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Courtesy: University of Wisconsin, Madison
Fifteen years ago, when Milt Wolff, the last commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, spoke at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, I attended the event with a pair of University of Wisconsin history professors, Gerda Lerner and George Mosse.
I had known Wolff for years and, like many Wisconsinites, I was close to the man Wolff had come to honor, Clarence Kailin, a Madison native who fought with the Lincolns against Franco and the fascists in a Spanish Civil War that anticipated World War II. Wolff and Kailin well recalled their “good fight” in Spain and their struggles on behalf of social justice at home with appropriate passion and an energy that belied their advancing years.
But what struck me most powerfully that day was the intense engagement of my academic friends, two of the twentieth century’s most revered historians, with the international brigadeers who had rallied to defend Spanish democracy. Neither had fought in Spain. Yet both traced roots of their political consciousness and their scholarship to the great anti-fascist struggle that animated the global left in the 1930s and 1940s.
Mosse, the son of one of Berlin’s most prominent Jewish families who died in 1999 at age 80, was spirited out of Germany as the Nazis rose to power, arriving in Britain on his own at age 15 and eventually making it to the United States.
Lerner, the daughter of Viennese Jews who died January 2 at age 92, joined the anti-Nazi resistance as an Austrian teenager and spent her eighteenth birthday in a fascist jail before immigrating to the New York in 1939.
Both Lerner and Mosse would complete their education in the United States (the New School and Columbia for Lerner, Haverford College and Harvard for Mosse) and both would became definitional figures in the new era of American historical inquiry—informed by personal experience and sympathy for neglected and betrayed peoples—that demanded academic institutions and society examine a broader history. Along with Howard Zinn, they began to reveal untold stories and unrecalled truths and, in so doing, invited new generations of students and scholars to burst the tight shackles of the discipline.
Mosse, a gay man, examined the cultural roots of racism, sexism and especially homophobia with a stunning series of books that included Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism, Masses and Man: Nationalist and Fascist Perceptions of Reality and The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity. His scholarship and activism laid the groundwork for the expansion of LGBT studies. Indeed, he used a portion of the fortune he obtained through restitution of family properties that had been expropriated by the Nazis, to endow LGBT studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. A Haverford College journal article that reflected on Mosse as one of the school’s most distinguished graduates noted that “his struggles with personal identity both as a Jew and a gay man sharpened Mosse’s precision at untangling—and making sense of—history from the perspective of an outsider.”
Like Mosse, Lerner wrestled with questions about the role of minorities—be they anti-fascist radicals in Austria or abolitionists in the pre–Civil War South. But over time she became most interested in the role of a majority group: women. She titled one of her most influential essay collections: The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History. Even majorities could be “invisible” to the powerful, and those who write the histories of the powerful. My friend Matt Rothschild says of Lerner: “Her whole life, in a way, was an effort to make visible the invisible—and to honor it.” Lerner echoes that view: “I was part of the invisible, first in the underground as an anti-fascist, then as an immigrant, then as a leftwing radical. My life experience was counter to the mythology.”
Lerner countered the mythology early in her career by focusing attention in particular on the experience of African-American women. At Sarah Lawrence, she created the nation’s first Women’s History graduate program. A decade later, having joined Mosse on the faculty of the influential UW history department, Lerner developed a PhD program in women’s history that would become a model for universities across the country and internationally. So great was her contribution that an appreciation of her career by the American Association of Retired People blog noted, “If you know about the Seneca Falls Declaration and the 5,000 women who braved catcalls and projectiles to march down Pennsylvania Avenue during President Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration to demand the right to vote, you ought to thank Gerda Lerner for keeping the history of the women’s movement in America from being forgotten.”
Lerner always mingled academic rigor with activist commitment. she was, for instance, a co-founder of the National Organization for Women and a frequent presence at feminist gatherings. "Gerda Lerner was fierce, brilliant and unique," said Gloria Steinem. "She lived history by her bravery, restored history by her scholarship and democratized its study by her activism. She understood, as Paula Gunn Allen wrote, that 'the root of oppression is the loss of memory.'"
Lerner's groundbreaking presidency of the Organization of American Historians coincided with the first years of Ronald Reagan's presidency.
Lerner was no fan of Reagan. Nor was Mosse.
