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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?
Harry Reid speaks at a press conference in Washington on June 5, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Harry Reid threatened to employ the “nuclear option” to end filibuster abuses, and the world did not end.
In fact, despite all the absurd rhetoric that flew around as the Senate majority leader prepared to implement a majority-rule standard regarding presidential appointments, Reid’s gambit yielded some positive results. Under an agreement reached Tuesday morning, Republicans would stop blocking votes on five key nominations, including those of Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Gina McCarthy to serve as EPA administrator, Fred Hochberg to serve as president of the Export-Import Bank and Thomas Perez to serve as secretary of labor.
By midday Tuesday, the Senate had already voted to allow formal consideration of Cordray, with seventy-one senators agreeing to schedule a confirmation vote.
But the path to making the Senate a fully functional legislative chamber is less clear than the inside-the-Beltway celebrants—some in the Senate, most in the media—would have Americans believe.
As part of the compromise, Republicans appear to have secured veto power over the nominations of two qualified nominees for the National Labor Relations Board, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin. Republicans have been determined to keep Block and Griffin off the board since President Obama’s decision to use his recess-appointment power to put them there provoked a bitter court fight. Under Tuesday’s deal in the Senate, Obama would withdraw the nominations of Block and Griffin and send two nominees to the Senate for quick consideration and votes. (Under the agreement, Republicans will allow a third NLRB nominee, Mark Pearce, to get a straight up-or-down confirmation vote.)
What this means is that virulently anti-labor Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, is still calling some shots when it comes to the NLRB, and that’s absurdly unfair to Block and Griffin. Labor leaders, such as Communications Workers of America union President Larry Cohen,were angered by the move. Cohen complained that Block and Griffin were “definitely tossed under the bus.”
“There is not one intellectual argument…[for] why those nominations shouldn’t go forward. It’s just [that Republicans] want their pound of flesh from working people in this country, and this is where they’re going to get it because they were able to convince four or five Democrats to go with them,” griped Cohen.
The determination of McConnell to continue meddling with NLRB nominations should be cause for caution, and strategic common sense.
Reid should not back away from the “nuclear option”—using the Democratic majority to rewrite Senate rules to allow for majority-rule votes on confirmation of presidential nominees—anytime soon.
If the agreement on the NLRB nominees advances, the White House must nominate two new candidates immediately. The Senate Committee on Heath, Education, Labor and Pensions must hold hearings and a full Senate vote must be scheduled and completed before the Senate begins its August recess. A failure to complete the process in a timely manner threatens the functionality of the board, which would be a huge victory for McConnell and a huge defeat for the tens of millions of American workers who look to the agency not merely to make decisions regarding the role of unions in the workplace but also to decide whether corporations are using unfair labor practices to threaten the rights of workers.
As the Communication Workers of America have explained as part of their “Give Us Five” campaign to get a full NLRB confirmed by the Senate, “If the Senate does not move forward with a majority vote on President Obama’s bipartisan nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, we’ll soon be celebrating Labor Day without any labor law. And that means no protections for 80 million American workers in the private sector.”
It is that prospect that Reid must avert by keeping all options for Senate rules reform on the table.
The bottom line is that filibuster reform is necessary, not just to renew the confirmation process but for the purpose of legislating. As Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said after details of Tuesday’s agreement took shape, “This trend to abuse and misuse the filibuster clearly should be addressed by an effort to change the rules. I’m hopeful that we will push ahead, that in fact the effort will not end here,”
Blumenthal is right.
Unfortunately, Reid has continually attempted to avert the reality of reform by cutting deals with McConnell and other Republican senators. The majority leader’s compromises on the issue have—as Reid now acknowledges—frequently fumbled.
In an ideal circumstance, Reid and his Democratic colleagues—as well as some responsible Republicans—would understand the value of meaningful rules reforms, which would restore the traditional filibuster along lines that Americans know best from the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The point of filibuster reform is not partisan or ideological positioning. It is to restore functional processes for legislating and governing.
