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John Nichols

John Nichols

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How to Vote Against the Koch Brothers

Charles G. Koch

Charles G. Koch. (AP Photo/ Mike Burley)

The Koch Brothers don't actually run for office—at least not since David Koch's amusingly ambitious 1980 bid for the vice presidency on a Libertarian Party ticket that proposed the gutting of corporate taxes, the minimum wage, occupational health and safety oversight, environmental protections and Social Security.

That project, while exceptionally well-funded for a third-party campaign, secured just 1.06 percent of the vote. The Kochs determined it would be easier to fund conservative campaigns than to pitch the program openly. Initially, the project was hampered by what passed for campaign-finance rules and regulations, to the frustration of David Koch, who once told The New Yorker, "We'd like to abolish the Federal Elections Commission and all the limits on campaign spending anyway."

The FEC still exists. But the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v FEC and the general diminution of campaign finance rules and regulations has cleared the way for David Koch and his brother Charles to play politics as they choose. And they are playing hard—especially in Wisconsin, a state where they have made supporting and sustaining the governorship of Scott Walker a personal priority.

Two years ago, David Koch said of Walker: "We're helping him, as we should. We've gotten pretty good at this over the years. We've spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We're going to spend more." The Palm Beach Post interview in which that quote appeared explained, "By 'we' he says he means Americans for Prosperity," the group the Kochs have used as one of their prime vehicles for political engagement in the states.

AFP and its affiliates are expanding their reach this year, entering into fights at the local level where their big money can go far—and where the Koch Brothers can influence the process from the ground up.

As Walker prepares to seek a second term. AFP is clearing the way in supposedly nonpartisan county board and school board races that will occur Tuesday.

Consider the case of Iron County. Elections in the northern Wisconsin county have always been down-home affairs: an ad in the Iron County Miner newspaper, some leaflets dropped at the door, maybe a hand-painted yard sign.

This year, however, that’s changed. Determined to promote a controversial mining project—and, presumably, to advance Walker’s agenda—AFP has waded into Tuesday’s competition for control of the Iron County Board.

With dubious “facts” and over-the-top charges, the Wisconsin chapter of the Koch Brothers-backed group is pouring money into the county—where voter turnout in spring elections rarely tops 1,500—for one of the nastiest campaigns the region has ever seen. Small-business owners, farmers and retirees who have asked sensible questions about the impact of major developments on pristine lakes, rivers, waterfalls and tourism are being attacked as “anti-mining radicals” who “just want to shut the mines down, no matter what.”

Iron County is debating whether to allow new mining, not whether to shut mines down. And many of the candidates that AFP is ripping into have simply said they want to hear from all sides.

But those details don’t matter in the new world of Big Money politics ushered in by US Supreme Court rulings that have cleared the way for billionaires and corporations to buy elections.

Most of the attention to money in politics focuses on national and state races. But the best bargains for billionaires are found at the local level—where expenditures in the thousands can overwhelm the pocket-change campaigns of citizens who run for county boards, city councils and school boards out of a genuine desire to serve and protect their community.

That’s why it is important to pay attention to Tuesday’s voting in Iron County—and in communities such as Kenosha, where the group has waded into local school board races. The Kenosha contest goes to the core issues of recent struggles over collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin, pitting candidates who are willing to work with teachers and their union in a historically pro-labor town versus contenders who are being aided by the Koch Brothers contingent in Wisconsin.

But it is equally important to pay attention to the efforts by citizens, working at the local level, to upend the big money and to restore politics of, by and for the people.

The month of March started with a grassroots rebellion in New Hampshire, where dozens of towns called on their elected representatives to work to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the high court's Citizens United decision.

On Tuesday, the same day the Kochs are meddling in local elections in the state, communities across the state will vote to get money out of politics.

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Clean-politics advisory referendums are on ballots across Wisconsin. Belleville, DeForest, Delavan, Edgerton, Elkhorn, Lake Mills, Shorewood, Waterloo, Waukesha, Waunakee, Wauwatosa, Whitefish Bay and Windsor will have an opportunity to urge their elected representatives to support an amendment to restore the authority of local, state and national officials to establish campaign finance rules ensuring that votes matter more than dollars. The initiative is backed by groups like Move to Amend and United Wisconsin. “The unlimited election spending by special-interest groups, allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, has drowned out the voices of ordinary people,” says United Wisconsin Executive Director Lisa Subeck. “Urgent action is needed to restore our democracy to the hands of the people.”

That urgency is especially real in rural communities—places like Iron County. That's why the Wisconsin Farmers Union is calling for a “yes” vote. “Citizens of all political stripes—Republicans, Democrats and independents—agree that we need to curb the corrupting influence of money in politics,” says WFU Executive Director Tom Quinn. “Voting yes…will send a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy.”


Read Next: John Nichols on New Hampshire's corporate personhood and Citizens United referendums.

Elizabeth Warren Steps Up for Populist Politics

Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Democratic insiders have been slow to embrace the populist campaign of South Dakota Senate candidate Rick Weiland. As we noted this week on TheNation.com Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, has dismissed the Democratic candidate for South Dakota's open US Senate seat as "not my choice." Washington observers point out that "the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee routinely leaves off its competitive list, the seat of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, D-SD." And there will not be a lot of corporate cash flowing to Weiland, who says his first act as a senator will be to propose a constitutional amendment declaring “that the votes of all, rather than the wealth of a few, shall direct the course of the Republic, Congress shall have the power to limit the raising and spending of money with respect to federal elections.”

