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Chokwe Lumumba maintained a civil rights commitment that was rooted in the moment when his mother showed her 8-year-old son the Jet magazine photograph of a beaten Emmett Till in his open casket. The commitment was nurtured on the streets of Detroit, where Lumumba and his mother collected money to support the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s.
Half a century later, he would be the transformational mayor of a major Southern city, Jackson, Mississippi. But just as his tenure was taking shape, Lumumba died unexpectedly Tuesday at age 66.
The mayor’s death ended an epic journey that challenged conventions, upset the status quo and proved the potential of electoral politics to initiate radical change—even in a conservative Southern state.
As a young man, inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle to address “infectious discrimination, racism and apartheid,” and shocked into a deeper activism by King’s assassination, Lumumba changed his name from Edwin Taliaferro—taking his new first name from an African tribe that had resisted slavery and his new last name from the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba.
Chokwe Lumumba became a human rights lawyer “defending political prisoners.” His clients would eventually include former Black Panthers and rapper Tupac Shakur. His remarkable list of legal accomplishments included his key role in the 2010 decision of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to suspend the sentences of Jamie and Gladys Scott, Mississippi sisters who were released after serving sixteen years of consecutive life sentences for an $11 robbery—a punishment that came to be understood as a glaring example of the extreme over-sentencing of African-Americans.
When he was not in court, Lumumba was agitating, as a civil rights and anti-apartheid activist, as a leading figure in the Republic of New Afrika, and as a co-founder of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
That’s not the usual résumé for the mayor of a major Southern city.
But Chokwe Lumumba had no intention of becoming a usual mayor when he launched his bid last year for Jackson’s top job. After a campaign in which the city councilman was outspent 4-1 and attacked as a militant, Lumumba defeated an incumbent mayor and a business-backed contender in the Democratic primary and then won more than 85 percent of the vote in the June 2013 general election.
He took office not merely with the intent of managing Jackson but with the goal of transforming it. “People should take a note of Jackson, because we have suffered some of the worst kinds of abuses in history, but we’re about to make some advances and some strides in the development of human rights and the protection of human rights that I think have not been seen in other parts of the country,” he told Democracy Now! just days after his election.
For Lumumba, that meant building unprecedented coalitions that crossed lines of race, class, gender, ideology and politics. “Our revolution is for the better idea it’s not just for the change in colors.” he told the Jackson Free Press.
Lumumba wanted Jackson to create a “solidarity economy,” with an emphasis on developing cooperatives and establishing models for local development and worker ownership.
“We have to make sure that economically we’re free, and part of that is the whole idea of economic democracy,” said the mayor, who explained in an interview shortly after his election:
We have to deal with more cooperative thinking and more involvement of people in the control of businesses, as opposed to just the big money changers, or the big CEOs and the big multinational corporations, the big capitalist corporations which generally control here in Mississippi. They are a reality.
And so it’s not that we’re going to throw them out of Mississippi. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I do believe that we can develop ways of working to have Blacks and other—indeed, not just Blacks but other poor people, or people who are less endowed with great wealth—to participate in the economy on an equal basis.
Lumumba was building the coalitions, and gaining a striking level of support for his vision, when he died unxpectedly Tuesday from heart failure.
Lumumba had run for the mayoralty as “a Fannie Lou Hamer Democrat” and promised to renew the small-“d” democracy vision of Hamer’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. True to his campaign slogan, “The People Must Decide,” he sought to organize new social and economic networks (with a special emphasis on developing cooperatives) in Mississippi’s capital city, and boldly asked citizens to vote to raise their own taxes in order to repair the city’s crumbling infrastructure. While most politicians avoid association with tax hikes, Lumumba campaigned across the city of 175,000—announcing that “we can fix the problem”—and on January 14, 2014, the mayor won a 9-1 vote of confidence.
Celebrating that victory, Lumumba declared, “I want to just say that it’s been a resounding victory here, and there’s only one way to go—that’s up. We’re going to do exactly what we said. We said at the very beginning that we were going to take infrastructure and revitalize infrastructure and transition infrastructure into economy.”
The mayor’s enthusiasm extended to his efforts to convince Mississippi’s conservative legislature to support aid to Jackson. He created a sense that just about anything was possible in a city that embraced his activist agenda on human rights and economic justice issues.
“I have known Mayor Lumumba since 1974,” said Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi. “One of the reasons I was so public about my support for the mayor, was that I believed once people got to know the real Chokwe Lumumba they would find him to be an extremely bright, caring and humble individual. His election as mayor and very short term in office demonstrated exactly that.”
Lumumba’s death, from heart failure, came as a shock. And a shocking loss for a city that had elected him just months earlier. Crowds gathered at Jackson’s city hall to mourn that loss. “Words cannot do justice to the emotions we all feel right now. Our great captain has fallen. Our hearts are broken,” said Hinds County (Jackson) Democratic Party chair Jacqueline Amos. “The legacy of Chokwe Lumumba must not be buried with the man.”
Amos is so very right.
Cities are the places where radical reformers can still break the political mold and make real change, where the politics of concession and compromise can be replaced with the politics of people power and renewal. Chokwe Lumumba proved that, and the best way to honor his accomplishment is to elect more mayors who are as determined as he was to be transformative leaders.
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Even before Chris Christie’s traffic troubles took the shine off his presidential prospects, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was moving to position himself as an acceptable alternative for Republicans who might still be thinking that a governor would make a good 2016 nominee.
Walker has a long history of arguing choosing a state official with little experience in Washington—like, perhaps, Scott Walker—is the Republicans’ best option for retaking the White House. “An ideal candidate to me would be a current or former governor,” Walker said last fall. “Just because I think governors have executive experience and, more importantly, I think there’s a real sense across America that people want an outsider.”
