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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?
Joseph Stiglitz (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The big election race of 2013 is for the position of Federal Reserve chairman.
The United States is not an economy democracy, however. So there will be no popular vote on who will make the most critical decisions on jobs, investments, interest rates and a host of other defining issues for working families, communities, states and the nation.
But there is a campaign going on. In order to influence the selection of a new chair by President Obama and the Senate confirmation process: contenders are positioning. Camps and caucuses are organizing. Endorsements are being made. Issues are being placed on the table.
So let’s invite the American people into the process.
Let’s tell them how powerful the Fed is, and what it could do to address poverty, unemployment and the economic challenges faced by cities like Detroit.
One member of Congress, Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee, is already inviting us to imagine the possibilities.
In response to the threat of bankruptcy that looms for Detroit and other cities, Kildee has argued that the Fed should be actively engaged in developing solutions for cities that are in economic turmoil after decades of deindustrialization and federal and state neglect. “While Detroit’s problems may be extreme, they are certainly not unique,” says Kildee. “Municipalities in Michigan and across the country are increasingly facing insolvency that requires us to rethink the way we support our cities.”
When Fed Chair Ben Bernanke appeared before the House Financial Service Committee in mid-July, the congressman said, “I would ask if you would think about how you would advise Congress or how the Fed itself might pursue policy that would have the effect of potentially avoiding—but certainly mitigating—the economic effect of municipal financial failure.”
Kildee’s point is well taken, not merely with regard to the debate over Detroit—but with regard to the debate over who will head the Fed.
One potential contender for the job, Lawrence Summers, has a record of delivering for Wall Street and the big banks—as an advocate for deregulation, privatization and the elimination of essential regulatory protections such as the Glass-Steagall Act. As economist Dean Baker noted after the economy melted down in 2007 and 2008, “The policies [Summers] promoted as Treasury Secretary and in his subsequent writings led to the economic disaster that we now face.” But Summers is also an over-the-top advocate for the sort of free trade agreements that have left communities across this country with shuttered factories and high unemployment. He’s so disinclined toward the public investments that might renew those communities that Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, has said, “Larry Summers hates infrastructure.”
So count Summers out.
There are better choices, such as Janet Louise Yellen, who in her writings and in her tenure as the vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System has evidenced a higher commitment to the Fed’s mandate to promote high employment. She’s clearly a candidate—so much so that on Tuesday she got her first newspaper endorsement: from The New York Times.
But Senator Bernie Sanders has suggested a pair of dark-horse contenders who—in a real race for the Fed chairmanship—would offer working Americans a genuine choice.
Declaring that “it’s time for new leadership at the Federal Reserve and a new approach to our troubled economy,” Sanders has identified Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich as “excellent candidates” to replace Chairman Ben Bernanke when the chairman finishes his term January 31.
“We need a new Fed chair who will act with the same sense of urgency to combat the unemployment crisis in America today that has left 22 million Americans without a full time job,” argues Sanders. To that end, Sanders rejects Summers as a contender, writing to President Obama that “it would be a tragic mistake to nominate anyone as chair of the Fed who continued those failed policies. Instead, we need a new chair who will have the courage to hold Wall Street accountable for their fraud, recklessness and illegal behavior, and stand up for the needs of ordinary Americans.”
But Sanders also recognizes that in the race for the Fed chairmanship progressives should have a contender. Or, perhaps, two.
“As you consider whom to nominate as the next chair of the Federal Reserve, I urge you to consider someone who will put the needs of the disappearing middle class ahead of the interests of Wall Street and the wealthy few,” Sanders wrote to the president. “There are a number of excellent candidates who are capable of doing that. Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz and former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich are just two names that come to mind.”
The reality is that, while the names of Stiglitz and Reich come quickly to the mind of Sanders and other progressives, they may not be at the top of the White House list. But they should be. On the immediate issue of Detroit, Reich has written brilliantly on the importance of recognizing, “in an era of widening inequality,” that the real question is whether Americans are going to “[write] off the poor” who reside in urban America. On the broader question of the economy, Stiglitz is arguing that “so-called ‘free trade’ talks should be in the public, not corporate interest.”
Those are not ideas that are now at the center of the discussion about who should head the Fed.
But they should be.
And they can be.
This is the point of treating the race for the Fed chairmanship as an election, rather than an anointment.
By putting Stiglitz and Reich in the running, Sanders invites organized labor and economic justice and urban policy groups to join the debate. By highlighting the progressive economic approaches advanced by Stiglitz and Reich, as an alternative to those advanced by Larry Summers, they expand the understanding of what the Fed can and should do—for Detroit, for cities across the country and for neglected rural communities.
The debate is essential.
A quarter century ago, my colleague William Greider wrote the groundbreaking book: Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country (Simon & Schuster). The Fed still operates behind veils of secrecy. Most Americans do not know what it does and, more critically, what it can do.
Treating the race for Fed head as a race, as a real campaign, invites citizens into the process.
Urging the selection of Stiglitz or Reich might not lead to the actual choice of a progressive-populist as Fed chair. But it could turn the tide against Summers. It might help Yellen. And it would almost certainly create pressure on whoever takes charge of the Fed to recognize and embrace the full potential of the Federal Reserve.
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy says: “The billionaires are buying our media and our elections. They’re spinning our democracy into a dollarocracy. John Nichols and Bob McChesney expose the culprits who steered America into the quagmire of big money and provide us with the tools to free ourselves and our republic from the corporate kleptocrats.”
Does Larry Summers deserve a second chance?
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at an inauguration ceremony at the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, on January 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is an exceptionally ambitious career politician who loves the sound of cheering crowds in the presidential primary states where he hopes to be a 2016 contender.
But he’s does not care for the sound of dissent.