But Weiland, a veteran congressional aide and advocate who formerly headed the South Dakota branch of the American Association of Retired People, has mounted a high-energy campaign that has already seen the candidate visit more than 300 of the state's 311 towns with an old-school populist message. “I was born here. I grew up on this land. It was ours because our democracy kept it that way," he says. "Today our democracy is being bought by big money and turned against us. To feed their profits we lose our jobs, our homes and our farms, our kids’ education, even our health, and the Congress they have bought looks the other way, or worse."

Democrats who "get" that their party must embrace a people-centered grassroots politics if it is to be viable in 2014 and beyond are starting to take notice.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, has given Weiland a strong endorsementhailing him as a "smart, experienced, bold progressive." She's urging support for his campaign today as part of a national appeal circulated by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, with which the senator has worked closely. "Rick led South Dakota’s AARP and federal emergency management in his state, and he worked as a top Senate aide," says Warren, whose own populist campaign of 2012 dislodged Republican Senator Scott Brown. "He is campaigning actively on campaign finance reform and taking back government for hard-working everyday people."

The Weiland endorsement is coupled with support for Congressman Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who is running for the seat of retiring Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. The Iowa Senate candidate has his own populist credentials; indeed, Warren notes, "Bruce Braley led the Populist Caucus in the House of Representatives—and is focused on economic fairness, investing in education and addressing our retirement crisis."

While Braley (who is taking hits this week for referring to Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school") has received substantial support from national Democrats, Weiland has in the words of Washington's The Hill newspaper been "getting [the] cold shoulder."

Warren's endorsement rejects the narrow calculus of DC Democratic insiders, arguing that both Braley and Weiland deserve strong support—and that, with such support, both can be contenders in November.

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"I know we can count on Bruce and Rick to be strong voices in our fight to level the playing field for working families—whether it’s protecting Social Security for our seniors, making college more affordable for our kids, or holding powerful interests accountable," explains Warren. "That’s precisely why the right-wing Super PACs are already lining up to stop Bruce and Rick from going to the Senate. With two new Senate pickups on the line, they’ll say whatever they need to say and spend whatever they need to spend to win."

The message is clear. Victories for Braley and Weiland could certainly help in the effort to preserve a Democratic majority in the Senate. But they would, as well, add members to the Senate caucus of what PCCC activists proudly refer to as "The Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party."


Read Next: More on Rick Weiland's candidacy and DC Democrats' cold shoulder

What DC Democrats Don’t Get About Populism

Rick Weiland

Rick Weiland, Democratic candidate for one of South Dakota's two US Senate seats, talks about the Medicare Choice Act he plans to introduce if elected. (AP Photo/Dirk Lammers)

South Dakota has sent Democrats to the Senate on a reasonably consistent basis for fifty years, and it has on an even more consistent basis over an even longer period of time sent prairie populists to the Senate: from the actual Populist Party’s James Kyle to Silver Republican Richard F. Pettigrew to modern Democrats George McGovern and Jim Abourezk.

This year, with South Dakota’s Senate seat open, Rick Weiland is running like the prairie populists of old—challenging the big corporations that don’t pay their fair share of taxes, big banks that seek bailouts and, above all, the big money that has come to dominate our politics. He has attracted considerable support in South Dakota. Unfortunately, a lot of Washington Democrats have a hard time understanding a politics that eschews concession and compromise and instead preaches of fire-and-brimstone gospel of economic and social justice.

Weiland speaks the language of the old-time populists. He says, “I was born here. I grew up on this land. It was ours because our democracy kept it that way. Today our democracy is being bought by big money and turned against us. To feed their profits we lose our jobs, our homes and our farms, our kids’ education, even our health, and the Congress they have bought looks the other way, or worse.”

The Democratic contender campaigns as the populists did, not with slick television commercials but on the road, with a commitment to visit every one of South Dakota’s 311 towns.

In those towns, he explains that:

Big money has rigged our economy so that heads they win and tails we lose:

· Crash the economy by blatant criminal and irresponsible behavior. Get bailed out.

· Get caught defrauding American tax payers and have to pay billions of dollars in fines… not to worry those fines are tax deductible.

· Donate a million dollars to a politician and get a billion dollar tax break. That is how they see it. That is how they have made it.

Weiland proposed voluntary campaign spending limits. But his likely foe, former Governor Mike Rounds, rejected the idea and has announced plans to raise an epic campaign fund of $9 millionwith an eye toward scaring other candidates and Democratic donors away from the race.

Weiland refused to back down. He's running against the money, saying, “It is time to stand up and take our country back. We have done it before and we need to do it again.” To that end, he pledges that the first bill he will introduce as a senator is a constitutional amendment that reads, “So that the votes of all, rather than the wealth of a few, shall direct the course of the Republic, Congress shall have the power to limit the raising and spending of money with respect to federal elections.”

It is certainly true that Weiland faces a fight to keep the seat held by retiring US Senator Tim Johnson in Democratic hands. South Dakota has not backed a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and it has not elected a Democratic governor since Dick Kneip was re-elected in 1974—along with McGovern. Yet, Weiland is determined to spark a populist uprising.

And the political dynamics on the ground are, at the very least, intriguing. Rounds leads the race for the Republican nod. But former Republican US Congressman and US Senator Larry Pressler, a maverick who lost to Johnson in 1996 and has since criticized his party for moving too far to the right, plans to enter the race as an independent.