At this point, like it or not, Reid is holding to the view that he can cobble together agreements to achieve that goal. Savvy senators such as Vermont independent Bernie Sanders and Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley are highly dubious, as they have indicated.
But one thing that Reid and every member of his caucus should be able to agree on is this: the option of a quick vote to reform Senate rules in order to advance nominations should not be taken off the table during the coming wrangle over the future of the NLRB.
In fact, it should not be taken off the table for so long as Mitch McConnell, whose regard for the president and the legislative process is almost as low as the approval ratings for Congress, continues to seek what Sanders refers to as “the tyranny of the minority.”
“While [Tuesday’s deal addresses] an immediate need for the president of the United States to have his Cabinet and other senior officials confirmed, we should be clear that the agreement only addresses one symptom of a seriously dysfunctional U.S. Senate,” explained Sanders on Tuesday afternoon. “The issue that now must be addressed is how we create a process in the Senate which allows us to respond to the very serious needs of the American people in a timely and effective way. The United States Senate cannot function with any degree of effectiveness if a super-majority of 60 votes is needed to pass virtually any piece of legislation and huge amounts of time are wasted eating up the clock with parliamentary tactics meant only to delay for delay’s sake. Now is the time for real Senate rules reform.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of the new book 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.
How long can Mitch McConnell’s “tyranny of the minority” last?
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell speaks with reporters on July 26, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Mitch McConnell has since 2007 been maintaining a rogue branch of government.
Though the Republican leader in the Senate lacks any constitutional grounding, though he has no popular mandate and though he leads only a minority of senators, McConnell has defined the range of debate and steered the direction of the federal government by engaging in the most aggressive abuse of the rules in the history of the chamber.
That abuse involves a redefinition of the traditional filibuster power as a veto that the minority can use to undermine not just legislation and presidential appointments but the very functioning of the federal government.
The founders of the American experiment imagined no such veto. In fact, the US Constitution imagines a system under which the legislative branch provides advice and consent to the executive branch.
But McConnell has so exaggerated the filibuster power that it has effectively allowed him to thwart not just Senate votes but the operations of federal agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board. He and his allies have gone so far as to block the confirmation of nominees for cabinet posts, such as Department of Labor nominee Tom Perez.
McConnell’s crew has done this with a consistency that extends far beyond specific issues or individuals. They have created systematic obstruction, which allows the minority leader to “govern,” even though he lacks any authority to do so.
When Lyndon Baines Johnson was the Senate majority leader in the contentious 1950s—an era of Cold War, segregation, recession and debates over everything from space travel to statehood for Alaska—he only had to file one cloture motion to end a filibuster.
Since Harry Reid became Senate minority leader in 2007, he has had to file 420 cloture motions to end filibusters. And while he usually has majority support for acting on a bill or an appointment, he rarely has the sixty-vote super-majority required by McConnell.
“The Senate is not the House and the minority party must be treated with respect and given the opportunity to offer amendments and make their case in opposition,” says Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “A minority must not, however, be allowed to permanently obstruct the wishes of the majority. That is not democracy. That is a perversion of democracy.”
The question of whether McConnell will be able to maintain his fourth branch of government, and with it what Sanders describes as “the tyranny of the minority,” may well come to a head Tuesday.
Reid has scheduled confirmation votes on seven presidential picks: National Labor Relations Board members, as well as nominees to head the Labor Department, the Export-Import Bank, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
If McConnell and his caucus abuse the filibuster in order to block those votes, Reid says he will ask the Democratic majority—and any Republicans who might favor majority rule—to end the tyranny of the minority when it comes to the appointment process.
The majority leader, who has blinked in previous wrangling over rules reforms to end the abuse of the filibuster, seems finally to be prepared to take the small step of changing Senate rules—with the approval of a majority of senators—to allow a majority of senators to demand simple up-or-down votes on whether to confirm presidential appointments.