But in January, as attention was turning toward him, Walker got more specific.
“There are similarities between a governor and a president,” he explained.
Asked how voters might judge governors who bid for the presidency, the Wisconsinite replied, “Governors should be defined not just by what they do and say, but who they surround themselves with, making sure to have the smartest person for a particular task or to head a specific agency. They should be judged on that basis and who they take advice from.”
Just as Christie did in January, Walker has responded to the release of controversial e-mails from an "inner circle" of top aides by suggesting that he did not know what was going on around him. But the people both men put in positions of authority and public trust certainly did know.
When he was bidding for the governorship of Wisconsin, Scott Walker selected aides who have since been convicted of engaging in illegal activities, disregarding the trust and the responsibilities that are supposed to go with public positions. At the same time, their communications included slurs on women, people of color, gays, Jews, immigrants and people with disabilities.
The release of 28,000 pages of e-mails and more than 400 legal documents associated with the John Doe investigation that led to the arrest and conviction of aides who served with Walker when, as the Milwaukee county executive, he was seeking the governorship.
In addition to doing campaign work on public time—a theft of taxpayer funds—Walker’s aides circulated e-mails that portrayed poor people and African-Americans as dogs. One top aide referred to the image as “hilarious” and “so true.” Another top aide used his e-mail account to circulate an e-mail that mocked racial and ethnic minorities, as well as gay men and people suffering from AIDS.
An unsettling disregard for the human beings they were supposed to be serving showed up on a frequent basis in the e-mails of the people closest to Scott Walker. And when an aide pondered attacking the use of respectful terms for immigrants, gubernatorial candidate Walker replied, “Don’t hold back!”
Walker’s aides rarely held back. Discussing an incident in which a woman died of complications related to starvation she experienced while committed to the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, Walker and his aides communicated with one another about how to keep developments in the tragic story under wraps until after the 2010 gubernatorial election.
The callous conversations were summed up by an e-mail in which one of the aides, Kelly Rindfleisch, announced that “no one cares about crazy people.”
Hubert Humphrey once said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
There is great truth in that statement, as there is in Scott Walker’s suggestion that “governors should be defined not just by what they do and say, but who they surround themselves with.”
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When John Dingell was a child, he met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who dreamed eighty years ago that a groundbreaking Social Security proposal might feature a publicly funded national healthcare program.
Under pressure from the American Medical Association, FDR and his congressional allies scaled back the Social Security proposal.
But the Dingell family kept the dream alive.
In 1943, Dingell’s father, a congressman from Michigan who had played a critical role in enacting the initial Social Security Act of 1935, joined a pair of New Deal stalwarts from the Senate—New York Senator Robert Wagner and Montana Senator James Murray—to propose the rough outline for a single-payer national healthcare system.
Seeking re-election in 1944, Roosevelt campaigned for an “Economic Bill of Rights” that included both “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health” and “the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.”
There was a powerful sense that the Dingell-Murray-Wagner bill would frame the underpinnings for that initiative. Its sponsors traveled the country promising to “not give up until the fight is won.”
After Roosevelt died at the beginning of his fourth term in 1945, Harry Truman pressed the issue—only to be blocked by the combination of Republican obstruction, red-baiting and an expensive campaign of opposition.
But John Dingell Sr. kept introducing his national healthcare proposal through the rest of the 1940s and into the 1950s. And after John Dingell Jr. took his late father’s House seat in 1955, he continued to introduce it as “The United States National Health Insurance Act.”
Much will be made, with the news that John Dingell Jr. will retire from the House at the close of his twenty-ninth full term, of the congressman’s remarkable tenure—elected during President Dwight Eisenhower’s first term, he will leave as the longest-serving member in the history of Congress. As Michigan political veteran Steve Mitchell noted, “With the exception of John Quincy Adams, there’s no one with a longer participation in the affairs of the United States than John Dingell.”
Surely, something will be made of the fact that the dean of the House of Representatives says that serving in the chamber has become “obnoxious…because of the acrimony and bitterness,” in Congress. And of his fierce condemnation of congressional backbiting and obstruction: “The American people could get better government out of monkey island in the local zoo.”
There will, among those who know his record, be recognition that Dingell is leaving as an epic champion of organized labor who opposed flawed trade deals—even when they were sponsored by Democratic presidents. Of his determined opposition, as the guardian of the New Deal, Fair Deal and Great Society legacies, to any move to privatize Social Security and Medicare. Of his courageous leadership in fights for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and—as the representative of one of the largest Arab-American communities in the United States—of comprehensive and humane immigration reform. And of his prescient votes against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act.
There will be some mention of his history of opposing gun control measures and of his occasional clashes, as the representative from an auto-making district, with environmentalists—as well as his key role in shaping the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. And there should be note of his determined advocacy, as a key committee chairman and exceptionally engaged legislator, for scientific research and safe food and drug laws.
But Dingell’s great legacy remains his advocacy for the healthcare reforms that FDR imagined and his father proposed. He presided over the House vote that approved Medicare in 1965 and was so instrumental in crafting the Affordable Care Act that when a critic asked if he had read the bill, Dingell reportedly replied, “Read it? I wrote it.”
The measure as it was finally enacted—after months of negotiation and compromise—was different from what Dingell initially proposed, and from the single-payer approach long championed by the congressman and his father. But, like many veteran advocates for healthcare reform, Dingell saw the ACA as a vital step—one that moved the country closer to the vision of universal healthcare he had advanced across six decades.
