability of Black elected leadership, and broadly claim that the legacy costs related to retiree pensions are largely to blame for the city’s debt crisis.”
Watson’s frustration is real. And appropriate.
Detroit’s greatest challenge has not been municipal governance. It has been deindustrialization, which has shuttered hundreds of factories and left hundreds of thousands of city residents unemployed or underemployed. And that great challenge extends beyond Detroit.
Too many American cities face financial challenges similar to those that have destabilized Detroit. Snyder’s anti-democratic “answer” could well become the model for a response to those challenges that begins by blaming the victims and ultimately denies them a full and effective franchise.
“I believe Detroit and Michigan are ‘test cases’ for certain right-wing agents who want to do all they can to control future elections for this nation’s highest office and other posts,” says Watson. “Voter suppression, including the Supreme Court’s role in gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, are not incidental to the myriad of malevolence in Michigan.”
There is a lot more at stake in Detroit, and in Michigan, than one city’s balance sheet.
Our understanding of democracy, itself, is being subverted.
The voters of Michigan sent a clear signal last fall. They rejected emergency-manager authoritarianism.
The courts should back the voters up and put an end to the emergency-manager charade. Federal and state officials should work with Detroit’s elected leaders to seek alternatives to bankruptcy—and the austerity cuts to services and pensions that go with it. Democracy should be restored so that the candidates who have been nominated in Detroit this week, and who will be elected in November, can guide the affairs of the city they have been chosen to lead.
Some truths are self-evident across time.
That is surely the case with Lincoln’s observation that “we cannot have free government without elections.”
It was absolutely true 150 years ago that the postponing of an election would have been a defeat for the forces of democracy.
It is absolutely true today that the sapping of meaning from elections—by denying successful candidates the authority to govern—represents another form of the same defeat.
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.”
Why won’t Anthony Weiner drop out of the New York City mayoral race?
Reince Priebus speaking at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Courtesy of Flickr)
The big media story this week is not the purchase of The Washington Post by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
For as long as there have been newspapers, rich people have bought them as toys and tools.
So, while it is significant that Bezos bought the Post for $250 million, this is not exactly a definitional development on the media landscape.
Bezos is not even the only rich guy to buy a major metropolitan daily paper in the past week. It was announced on Saturday that Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry has purchased another of the twenty-five largest dailies in the United States, The Boston Globe, for $70 million.
While it cannot be said for certain regarding Bezos and Henry, the best bet is that these very wealthy men will run their papers as side projects—Bezos, a little less hands-on; Henry, a little more hands-on—in the tradition of another wealthy newspaper purchaser, Warren Buffett. The fact that these guys don’t need big profits from newspapers that no longer post big profits actually provides a measure of insulation that financially struggling metro dailies owned by publicly traded companies lack. And while Bezos, Henry and Buffett have political pedigrees, none has the take-no-prisoners edge that has made the prospect of purchases of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune by the brothers Koch so unsettling to so many of the free-press faithful.
If new owners maintain old papers pretty much as they have been, that’s not dramatic news. Indeed, the only real “news” may be that newspapers, which cannot survive as publicly traded entities where stockholders demand big payouts, might have a future as the vanity projects of rich people. Or even better, as nonprofit entities, cooperatives and public trusts.
So if the sale of the Post is not as dramatic a development as might initially seem to be the case, what is?
The big deal in media this week has to do with the relationship of broadcast and cable news networks to the two major political parties. And it matters—more—because it gets to a question that is at the heart of all of our discussions about the future of print, broadcast and digital media: will we have a sufficient journalism, and a sufficiently independent journalism, to sustain democracy?
Ever since the Democratic and Republican parties took over the nation’s presidential debates in 1987, with the creation of a corporate-funded “Commission on Presidential Debates” run by the former chairs of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, the dialogue in presidential election years has been the ultimate insiders’ game.