“This is really a moment in history that circumstances dictate a change,” says the majority leader.
Reid notes that a mere twenty nominees were filibustered during the history of the republic up to the election of President Obama.
Now, says the majority leader, Republicans have filibustered fifteen of Obama’s executive-branch nominees.
“The changes we’re making are very, very minimal,” says Reid. “What we’re doing is saying, ‘Look American people, shouldn’t President Obama have somebody working for him that he wants?’ The 15 people that we’ve filed cloture on that are pending they’ve been waiting an average of nine months.”
McConnell is already crying foul, and Washington is ablaze with “Reid-McConnell Relationship Hits New Low” headlines. If Reid moves on Tuesday to restrict the Kentucky Republican’s obstructionism, McConnell says the Nevada Democrat will go down “as the worst leader here ever.”
McConnell knows better. But he is furious about the prospect that his rogue operations might be restricted.
So be it.
America needs a functioning Senate, and a functioning federal government, not Mitch McConnell’s “tyranny of the minority.”
As Sanders says, “This country faces major crises. The American people want us to act to address unemployment and the economy. They want us to deal with the global warming, health care, campaign finance reform, education, crumbling infrastructure and the deficit. But in my view, none of these problems will be effectively addressed so long as a single senator may demand 60 votes to pass legislation (or approve nominees).”
John Nichols and Bob McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), a groundbreaking examination of how” the money power” warps government. 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.”
Anti-immigration reform activists protested on Capitol Hill today, complete with nativist signs and racist speeches.
Protesters hold a sign at a rally on March 25, 2012, in Seattle, Washington. (Courtesy of Flickr.)
The nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group responded to the acquittal of George Zimmerman with shock, anguish and a call to action.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is petitioning the United States Department of Justice to seek justice for slain teenager Trayvon Martin by filing civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
On Sunday afternoon, the Department of Justice announced that the case was under review. "Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction,’’ read a department statement that added that the review would determine ‘‘whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.’’
The formal language describes a first step that, while it is encouraging for civil rights organizations, does not assure that a federal case will be initiated.
But the NAACP and other groups are arguing that there are clear grounds for an intervention by the department.
In a message posted on the group’s website and circulated nationally within hours of the announcement of the verdict, the group’s president, Ben Jealous, declared, “We are not done demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.”
As part of the NAACP campaign to get the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman, Jealous urged Americans to sign a petition to Attorney General Eric Holder that reads,
The Department of Justice has closely monitored the State of Florida’s prosecution of the case against George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder since it began. Today, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it is time for the Department of Justice to act.
The most fundamental of civil rights—the right to life—was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin. We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation.
Please address the travesties of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin by acting today.
Within three hours of the online posting of the petition late Saturday evening, more than 350,000 Americans had signed it. The response was so intense that the group’s website crashed Sunday morning. But the #JusticeForTrayvon petition drive continued at the MoveOn.org petition site and a refreshed NAACP site.
Other civil rights groups echoed the demand for Justice Department action, with the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore telling reporters, “We will be calling on the federal government to file criminal charges on the basis of civil rights violations. This was done immediately after the Rodney King verdict, and should be done if justice is not rendered by the Florida courts.”
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law president Barbara Arnwine said that while the verdict “represents a tragic miscarriage of justice,” she believes “there is still the potential for justice to be served through a civil suit brought about by Trayvon Martin’s surviving family members, and also through civil rights charges being brought against Mr. Zimmerman by the Department of Justice.”
In addition to pressing for action at the federal level, the NAACP and other groups were turning attention to state capitols in the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal.
Jealous, who said civil rights supporters were “outraged and heartbroken” by the jury verdict, coupled his announcement of the petition with a call for the outlawing of racial profiling and a renewed commitment to “fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state.”
Florida passed its “stand your ground” law in 2005. Since then, at the behest of the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, variations on the legislation—which allows individuals who say they believe themselves to be in imminent danger to use deadly force—have been enacted by state legislatures across the country. After the killing of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, as media outlets in Florida and nationally have reported, “Police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, citing Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law.”