Even as he referred to the ACA as “the first truly transformative piece of social reform legislation in the twenty-first century,” Dingell admitted that it did not contain “as much [control on insurance firms] as I think we ultimately are going to need.”
But he did not hesitate to declare, with the passage of the ACA, that “healthcare is no longer a privilege, it is now a right.”
The struggle to guarantee that right continues. Savvy activists, with unions such as National Nurses United and organizations such as Physicians for a National Health Program and Progressive Democrats of America, argue that it will not be fully realized until the United States adopts a “Medicare for All” approach that operates on a single-payer model.
With the retirement of John Dingell, the House will lose its longest-serving champion of fundamental, and fundamentally humane, healthcare reform. As the wrangling over the ACA and other measures continues, it is valuable to recognize the long arc of history that the Dingells bent toward reform. John Dingell Sr., speaking in 1946, decried “a deadly barrage of baseless propaganda” against his initial proposal. But he reminded Americans then, just as his son did across the ensuing decades, that healthcare must not be the privilege of a wealthy few. It must be the right of all Americans.
Watch Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel speaks about this important month for Obamacare.
If a United States senator claims that a key manufacturing facility in his home state would lose a new product line if workers were to vote for a union, might the workers be less inclined to vote for the union?
If legislative leaders in that state threaten to withhold tax incentives for future expansion of the manufacturing facility if a pro-union vote was recorded, might that influence the election?
It would be absurd to try to deny the influence that top elected officials, with powerful connections and control of treasuries and tax policies, could have were they to intervene in this way.
It would be equally absurd for the union to simply walk away from such a blatant assault on not just the rights of workers but the rule of law.
The United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, with it’s almost eighty-year history of fighting not just for labor rights but for civil rights and civil liberties in the United States and around the world, is not inclined toward absurdity. So UAW President Bob King announced Friday that the union has asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to investigate the extraordinary level of interference by politicians and outside special interest groups in the mid-February representation election at Volkswagen’s state-of-the-art plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“It’s an outrage that politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility and the opportunity for workers to create a successful operating model that would grow jobs in Tennessee,” says UAW president Bob King. “It is extraordinary interference in the private decision of workers to have a U.S. senator, a governor and leaders of the state legislature threaten the company with the denial of economic incentives and workers with a loss of product.”
In the complaint that could lead to an NLRB decision to set aside the controversial result of the first vote and arrange a new election, the UAW argues that top Tennessee Republicans “conducted what appears to have been a coordinated and widely-publicized coercive campaign, in concert with their staffs and others, to deprive VWGOA workers of their federally-protected right, through the election, to support and select the UAW.” The campaign by the elected officials, in combination with efforts by anti-union groups from outside Tennessee to publicize it, was “clearly designed to influence the votes” of Volkswagen workers.
“No VWGOA employee could cast a vote without a well-founded fear that the exercise of the franchise could mean both that their job security at VWGOA and the financial health of their plant could be in serious jeopardy,” reads the detailed complaint of the UAW, which cites NLRB standards and precedents regarding similar forms of interference. “Such an environment, foisted on VWGOA workers by politicians who have no regard for the workers’ rights under federal law, is completely contrary to the environment that the National Labor Relations Act demands for union certification elections.”
The process of challenging the vote is likely to be costly and complex. Success is far from guaranteed. But the complaint is credible, and it is vital to the discourse about the future of unions—and the role that right-wing politicians hope to play in thwarting labor organizing not just in the South but nationally. At a time when Republican governors and legislators across the country are using the authority of government to undermine union organizing and to weaken existing unions, it is entirely appropriate—and increasingly necessary—to raise objections to obvious abuses of power and the public trust.
The Volkswagen vote provides a glaring example of the extremes to which anti-union politicians will go.
By any reasonable measure, the most aggressive campaign to prevent Tennessee Volkswagen workers from deciding for themselves about whether to join the UAW was not waged by the company, nor even by the usual cabal of Koch Brothers-funded zealots from Washington.
As the high-stakes vote at the Chattanooga plant approached, the most prominent and powerful Republican elected officials in the region used their positions of public trust and responsibility to attack the UAW and to suggest that a pro-union vote would harm efforts to expand the plant and bring new jobs to the region.
Republican US Senator Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, began claiming just hours before the voting began that a new product line would come to the plant if workers voted against the union—and indicated that the line might be lost if the workers chose UAW representation. Volkswagen officials vigorously denied that this was the case, and Corker was never able to produce any evidence to support his claims. Yet, because he made them on the eve of the vote, they were not effectively refuted.
Similarly, State Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, a powerful Republican legislator, held a news conference two days before the vote in which he declared that a vote for the union would be “un-American” and announced that the Republican-controlled state Legislature would be disinclined toward providing aid that would assist in the expansion of production at that plant. That was no idle threat, as the state provided a $500 million incentive package to help lure Volkswagen to Chattanooga in 2008.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam played along with the anti-union campaign, lending further credence to the threats.
“In my twenty years on the hill [in the Tennessee legislature], I’ve never seen such a massive intrusion into the affairs of a private company,” said Tennessee state Representative Craig Fitzhugh, a senior Democrat.
The intimidation and threats were covered on a daily basis in Chattanooga newspapers and on radio and television stations. The message was clear. “It’s essentially saying, ‘If you unionize, it’s going to hurt your economy. Why? Because I’m going to make sure it does,’” Volkswagen worker Lauren Feinauer said of what she termed an “underhanded threat.”
When the NLRB counted the votes, the UAW organizing drive was narrowly defeated. Very narrowly. If just forty-four votes swung—out of almost roughly 1,400 cast—the union would have won.