Debate rules have for a quarter-century been dictated by parties and campaigns, not by the television networks that present them—and certainly not by nonpartisan good-government groups such as the League of Women Voters, which used to organize debates before the parties elbowed them aside. The change has resulted in a degeneration of the discourse that has tended to reinforce the status quo rather than extend America’s experiment with democracy.
Parallel to the commission’s management of fall debates featuring the presidential and vice presidential nominees of the major parties—it’s been more than two decades since billionaire Ross Perot bought his way onto the stage in a way that no independent or third-party candidate has since been able to do—there’s been an equally ugly phenomenon: the “partnering” of major parties with networks to organize debates between candidates seeking presidential nominations.
The partnering deals have been just as ugly as the corruption of the election process by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
That ugliness went public this week when Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus threatened a broadcast network, NBC, and a cable network, CNN, over planned projects on Hillary Clinton.
That Clinton, a former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state who started her public career as a Watergate prosecutor and played a significant role in struggles for women’s rights and children’s rights, is a worthy subject for examination should be beyond question journalistically and academically. But it is not beyond question politically.
Because Clinton might seek the Democratic presidential nod in 2016, Priebus says NBC must cancel plans for a four-hour mini-series and CNN must dump its plan for a documentary. Presuming that the projects would be positive in their portrayals of Clinton, despite the fact that she’s been a frequently controversial figure, Priebus accused each network of engaging in a “thinly-veiled attempt at putting a thumb on the scales of the 2016 presidential election.”
Priebus has a long history of complaining about media coverage of his party and its candidates. Besides, both the CNN and NBC projects are likely to air before Clinton decides on whether to run. If anything, the most likely candidates to be harmed are prospective Democratic primary challengers to Clinton.
So the chairman’s letter would have been stashed in the “whiner” file, except for one component: the threat.
“If you have not agreed to pull this programming prior to the start of the RNC’s summer meeting on August 14,” wrote Priebus, “I will seek a binding vote of the RNC stating that the committee will neither partner with you in 2016 primary debates nor sanction primary debates which you sponsor.”
The reactions from the networks were uninspired. NBC News declined to comment; CNN offered a vapid, “We would encourage the members of the Republican National Committee to reserve judgment until they know more.”
The networks should have told Priebus, “Good riddance!”
Partnerships between the networks and the major political parties are a far greater concern than the ownership of newspapers by new generations of rich people. By cutting deals with the parties to host “exclusive” primary debates, and by accepting the parameters established by the two major parties for fall debates, the networks defer to the political establishment in the worst of ways.
It’s time for the networks, wealthy and powerful entities that they are, to declare independence from the major parties. If they want to partner with the League of Women Voters, which remains honorably committed to fairness and openness, that’s great. If they want to work with groups such as Common Cause, or state-based good government organizations and, yes, newspapers, that’s terrific.
But the network partnerships with the parties reinforce the worst status quo instincts—in our media and our politics. Americans should be interested in who owns newspapers, but they should be indignant about an arrangement that has television news operations negotiating with, partnering with and being threatened by political parties.
John Nichols and Robert McChesney, the co-founders of Free Press, the nation’s media reform network, are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Basic Books/Nation Books), and examination of media and politics that pays close scrutiny the changing newspaper business and how presidential debates are manipulated by the parties.
Did Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker really compare himself to FDR?
In this January 3, 2011, photo, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at an inauguration ceremony at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Much of this progress (for working Americans) has been due, I like to think, to the one thing that this Administration from the very beginning has insisted upon: the assurance to labor of the untrammeled right, not privilege, but right to organize and bargain collectively with its employers.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, September 11, 1940
Scott Walker is not averse to flights of fantasy.
But the governor of Wisconsin—who began August by hosting the annual meeting of the National Governors Association in Milwaukee and then planned to jet off to South Carolina and other key states to promote a 2016 presidential bid—filled his imagination quota last week when he compared himself with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
No one with the slightest sense of history could confuse the governor, who has yet to encounter a Wall Street dictate he didn’t honor, with the president who said when he sought re-election in 1936, “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.… Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
But, of course, Scott Walker does not have the slightest sense of history.