Zimmerman, who faced charges only after a national outcry forced a review of the case, did not mount a specific “stand your ground” defense. But the issue remained a bone of contention before and during his trial; notably, the jury heard from a witness who recalled teaching about Florida’s law in a college course that the defendant completed in 2010. And when jury instructions were made in the case, the judge said: "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."
Brendan Fischer, a lawyer with the Center for Media and Democracy, notes that: "This language is nearly identical to that in the Florida Stand Your Ground law and the ALEC "model" legislation. We cannot know if the outcome would have been different had the six jurors been instructed differently -- but we do know that Stand Your Ground played a role in the case, even after Zimmerman's arrest."
The sustained outcry over the February 26, 2012, shooting of Martin appears to have led the NRA and ALEC to halt advocacy on behalf of “stand your ground” laws. But the laws continue to influence criminal justice nationwide, as the Center for Media and Democracy has documented.
The NAACP, the Urban League, Color of Change, Common Cause, People for the American Way and MoveOn.org were among many groups that pressed ALEC on the “stand your ground” issue in 2012. Several of these same groups have taken the next step and are urging legislators to strike the laws from state statute 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,” argues Color of Change, as part of its campaign to strike down “stand your ground” laws. “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.”
Referencing a Texas A&M University study that revealed how “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws do not deter crime but have been linked to increased rates of homicide, Jealous has said that “stand-your-ground legislation does more harm than good.”
“Too often these laws provide cover for vigilantes and hate groups who choose to take the law into their own hand,” argued the NAACP president in 2012. “They have led to an increase in homicides, and people of color seem to always get caught in the crossfire.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
For the first time since the New Deal era, the United States could, by the time Labor Day 2013 rolls around, find itself entering into an extended period without either a secretary of labor or a functioning National Labor Relations Board.
The prospects are dire for working people and for the unions that represent them.
But Senate majority leader Harry Reid and his Democratic colleagues have the power to avert the crisis created by Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism. To that end, on Thursday, they took what have been identified as the first steps to adopt a rules change specifying that only 51 votes are required to end a filibuster that has been initiated to block votes on presidential nominees. “We’re headed to changing the rules,” New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall said after a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting where Reid raised the issue. “I didn’t hear anybody speak against it.”
This is not a step that Reid wanted to take. But it the majority leader was left with little choice after McConnell, the Republican minority leader, made it clear that he and his allies would continue to employ an abusive definition of the filibuster to block President Obama's nominees in general -- and to labor-related posts in particular.
Obama has selected a well-qualified nominee for secretary of labor: Tom Perez, a former Maryland Department of Labor secretary who has served in the Obama administration as the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. But the Perez nomination has languished without Senate action since May, when it was approved on a 12-10 vote of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The president has, as well, made necessary nominations to fill open positions on the five-member National Labor Relations Board.
One of Obama’s nominees, Mark Gaston Pearce, is a current NLRB board member whose term expires in August. If the Senate does not confirm Pearce and the others, Communications Workers of America union president Larry Cohen argues that the board will be rendered ineffectual.
“The protections that workers fought and died for, already diminished by subsequent legislation and court decisions, will soon disappear if the Senate fails to confirm the president’s nominees before its summer recess,” explains Cohen. “There are only three current members sitting on the five-seat NLRB. The constitutionality of the three recess appointments has been voided by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, and Chairman Mark Pearce’s term will expire in August. If the Senate does not act, we’ll soon be celebrating Labor Day without any labor law. Zero enforcement and no protections for 80 million American workers in the private sector.”
But the Senate cannot act under its current rules, which allow a minority of senators to abuse the filibuster power in order to block votes not just on legislation but on presidential nominations.