It was their shared frustration with an ahistorical remark by the fortieth president that animated both Lerner and Mosse at that gathering to honor the Lincoln vets. They recalled how, in 1986, Reagan had defended interventions on behalf of Central America’s right-wing dictators and economic elites on the grounds that Americans had in the 1930s gone to Spain to defend a democratically elected government in its struggle against fascists and economic elites who would impose a right-wing dictatorship. “He did not know his history,” Mosse said, with a scolding voice and a wry smile. “We should treat the struggle against the Nazis, against fascism, very seriously,” said Lerner, a bit sterner in her delivery. “The anti-fascists, the opposition, the Socialists, the radicals, the Jews who resisted,” she continued. “It is so important to get the history right.”
This was, for Gerda Lerner, an essential premise. She learned lessons from struggle, from solidarity in the face of repression, that would define her scholarship and our understanding of the role and potential of history in defining and directing our contemporary activism. When she was imprisoned in Vienna, 18-year-old Gerda Hedwig Kronstein (her late husband, with whom she co-wrote the script for the film Black Like Me, was Carl Lerner) was held in a cell with several young women who had been active in the anti-fascist resistance to the Nazis. The jailers limited rations for Jews, but the young socialists, as gentiles, were given full rations. Week after week, they shared their food with Gerda, keeping her strong until her family was able to arrange for her to leave Austria.
“They taught me how to survive,” Lerner wrote in her brilliant autobiography, Fireweed. “Everything I needed to get through the rest of my life, I learned in jail in those six weeks.”
What she learned about resistance and solidarity and the hidden history of what happens when women help one another to survive and thrive, Gerda Lerner taught the rest of us. It is a lesson that has transformed America’s understanding of itself, and of our radical potential.
A few days before Lerner's death, the progressive community also lost young environmentalist leader Becky Tarbotton. Read Peter Rothberg's tribute here.
Sen. Chuck Hagel addresses audience members at the nomination announcement for Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense. (Flickr / Secretary of Defense)
If President Obama is determined to select a former senator to serve as Secretary of Defense, the ideal pick would be someone who at the very least saw through the flimsy arguments for authorizing George Bush’s war with Iraq.
That excludes Chuck Hagel, the Vietnam veteran and former Republican senator who Obama has tapped for the Pentagon post.
In 2002, as the senator from Nebraska, Hagel voted with the Bush-Cheney White House on that one, despite overwhelming evidence that the war was unnecessary and unwise, and that the pre-authorization was antithetical to the constitutional premise that wars must be declared by Congress.
Twenty-three senators—almost a quarter of the chamber—got the issue right. Their number included not just twenty-one Democrats but also a Republican (Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee) and a former Republican serving as an independent (Vermont’s Jim Jeffords). The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, opposed the legislation. So too did the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Florida’s Bob Graham. In the House, 133 members, including six Republicans from across the ideological spectrum of the party (moderates, conservatives and libertarians) voted “no.”
And in Illinois, a young state senator told a Chicago rally:
I don’t oppose all wars. My grandfather signed up for a war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, fought in Patton’s army. He fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil.
I don’t oppose all wars. After September 11, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this administration’s pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again.
I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.
What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.
That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.
The Barack Obama of 2002 was right. Authorizing George Bush to attack Iraq gave George Bush and Dick Cheney what the senior member of the Senate at the time, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, referred to as a “blank check” for endless war. And Bush and Cheney cashed it, at the expense of thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and a total expense to the US economy—as estimated by Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz—of far more than $3 trillion.
As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hagel had access to the same information as Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, yet he did not join Feingold and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy in boldly opposing “The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.” Had he done so—as some expected because of Hagel’s frequent expressed doubts about the Bush-Cheney administration line—would it have changed the course of history? Perhaps not. But it would have put Hagel on the right side of history.
As it was, the Nebraskan was one of the first senators to begin questioning the wisdom of the war. It was in that questioning that he forged a relationship with Obama, who came to the Senate in 2005—and who would eventually appoint Hagel to various White House advisory positions and consider the former senator for cabinet posts and the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency (even, some reports suggest, the vice presidency).
Hagel has, to his credit, grown even more skeptical about military adventurism abroad. He even went so far as to oppose Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, saying, “I’m not sure we know what the hell we are doing in Afghanistan.”
Of the Afghanistan intervention, which he will be charged with dialing down if he is confirmed as defense secretary, Hagel says: “We have lost our purpose, our objective. We are in a universe of unpredictables and uncontrollables.”
That sort of talk unsettles neoconservatives, as did Hagel’s assertion that he was a senator from Nebraska, not Israel. So the Hagel nomination will face a fight, ginned up by, among others, conservative commentator William Kristol, who believes that it will be possible to reunite and refocus disoriented congressional Republicans on battles to block Obama nominees.