Why aren’t nationally Democrats taking Weiland's campaign to hold a Democratic seat more seriously?

“Why,” as the Washington-insider journal The Hill asked this week, “is South Dakota’s Rick Weiland getting [the] cold shoulder?”

As The Hill explains:

Rick Weiland will be the Democratic Senate nominee in South Dakota, but party leaders are less than thrilled about it.

Stuck with a candidate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has publicly trashed and a race the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee routinely leaves off its competitive list, the seat of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., now looks like a lost cause for Democrats who face an increasingly difficult map to hold onto the Senate.

Reid has been particularly dismissive of Weiland, bluntly declaring that the long-time aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and former South Dakota director for the American Association of Retired People (AARP), was “not my choice.”

Weiland has gotten support from Democracy for America (DFA), the activist group founded by former Vermont governor and 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean. When Dean chaired the Democratic National Committee, in a period that saw the party win back the Congress and then the White House, he championed a fifty-state strategy. That approach saw possibilities for organizing—and winning elections—in Republican-leaning regions that most Democratic strategists had previously avoided. Dean and DFA also recognized the power of populist appeals.

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Part of Weiland’s message to DFA activists is a declaration by the candidate that:

I believe that we got half a loaf with health care reform because we did not get a public option. I believe that every American, regardless of age or health, should be allowed to buy into Medicare. I believe that big money special interests have taken over our government and turned it against us. Our campaign finance laws have failed to stop billionaires and corporations from being able to elect the politicians of their choosing—the same politicians who let them write laws that disproportionately favor their own personal and financial interests.

We are not going to get the change we need in this country until we get big money out of politics. American families are working harder and harder yet they are failing to get ahead. They are working themselves to the bone while Wall Street and big money special interests rig the economy against them. I am committed to fighting this distortion of our political system and putting our government on the side of ordinary citizens.

That is, unquestionably, a populist message.

A populist message very much in the tradition of the appeals that South Dakota has answered in the past—and that Washington has always struggled to understand.


Read Next: John Nichols on New Hampshire's grassroots movement to get money out of politics.

Will New Hampshire Be the Next State to Declare Democracy Is for People—Not Corporations?

New Hampshire Town Hall

Many of the votes to overturn Citizens United took place in New Hampshire Town Halls. (Wikimedia Commons/John Phelan)

Granny D would, no doubt, be quite proud of her hometown and her home state.

In 1999 and 2000, Doris “Granny D” Haddock walked 3,300 miles from California to Washington, DC, in order to highlight the crisis of money in politics. That was remarkable. What was even more remarkable was that she started the walk at age 88, finished at age 90 and then kept right on campaigning for another decade—until she died at age 100 in 2010. Indeed, Granny D celebrated her last birthdays lobbying for campaign finance reform at the capitol of her native New Hampshire.

So it was entirely fitting that, as dozens of New Hampshire communities voted this month on resolutions urging their state to take a stand in favor of amending the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, many of them referred to the town meeting proposals as “Granny D Warrant Articles.”

The Granny D Warrant Articles—which rejected the high court calculus that afforded corporations the same political rights as human being—proved to be exceptionally popular.

Organizers report that fourty-seven New Hampshire communities went on record in favor of the "Democracy Is For People" amendment, and more are in the process of doing so.

Most of the amendment proposals won big.

In a number of smaller towns, the vote was unanimous. In bigger communities, it was often overwhelming—in Pelham, the votes was 2235 in favor versus 1051 against; in Hampstead, it was 1098-391; in Atkinson, it was 1003-460.

The dozens of New Hampshire communities that have called for an amendment push the total number of towns, villages and cities that have moved to amend well over 500. In addition, 16 states have formally asked Congress to begin the amendment process.

The goal of the New Hampshire town meeting campaign this year—which was backed by Public Citizen’s Democracy is for People project, along with the New Hampshire Coalition for Open Democracy and national groups such as Move to Amend—was to create grassroots pressure on the state legislature to make New Hampshire the seventeenth state to call for an amendment.

The New Hampshire State House voted 189-139 last year to call on Congress to support an amendment to the US Constitution to make it clear that corporations are not people with constitutional rights. Ten Republican representatives joined Democrats in supporting that resolution.

The New Hampshire Senate has yet to join the House's call. So the town meeting campaign was organized to encourage Senate action. And the organizers were well pleased with the results. As Democracy Is For People's Jonah Minkoff-Zern explained, "With the voting results, the polls and grassroots organizing, it is crystal clear that the residents of New Hampshire want to join the nationwide movement and become the seventeenth state to call for a constitutional amendment to stop the flood of money from corporations and the ultra-wealthy into our elections."

In addition to adding another state to the national list, the New Hampshire town meeting campaign sought to build a muscular pro-amendment movement in the nation’s first-presidential primary state.

And it honored Doris Haddock's legacy as a reformer.

In Granny D’s hometown of Dublin, that legacy was discussed as citizens prepared to vote.

“Doris was one of the most illustrious of Dublin’s citizens,” declared Mary Loftis, who referred to the measure as the “Doris ‘Granny D’ Haddock” Warrant Article when she introduced it.

The town voted "yes"—by a wide margin.

“Basically if money talks, Citizens United gave it a voice that can drown out the rest of us,” Patrick Armstrong told the Dublin town meeting. “I think [Granny D] would also be in favor of this.”