Senate minority leader McConnell, who has made no secret of his disdain for unions and the federal laws that have for seventy-eight years provided a measure of fairness for working people and the organizations that represent them, practices his most militant obstructionism when it comes to labor rights.
It is hard to imagine that nominations for labor secretary or for the NLRB will get Senate votes if the existing filibuster rules are not changed—at least when it comes to the confirmation of nominees. So Reid will on Thursday gathered the Senate Democratic Caucus to again ponder the modest filibuster reforms that senators such as Udall and Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, have been proposing for several years.
The reform efforts of Merkley and Udall have been thwarted repeatedly, creating great frustration on the part of the Democratic base. But this time it appears to be different.
Reid announced Thursday that: “Confirmation of Cabinet nominees used to be free of obstruction. But under President Obama, Cabinet nominees have encountered unprecedented obstruction.”
Reid confirmed that he was moving to "file cloture on a bunch of nominees."
While the majority leader has not declared that he is invoking the "nuclear option" — which would restore majority rule when it comes to scheduling and carrying out votes on executive branch nominations -- Senate sources told Politico on Thursday that Reid was taking steps that "could set the stage for a vote on the nuclear option as early as Tuesday."
If McConnell and his allies do not allow votes on nominations, Reid will be positioned to ask the Democratic majority to enact a rules change that reforms the filibuster so that -- while members could still conduct traditional "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" speaking filibusters -- they could no longer use secretive threats and backroom maneuvers to prevent votes.
Savvy activists have come to understand that the debate is no longer merely about filibuster reform or arcane Senate rules. McConnell’s obstructionism now threatens to render the NLRB dysfunctional—and to make the enforcement of rules protecting American workers dramatically more difficult.
This is about a lot more than politics. It is about whether the government will function as it has under Democratic and Republican presidents, under liberals like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and conservatives like Ronald Reagan. It is about whether the constitutionally defined responsibility of the Senate to provide advice and consent, to approve or disapprove presidential appointments, is respected. And it is about whether working Americans will have a government that watches out for them—as opposed to Mitch McConnell’s corporate campaign contributors.
“The Senate majority has all the tools it needs to make sure that workers’ rights are protected and labor law is fairly enforced,” says CWA’s Cohen. “The Senate Democratic majority must adopt rules that allow for an up or down vote for these nominees. That’s what democracy looks like, not obstructionism, not games playing, not valuing Senate ‘decorum’ over the responsibility to constituents to get the people’s business done.”
Christopher Hayes takes a quick tour through the filibuster's history and the options for its removal or amendment.
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are authors of the new book on reforming politics and government, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Thom Hartmann says: “Dollarocracy is the most important political book of the year, maybe of our times. Nichols and McChesney provide an original and painstakingly researched account of how corporations and billionaires have come to dominate the political process, as well as the contours of what they term the ‘money-and-media election complex.’ Although I study politics for a living, I learned more about how political advertising works, the crucial role of media corporations and dreadful election journalism than I would have ever imagined possible. In the smartest treatment I have seen, Dollarocracy also details how the Internet is being incorporated into the system; its fantastic potential to empower citizens to battle big money has been effectively neutered. Most important, Nichols and McChesney provide a roadmap to a better and more just election system, built on the foundation of establishing the right to vote. It is an optimistic response to a disturbing analysis. This is exactly the book every concerned American needs to read, because the process of understanding what exactly is going on and taking America back from the corporations starts here.”
The former governor walks through Union Square to collect signatures for his run for New York City comptroller on Monday, July 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Eliot Spitzer is a walking, talking political contradiction.
As the crusading New York State Attorney General during the Bush-Cheney years, he filled the regulatory void created by the most business-friendly administration in modern American history and renewed our understanding of the power of state officials to check and balance Wall Street.
Then, as New York’s governor, he crashed and burned his own career—and an opportunity to redefine states as the liberal “laboratories of democracy” that they were in the Progressive Era.
Spitzer’s brilliance and arrogance were in complete conflict as he took the actions that would lead to a 2008 resignation that was described as “career-ending.”