That was painfully obvious when last week, in an appearance before a Governmental Research Association conference, the governor asserted, “The position I pushed is not unlike the principle that Franklin Delano Roosevelt—not exactly a conservative—pushed as well when it came to public sector collective bargaining. He felt that there wasn’t a need in the public sector to have collective bargaining because the government is the people. We are the people. And so what we’ve done is to be able to empower our great employees, to affirm them.”
Walker was referencing a popular fantasy among anti-labor fabulists.
Unfortunately, the theory loses something in translation.
Back in 1937, Roosevelt did write that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
The comment came in a letter from the president to the National Federation of Federal Employees, in which he did, indeed, express his conviction that “upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities.”
But Roosevelt’s letter was not an anti-labor diatribe like one of Walker’s rants about “big union-sponsored mercenaries” and “bare-knuckle union attacks.”
Roosevelt began his letter celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the federal employees union with a declaration that “organizations of government employees have a logical place in Government affairs.”
“The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry,” continued Roosevelt, who expressed the view that organization on the part of public employees “to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical.”
It was Roosevelt’s respect for government—and his understanding of “the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government”—that led him to focus on what he understood as the distinct nature of labor relations at the federal level. But to suggest that the thirty-second president—who signed the National Labor Relations Act into law and famously declared, “It is one of the characteristics of a free and democratic modern nation that it have free and independent labor unions”—set the stage for Walker’s anti-union politics is absurd.
Roosevelt did not want strikes to disrupt public safety and public service. But he recognized the “logical place” of public employee unions as representatives of federal workers. And it was in no small measure because of his pro-labor sentiment that the National Federation of Federal Employees exists to this day—as the representative of 110,000 federal workers at forty agencies and departments.
When the current president of the federation heard the comparison of Walker and Roosevelt, he wrote a column for the Federal Times in order to “correct the misinformation” about the letter—the original of which hangs outside his office at the union headquarters.
“It is clear that this letter was written to federal employees about the importance of not having strikes in federal agencies because of national security concerns. Nothing more,” explained William Dougan. “To suggest this is evidence that Roosevelt—the father of workers’ rights to form and join unions—shares an ideological lineage with Walker’s union-busting tactics is outrageous and disingenuous. A voice in the workplace for teachers, firefighters and other public employees is not a matter of national security, it is a matter of dignity for workers.”
Scott Walker is not the twenty-first-century embodiment of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Scott Walker is the twenty-first-century embodiment of Julius Heil, the right-wing Republican governor of Wisconsin who, after his election in 1938, sought to undo the job-creation initiatives of Phil La Follette, the great Progressive Party governor of the 1930s. Heil had no taste for Roosevelt, and the feeling was mutual. The governor clashed with unions, and his repeated assaults on the rights of Wisconsin workers would eventually be his undoing. As The New York Times noted, “[Heil] lost in 1942, largely because of his unpopular labor record.”
Heil would never have suggested that he was “not unlike” FDR. It would have been absurd for the anti-labor governor to compare himself with the man who declared during the 1936 campaign, “Of course we will continue every effort to end monopoly in business, to support collective bargaining, to stop unfair competition, to abolish dishonorable trade practices. For all these we have only just begun to fight.” If Heil had the audacity to make a comparison, FDR would have corrected him.
FDR is not around to correct Scott Walker. But the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees is around. “I can say with conviction and history firmly on my side that if Roosevelt was around today,” says William Dougan, “he would lead the charge for workers’ rights to unionize—public and private.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Basic Books/Nation Books). Author and radio host Thom Hartmann says: “Dollarocracy is the most important political book of the year, maybe of our times. Nichols and McChesney provide an original and painstakingly researched account of how corporations and billionaires have come to dominate the political process, as well as the contours of what they term the ‘money-and-media election complex.’ Although I study politics for a living, I learned more about how political advertising works, the crucial role of media corporations and dreadful election journalism than I would have ever imagined possible.”
How far will Scott Walker go to eliminate dissent as he kicks off his presidential campaign?