In fact, dissident voices bother the conservative Republican governor so much that he has ordered state police forces to begin arresting Wisconsinites—from 85-year-olds to young moms with kids—who dare to join a long-established noontime “Solidarity Sing Along” at the state capitol in Madison. In this summer of protest, crowds have gathered at state capitols nationwide—from women’s rights activists in Austin to “Stand Your Ground” foes in Tallahassee to voting rights champions in Raleigh. There have been mass arrests, especially during the “Moral Monday” protests in North Carolina.
But Walker has distinguished himself by targeting tunes.
The singing, which traces its roots to the mass protests against Walker’s anti-labor initiatives of February and March 2011, has been a steady presence in the capitol for two years. But, this summer, the governor’s cracking down. So far, seventy-nine Wisconsinites have been arrested and ticketed, and dozens more are likely to face charges for singing songs like “Which Side Are You On?” and “On Wisconsin” without following a new set of permitting rules developed by the governor to limit the right to assemble.
It is hard to understand why the governor is so perturbed.
He’s not often in a position to hear what’s going on in the capitol.
Unless, of course, the voices of the singers are loud enough to carry to states like Alabama.
The governor, who makes little secret of his 2016 presidential enthusiasm, is spending this summer traveling to states that are likely to play a role in naming the Republican nominee who will pick up where Mitt Romney left off. He’s already been to Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada, New York, Tennessee and Texas. And he’ll be back in many of those state this fall to hawk his upcoming book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge (Sentinel/Penguin), which he’s written with Marc Thiessen, who previously served as chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush. The conservative Washington Examiner says that “according to those familiar with it, might as well come with a ‘Walker for America’ bumper sticker.”
But before he distributes the bumper stickers, Walker is spending his off-year summer vacation on the partisan dinner circuit.
When seventeen singers were arrested Friday at the state capitol, Walker was in Denver keynoting the fourth annual Western Conservative Summit.
Soon he’ll be off to Alabama for the annual Republican Party summer dinner.
He’s already been to the first primary state of New Hampshire and the first caucus state of Iowa.
Walker’s certainly seems to be running.
But he’s not getting much traction.
Against prospective Republican contenders, according to a new TheRun2016 poll, Walker finished eighth with 2.1 percent support among possible Iowa Republican Caucus participants.
There are a lot of explanations for why Governor Walker, despite a very high national profile, attracts so little support. But some of the burden the governor carries undoubtedly has to do with his image as a “divide and conquer” politician who is determined to crack down on teachers, public employees, conservationists, local officials and anyone else who isn’t using his songbook—even going so far as to have grandmothers, veterans, teachers and mothers with children arrested for carrying a tune in the capitol—but who is not very good when it comes to managing his state, maintaining great schools, building a strong infrastructure or creating a climate that encourages job creation.
John Nichols and Bob McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, Harvard University, says, “As Nichols and McChesney’s new book shows, the robber barons of the late 19th century were pikers compared with today’s moneyed interests. They have hijacked our elections at all levels, and nothing short of the sweeping reforms called for in Dollarocracy can fix the problem. The book is a must read for anyone who cares about the integrity of our democratic system.”
Congressman Darrell Issa has a plan to end the US Postal Service. Can the American Postal Workers Union stop him?
A post office in Long Island City, New York. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Congressman Darrell Issa really is determined to end the United States Postal Service as Americans know it—indeed, as Americans have known it for more than 200 years.
Issa, the powerful chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has a long history of attacking the postal service. But, now, he has taken advantage of a manufactured crisis to get his committee to vote twenty-two to seventeen in favor of a “Postal Reform Act of 2013” that American Postal Workers Union president Cliff Guffey warns “will lead to the demise of the Postal Service.”
With Wednesday’s committee vote, the full House is now set to consider a plan that would, among other things, phase out door-to-door mail delivery by 2022. Instead of the traditional and highly popular delivery model that now exists, mail would be left in so-called “neighborhood cluster boxes” that would serve multiple residences.
The Issa plan also sets the stage for the elimination of most weekend mail service.
The changes Issa proposes would, according to the National Association of Letter Carriers, lead to “the elimination of more than 100,000 postal jobs and would dramatically cut service.” And in addition to its assault on the character and quality of postal service, the legislation includes classic austerity schemes, such as a prohibition against postal unions and management from negotiating protections against the closure of post offices, stations and branches, the consolidating of plants, the privatization of operations and layoffs.
The cuts, if implemented, would issue as an open invitation for private-delivery services to cash in by offering to fill the void created by those cuts. There are profits to be made by delivering mail to the front doors of Americans who can pay—and who want regular delivery on Saturdays. So it should come as no surprise that one of the first endorsements for Issa’s proposal came from the “Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service,” a group that counts FedEx as one of its most enthusiastic boosters.
The corporations that want to carve the USPS up and grab their pieces of America’s communications infrastructure are ready to pounce.
That is what is at stake.
APWU president Guffey says that “the legislation as written is totally unacceptable.”
It is so unacceptable, in fact, that it is unlikely to be implemented in its entirety anytime soon. But to the extent that Issa’s ideas influence the decision-making process with regard to the future of the USPS, the Issa plan is exceptionally dangerous.
The primary danger is the suggestion that the only fix for the postal service is downsizing. That’s the wrong route. There’s no question that the USPS can and must change. But schemes to cut services and to break up and sell off parts of the service begin with the false premise that its current financial challenges are evidence of structural flaws.
That’s not the case.
The service is losing money at an unsettling rate; it was down $16 billion in 2012. But the vast majority of the losses—roughly 80 percent, according to Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon—result from a mandate imposed by Congress in 2006, which requires the USPS to prepay retiree healthcare benefits for seventy-five years into the future. Major corporations could not shoulder such a burden. Neither could cities, states or the federal government.
Ending the mandate and requiring the postal service to operate along the lines of the most responsible private businesses would make the USPS viable.
So Issa is going at things in entirely the wrong way.