But prostitution, adultery and Twitter scandals don’t end political careers anymore. Just ask Louisiana Senator David Vitter, South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford or New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner.
So Spitzer is back—just as brilliant, and just as arrogant, as ever.
First the smart part: the former governor’s decision to make a last-minute leap into the race for New York City Comptroller is a savvy political move.
It’s the right race: A comeback bid by a political figure who has been involved in so high-profile a scandal as Spitzer’s needs to start in the right place on the ballot. A run for governor or mayor would have demanded more forgiveness than voters were prepared to extend. Spitzer needed to find a post that was prominent, but not too prominent. Seeking a city-wide post in New York is a comedown from the state posts Spitzer held. But the comptroller’s office is an important post in itself and it has produced mayoral candidates and mayors, statewide officials and members of Congress.
It’s the right office: the comptroller’s job has real responsibilities, and they are very much in line with Spitzer’s skills and focus. The comptroller audits the books and the performance of city agencies. The auditor plays a critical role in reviewing and initiating economic activity, especially when it comes to marketing and selling municipal bonds. And most importantly, the comptroller is the managing trustee for massive public employee pension funds; as such, the person who holds the post can carve out a defining position in a host of debates about investment policy and how Wall Street and big banks operate. Spitzer speaks of “using the equity stake that we control as a means of control of corporate governance.” And he talks about using pension funds to apply pressure to corporations on issues ranging from gun control to civil rights. The comptroller’s office has real power, and real resources. Spitzer knows that, and he says, “I want to do to the comptroller’s office what I did to the AG’s office: re-energize it, re-envision it, and hopefully, the public will give me that opportunity.”
It’s the right year: everything is up for grabs in New York this year, and everyone’s running for something. There are crowded races up and down the city ballot. Spitzer will get his share of attention—the New York Post headline Monday: “Here We Ho Again”—but there’s so much else going on that the attention is more likely to help than hurt. Because he’s running for a down-ballot job, he brings “star power” to a race that would otherwise get limited attention. His existing name recognition, in combination with the wealthy Spitzer’s ability to spend what it takes to shape the race, counts for a lot in this sort of contest.
Unfortunately, it is on the question of campaign funding that Spitzer’s arrogance—and irresponsibility—are very much on display.
Spitzer’s most prominent foe in the Democratic primary for comptroller is Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, an able and well-regarded progressive with substantial union support. Stringer’s campaign hit Spitzer immediately for opting out of New York City’s public-financing scheme for municipal election campaigns. “Eliot Spitzer is going to spurn the campaign finance program to try and buy personal redemption with his family fortune,” griped the Stringer camp.
Spitzer’s response on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show was to say, “The reality is that we’re going to end up spending probably about the same amount of money. He’ll be spending your money. I’ll be spending my own money.”
The problem, of course, is that not everyone is able to buy their way into a race at the last minute. Spitzer’s dismissal of New York’s system of providing matching funds for candidates with the worst-of-all “your money” versus “my own money” rhetoric is not just arrogant. It’s wrong.
Spitzer has a broad vision of the comptroller’s office—a vision that could have national significance when it comes to using state and local pension funds to establish what he refers to as “structural” checks and balances on corporate America, and when it comes to conducting “policy audits” to determine whether public programs are delivering for Americans. Those audits will, invariably, reveal that the flooding of our politics with private money plays a huge role in warping the workings of government. What the progressives of another time referred to as “the money power” is toxic, and the toxicity infects government at every level.
Even those who support Eliot Spitzer will recognize that he is not the only wealthy contender—or the only contender who might use big money to win a big election. If Spitzer is serious about using the New York City comptroller’s office to audit our public policies—and to propose real fixes—he should not be so arrogant as to casually dismiss attempts to address and constrain the money power.