When the neocons rally on one side, it can lead liberals (and even some progressives) to instinctually go to the other side. And that’s happening with the Hagel nomination. To be sure, liberals will find Hagel pronouncements that are appealing, such as his assertion in his autobiography: “Not that I’m a pacifist, I’m a hard-edged realist, I understand the world as it is, but war is a terrible thing. There’s no glory, only suffering,” And a 2011 reflection on his own Vietnam service, in which Hagel said: “We sent home almost 16,000 body bags that year . And I always thought to myself, ‘If I get through this, if I have the opportunity to influence anyone, I owe it to those guys to never let this happen again to the country.’”
It in good that Hagel has gone out of his way to express support for gays and lesbians in the military, and that he has apologized for an old slur against an openly gay ambassador. And it is genuinely encouraging to think that the next secretary of defense might be a man who just a year and a half ago told the Financial Times: “The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated. So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.”
On balance, such policy statements may well make the case for confirming Hagel. Indeed, as former Massachusetts congressman (and possible interim Massachusetts Senator) Barney Frank, who once recommended against a Hagel nomination, says: “The question now is going to be Afghanistan and scaling back the military. In terms of the policy stuff, if he would be rejected [by the Senate], it would be a setback for those things.”
Frank speaks for a lot of liberals in the Senate, and they will probably vote to confirm Hagel.
But that confirmation ought not come without some serious reflection on, and serious questioning of, his vote to hand George Bush and Dick Cheney that “blank check” for war with Iraq. When it came time for the great judgment call of the past decade, when he was required to move from words to deeds, Hagel got it wrong.
For an update on the Iraq quagmire, read Robert Dreyfuss's blog post from last week.
When the members of the 113th Congress of the United States took office this week, they swore an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
The preamble to that Constitution establishes its purpose: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
The Constitution rests a special responsibility in this regard on the legislative branch of the federal government, declaring that the Congress shall use its powers to tax and spend to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.”
A good debate can be had about the precise meaning of “the general Welfare of the United States.” The founders had that debate—with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton differing vociferously—and it has continued in the Congress and the courts to this day.
But even in the 1790s, there was broad understanding that providing for the “general welfare” involved the taking of steps to protect the people from “misfortune, sickness, calamity or evil”—and to help them respond to such circumstances. Then, as now, “calamity” was understood to involve epic storms, floods and natural disasters.
It is difficult imagine a recent crisis that more precisely fit the definition of “calamity” than Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath, which has left hundreds of thousands of Americans with destroyed or damaged homes and made it impossible for thousands of businesses to operate along the East Coast of the United State. Whole communities are struggling simply to return to something resembling normal.
On Friday, mere hours after swearing an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same,” the House of Representatives faced a simple vote on the most basic federal intervention on behalf of the victims of Superstorm Sandy: a measure to temporarily increase the borrowing authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assure that the National Flood Insurance Program could meet its obligations.
One hundred and ninety-one Democrats voted for the first real response by Congress to a disaster that occurred more than two months earlier. They were joined by 161 Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota.
But sixty-seven House members —led by Houe Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan—lvoted “no.” The House Budget Committee chairman termed the maintaining of the existing flood-relief program to be “irresponsible.”
Ryan, as is frequently the case when it comes to matters constitutional, was precisely wrong.
One of his few clearly defined responsibilities, one of the few clearly defined responsibilities of any House member, is “to provide for the general Welfare.” They swear an oath to do so. And, barely hours into the new Congress, Ryan and his compatriots rejected that oath and a fundamental premise of the Constitution it supports.
(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)
Dennis Kucinich has had many political lives. Elected to the Cleveland City Council in 1969 at age 23, he was in 1977 elected as that great American city’s “boy mayor.” Kucinich’s refusal to bend to the demands of the downtown banks and the utility corporations that wanted him to privatize public services led to a withering electoral assault that would eventually force him from office.
For much of the 1980s, Kucinich was a political pariah, running and losing races in his native Ohio and slowly fading from the national limelight he had once enjoyed.
Then, in the “Republican revolution” year of 1994, Kucinich stunned local and state (and even a few natrional) observers by emerging as one of only a handful of Democratic legislative candidates to upset a sitting Republican state senator. Two years later, he ran for Congress against one of Newt Gingrich’s Republican lieutenants and won a Cleveland-area House seat.