The right route is outlined by National Association of Letter Carriers president Fredric Rolando in a letter to Issa and Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. In it, Rolando writes that comprehensive postal reform must:
1. Stabilize the Postal Service’s finances by reforming or eliminating unwise and unfair pension and retiree health financing policies that have crippled the Postal Service’s finances since 2006;
2. Strengthen and protect the Postal Service’s invaluable first-mile and last-mile networks that together comprise a crucial part of the nation’s infrastructure;
3. Overhaul the basic governance structure of the agency to attract first-class executive talent and a private-sector style board of directors with the demonstrated business expertise needed to implement a strategy that will allow the Postal Service to innovate and take advantage of growth opportunities even as it adjusts to declining traditional mail volume; and
4. Free the Postal Service to meet the evolving needs of the American economy and to set its prices in a way that reflects the cost structure of the delivery industry while assuring affordable universal service and protecting against anti-competitive abuses.
While Issa is using flawed premises and flawed policies to hasten the demise of the postal service, others really are working to save it.
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Congressman DeFazio have proposed legislation that would stabilize the finances of the USPS while freeing it to compete in the twenty-first century.
Says Sanders, “While we all understand that the Postal Service is experiencing financial problems today and that changes need to be made as the Postal Service adjusts to a digital world, these issues can be dealt with in a way which strengthens the Postal Service rather than initiating a series of cuts that could eventually lead to a death spiral.”
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Tim Carpenter, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, says, “Those of us who have been fighting at the grassroots against the corporate influence on both major parties have for years been waiting for an uncompromising, unrelenting expose of how big money shouts down the voices of citizens. This is it! Nichols and McChesney reveal how billionaires and corporations are buying our media, buying our elections. But Nichols and McChesney don’t stop there. They outline an agenda that is bold enough to make this country a real democracy. If you want to build a movement that gives power to the people, you must read this book.”
The USPS is not alone in facing financial difficulties—millions of Americans are struggling with poverty as well.
Hezbollah supporters fire weapons as they celebrate the fall of the Syrian town of Qusair to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah fighters, in Bazzalieh village, Lebanon, near the Lebanese-Syrian border, Wednesday, June 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are agreed on one thing: they both want to get the United States more actively engaged in the fighting in Syria.
Obama announced last month that he hopes to ship arms to the Syrian opposition forces that are fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Boehner said this week that the president’s Syrian gambit “is in our nation’s best interest.”
Boehner’s endorsement of the move came as House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, announced, “After much discussion and review, we got a consensus that we could move forward with what the administration’s plans and intentions are in Syria consistent with committee reservations.”
But, make no mistake, an “in our nation’s best interest” quote from Boehner and an Intelligence Committee “consensus” ought not be read as congressional approval for a project that threatens to involve the United States in another war in another Middle Eastern country.
That’s a point made by a key Intelligence Committee member, California Democrat Adam Schiff, who announced this week, “I do not share that consensus, however, and wish to make my dissent clear. In my view, the modest chance for success of these plans does not warrant the risk of becoming entangled in yet another civil war.”
Schiff’s concerns are well-founded. And he is not alone. Polling shows that only 11 percent of Americans favor US moves to aid the rebels. And there are many in Congress—Republicans and Democrats, Obama critics and frequent Obama allies—who express profound reservations about the course chosen by the administration.
That ought to create a checking-and-balancing moment. After all, the Constitution clearly affords Congress the power to declare wars—and to define the scope and character of military interventions.
But, as Vermont Congressman Peter Welch asked this week, “Does Congress play a role?”
The answer, because of manipulations of the process by Boehner and his allies is basically “No.”
Congressman Welch, a Democrat who recently visited the Syrian border region, has emerged as an outspoken critic of moves to involve the United States in the conflict. Welch warns that “this is a significant military action. We are taking sides in a civil war.” It is this concern that led Welch and a number of Republican representatives to try and force Congress to engage in a serious debate about whether to get entangled in the Syria fight. Unfortunately, Boehner has manipulated the rules to aid Obama’s quest.
As part of the debate over the 2014 Pentagon spending bill, Welch and a bipartisan coalition he helped to assemble had hoped to get a vote on an amendment that would have barred the use of Department of Defense money to arm the rebels—or to otherwise pull the United States into the Syrian conflict.
But House leaders blocked consideration of the proposal. Boehner’s allies on the Rules Committee wanted to allow debate on only four narrowly drawn amendments to the broader spending bill. In addition to amendments that discuss limiting National Security Agency spying and aid to Egypt, a watered-down amendment on Syria was considered.
Sponsored by Republican Congressman Trey Radel, of Florida, the Syria amendment passed on a voice vote Wednesday. But it only prohibits the use of Pentagon funds for Syrian projects that are defined as “inconsistent” with the War Powers Resolution. The wording of Radel’s amendment makes it essentially symbolic, as it does little more than restate existing law.
It is important to remind the White House of the rules. Indeed, as Robert Naiman, the policy director for the group Just Foreign Policy, notes, “the Radel amendment can help achieve two things: it can be cited as Congressional opposition to deeper U.S. military involvement, and it specifically can be used to argue against continuation of the recent deployment of U.S. troops to Jordan, widely perceived as related to the threat of U.S. military intervention in Syria.”
But the Radel amendment does not achieve the sort of meaningful congressional action that the founders imagined as a necessary tool to check and balance military adventurism. It’s a facade of oversight rather than the real thing. Just as when Russian officials were accused of erecting fake “Potemkin villages” to fool foreign ambassadors into thinking impoverished regions were thriving, Boehner and his team are erecting Potemkin Checks and Balances.
“The Republican leadership ducked a real important debate when it comes to Syria,” complained Congressman James McGovern, D-Masachusetts.
McGovern is right about that.
And he is right to worry about what Boehner’s failure might mean.
“I hope that…a few years down the road we don’t look back,” said McGovern, “and express regret that somehow we got sucked into this war without a real debate.”