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That’s good thinking with regard to the woman who believed—and told us frequently—that “we must declare our independence from the corrupting bonds of big money in our election campaigns.”

STAY TUNED: The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on what experts and activists refer to as "Citizens United 2.0." The court could use the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision to allow big donors to flood even more money into the campaigns of favored candidates. A "Money Out/Voters In" coalition of activist groups is organizing a "rapid response" campaign of rallies, marches and protests. Learn more here.


Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the 'next Citizens United.' 

An 87 Percent Vote for a $15-an-Hour Wage

$15 minimum wage

The fight for a $15 minimum wage spans from Seattle to Chicago. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Political insiders and prognosticators at the national level were, barely a year ago, casting doubts on the question of whether proposing a great big hike in the federal minimum wage was smart politics. While President Obama had proposed a $9-an-hour wage, Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Congressman George Miller, D-California, broke the double-digit barrier with a $10.10-an-hour proposal. But there was still skepticism about whether raising wages for the hardest-pressed American workers was a winning issue.

Polls have since confirmed that Americans from across the political and ideological spectrum are overwhelmingly in favor of a substantial increase in the minimum wage. And election results are now confirming the sentiment.

Even as they re-elected Governor Chris Christie last fall, New Jersey voters gave landslide support to a measure that not only raised the state minimum wage to $8.25 an hour but indexed future increases to keep up with inflation. On the same day, voters in Sea-Tac, Washington, approved a $15 hourly wage, while voters in Seattle elected socialist Kshama Sawant on a “Fight for $15” platform.

Now comes a powerful signal from Chicago.

When voters in the city went to the polls to cast ballots in Tuesday’s statewide and local primary elections, thousands of them faced an economic question: Would they support a $15-an-hour minimum wage for large employers in the city?

The results were overwhelming. With 100 of the 103 precincts where the issue was on the ballot reporting, 87 percent of voters were backing the $15-an-hour wage. Just 13 percent voted against the advisory referendum. That huge level of support will strengthen the hand of activists who are encouraging the city council to consider a major wage hike.

The Chicago vote illustrates a phenomenon that is being seen in many of the nation’s largest—and most expensive—urban areas.

“With inequality at record levels, more workers relying on public assistance just to afford the basics, and the federal minimum wage stalled at just $7.25, more and more cities are responding with higher minimum wages at the local level,” says Paul Sonn, general counsel for the National Employment Law Project. “We’re seeing this especially in high cost regions where the state-wide minimum wage just isn’t enough.”

According to NELP:

A growing number of localities across the country have already enacted minimum wages significantly above the federal and state level in an effort to address the impact of low-wage job growth and growing inequality throughout the post-recession recovery. Cities and counties that have enacted higher minimum wages in recent years include San Francisco ($10.74 per hour), Santa Fe ($10.66 per hour), San Jose ($10.15 per hour), Washington, DC ($11.50 by 2016), Montgomery County, MD ($11.50 by 2017), Prince George’s County, MD ($11.50 by 2017), and SeaTac, WA ($15 for certain occupations).

In addition to Chicago, other cities that are pursuing higher minimum wages currently include Seattle ($15 per hour), San Francisco ($15 per hour), New York City; San Diego; Oakland; Portland, Maine; and Las Cruces, New Mexico, among others.

The Chicago vote also offers an insight into why Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has been making the minimum-wage issue central to his re-election run. Quinn is a Democrat who has a long history of working on issues of concern to low-wage workers and the communities where they live. But he also knows a winning issue.

Quinn told the crowd at his Tuesday night victory rally, “There is a principle as old as the Bible: If you work hard. If you’re working 40 hours a week, and if you’re doing your job, you should not have to live in poverty. You should get a decent wage. We believe in that and we’re going to make it happen.”

At the same time, Quinn’s campaign began airing a fresh television ad ripping Republican nominee Bruce Rauner on the issue. A wealthy venture capitalist, who recently quipped that he was not just part of the 1 percent but “probably [the] 0.1 percent,” Rauner financed much of his own primary campaign with contributions estimated at $6 million. Yet in the new Quinn ad he is seen proclaiming, “I am adamantly, adamantly against raising the minimum wage.”

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Rauner, whose GOP primary win was a narrow one, has been all over the place on the wage issue. He said early in the campaign that he would lower the state minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to the national rate of $7.25 an hour. Reports that one of the wealthiest men in the state was promising to cut wages for working Illinoisans did not go over well, and Rauner then suggested he might support raising the state rate if economic conditions were favorable.

Quinn has been far clearer when it comes to discussing wages—saying he favors an increase to at least $10 an hour this year—and the broader issue of economic inequality.

“I believe in everyday people. I think a governor has to have a heart,” the governor declared on primary night. “I may not have nine mansions. I have one house. I’m not a billionaire. Never will be. I’m not part of the 1 percent and never will be there. I’m not even part of the 0.1 percent. But I’ll tell you this. As long as I’m governor I’m going to fight hard for the 99.9 percent.”


Read Next: The tyranny of the on-call schedule, hourly injustice in retail labor

Before He Goes Off Again, Paul Ryan Might Want to Study His Irish History

Paul Ryan

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., speaks about his budget plan. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Paul Ryan has spent the past several weeks apologizing.

First, he delivered a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference where he decried school lunch programs, arguing that organizing programs to feed hungry children could produce “a full stomach and an empty soul.” Unfortunately, Ryan illustrated his argument with a story that turned out to be unsettlingly inaccurate—in both specific details and broad premises.