Might the underhanded threats from politicians have shifted forty-four votes?
And might those underhanded threats amount to an inappropriate intervention in the election process?
Anti-union politicians, their allies and financial benefactors will, of course, say “no.”
But Volkswagen officials, who adopted a neutral stance with regard to the initial vote, could say “yes.” If they do, key hurdles to a new election would collapse. The company has made no secret of its desire to establish a European-style labor-management “works council” at the plant. Experts on US labor relations have argued that approval of the union must be a part of that process.
So the UAW’s long struggle to organize the VW plant—and foreign auto manufacturers in other parts of the South—is far from finished. Indeed, as union president Bob King says: “We’re committed to standing with the Volkswagen workers to ensure that their right to have a fair vote without coercion and interference is protected.”
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The political and pundit class loves to identify “outsider” candidates for the presidency, looking in particular to governors who have not been tarnished by the compromises and corruptions of Washington. But the trouble with being an “outsider” candidate is that, eventually, you face the same sort of scrutiny as the insiders.
Just as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suffered a blow when the media started to examine the extent to which he mingled politics and governing, so Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is now taking a hit that will inspire serious doubts—even among his admirers—about whether he is ready for the political prime time.
The release of 27,000 pages of e-mails from the seized computers of a former Walker aide who has since been convicted of political wrongdoing, along with more than 400 documents from the first of two major probes into scandals associated with Walker’s service as Milwaukee County executive and his gubernatorial campaigns, is shining new light on the extent to which the controversial governor’s legal, ethical and political troubles will make his transition to the national stage difficult.
The e-mails offer a powerful sense of how Walker and his aides appeared to have blurred the lines between official duties and campaigning when he was seeking the governorship in 2010—taking actions that would eventually lead to the convictions of key aides. Walker, who has steered hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign account into a legal defense fund, has not been charged with wrongdoing himself. But the e-mails and legal documents paint a picture of an elected official who was so focused on political positioning that he felt it necessary to order daily conference calls to "better coordinate" between aides in his Milwaukee County Executive office and campaign staff.
Walker’s county aides used a secret e-mail routing system to coordinate campaign events and fundraising, and to trash the woman who would eventually serve as Walker’s lieutenant governor as “the bane of your existence.” They circulated crude, sometimes racist messages. And as news outlets sifted through the e-mails, they found one from a top Walker appointee, administration director Cynthia Archer, telling another aide who had accessed the secret network that she was now “in the inner circle.” “I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW…” wrote Archer.
Scott Kevin Walker identified himself on e-mails as “SKW.” Indeed, among the thousands of e-mails released Wednesday was one from a top Walker aide—Tim Russell, who has since been convicted and hailed. In it, he forwards a link to video of Chris Christie yelling at a reporter with the line: "skw should talk like this."
The largest paper in Wisconsin, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which endorsed the governor in the past, featured a banner headline on its Thursday edition that read: "Records Link Walker to Secret Email System."
Walker—who the e-mails reveal thought “9 out of 10 requests [from reporters] are going to be traps” and ordered his county aides to generate “positive and bold stories”—was scrambling Wednesday to dismiss the download of e-mails and legal documents as “old news.” A particularly defensive governor griped about all the attention to the e-mails and documents, saying, “these people are naysayers who want things bad to happen in Wisconsin so they are going to be circling again today. It’s exactly what’s wrong with the political process that they’re hoping for something bad to happen in Wisconsin. It’s not.”
At the same time, the Republican Governors Association—which is chaired by Christie—made a six-figure television ad buy in Wisconsin to protect the governor’s position in a 2014 re-election race where polls show him leading but with support levels below 50 percent.
The e-mails and documents—which media outlets have sought for months—were released by a judge dealing with ongoing legal wrangling over the conviction of former Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch for misconduct in public office.
Rindfleisch did not just work for Walker before he was elected governor. She was also associated with him after he took his state post, as a key fund-raiser who traveled with the governor while he raised money nationally. And her name has been linked to a new John Doe probe that reportedly has focused on wrongdoing by individuals and groups that backed the governor’s 2012 campaign to beat a recall vote.
That’s not exactly “old news.” And it comes at a particularly unfortunate moment for Walker, who cannot have been happy with a Wednesday Washington Post headline that read: “Scott Walker, eyeing 2016, faces fallout from probes as ex-aide’s e-mails are released,” and “E-mails may spell trouble for Scott Walker.” Or a Thursday New York Times report that said the emails and documents portray Walker as "having presided over an office where aides used personal computers and email to conceal that they were mixing government and campaign business."
There’s no question that Walker wants to be considered as a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Even as he seeks re-election this year, he has been busy touring a new book that conservative commentators say “reads like one gigantic presidential trial balloon,” making the rounds of the same talk shows once frequented by Christie, and maintaining a relentless schedule of national appearances to aid Republican candidates and raise money.
With one-time GOP front-runner Christie mired in scandal, pundits who don’t know much about Walker like to imagine that he might be the next “shiny penny” for Republicans seeking a candidate from outside Washington.
But Walker’s national prospects have never looked as good as his admirers imagine. Even after Christie’s downfall, the Wisconsinite was wrestling with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal for last place in most state and national polls of likely Republican caucus and primary voters.
Now, just as Christie faces fallout from an aide’s revealing e-mails, so Walker faces fallout from an aide’s revealing e-mails. The circumstances may be different, and Walker has certainly tried to present himself as a less politically contentious figure than the governor of New Jersey. But when the headlines in Washington are talking about a governor facing “fallout from probes,” and the governor in question is not Chris Christie, there’s a good chance that even the most ardent Republicans will start noticing the tarnish on their shiny penny.