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (The Nation). Author Thomas Frank says: “This is the black book of politics-as-industry, an encyclopedic account of money’s crimes against democracy. The billionaires have hijacked our government, and anyone feeling complacent after the 2012 election should take sober note of Nichols’ and McChesney’s astonishing finding: It’s only going to get worse. Dollarocracy is an impressive achievement.”
Members of Congress aren’t alone in questioning US involvement in Syria—the top US general is doing it too.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie answers a question during a campaign event in Manville, New Jersey, Monday, May 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
It is well understood in New Jersey that no one with an instinct for self preservation gets between Governor Chris Christie and a television camera.
Plenty of politicians seek the media spotlight. It’s a smart strategy that yields valuable “free air time” in an era of costly campaigns. And it satisfies the ego.
But Christie’s appetite for the limelight puts other pols to shame.
He’s omnipresent not just in local media but, because of New Jersey’s location—between the powerful New York and Philadelphia media markets—voters in neighboring states may actually know the Garden State governor better than their own chief executives. And Christie keeps going national. As the Newark Star-Ledger recently noted, “He’s eaten doughnuts with David Letterman, crooned with Jimmy Fallon and poked fun at himself on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Now Governor Chris Christie is taking his personality to prime time with an appearance on Michael J. Fox’s upcoming NBC sitcom.”
All that airtime helps a candidate for re-election, and Christie is on the ballot this fall.
But it also helps a prospective candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nod.
Christie’s Democratic challenger in this year’s campaign says the governor is using national appearances to connect with the Republican caucus and primary voters in distant states. “I think that the people of New Jersey deserve more than someone who just has his sights set on the Rose Garden,” complains State Senator Barbara Buono. “I’m focused on the Garden State, that’s the kind of leader they’ll have, not someone who calibrates every decision they make based on how it’ll play in the cornfields of Iowa.”
Nay, nay, says Christie.
Asked about all his national TV time, Christie says he’s actually adjusting New Jersey’s image.
“Christie says when he became governor in 2010 the state’s image was being shaped by the mob drama ‘The Sopranos’ and reality shows ‘Jersey Shore’ and ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey,’ ” reports the Associated Press. “Christie, who has become a national figure in his three years as governor, says people now have a more positive image of the state.”
So there you have it.
Chris Christie isn’t grabbing the national spotlight in order to enhance his re-election prospects and position himself for 2016.
Chris Christie is doing New Jersey a favor.
And if you don’t agree, there’s a pretty good chance the governor will go on national television and call you “stupid.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Fomer FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says: “Dollarocracy gets at what’s ailing America better than any other diagnosis I’ve encountered. Plus it prescribes a cure. What else could a reader—or a citizen—ask? To me, it’s the book of the year.”
Is Chris Christie really a moderate Republican?
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder presents his third state budget before the state Legislature in Lansing, Michigan, Thursday, February 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Does anyone seriously doubt that, if Detroit were a “too big to fail” bank, it would have been bailed out long ago? Or that its pensioners, rather than facing the threat of cruel cuts as part of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s scheme to steer the city into brutal bankruptcy proceedings, would instead have pocketed hefty bonuses?
To ask the question is to answer it.
America’s great cities? Not so much.
The political dynamic in Washington has been tough on America’s cities for a long time. And it is worse now, as austerity advocates seek to shred a safety net that is vital for urban America. But there are some in DC who recognize that the federal government has both a responsibility and an opportunity—as Pennsylvania Congressman Chaka Fattah, a leader of the Congressional Urban Caucus, suggested Friday— “to analyze Detroit’s fiscal situation and intervene on the city’s behalf.”
This does not mean that a bailout on par with what the bankers got is in the offering for struggling cities and counties across the country. Not on John Boehner’s watch.
Yet, Washington cannot avoid this issue and expect the United States to return to robust economic health. The link between the economic viability of American cities and the economic viability of America is too great for that.
To this end, President Obama and serious members of Congress must speak up about the vital importance of federal interventions not merely on behalf of cities but also on behalf of the people who live in major municipalities that cannot be allowed to fail. Cities and counties provide front-line services to tens of millions of America’s most-vulnerable citizens, and municipal employees and retirees use the checks they have earned providing those services to keep local economies functioning. Austerity cuts, whether they are imposed by appointed officials with no other options or bankruptcy courts, do real damage far beyond the cities where they are imposed.
The urgency of Detroit’s circumstance has highlighted the need for what one Congressman calls a “rethink” of Washington’s approach to cities that—for all their troubles—remain essential engines of the American economy. This rethink must, necessarily, recognize that the era in which Washington can neglect American cities and expect the American economy to survive unscathed is finished.
The headlines from Detroit tell us as much.
But it’s not just the Motor City.
Detroit is in the news because of Snyder’s move. But Detroit is not alone—not in a country where more than 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas, and where communities from California to Alabama are wrestling with bankruptcy processes.
Michigan Governor Snyder has targeted Michigan cities outside Detroit for state-imposed austerity, using an “emergency manager” law that he reworked and reinstated even after Michigan voters scrapped a similar measure in a 2012 statewide referendum vote. Beyond Michigan, in states across the country, major cities teeter on the brink of insolvency.
No one suggests that officials in Detroit or Saginaw or Flint—or the other struggling American cities—did everything right.
But only the most deliberately disengaged commentator would imagine Washington to be blame-free in all this. America’s urban communities—and many not-so-urban communities—have for decades been battered by free-trade policies that foster deindustrialization, by tax policies that encourage offshoring, by all the missteps and misdeeds of Congress and successive presidents.
Washington did plenty to create the crisis. Yet, as Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee notes, “For too long lawmakers and regulators have stood aside as cities grapple with budget deficits, unfunded pensions and crumbling infrastructure.”