The House Budget Committee chairman had to apologize—as best an ambitious advocate for austerity could—with a note explaining that the basis for his remarks had been “improperly sourced.”

Then Ryan went on a national radio program and ripped on unemployed “inner city” men, who he claimed were “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”

The Wisconsin congressman had to apologize—as best an ambitious advocate for job-killing and factory-closing “free trade” deals could—for being “inarticulate.”

And Paul Ryan might want to make one more apology.

For disregarding his own history.

Just as he now disrespects and diminishes the experience of hungry and unemployed Americans, the British Tories of the mid-nineteenth-century disrespected and diminished starving Irish men, women and children—including, presumably, the ancestors Ryan says were “Irish peasants who came over during the potato famine.”

After reviewing Ryan’s remarks, the very wise New York Times essayist Timothy Egan noted over the weekend that “you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.”

Egan reminds us that historians of the Irish experience have for some time now been been picking up on the fact that Ryan seems to have forgotten where he came from—and what his immigrant ancestors went through.

“The whole British argument in the famine was that the poor are poor because of a character defect,” explains Christine Kinealy, a professor of Irish studies and director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. “It’s a dangerous, meanspirited and tired argument.”

John Kelly, a historian who has written extensively on the famine, has noted more broadly with regard to Ryan’s habit of blaming the disenfranchised for being disenfranchised that the congressman seems to adopt “the very same [approach] that hurt, not helped, his forebears during the famine—and hurt them badly.”

Like Ryan, I am descended from Irish immigrants who settled in Wisconsin. But mine was a different experience. I learned from an early age about Britain’s colonial repression of the Irish, and about the mistreatment of immigrants to the United States who were greeted with “Irish Need Not Apply” signs.

My Irish history inspired enthusiasm for anti-colonial, anti-apartheid and pro–civil rights movements—along with sympathy for immigrant rights. This is not uncommon. My friend Tom Hayden, whose Irish ancestors settled in Wisconsin, wrote the grand book Irish on the Inside: The Search for the Soul of Irish America (Verso), which explained why Irish-Americans should identify with the liberation struggles of immigrants, people of color and other victims of class and race discrimination.

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Hayden’s exploration of his roots—in Ireland and in the immigrant communities of rural Wisconsin—helped him to unearth the seeds of his own radicalism. He employed a wonderful phrase in that book: suggesting that an understanding of the oppression of the Irish and of the experience of immigration provided “the fertile soil of awakenings.”

It is disappointing that in losing sight of his past, Paul Ryan has denied himself the opportunity for an awakening that might offer him with broader and better understanding of the issues that he admits he has been “inarticulate” in discussing.

It was certainly true in the nineteenth century that the last thing the impoverished people of Ireland needed was a British Tory politician blaming them for their hard times—or telling them that organizing programs to feed hungry children might do damage to the soul.

And it is certainly true in the twenty-first century that the last thing the impoverished people of the United States need is an American Tory politician blaming them for their hard times—or telling them that organizing programs to feed hungry children might do damage to the soul.

Read Next: John Nichols interviews Bernie Sanders on running for president.

Tony Benn and the Five Essential Questions of Democracy

Tony Benn

Tony Benn in 2008 (Regent's University London/Flicker)

Tony Benn met Mahatma Gandhi when he was 12, knew and defended Nelson Mandela when the embrace of the anti-apartheid struggle was seen as a radical act, began his fifty years of service in the British Parliament when Winston Churchill was the leader of the conservative opposition and left after Tony Blair became prime minister, renounced his inherited title as the 2nd Viscount Stansgate so that he could continue to serve in the people's parliament (declaring “I am not a reluctant peer but a persistent commoner”), ushered in a new age of popular communications and connectivity as Britain’s pioneering Minister of Technology in the 1960s and 1970s, championed cooperatives and worker ownership as Britain’s Minister of Industry in the 1970s, battled not just Margaret Thatcher but the compromising leaders of his own Labour Party on behalf of the working class in the 1980s and finished his almost 60 years of public life as an international leader of the opposition to the wars of whim and folly that have stolen so much of the promise of our time.

Benn was a proud radical, an anti-colonialist, a socialist without apology and the inspiration for generations of activists, organizers, parliamentarians, presidents and prime ministers around the world—including the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, who responded to Benn’s death Friday at age 88 with mourning for the loss of an “iconic figure of our age.”

Yet, across the quarter-century that I knew him, Benn identified most proudly as a small “d” democrat, a tireless promoter of a power-to-the-people ethic that placed its faith in the great mass of humanity rather than billionaires, media moguls and political powerbrokers.

The last time that Tony and I appeared together at a public event—a symposium in London put on by Britain’s brilliant Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom that recalled his famous declaration that “broadcasting is really too important to be left to the broadcasters”—he reminded me of his belief that those in positions of economic, social and political power should always be asked five questions:

“What power have you got?”

“Where did you get it from?”

“In whose interests do you use it?”

“To whom are you accountable?”

“How do we get rid of you?”

Benn asked these questions everywhere he went. I saw him write them on the chalkboards of classrooms and lecture halls. I heard him repeat them at rallies, protests and marches.

I think his favorite of the questions—as a political figure who delighted the give and take of campaigning, the debates, the canvasses, the counts in his initial constituency of Bristol South East and in the historic mining constituency of Chesterfield that he represented in the final decades of his remarkable career—was: “How do we get rid of you?”

“Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system,” Benn explained.