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Rand Paul says he wants a “new” Republican Party.
“I think Republicans will not win again in my lifetime for the presidency unless they become a new GOP, a new Republican Party,” the senator from Kentucky and all-but-announced 2016 presidential contender said last week.
Paul’s not talking cosmetic changes. He says the GOP must undergo “a transformation, not a little tweaking at the edges.” He wants the party to start talking about dialing down Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” with an acknowledgement that “it’s disproportionately affected the poor and the black and brown among us.” He wants the party to defend basic liberties. And he reminds his fellow partisans that serious conversations about “big government” must deal with the looming presence of the military-industrial complex.
Paul’s points are well taken—up to a point.
But if he’s serious about making the Republican Party viable nationally, he’s got his directions confused.
This talk of a “new Republican Party” is silly.
If the GOP wants to get serious about reaching out to people of color, defending civil rights and civil liberties, and addressing the military-industrial complex, it doesn’t have to become “new.” It has to become old.
It must return to the values that gave it birth and that animated its progress at a time when the party contributed mightily to the advance of the American experiment.
The Republican Party was, after all, founded by abolitionists and radical immigrants who had fled Europe after the popular revolutions of 1848. They dismissed existing parties that compromised America’s founding promise of equality, and secured the presidency for a man who declared that “Republicans…are for both the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict the man before the dollar.”
The Republican Party became the home of the trust-busters and progressive reformers who laid the groundwork for a New Deal that borrowed ideas from not just Democratic platforms but from Republican agendas. It served as the vehicle of Wendell Willkie, who promoted racial justice at home, supported unions and outlined a “one-world” internationalism that sought to assure that a United Nations, rather than an overburdened United States, would police the planet in the aftermath of World War II. And it ushered into the presidency one Dwight David Eisenhower, who would finish his tenure with this warning:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Indeed, if talk turns to changing the Republican brand into one that might appeal to the great mass of Americans—as Rand Paul suggests it does not now do—it must abandon the dictates of the Wall Street speculators, hedge-fund managers and right-wing billionaires who have defined its agenda toward such extremes.
Where to begin? Why not consider what made the party so appealng when it re-elected Eisenhower in 1956?
In that quite competitive election year, when the Republican ticket carried every state outside the Deep South except Missouri, the party platform declared, “We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs—expansion of social security—broadened coverage in unemployment insurance—improved housing—and better health protection for all our people. We are determined that our government remain warmly responsive to the urgent social and economic problems of our people.”
The Republicans of 1956 decried “the bitter toll in casualties and resources” of military interventions abroad, promoted arms reduction, supported humanitarian aid to struggling countries and promised “vigorously to support the United Nations.”
On the domestic front, the party of Lincoln pledged to:
· “Fight for the elimination of discrimination in employment because of race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry or sex.”
· “Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.”
· “Extend the protection of the Federal minimum wage laws to as many more workers as is possible and practicable.”
· “Stimulate improved job safety of our workers.”
· “Strengthen and improve the Federal-State Employment Service and improve the effectiveness of the unemployment insurance system.”
· “Protect by law, the assets of employee welfare and benefit plans so that workers who are the beneficiaries can be assured of their rightful benefits.”
But, recognizing that the government could not protect every worker in every workplace, the Republican Party declared its enthusiastic approval of trade unions and collective bargaining. Noting that “unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 million” since Eisenhower’s initial election in 1952, the party celebrated the fact that “the process of free collective bargaining has been strengthened by the insistence of this Administration that labor and management settle their differences at the bargaining table without the intervention of the Government.”
Eisenhower’s Republicans promised that a GOP administration and Congress would direct federal dollars toward the construction of schools, hospitals and public housing. The party pledged to fight for "the largest increase in research funds ever sought in one year to intensify attacks on cancer, mental illness, heart disease and other dread diseases” and to provide “federal assistance to help build facilities to train more physicians and scientists.”
And, of course, the Grand Old Party made a commitment to “continue to seek extension and perfection of a sound Social Security system.”
Eisenhower was no left-winger. Many Republicans who came before him (arguably Willkie, certainly Robert M. La Follette) were more liberal, as were a few (George Romney and John Lindsay) who came after him. The thirty-fourth president was, at most, a moderate, who urged the Republican Party to renew its attachment to “the overall philosophy of Lincoln: In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with the people’s money or their economy, or their form of government, be conservative.” He spoke always of a balance that respected the power of government to address the great challenges of society while at the same time feared the excesses and abuses that could occur when government aligned with economic elites and industries at the expense of what he described as the nation’s essential goal: “peace with justice.”
Eisenhower closed his presidency with a prayer: “That all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”
What Willkie, Eisenhower and their allies advocated was sometimes referred to as “modern Republicanism.” But, at its most fundamental level, what they advocated was an old Republicanism, renewed and repurposed for a modern age.
In the roughly fifty years since the party was wrestled from the grip of the “modern Republicans,” it has not become “new.” It has simply abandoned its values, its ideals, its basic premises.
Rand Paul says “you can transform a party,” and he notes, correctly, that “the parties have switched places many times throughout history.” But the transformation that the Republican Party needs—and that the United States needs the Republican Party to make—is not toward something “new.”
It is toward something older, and better, than its current incarnation.
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When it comes to media, bigger is not better. And when it comes to the control of the infrastructure of how we communicate now, the trend toward extreme bigness—as illustrated by Comcast’s plan to buy Time Warner Cable and create an unprecedented cable combine—is accelerating at a dangerous pace.