Kildee, a Democrat who served as Genesee County (Flint) Treasurer and CEO of the Genesee Land Bank before his election to Congress, is urging Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to work with Congress to address what the congressman warns—correctly—is “the systemic failure of U.S. cities.”
“I would ask if you would think about how you would advise Congress or how the Fed itself might pursue policy that would have the effect of potentially avoiding—but certainly mitigating—the economic effect of municipal financial failure,” Kildee told Bernanke at a House Financial Services Committee last week.
Since his election to Congress in 2012, Kildee has been warning Washington that the crisis faced by cities extends far beyond the headline-grabbing troubles faced by Detroit.
“In my work across the country, this is something much bigger than a failure of management, but a structural failure,” the congressman argues. “Cities failing will be a national problem, one way or another, and I suggest perhaps at a different juncture we might pursue some thought about how the federal government might intervene.”
The “rethink” that Kildee proposes is rooted in an understanding that failing cities undermine the states in which they are located—and the nation as a whole. And, he argues, there are ways to intervene.
“Our system of municipal finance is broken. States and the federal government need to rethink the way they support cities and metropolitan areas,” explains Kildee. “For example, community development block grant programs, which Republicans in Congress have proposed cutting by over 40 percent, is the wrong approach that would be damaging the vitality of many U.S. cities, in some cases even exacerbating their decline. It’s time that we start thinking about the long-term sustainability and funding mechanism for cities and suburban areas that are the powerhouse engines of our economy.”
Kildee’s not alone in stepping up. He’s one of the newest members of Congress, but in the struggle to aid Detroit, he’s joined by one of the senior members: Congressman John Conyers, who has represented the Detroit area since the mid-1960s.
Conyers warned long ago that free-trade policies would devastate American cities, and he’s been a steady advocate for investment in urban America. But now, he says, Congress needs to recognize and respond to the risks that arise when municipalities are in crisis.
While Kildee is prodding Bernanke to engage, Conyers wants the House Judiciary Committee to examine “the increasing use of Chapter 9 bankruptcy by municipalities and other jurisdictions facing financial distress and the ramifications such bankruptcy filings are having on impacted jurisdictions and the nation as a whole.”
In particular, Conyers is interested in examining the role that financial distress and bankruptcy pressures play in assaulting pension rights and in hastening the privatization of essential public services. As Conyers notes, the pressure to privatize is often at odds with the public interest in transparency and the long-term stability of communities.
There are already plenty of politicians stepping up to say what Washington can’t do in response not just to Detroit’s needs but also to those of hundreds of cities and counties nationwide. But that’s austerity talking, not common sense. Common sense says that the federal government, which has played a part in undermining the economic prospects of American cities, needs to start playing a useful role.
No matter what that role is, there will be those who call it a “bailout.” In reality, it’s a smart investment not just in cities but also in the American people. After all, as Congressman Kildee reminds us, “While you can dissolve a corporation through bankruptcy, you cannot simply ‘dissolve’ a place where hundreds of thousands of people live, work and raise their families.”
John Nichols and Bob McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). US Senator Bernie Sanders writes: “With this book, John Nichols and Bob McChesney invite Americans to examine the challenges facing America in new ways, and to fully recognize the threat that the combination of big money and big media poses to the promise of self-government. They paint a daunting picture, rich in detail based on intense reporting and groundbreaking research. But they do not offer us a pessimistic take. Rather, they call us, as Tom Paine did more than two centuries ago, to turn knowledge into power. And they tell us that we can and must respond to our contemporary challenges as a nation by rejecting the Dollarocracy and renewing our commitment to democracy.”
Are Governor Rick Snyder's actions in Detroit an "affront to democracy" or merely tough but necessary decisions?
US President Barack Obama unveils a series of proposals to counter gun violence as Vice President Joe Biden looks on during an event at the White House in Washington, January 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Larry Downing)
President Obama’s decision to speak frankly, and extensively, about a Florida jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman, and about the array of issues that have arisen since Zimmerman shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was broadly significant. Only rarely does an American president step so directly and so intentionally into so charged a debate, and even more rarely does a president do so in such personal terms.
"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son," the president explained Friday. "Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."
That was the headline statement.
But the president did not make his unexpected appearance Friday to talk about himself. He was talking issues—specific issues—and explaining why they matter.
It was a teaching moment. And Obama used it well:
(When) you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me—at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws—everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
Obama got specific, especially with regard to the “stand your ground” laws that have come into focus since Trayvon Martin’s killing. And his remarks, coming at a critical point in the development of the debate about those laws and of the national movement to overturn them, will sustain and encourage those who argue, as The Seattle Times has, that “the single best memorial to Trayvon Martin—Justice for Trayvon—is repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.”
Developed in Florida by a National Rifle Association lobbyist and her allies in 2005, that state’s “stand your ground” law became the basis for laws that the NRA and the American Legislative Exchange Council succeeded over the next seven years in getting enacted in more than two dozen states. The outcry over the Trayvon Martin killing led large corporations, which had backed ALEC, to quit the group, and ALEC eventually announced that it was “refocusing” away from advocacy for “stand your ground” legislation. But the laws the group created remain on the books, and they continue to influence criminal justice in Florida and nationally—as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin highlighted in announcing Friday that his Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee will hold hearings on how “stand your ground” laws were passed, and their impact on society.
Florida’s “stand your ground” law—which permits an individual who feels threatened to employ deadly force even when it would have been possible to retreat—influenced the Zimmerman case from start to finish. After an initial failure by local authorities to charge the man who shot an unarmed Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman was finally charged and then tried. Though Zimmerman’s lawyers mounted a classic self-defense argument at trail, the jury instructions said that “he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so.” And a key juror told CNN that she reached her “not guilty” stance at least in part “because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground.”
Now, in Florida and other states, newspapers are calling for the repeal of “stand your ground” laws. Activists are demanding that they be struck from the books. And lawmakers, even some who backed the laws initially, are rethinking “stand your ground.”