John Nichols and Bob McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). John Bonifaz, co-founder and executive director of Free Speech for People, says, “John Nichols and Bob McChesney reveal that the 2012 election cycle had a price tag of $10 billion. They show us who the money came from and how it was spent. But, most important, they explain why this cannot go on if we are to have fair elections and honest government. With its breakthrough reporting and incisive analysis, Dollarocracy gives us the foundation we need to make the case for fundamental change like a constitutional amendment to overturn our system of unlimited campaign spending and restore democracy to the people.”
While Eliot Spitzer is bringing attention to the comptroller race, the race for mayor has long been in the media, thanks in large part to stop-and-frisk’s undecided and controversial future.
The most under-covered political movement in the United States—and there are a lot of under-covered political movements in the United States—is the broad-based national campaign to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court rulings that ushered in a new era of big-money politics.
On the eve of the nation’s Fourth of July celebrations, Oregon became the sixteenth state to formally call for an amendment. With bipartisan support, the state House and Senate requested that Congress take necessary steps to re-establish the basic American premise that “money is property and not speech, and [that] the Congress of the United States, state legislatures and local legislative bodies should have the authority to regulate political contributions and expenditures…”
Oregon is the fifth state to make the call for corporate accountability in three months, making 2013 a banner year for a movement that began with little attention and little in the way of institutional support after the US Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that corporations could spend as freely as they like to buy favorable election results.
Support for an amendment now stretches from coast to coast, with backing (in the form of legislative resolutions or statewide referendum results) from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia. The District of Columbia is also supportive of the move to amend, as are roughly 500 municipalities, from Liberty, Maine, to Los Angeles, California—where 77 percent of voters backed a May referendum instructing elected representatives to seek an amendment establishing that “there should be limits on political campaign spending and that corporations should not have the constitutional rights of human beings.”
“Why does it matter how many states call for an amendment? Ultimately, an amendment will have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. That’s thirty-eight. Four more and we’re halfway there,” says Rob Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, which is working with a burgeoning Corporate Reform Coalition of more than seventy groups nationwide. “But before that, an amendment must be passed by a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the US Congress. And one of the most effective ways to show a state’s representatives and senators in Washington, DC, that there is popular demand for an amendment is to pass a resolution back home.”
The successful work by national groups such as Public Citizen, Common Cause, Free Speech for People and Move to Amend, in conjunction with grassroots coalitions that are now active from northern Alaska to the tip of the Florida Keys, is far more dramatic than most of the initiatives you’ll see from the Democratic or Republican parties—which don’t do much but fund-raise—and various and sundry groupings on the right and left. Yet, for the most part, news of reform victories are afforded scant attention even from supposedly sympathetic media.
As such, the fantasy that says reform is impossible persists.
Just imagine if the movement to amend big money out of politics got as much attention, say, as the wrangling over IRS “targeting”—a classic money-in-politics controversy.
Just imagine if all Americans knew that calls for an amendment are coming not just from traditional progressive reformers but from Republican legislators and honest conservatives at the state and national levels.
Free Speech for People highlights the dozens of Republican legislators who have backed calls for an amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but other barriers to the regulation of money in politics. With backing from third-party and independent legislators, as well, the passage of the state resolutions highlights what the group refers to as “a growing trans-partisan movement…calling for the US Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) to be overturned, through one or more amendments to the US Constitution.”
North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones Jr., who maintains one of the most conservative voting records in the House has signed on as a co-sponsor of one of several proposed amendments. Why? “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed,” says the congressman. “The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.”
Congressman Jones is noting something that too many DC insiders, be they members of Congress or pundits commenting on Congress, fail to recognize: millions of Americans are already engaged on this issue. They are organizing for, marching for, writing letters for, sending e-mails for, testifying for and voting for the fundamental reform that is an essential building block in any movement to restore faith in the political process and renew American democracy: a constitutional amendment declaring, as the Oregon legislature just did, that “based on the American value of fair play, leveling the playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity to have their political views heard, there is a valid rationale for regulating political spending.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). 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’s and McChesney’s astonishing finding: It’s only going to get worse. Dollarocracy is an impressive achievement.”