In the aftermath of a federal court decision striking down net neutrality protections that were developed to maintain an open and freewheeling discourse on the Internet, and with journalism threatened at every turn by cuts and closures, the idea of merging Comcast and Time Warner poses a threat that ought to be met with official scrutiny and grassroots opposition.
The point of the free-press protection that is outlined in the First Amendment is not to free billionaire media moguls and speculators to make more money. The point is to have a variety of voices, with multiple entry points for multiple points of view and a communications infrastructure that fosters debate, dissent and democratic discourse.
When media conglomerates merge, they do not provide better service or better democracy. They create the sort of monopolies and duopolies that constrain America’s promise. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was right when he decried “concentration of economic power in the few” and warned that “that business monopoly in America paralyzes the system of free enterprise on which it is grafted, and is as fatal to those who manipulate it as to the people who suffer beneath its impositions.”
Merging the two largest cable providers is a big deal in and of itself—allowing one company to become a definitional player in major media markets across the country—but this goes far beyond cable. By expanding its dominance of video and Internet communications into what the Los Angeles Times describes as a “juggernaut” with 30 million subscribers, the company that already controls Universal Studios can drive hard bargains with content providers. It can also define the scope and character of news and public-service programming in dozens of states and hundreds of major cities—including Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, DC.
That’s too much power for any one corporation to have, especially a corporation that has been on a buying spree. Comcast already controls NBCUniversal and a broadcast and cable empire that includes NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, the USA Network, Telemundo and various other networks.
It’s bad for consumers.
“In an already uncompetitive market with high prices that keep going up and up, a merger of the two biggest cable companies should be unthinkable. The deal would be a disaster for consumers and must be stopped,” says Craig Aaron, the president of the media-reform group Free Press.
It’s bad for musicians, documentary makers and other creators.
“Comcast’s proposed takeover of Time Warner would give one company incredible influence over how music and other media is accessed and under what conditions,” says Casey Rae, interim executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, who noted “the ever present danger of a huge corporation like Comcast—which already owns a major content company—disadvantaging competition or locking creators into unfair economic structures.”
And it is bad for the democratic discourse of a nation founded on the premise memorably expressed by Thomas Jefferson in 1804 when he wrote, “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press.”
The idea that “all the avenues to truth” would be controlled by a monopoly, a duopoly or any small circle of multinational communications conglomerates is antithetical to the understanding of the authors of a free press, and of its true defenders across the centuries.
So yes, US Senator Al Franken—the Minnesota Democrat who has proven to be one of the most serious and savvy congressional watchdogs on communication policy—is absolutely right when he says, “There’s not enough competition in this space; we need more competition. This is going in the wrong direction.”
Franken has written to the US Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, urging each of them “to act quickly and decisively to ensure that consumers are not exposed to increased cable prices and decreased quality of service as a result of this transaction.”
The FCC, in particular, has broad authority to review telecommunications-industry mergers, with an eye toward determining whether they are in the public interest. And watchdog groups have been pressuring the commission’s new chairman, Tom Wheeler, to assert the FCC’s authority. For Wheeler, a former president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the lobbying organization for the cable industry, this is will be a critical test of his leadership.
But challenges to this proposed merger must also come from the anti-trust lawyers at the Department of Justice and the congressional watchdogs over consolidation and monopoly issues.
“Stopping this kind of deal is exactly why we have antitrust laws,” says Free Press’s Aaron.
The congressional role cannot be underestimated. The Department of Justice, the FTC and the FCC get cues from Congress. And the voices of members of the House and Senate will play a critical role in determining whether the merger goes forward.
Some of the initial signals have been good.
“This proposed merger could have a significant impact on the cable industry and affect consumers across the country,” says Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, the chair of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, who announced: “I plan to hold a hearing to carefully scrutinize the details of this merger and its potential consequences for both consumers and competition.”
But hearings will not be enough. The Senate, in particular, must send clear signals.
Former FCC Commissioner Mike Copps is precisely right when he says of the idea of creating an even larger telecommunications conglomerate, “This is so over the top that it ought to be dead on arrival at the FCC.”
Copps, who now serves as a special adviser to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, is also right when he says, “The proposed deal runs roughshod over competition and consumer choice and is an affront to the public interest.”
But the public interest will prevail only if the public, and its elected representatives, raise an outcry in defense of the robust competition that opens “all the avenues to truth.”
John Nichols is a co-founder, with Robert W. McChesney, of Free Press. Nichols and McChesney are the authors of the book The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again (Nation Books).
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In a globalized economy, there are two paths that countries can take: a low road and a high road.
Too frequently in recent decades, the United States has taken the low road, embracing so-called “free-trade” agreements and encouraging domestic “competition” between the states that encourages a race to the bottom when it comes to wages, benefits, environmental rules and consumer protections. The evidence of the failure of this choice is evident nationwide, from the shuttered appliance plants of Iowa to the shuttered steel mills of Indiana to the shuttered textile mills of the Carolinas.
Other countries chose a different route: the high road. In Germany, for instance, a combination of industrial policies and innovative workplace agreements helped traditional industries to modernize and remain dominant players on the global stage. Indeed, as the Great Recession took hold, it was the strength and resilience of the German economy that provided a measure of stability for Europe.
One of the reasons why Germany has adapted with such agility to the changing economic and structural demands of the globalized economy is the respect that German corporations accord workers. The country has strong unions. And its factories also have “works councils,” elected bodies that represent the workers and help management make decisions on issues ranging from the hours a plant operates to the training workers might receive. “It is no accident that [German] workforces have a reputation for being highly skilled,” notes Thomas Geoghegan, the veteran labor lawyer and author.