It is in this context that the president entered the “stand your ground” debate. In addition to discussing the value of laws that bar racial profiling, Obama said:
Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it—if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.
I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the “stand your ground” laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case. On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.
That’s a nuanced way in which to discuss “stand your ground” laws.
And it is valuable.
The key in opening the debate about “stand your ground” is not to convince legislators, and Americans, who are already opposed to the laws that they are properly offended. Nor is there much hope that politicians who have aligned themselves with the gun industry (which has advocated for “stand your ground” laws in hopes that they will limit liability for gun manufacturers and retailers) will be caused to rethink. There will always be those, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who imagine that any criticism of “stand your ground” laws represents a “disregard for the Bill of Rights”—conveniently forgetting that the country survived as a constitutional republic for the better part of 220 years before any “stand your ground” laws began to be enacted.
The key is to speak to reasonable Americans, some of them Democrats and some of them Republicans, some of them liberals and some of them conservatives, who have a creeping suspicion that laws permitting the use of deadly force even when it could be avoided might not be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d all like to see.
The president was speaking to those Americans in his remarks on Friday. And it is vital to maintain that conversation.
John Nichols and Bob McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says: “Dollarocracy gets at what’s ailing America better than any other diagnosis I’ve encountered. Plus it prescribes a cure. What else could a reader—or a citizen—ask? To me, it’s the book of the year.”
Who had a right to stand his ground: George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin?
A mother and child sit on the beach on Belle Isle in Detroit, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Recalling the partial meltdown of a nearby nuclear power plant a decade earlier, and a book that revealed the extent of the crisis, Gil Scott Heron sang in 1977, “We Almost Lost Detroit.”
The city survived, and remains home to 700,000 Americans and the symbolic center of the nation’s auto industry. But after decades of neglect by federal and state officials, and a meltdown of American manufacturing, Detroit is facing exceptionally hard economic times.
Detroit is up against plenty of threats. But the most pressing political threat over the past several months has come from a Republican governor who seeks to impose his will on a city that did not choose him or his austerity agenda.
On Thursday afternoon, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder made his move.
And the notion that the people who live in America’s great cities must govern their own affairs took a huge hit.
Snyder, the Republican who led the charge for Michigan’s enactment of an anti-labor “right-to-work” law last year, announced that he had approved legal steps to steer the state’s largest city toward bankruptcy. He made no bones about who was in charge, declaring in a statement attached to the bankruptcy filing that “I’m making this tough decision…”
Earlier this year, the governor engineered a state-driven takeover of Detroit that disempowered the elected mayor and city council and gave authority over decisions about the city’s finances, service delivery and direction to an appointed “emergency manager.”
On Thursday afternoon, Snyder signed off on the filing of paperwork seeking Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in the US Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. On Friday, a Michigan judge ordered Snyder's emergency manager to withdraw the federal bankruptcy petition. Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina's order declared the 2012 Michigan law that allowed Snyder to approve the city's bankruptcy filing violated the state Constitution. Michigan's Republican attorney general immediately announced that he would appeal the ruling, and analysts warned that federal bankruptcy law often trumps state protections.
The legal wrangling will go on for months, perhaps years.
If the bankruptcy court eventually accepts the argument presented by Snyder and his emergency manager, Detroit will become the largest American city to enter bankruptcy. It will, as well, be the largest American city in the recent history of the republic to take such a dramatic step without following the basic practices and procedures of democratic governance.
To be sure, Detroit faces serious financial challenges. It has huge debts, high unemployment and tough prospects as a historic industrial city in an age of deindustrialization. It suffers from the broad neglect of urban America by federal officials who are so disengaged that, on Thursday, Congressman Dan Kildee, D-Michigan, complained in a stinging letter to Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, “For too long, lawmakers and regulators have stood aside as cities grapple with budget deficits, unfunded pensions and crumbling infrastructure.”
Detroit’s economic challenges are not unique.
What is distinct about Detroit is the denial of democracy.
No matter how tough things get, most American cities face their challenges under the direction of local officials who take their cues from voters. When officials fail to act, or act inappropriately, they are replaced by the ballot. Sometimes, in emergency situations, they are recalled and removed from office in order to make way for necessary changes.
But the voters still call the shots.
That’s how it is supposed to be in America.
There is an understanding at the federal level of American governance that the people who make essential decisions about federal policy should be elected.
There is an understanding at the state level of American governance that the people who make essential decisions about state policy should be elected.
In most of the country, there is an understanding at the municipal level of American governance that the people who make essential decisions about municipal policy should be elected.
But that’s not what’s happening in Detroit or other cities that have been targeted by Snyder for “emergency management.”
Under the authority that Snyder took upon himself to disempower local elected officials and replace them with his appointees, the governor and his “managers” are making the essential decisions. In Detroit, Snyder has pursued a bankruptcy designation that city officials, residents and representatives of current and retired public employees sought to avoid. And he used a concocted law that a judge has now rejected as unconstitutional.
Snyder's bankruptcy push provoked anger in Detroit, where the Rev. Charles Williams II of the city’s Historic King Solomon Baptist Church, declared, “The emergency manager and Governor Snyder failed. Emergency management was supposed to keep us from going into bankruptcy.”
The emergency manager, Washington, DC, bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr, sought to develop a restructuring plan. But unions representing city workers and retirees objected that he did not make a serious effort to consult with stakeholders. “Governor Snyder’s plan to suspend democracy, drive one of America’s largest cities into bankruptcy and deprive workers of their hard-earned retirement security, moved dangerously closer to reality today when without a single negotiation with unions, workers or retirees, Snyder authorized Detroit’s financial manager to file for bankruptcy,” said American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees national president Lee Saunders.