During the decades of his imprisonment by South Africa’s apartheid regime, Nelson Mandela read widely and deeply from the historical and philosophical texts of the ages.
Mandela sampled from the global canon. Yet he took a special interest in the record of American revolt against empire.
The events of July 4, 1776, have across the long arc of history captured the imaginations of men and women who would build nations far beyond the borders of the United States. And that was certainly the case with Mandela. When I covered him on his 1990 tour of the United States and during his 1994 campaign for the presidency of South Africa, it quickly became clear that Mandela had developed a rich understanding of the revolutionary history of the United States—and of the individuals and ideas that shaped it.
Mandela has always displayed a high regard for the histories and ideas of nations that dispatched colonial overlords. His speeches and essays on Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru are remarkable documents, as are his reflections on leading figures from the anti-colonial struggles of central Africa and the Caribbean.
Mandela recognized that the United States has a distinct anti-colonial history. And he has often employed that recognition to remind Americans and others of ideals and values that are too frequently forgotten.
In his address to the US Congress twenty-three years ago, Mandela spoke of “the struggle for democracy and human rights, not only in our country, but throughout the world.”
“We could not have made an acquaintance through literature with human giants such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and not been moved to act, as they were moved to act. We could not have heard of and admired John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr. and others,” declared Mandela. “We could not have heard of these and not be moved to act as they were moved to act. We could not have known of your Declaration of Independence and not elected to join in the struggle to guarantee the people’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Already engaged with the work of shaping the new South Africa, Mandela delivered this message to the US Congress: “The day may not be far when we will borrow the words of Thomas Jefferson and speak of the will of the South African nation in the exercise of that will by this united nation of black and white people—it must surely be that there will be born a country on the southern tip of Africa which you will be proud to call a friend and an ally because of its contribution to the universal striving toward liberty, human rights, prosperity and peace among the people.”
Like so many who have struggled for democracy over the past two centuries, Mandela has taken his cues not merely from presidents and the crafters of official documents. He has honored Tom Paine, the radical pamphleteer who wrote not just of the specifics of the American experiment but of the prospect that a nation and its people might inspire the world.
The speeches Mandela gave in the critical transition period from apartheid oppression to multiracial democracy were laced with homages to Paine—especially the pamphleteer’s Common Sense promise: “We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.”
When Mandela was inaugurated as his country’s president, he announced that South Africa was striving not merely for the birth of a new nation but “for the birth of a new world.”
Mandela served one term and then stepped down, refusing—as George Washington had in the early years of the American experiment—to cling to power that the people had willingly given him. Speaking on Sunday in South Africa, where vigils were being kept for an ailing Mandela, President Obama said the South African leader “showed us that one man’s courage can move the world.”
Inspiration is passed across borders and oceans, across generations and centuries. There is an arc of history. It was bent toward justice by Paine in the eighteenth century. It has been bent toward justice by Mandela in our time. And one of the gifts Mandela has given to America, one of the gifts he continues to give this country and the world, is a reminder of our revolutionary roots and our highest aspirations.
In arguing that Britain’s colonial subjects should engage in the bold and dangerous work of seeking independence, Paine wrote: “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of which, their affections are interested. The laying a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from the face of the Earth, is the concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of feeling; of which class, regardless of party censure, is the AUTHOR.”
It was Mandela who, two centuries later, became the face of a broad anti-apartheid movement that would speak the same language, and imagine the same role, for an African nation.
“We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born,” Mandela declared in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.”
Every nation is engaged in an endless process of defining itself. Great thinkers, great leaders ask their nations to go further. They believe—as Paine did—that a country might seek “to begin the world over again,” and they imagine—as Mandela has—that their nation might inspire and inform “the birth of a new world.”
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books). Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University, says: “As Nichols and McChesney’s new book shows, the robber barons of the late nineteenth 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.”