Experts on “works councils,” such as University of Illinois law professor Matthew Finkin, a member of the governing board of the Institute for Labor Law and Labor Relations in the European Union in Trier, Germany, and Thomas A. Kochan, the co-director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management, argue that they are “one of the best, most innovative features of Germany’s labor relations system.”
“They have been shown,” Finkin and Kochan note, “to enhance efficiency, adoptability and cooperation. By supporting the use of work sharing (agreeing to reduce everyone’s hours rather than laying some people off), for example, these councils helped Germany experience less unemployment during the Great Recession and a faster, more robust, recovery since then.”
Sounds like an idea that the United States might want to borrow, right?
The United Auto Workers union thinks so. As part of an effort to organize workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the union has agreed to a bold experiment with the “works council” approach. The union is offering to surrender what Geoghegan describes as “its most precious right—that of being the ‘exclusive representative’ of workers” in the Chattanooga plant—to clear the way for the election of a works council of blue-collar and white-collar employees to help run the plant.
The works council in Chattanooga would become part of a global network of councils at VW plants, giving American autoworkers at least some say with regard to a wide range of corporate decisions, including choices about technology, training and where to locate new production. Volkswagen officials in Germany are agreeable, so the initiative will go forward if the 1,600 hourly workers at the plant vote to agree to UAW representation this week. If the union wins the vote, it will be positioned to bargain with the company on wage and benefit issues. And workers (be they union members or not) will, as the UAW explains, “have an integral role in co-managing the company.”
“Together, Volkswagen Group of America and the UAW will set a new standard in the US for innovative labor management relations that benefits the company, the entire workforce, shareholders and the community in general,” says the UAW, which is gambling on a new approach that—while it involves the controversial surrender of some union power over work rules and related issues—could revolutionize labor relations in Southern “right-to-work” states” and perhaps nationally.
“Volkswagen and UAW are working to redefine American labor-management relations for the better by creating a ‘works council’ at the Chattanooga plant…,” notes Congressman Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat. “It would be revolutionary for the manufacturing industry, fostering more collaboration between management and workers on everything from plant rules to working hours and leave policies.”
“Everyone involved—Tennessee, Volkswagen and our citizens—would benefit,” says Cohen.
But that does not mean everyone is for it. As the congressman notes, “deep-pocketed, Washington-based special interest groups have stepped in…to discourage workers at the VW plant from joining the UAW, even though Volkswagen itself is not opposing unionization.”
Anti-labor groups such as the Grover Norquist–tied Center for Worker Freedom, and the “National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation,” a favorite of billionaire donors Charles and David Koch, have been working hard to block unionization of the Chattanooga plant, which is a necessary first step to establishing the works council. The anti-union forces have got powerful allies, including Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, Republican politicians who have long embraced the race-to-the-bottom policies favored by wealthy campaign donors. Corker has been blunt about the appeal of giving workers a voice in the direction of their workplaces. Indeed, he admits that if workers in Chattanooga embrace the union and works council approach, “then its BMW, then its Mercedes, then it’s Nissan, hurting the entire Southeast if they get the momentum.”
On the eve of the vote, key Republican legislators suggested unionization of the plant could threaten future state subsidies for the Volkswagen plant.
The notion that respecting workers, and getting their input on how to run factories, would hurt “the entire Southeast” is classic race-to-the-bottom thinking. Corker and his compatriots are suggesting that Southern states need to limit the rights of workers in order to compete. But that sort of “competition” has depressed wages in the South and nationally, undermining the middle class and, as Congressman Cohen notes, widening “the opportunity gap between hardworking Americans and the CEOs.”
If the union gains a foothold at the VW plant, and if the works council experiment succeeds, Geoghegan suggests it “might turn the world of the South’s workers upside down.”
But it could do a good deal more than that, Finkin and Kochan argue: “Implementing a works council at Volkswagen’s Tennessee plant could usher in the next-generation labor-management partnership and demonstrate that the United States can learn from and adapt innovations of proven value from other nations.”
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In 1941, under pressure from Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union president A. Philip Randolph and a burgeoning civil rights movement, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which required that defense contracts include provisions to bar private contractors from discriminating on the basis of race, creed, color or national origin. The order also established the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice, which was empowered to investigate discrimination cases and “to take appropriate steps to redress grievances which it finds to be valid.”
In 1943, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9346, which applied the anti-discrimination requirement to all government contractors.
In 1948, again under pressure from Randolph and his allies, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which banned discrimination in the US military. “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin,” read the order, which established a high-level committee to investigate instances of bias and to make recommendations for how to eliminate it.
In 1951, President Truman issued Executive Order 10308, which created the federal Committee on Government Contract Compliance, which was charged with assuring that federal contractors continued, in the post–World War II era, to comply with the non-discrimination provisions of Executive Order 8802.
In 1953, President Dwight David Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10479, which established the President’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization (an expansion of the Government Contract Committee) to assure that federal contractors respected all anti-discrimination orders and initiatives. Eisenhower’s order declared, “It is the obligation of the contracting agencies of the United States Government and government contractors to ensure compliance with, and successful execution of, the equal employment opportunity program of the United States Government.”
In 1961, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which required government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.” Kennedy’s order also created the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which was to work with federal agencies to advance the initiative. It was chaired by Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
In 1965, President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which expanded federal programs to combat discrimination and implement affirmative action programs. The order specifically prohibited “federal contractors and federally assisted construction contractors and subcontractors, who do over $10,000 in Government business in one year from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” And it gave the Secretary of Labor the job of administering the order’s anti-discrimination protections and initiatives. “Today,” according to the Department of Labor, “Executive Order 11246, as amended and further strengthened over the years, remains a major safeguard, protecting the rights of workers employed by federal contractors—approximately one-fifth of the entire US labor force—to remain free from discrimination on the basis of their gender, race, religion, color or national origin…and opening the doors of opportunity through its affirmative action provisions.”