If the bankruptcy process initiated by the governor and his appointee were to go forward, critics of Snyder's move warn that Detroit could face austerity cuts on public services, policies established by the voters and their elected representatives could be rejected and contracts with unions representing municipal employees could be torn up.
But protesters, hundreds of whom occupied Detroit’s city hall just last week, are most concerned about the impact of an imposed austerity agenda on retirees, the disabled and young people. “It’s an affront to democracy,” the Rev. David Bullock, who leads the Change Agent Consortium, a Detroit activist group, says of the process. “There’s got to be a better way to fix Detroit without [cutting aid and services for] the most vulnerable citizens.”
That affront to democracy has been deeply felt, and much discussed in Detroit.
When Snyder was in the process of naming his emergency manager, Detroit City Council member Ken Cockrel Jr. explained that “strong, independent-minded [citizens who] want to help the city” by seeking and holding local elected positions have every reason to ask, “Why should I run for public office in the city of Detroit if the only thing I’m going to have the authority to do is pass out resolutions and kiss babies because an [emergency manager] is the one calling all the shots?”
In April, Cockrel announced that he would not seek a new term.
Snyder has moved by fiat to do what he and his political allies could not do at the polls: take charge of local government in Michigan’s largest city. In the 2012 election, Democrat Barack Obama received 98 percent of the almost 300,000 votes cast in Detroit, while Republican Mitt Romney took just over 2 percent. No Republican contender for federal, state or local office won more than 6 percent of the vote in a city where African-Americans make up 83 percent of the population and Latinos account for roughly 7 percent.
Yet now, a Republican governor is setting the city’s agenda as part of a statewide power grab. After Snyder’s takeover of Detroit’s affairs, it was estimated that almost 50 percent of Michigan’s African-American population resides in communities that are run not be local elected officials but by gubernatorial appointees.
Michigan’s citizens rejected Snyder’s approach last fall, voting in a statewide referendum to scrap the emergency-manager law. But Snyder and the Republican legislature turned around and wrote new legislation that gives the governor authority to—in the words of state Representative Rose Mary Robinson, a Detroit Democrat—make moves “without debate, without democratic involvement, without the people’s involvement.”
Detroit is not just Michigan’s largest city. It has, for more than a century, been one of America’s great urban centers. And the governor’s moves over the past several months have drawn national notice.
“In this particular case, you have to in some degree look at it as a hostile takeover,” David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political Studies, said earlier this year. A veteran scholar of urban affairs who has tracked the rise of African-American elected officials in America, Bositis argues that “Detroit is a very Democratic city and it’s being taken over by a very Republican and conservative state government.”
Snyder says his takeover is necessary because—like many great industrial cities that have lost the factories that provided employment and tax revenues—Detroit’s finances are in rough shape. Everyone understands the challenges Detroit faces. Everyone understands that, as in other municipalities across the country, it is possible to point to some of Detroit’s past leaders and say that they made ill-thought and self-serving choices that undermined the city and its finances. And everyone understands that current officials have had a very hard time grappling with the issues that arise when a debt-burdened city’s tax base is disappearing.
But what Snyder does not mention is that the state he runs has played a role in Detroit’s decline by withholding financial assistance that is due to the city. While the federal government has neglected the challenges faced by cities that are drowning in debt, Michigan government has refused to toss available lifelines. The Detroit News has noted the anger of the city’s elected representatives over the failure to provide more than $220 million in revenue-sharing payments.
The money was supposed to be paid to the city after it capped income tax rates. Yet, even as Detroit’s economic circumstance worsened, Snyder refused to provide the needed assistance.
“Why not give the city its revenue sharing?” asked State Representative Brian Banks, a Democrat whose district takes in a portion of Detroit’s northeast side. “Why not start giving a portion of it?”
“The governor won’t admit that the state is culpable in why and how Detroit has got here,” State Senator Bert Johnson, a Detroit-area Democrat, told the News. “If you cut revenue sharing, you cut money for the Police Department that has to manage the 139 square miles that is Detroit.”
Disputes between Michigan and Detroit over state aid are nothing new. But the state’s hard line has left the city vulnerable. And there’s plenty of grumbling in Detroit about the prospect that, as is so often the case in austerity moments, valuable public assets will be sold off at bargain-basement prices to private interests.
For all the hits it takes in the media, Detroit is a city with significant properties, including Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park in the Detroit River, which is managed by the Detroit Recreation Department. It’s got public utilities, such as the Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage. As the Metropolitan AFL-CIO has noted, the governor has created a circumstance that could lead to a rapid selling off of assets that benefits buyers living outside Detroit while making the community “less livable.”
All of this, from the appointment of the emergency manager to the bankruptcy filing to the austerity agency that is now increasingly likely to be implemented, will happen without the approval of the voters or their elected representatives.
This is a fundamental issue.
In tough times, under pressure from lenders and taxpayers, cities often make cuts. They even privatize services and sell off public facilities.
But under Snyder’s emergency manager law, Detroit’s voters and their elected leaders aren’t making the choices that will determine Detroit's direction.
A Republican governor, and his appointed manager, are calling the shots.
This is not what the voters of Detroit asked for. Last fall, they had an opportunity to vote on whether the state should maintain the emergency manager law. 82 percent of Detroit residents voted “no.”
“When times are tough,” local union officials said in a statement released after the governor announced in March that he was appointing his emergency manager, “it is especially important that decisions are made democratically and locally.”
That’s a basic American principle that Governor Snyder has abandoned with a power grab that should unsettle Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. What’s been happening in Detroit is not what democracy looks like.
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (The Nation). 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.”
As Congress decides whether or not to resurrect the heart of the Voting Rights Act, Republicans in North Carolina are pushing a harsh new voter ID law.