“Only democracy gives us that right. That is why no one with power likes democracy,” he would continue. “And that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it—including you and me, here and now”

In fairness, it was not quite true that “no one with power likes democracy.”

Benn held power, as a revered parliamentarian, a minister of state, a competitor for the leadership of his party and a figure of international prominence who traveled in the circles of heads of state. Yet, he was happiest when he was in the street, marching, speaking truth to power, challenging prime ministers and presidents.

To Tony’s view, citizens could not be spectators.

This is why he championed media and political reform, embracing structural changes that would take power away from unelected billionaires and their political pawns and give it to the people. The great historical struggle, he argued, was always over the scope and character of democracy.

When I was with Tony in Chesterfield and London and too many other locations to count over the decades of our friendship, we always spoke of Tom Paine, the English radical who inspired an American revolution. Tony was passionate about Paine and about all the other dissenters, be they British or American or Indian or South African, suffragists and civil rights marchers, anticolonialists and anti-apartheid campaigners, who suffered, struggled and persevered in the cause of democracy.

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“A historical perspective is the key to democratic politics, which if denied can bury the real issues and confine news coverage to high-level gossip about the rich and the powerful, reducing us to the role of spectators of our fate, rather than active participants,” he explained. “The obliteration of the past strengthens the short-term calculations that pass for political thought, and for me the real heroes are those few who try to explain the world in order to help us to understand what we can best do to improve our lot.”

Tony Benn explained the world, better than anyone I knew. And he was never, ever willing to accept the role of spectator in the great democratic debate, and the great democratic life, that he sought. We honor him best by asking his questions, and by recognizing that every generation must struggle to win democracy -- and to keep it.


Read Next: Chokwe Lumumba: A Revolutionary to the End.

Misdirected Mail: White House Budget Proposes Damaging Postal Service Cuts


Express mail forms and priority mailboxes. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Among the very worst ideas for “reforming” the United States Postal Service are proposals to end Saturday delivery and to shift from at-the-door delivery of mail to a scheme that would force Americans to go to collect letters and packages from central delivery spots.

Both approaches would diminish the scope and character of the postal service while increasing the likelihood that private firms will move in to fill the void.

These are the sort of ideas that are peddled by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Darrell Issa, R-California, and others who target the USPS for deep cuts. Unfortunately, they’ve turned up in the Obama administration’s budget.

As The Hill reports:

Obama’s budget would allow USPS to scrap all Saturday delivery—even packages, one of the most rapidly growing parts of the Postal Service’s business. USPS in recent months has shown more interest in expanding when it delivers packages, with Sunday delivery now in limited areas.

The White House budget would also allow USPS to move away from door-to-door delivery to more centralized delivery areas, an idea also panned by Democrats. Plus, USPS could keep a recent temporary increase in the price of stamps—which large mailers loathe—beyond the scheduled two years.

According to the Obama administration, these reforms—along with a proposal to tinker with some of the immediate requirements for pre-funding retiree healthcare benefits seventy-five years into the future—“would set USPS on a sustainable business path, providing it with over $20 billion in cash relief, operational savings and revenue through 2016.”

But that’s not how the people who deliver the mail, and who have battled to preserve the postal service, see it.

American Postal Workers Union president Mark Dimondstein says the administration budget echoes “misguided policies…for severe cutbacks that will harm service, drive away business, and eliminate jobs.”

“The budget fails to eliminate the pre-funding requirement of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which is the fundamental cause of the Postal Service’s manufactured financial crisis,” says Dimondstein, who adds that “with the Postal Service posting operating profits in mail and package delivery, there is absolutely no justification to continue a strategy of austerity. Rather than damaging the infrastructure and network that is essential for providing service, the Postal Service must expand service.”

That’s a message that a new alliance of postal unions—the APWU, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union and the National Rural Letter Carriers Association—wants to communicate to the president and his budget team. The unions offered this week to meet with the White House to discuss strategies for strengthening the postal service—from changes in shipping rules to the development of a postal banking system along lines proposed by US Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.

But the first reform has to involve a realistic restructuring of that requirement to prefund retiree health benefits decades into the future.

“Our Postal Service is in need of true reform, not ill‐advised, counter‐productive attempts to slash service,” says National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association president Jeanette Dwyer. “By reworking the Postal Service’s funding of its retiree health benefits, an obligation which accounts for 80 percent of USPS losses over recent years and is forced on no other public or private entity, lawmakers could take the easiest and most sensible step toward getting this venerable institution back on the right page. Allowing the Postal Service to continue to innovate with same‐day parcel delivery and other services will provide a great opportunity to generate needed revenue and allow the USPS to remain a competitive player in the shipping and delivery industry. We need to grow our Postal Service not shrink it.”

Instead of borrowing ideas from members of Congress who want to downsize and dismantle the postal service, White House aides would be well to take the counsel of members who recognize the immense potential of the postal service.

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, have introduced a smart fix, the Postal Service Protection Act, which has 174 co-sponsors in the House and twenty-seven in the Senate.

Sanders begins with the basic premise that, “first, prefunding must end. The future retiree health fund now has some $50 billion in it. That is enough. This step alone will restore the Postal Service to profitability.”

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But Sanders does not stop there. The senator and his allies argue that the “Postal Service should have the flexibility to provide new consumer products and services—a flexibility that was banned by Congress in 2006. It is now against the law for workers in post offices to notarize or make copies of documents; to cash checks; to deliver wine or beer; or to engage in e-commerce activities [like scanning physical mail into a PDF and sending it through e-mail, selling non-postal products on the Internet or offering a non-commercial version of Gmail].”