Presidents, from George Washington on, have issued executive orders. And in the last century, executive orders have been closely—and consistently—tied to the improvement of the circumstance of workers employed by federal contractors.
So it came as no great surprise when, in his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama indicated that he would issue executive orders to address pressing issues that fall within his range of responsibility. Specifically, he said he would, like the presidents before him, use his authority to place requirements on federal contractors—including a provision assuring that employers of corporations that gain federal contracts in the future will pay their employees at least $10.10 an hour.
Reasonable people can and should debate the limits of presidential power, particularly when it comes to issues of war and peace, and questions about spying on Americans or politicizing positions of public trust. Any serious discourse on executive overreach would find plenty to criticize in the approaches of all recent presidents—including President Obama.
But “reasonable” and “serious” are not the words that come to mind as the most powerful and prominent Republicans in Congress attack their president’s decision to issue the latest in a long line of executive orders with regard to federal contracts and contractors.
House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, declared, “We have an increasingly lawless presidency where he is actually doing the job of Congress, writing new policies and new laws without going through Congress. Presidents don’t write laws, Congress does.”
Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, announced, “Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency, none is more dangerous than the president’s persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, accused the president of “feeding more distrust about whether he’s committed to the rule of law.” And Congressman Steve King, R-Iowa, said that when Obama told federal contractors how to treat their employees, the president had acted in an “unconstitutional” manner.
If anything, in the weeks since the president’s address, the charges of “lawlessness” have intensified. On Monday, the DC-insider journal Politico featured a gallery of Republican lawmakers and prominent conservatives under the headline “15 Times White House Was Labeled Lawless.”
So here are the questions that might be asked of President Obama’s critics:
Were Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson lawless presidents?
Did Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson rule by executive fiat?
Did Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson feed distrust about whether they were committed to the rule of law?
Did Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson act in an “unconstitutional manner” when they told federal contractors what to do?
Or is it just President Obama who is “lawless”?
And if by chance, some of the critics might argue that Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson were “lawless,” then how long would those critics have asked the victims of discrimination to wait for reluctant Congresses to act to eliminate Jim Crow laws and barriers to the American promise that outlined in the immortal declaration that “all men [and women] are created equal.”
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There are not enough prominent political figures, in either of this country’s two major parties, who are willing to call rich guys out.
And there are even fewer who do so with delight.
But Vice President Joe Biden would like Democrats to know that he is up to the task.
Biden earned the predictable headlines last week when he flipped the “on” switch with regard to a possible 2016 presidential run, telling CNN “There’s no obvious reason for me why I think I should not run.”
Never mind the polling that gives former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a sixty-one-point lead in the race among the as-yet-unannounced contenders for the 2016 Democratic nomination, Biden’s laying down his marker. That doesn’t mean he will run. But Biden has read the polls that show the Democratic base is ready, very ready, for an economic populist appeal.
And he is providing it—with a bow to Pope Francis.
Speaking Wednesday at the United Auto Workers legislative conference in Washington, Biden noted that billionaire Ken Langone has been griping about Pope Francis. Fretting about the general difficulty of getting his fellow billionaires to make charitable donations, the business mogul complains that the pontiff’s talk about income inequality is “one more hurdle I hope we don’t have to deal with.”
“A couple weeks ago Ken Langone, who I don’t know, a billionaire founder of Home Depot, predicted that the pope—Pope Francis’s critique of income inequity—will be, quote, ‘a hurdle’ for very wealthy Catholic donors, who seem to think hurt feelings trump the teachings of the Bible,” the vice president recalled. “As a practicing Catholic, bless me, Father, for he has sinned.”
The UAW members reacted with wild applause.
It wasn’t just that Biden’s observation was spot on.
It was also that too few politicians—and even fewer prospective 2016 presidential contenders—are so willing as the vice president to “go there.” That is, to make an old-fashioned populist appeal that is all but certain to be decried by the right-wing punditocracy as “class warfare.”
Biden did not stop with his defense of Pope Francis, who the vice president says “shares a vision that all of us share, to reach out to the poor and the dispossessed.”
He absolutely, unapologetically and energetically embraced the trade union movement.
“You guys are the only guys keeping the barbarians at the gates, man,” declared Biden.
“The truth of the matter is, you built the middle class. Labor built the middle class,” the vice president continued. “You never leave anybody behind—even when it costs you politically and when it doesn’t benefit you directly.”
Labor’s commitment to economic justice, Biden said, explains why corporate-funded conservative groups, and their legislative minions, are attacking collective-bargaining rights. “These guys on the right—they know without you there—they call every shot,” he said. For that reason, he said, they have launched “a concerted, full-throated, well-organized, well-financed, well-thought-out effort waging war on labor’s house.”
The vice president did not deny that the right has had its successes, in Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and other states. That, he said, is why it is necessary to “be vigilant and unrelenting in our fight to protect and expand collective bargaining.”
There is no subtlety with Biden.
But there is a subtext.
In a Democratic Party that is sick with compromisers and concessionists, the vice president is savvy enough to present himself as a happy class warrior. That doesn’t mean he’s better on the issues than Senator Elizabeth Warren or Senator Bernie Sanders or any other “dream” candidate. But if no prominent progressive populist runs, Biden is suggesting that he would be willing, make that delighted, to fill the void.
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