Lisa Archer, 24, chants as protestors march, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in Atlanta the day after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the 2012 shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
When Florida Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson issued the jury instructions in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, those instructions declared,
If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Though Zimmerman’s lawyers chose to mount a traditional self-defense argument on their client’s behalf—eschewing a defense specifically based on the controversial Florida law that permits individuals who feel threatened to use deadly force even when they could retreat to safety—the role played in the case by the “stand your ground” law, and the theory that underpins it, has come into stark relief in the days since Zimmerman was acquitted.
The judge’s instructions, and a juror’s referencing of “stand your ground” in her discussion of the deliberations, serve to highlight long-term concerns about laws that permit the use of deadly force even when violence might be averted.
Civil rights groups have objected to “stand your ground” laws in Florida and dozens of other states in their responses to the Zimmerman verdict. So, too, have prominent figures such as musician Stevie Wonder, who announced Sunday that he would boycott “stand your ground” states. And on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention in Orlando that states must reconsider laws that contribute to "more violence than they prevent."
Florida’s “stand your ground” law has from the beginning been a part of the controversy over the February 26, 2012, killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was not charged for forty-four days following the shooting of the youth. Only after national protests led Florida Governor Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor was Zimmerman charged with second-degree murder.
Now, despite attempts by casual commentators to suggest that “stand your ground” was not a factor in this case, serious observers are coming to recognize the significance of this week’s observation by The Miami Herald that “Zimmerman waived his right to the Stand Your Ground immunity hearing, a pre-trial event that’s not spelled out in statute. But he was afforded the protections of Stand Your Ground, which is embedded in Florida’s self-defense laws. Its language, found in statute 766.012, was tailored to the Zimmerman trial’s jury instructions.”
At least one juror says that “stand your ground” considerations figured in the deliberations by a jury that was reportedly divided over whether to convict Zimmerman.
Responding to a question about how the jurors reached their “not guilty” verdict—despite concerns regarding Zimmerman’s actions prior to the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin —the juror justified her decision by telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “Well, because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground. He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.”
More than a year ago, initial protests over the killing of Trayvon Martin brought national attention to Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which was enacted in 2005—and to similar laws that the Center for Media and Democracy explains have been enacted in twenty-six states over the past decade, with prodding from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the National Rifle Association.
Amid the controversy over the Florida shooting, ALEC announced in April, 2012, that it would no longer advocate for "stand your ground" laws as part of a broader refocusing on economic issues. But the laws remain on the books. “Florida’s dangerous ‘shoot first’ law allowed Trayvon’s killer to walk free without charges for more than a month. ‘Shoot First’ legalizes vigilante homicide, has demonstrated racial bias in its application, and has led to an increase in gun-related deaths in the more than two dozen states where it has been passed into law,” argued Color of Change, as part of its campaign to strike down “stand your ground” laws in states across the country. “These laws give individual gun owners a greater right to shoot and kill than the rules of engagement for our military during times of war grant to soldiers in war zones. ‘Shoot First’ must be repealed now to protect families and communities and prevent senseless deaths.”
With the acquittal of Zimmerman, the Florida law has come back into focus, as have the laws in states across the country.
In his response to the Zimmerman verdict, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Benjamin Todd Jealous said, “We stand with Trayvon’s family and we are called to act. We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “Sadly, all the facts in this tragic case will probably never be known. But one fact has long been crystal clear: ‘shoot-first’ laws like those in Florida can inspire dangerous vigilantism and protect those who act recklessly with guns. Such laws—drafted by gun lobby extremists in Washington—encourage deadly confrontations by enabling people to shoot first and argue ‘justifiable homicide’ later.”
Attorney General Holder picked up on that theme in his remarks to the NAACP Tuesday, saying,
Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation’s attention, it’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if—and the “if” is important—if no safe retreat is available.
But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common-sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely. By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety.
The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent. It is our collective obligation; we must stand OUR ground to ensure—we must stand our ground to ensure that our laws reduce violence, and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent.
A national “No More Stand Your Ground” petition drive has already attracted more than 50,000 signatures.
The Seattle Times has editorialized that “the single best memorial to Trayvon Martin—Justice for Trayvon—is repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.”
The movement to repeal “stand your ground” laws is growing in the states. In Georgia, State Senate Democratic whip Vincent Fort has introduced legislation that would replace that state’s “stand your ground” law with new legislation requiring anyone with a gun to withdraw from a threatening circumstance before using deadly force. In New Hampshire, Democratic State Representative Steve Shurtleff has been working to overturn that state’s “stand your ground” law and has attracted the support of the Concord Monitor newspaper, which says, “New Hampshire’s law should be repealed before someone here is killed by a gunman intent on standing his ground when he could instead walk away from a fight. Many Americans have concluded that it was Zimmerman, not Martin who ‘got away,’ despite what the gunman said before the shooting. Making that less likely in the future is a cause we must all embrace.
In Florida, State Senator Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, has renewed a push to overturn the original “Stand Your Ground” law, saying, “Florida has to fix this problem because Florida created this problem with the kind of law that we placed on the books, so we have to change the law or we are going to see more Trayvon Martins.” Members of the Dream Defenders group occupied Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office Tuesday, seeking a commitment from the governor to call a special session of the legislature to address the issue.
Stevie Wonder is on the side of their struggle.
“I decided today that until the 'Stand Your Ground’ law is abolished in Florida, I will never perform there again,” the musician declared after the verdict was announced.
But Wonder, a veteran civil rights campaigner who played an instrumental role in establishing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday, and who was an outspoken critic of apartheid during the era when international artists refused to play South Africa's Sun City resort. went further. Recognizing that the fight against "stand your ground" is not just a Florida struggle, he added, “As a matter of fact, wherever I find that law exists, I will not perform in that state or in that part of the world.”
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps says: “Dollarocracy gets at what’s ailing America better than any other diagnosis I’ve encountered. Plus it prescribes a cure. What else could a reader—or a citizen—ask? To me, it’s the book of the year.”
What role did white womanhood play in the trial of George Zimmerman?