And, along with Senator Warren, Sanders is making the case for postal banking:

A recent report from the Postal Service Inspector General suggests that almost $9 billion a year could be generated by providing financial services. At a time when more than 80 million lower-income Americans have no bank accounts or are forced to rely on rip-off check-cashing storefronts and payday lenders, these kinds of financial services would be of huge social benefit.

That’s the right reform. The White House should rewrite the sections of its budget proposal relating to the postal service, reject austerity and embrace an agenda that it good for the USPS and the communities it serves.

Read Next: Why we need a bank at the post office.

Outside Money and Low Turnout, Not Obamacare, Gave GOP its Florida Win

Alex Sink

Losing Democratic candidate Alex Sink in green, November 2013. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Republicans who want to imagine that they can campaign against Obamacare and win every swing seat that is in the offering in 2014 will try to suggest that GOP nominee David Jolly’s win in Florida’s 13th Congressional District proves their point.

But that’s a stretch.

Jolly did campaign as a critic of the Affordable Care Act. And his Democratic foe, cautiously centrist former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, did offer a nuanced defense of the reform initiative—along with a more robust argument on behalf of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

But Jolly did not take a Democratic seat.

He kept a Republican seat.

And just barely.

Jolly’s winning percentage of 48.5 in a low-turnout election—where it is generally thought that the voting patterns favor Republicans—was almost ten points below the 2012 number for the Republican he was running to replace, veteran Congressman Bill Young, who passed away last October. It was more than fifteen points below Young’s finish in the Republican wave year of 2010.

And Jolly’s victory did not come cheap.

Jolly’s campaign raised and spent $1.3 million—barely half the total for Sink, whose background in the financial sector and in politics, as a former gubernatorial candidate, gave her some early advantages. As the campaign played out in February and early March, the polls suggested that Sink might secure an upset. Sink had the money advantage, which in a traditional campaign might well have been maintained. But we are now in a new political era when outside groups—with very nearly unlimited resources—can sweep in to fill political voids.

That’s what happend in Florida, where Republican-allied national groups with very deep pockets rushed in to rescue Jolly’s candidacy.

According to an analysis by Center for Public Integrity:

• The National Republican Congressional Committee poured $2.2 million into the district.

• The US Chamber of Commerce came through with $1.2 million.

• The American Action Network, a group with close ties to the national GOP establishment, ponied up $470,000.

• Karl Rove’s American Crossroads project was good for $470,000.

The Florida Republican Party and other Republican-allied and conservative groups pumped hundreds of thousands of additional dollars into the district.

To be sure, outside groups that favored Sink spent heavily on the race. But, while Sink’s campaign had the direct-donation advantage, Jolly got the outside advantage. Roughly $5 million in outside money aided the Republican’s cause, as compared with roughly $3.7 million from groups that were friendly to the Democrat, according to the Center for Public Integrity. That allowed the Republican to come on strong at the close. And the pro-Jolly and anti-Sink messaging by the outside groups was not just well-funded. It was aggressive, targeted and effective. This is something that Democrats need to understand before they make the wrong excuses for losing a race they had desperately hoped to win—because the pattern that played out in Florida’s special election is not unique to one race or one moment; it will be seen throughout this critical election year.

In Florida, the outside spending spree helped to bring Jolly across the line by 3,456 votes Tuesday night. That’s hardly a dramatic accomplishment, considering that the Republican nominee ran as a fifth-generation Floridian with deep roots in the district and a claim on Young’s legacy—as the former general counsel for the congressman.

Jolly was also running in a swing district where, while it had grown more Democratic, Republicans remained highly viable—especially in non-presidential elections. Much is made of the fact that the 13th backed Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012. But Obama ran behind his national percentage in the Florida district and Romney ran ahead of his. By the presidential measure, the district is more Republican than the country. And, while Bill Young was personally popular, his long winning streak served as a reminder of the district’s historic Republican lean in congressional elections.

In the best of circumstances, Sink might well have won. But few seriously suggest that 2014 is a “best of circumstances” year for Democrats.

So Jolly was set up for a win Tuesday night. And he closed the deal.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden was quick to peddle the predictable talking point, arguing within minutes of the completion of the count that Sink was “ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for Obamacare, and that should be a loud warning for other Democrats running coast to coast.”

That’s a tortured conclusion given Jolly’s far-worse-than-usual finish for a Republican.

The Florida result was not a sweeping “referendum on Obamacare” win. If anything, the closeness of the finish to a race where the choice was clearly defined calls into question the power of opposition to the Affordable Care Act as a definitional issue for the Republicans.

Does that mean that the Democrats should see some kind of silver lining in the results? No.

Democrats need to recognize some harsh realities that have been highlighted by the Florida race and its result—and that they might yet be able to counter.

Off-year elections, particularly in the second term of a presidency, don’t often go well for the party of the president. Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats took a pounding in 1938, Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans took a pounding in 1958, Ronald Republicans lost the Senate in 1986, George Bush’s Republicans lost the House and Senate in 2006.

Democrats remain vulnerable in Senate races, as Democratic incumbents who were elected with Barack Obama in 2008 are up for re-election this year and they won’t enjoy the benefits of presidential-level turnout. Democratic House candidates will be similarly disadvantaged, meaning that what seemed like swing districts in 2012 could be much tougher turf in 2014.

To get a sense of how much the ground can shift in a non-presidential year, consider this: In 2012, 329,347 votes were cast in the 13th district. In yesterday’s election, around 182,000 votes were cast—way less even than the 267,000 that were cast in the 2010 midterm election

Which brings us back to the money issue.

Sink raised a lot of money early, and she got substantial support from national Democrats and their allies. That’s the nature of special elections. And Sink, with her centrist politics, her background in the financial-services industry and as the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, was especially well-positioned to raise the funds that were available for her campaign. This allowed the Democrat to hold her own through the race.

But it will be hard for Democrats to recreate this combination in every other swing district and every other swing state. There are no guarantees that they will have the money that is necessary to maintain sufficient volume for their message in the cacophony that is coming. In an exceptionally expensive special election race—where spending by all sides topped $12 million—Democrats could not match the outside spending of the Republicans. And it won’t get any easier this fall. Multiply that $12 million spent in one Florida race times the number of House districts where Democrat incumbents and challengers could be in close contests, and then add in the massively more expensive Senate races, and every indication is that this will be the most expensive non-presidential election cycle in American history.

The Florida result won’t lead to a dialing down of the spending by either side. If anything, it makes an intense election cycle even more intense. The Republicans and their allies know they just scraped by in Florida. But they also know that money made the win possible. That’s going to inspire more fund-raising, and more spending by the national groups that swooped into Florida in the last weeks before the special election. And there’s a lot more money to be collected from the billionaires and millionaires who are the source for so many of the outside groups.

Democrats are not going to be beat by Obamacare this year. But they could well be beat by money—especially the sort of outside money that flows so freely in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. And they are certainly threatened by patterns of depressed turnout.

That’s not an argument for some new fund-raising strategy. That’s an argument for some new thinking.

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What Florida should tell Democrats is that they must worry less about Obamacare (unless they are proposing a “Medicare-for-All” fix”) and more about the issues on which they might generate increased turnout among their base voters—especially young people. Sink did not, in any sense, run a populist campaign; indeed, her final message was a soft appeal for bipartisanship that sounded nice enough but that had the feel of a candidate trying to appeal to a small number of swing voters rather than a candidate trying to expand the electorate. That’s an insufficient approach. Democrats are going to need an edge this fall, a base-building appeal that excites unlikely voters, if they hope to tip the balance in swing districts—let alone dislodge Republican incumbents in districts gerrymandered to their advantage.

In other words, Democrats must bring more issues to the forefront in order to heighten the level of contradiction. They need an even more intense emphasis on protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But House Democrats, in particular, should keep picking new fights on unemployment benefits, living wages and income inequality. And they should start talking a lot more about student-loan debt, access to higher education and youth unemployment and under-employment. That’s the right thing to do. It’s also necessary—because Democrats are going to need an issue advantage and some populist power if they hope to counter the kind of money that secured Tuesday’s victory for David Jolly.


Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the next Citizens United?

Vermont Votes for Public Banking

Vermont State House

The Vermont State House, courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons.

When the prairie populists of the North Dakota Non-Partisan League swept to power a century ago, with their promise to take on the plutocrats, one of the first orders of business was the establishment of state-run bank.

They did just that. And in just a few years the Bank of North Dakota will celebrate a 100th anniversary of assuring safe stewardship of state funds, providing loans at affordable rates and steering revenues toward the support of public projects.

After the 2008 financial meltdown, and the failure of Congress to regulate “too-big-to-fail” banks, activists and progressive legislators across the country began to explore the idea of replicating—or even expanding upon—the North Dakota model in other states.

But would the voters go for that?

Vermonters for a New Economy decided to test the idea.

This year, the group urged citizens to petition to place the public-banking question on the agendas of town meetings across the state—distributing information outlining a proposal to turn the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) into a state bank. Under the plan, the group explained, “the State of Vermont would deposit its revenues into the state bank. The bank would use these funds in ways that would create economic sustainability in Vermont by partnering with community banks to make loans and engaging in other activities that would leverage state funds to promote economic well-being in the state. The interest from these loans would be returned to the bank instead of out of state interests and would be available for further investment in the local economy or could be transferred to the state general fund. The bank would not invest in the risky financial instruments that the megabanks seem to love. The bank’s activities would be open and available for public inspection.”

Last week, at least twenty Vermont town meetings took up the issue and voted “yes.”

In many cases, the votes were overwhelming.

Vermont is not the only state where public banking proposals are in play. But the town meeting endorsements are likely to provide a boost for a legislative proposal to provide the VEDA with the powers of a bank.

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The bill would create a “10 Percent for Vermont” program that would “deposit 10 percent of Vermont’s unrestricted revenues in the VEDA bank and allow VEDA to leverage this money, in the same way that private banks do now, to fund…unfunded capital needs” outlined in a recent study by the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. The legislation would also develop programs, often in conjunction with community banks, “to create loans which would help create economic opportunities for Vermonters.”

Among the most outspoken advocates for the public-banking initiative is Vermont State Senator Anthony Pollina, a veteran Vermont Progressive Party activist and former gubernatorial candidate, who argues that it “doesn’t make any sense for us to be sending Vermont’s hard-earned tax dollars to some bank on Wall Street which couldn’t care less about Vermont or Vermonters when we could keep that money here in the state of Vermont where we would have control over it and therefore more of it would be invested here in the state.”


Read Next: John Nichols on why we need a bank at the post office.

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