The Kucinich who came to Congress in the 1990s was every bit as incorruptible and uncompromising on principle as the “boy mayor” who fought Cleveland’s crony capitalists in the 1970s. He opposed trade deals, deregulation schemes and, most notably, the wars of whim of Democratic and Republican presidents. By 2000, he was arguing that Democrats should include in their platform a proposal for a “Department of Peace” that would use diplomacy, development aid and environmental initiatives rather than drones, occupations and crackdowns on basic liberties to create real security for the United States and the planet.
Kucinich’s ardent opposition to George W. Bush’s rush to war with Iraq—which began when most Democrats were still deferring to Bush in the aftermath of the September 11, 2011, attacks—identified him (with California Congresswoman Barbara Lee) as the rare congressional champion of a burgeoning anti-war movement.
That championship led to calls—from Studs Terkel, among others—for Kucinich to seek the presidency. And, though his 2004 and 2008 presidential runs fell short of the popular vote and delegate totals needed to secure the party’s nomination, they were long on ideas. Even those who dismissed Kucinich as a serious presidential prospect admitted that he forced his fellow candidates to address questions of war and peace, economic justice and civil liberties that might otherwise have been neglected.
Kucinich played a pivotal role in the 2008 Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses. In precincts where there were not enough Kucinich backers to reach the 15 percent threshold for securing delegates, the Kucinich camp urged supporters to caucus with backers of Barack Obama. Kucinich’s assist to the one major candidate who had opposed going to war with Iraq helped Obama establish a six-point lead over John Edwards (and an eight-point lead over presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton) in Iowa. The strength of that showing propelled Obama into serious contention for the nomination.
After the 2004 campaign, Kucinich’s backers organized into a highly effective advocacy and campaigning group, Progressive Democrats of America, which remains a presence nationwide. And the congressman returned to the House.
Despite the role he played in aiding Obama’s candidacy, however, Kucinich continued to serve as an independent progressive. As he had during the Clinton years, Kucinich frequently led the left opposition to a centrist Democratic administration. He could bend when it seemed absolutely necessary—as he did on the vote for the Affordable Care Act. But when Obama sent more troops to Afghanistan, bombed Libya, extended the national-security state or approved new free-trade deals, Kucinich refused to go along. Frequently, his was the House’s clearest and steadiest voice of progressive opposition to compromises by his fellow Democrats. And, in a chamber where there was much talk of the Constitution, it was Kucinich who fought some of the loneliest—yet most necessary—fights to restore the rule of law, especially when it came to the requirement that wars be declared by Congress, not launched on the whim of presidents.
Kucinich’s independence left him vulnerable when Ohio Republicans redrew congressional district lines before the 2012 election. The congressman was thrown into a new district with another Democrat, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, to whom he lost a primary. And now, Kucinich has finished his eighth term in the House—and his current congressional tenure.
He has not gone quietly. Indeed, his final statements were calls to action, including a plea to enact a constitutional amendment “to rid this nation of the corrupting influence of special interest money with public financing which recreates a true government for the people.”
The Congress will be diminished by his absence, and that of two other steadily anti-war representatives who are retiring this year: California Democrat Lynn Woolsey and Texas Republican Ron Paul. But as someone who has seen Kucinich rise and fall and rise again, I would caution against assuming his political journey is done.
If there is a wrongheaded war to be opposed, an economic injustice to be challenged, an environmental crisis to be recognized and addressed, Dennis Kucinich will be raising his voice. And I would never, ever rule out the prospect that he might well do so once more as a member of the House or in some other elected post. It’s not that Kucinich needs personally to remain in politics—he could do many other things—it is that America will again need his conscience, his clarity, his courage.
Most progressives in the US Senate and House voted in favor of the “fiscal cliff” deal worked out between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. They did this despite the fact that the agreement compromised on what was supposed to be a hard-and-fast principle: that tax rates on Americans making $250,000 or more must go up to at least the rates that were in place when Bill Clinton was president. Instead, the deal only ends Bush-era tax cuts on those with incomes above $400,000. That rate, thoughtful progressives argue, “does not generate the revenue necessary for the country to meet its needs for everything from education for our children, to job training, to other critical supports for the middle class.”
True, there will be some restoration of tax fairness—not to mention an extension of unemployment benefits and a delay in across-the-board cuts proposed as part of the so-called “sequester” scheme. That was enough for most congressional progressives, from Senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, in the House. They voiced their concerns but ultimately voted “yes.” Many, like Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, did so with considerable concern. “Although it does not do as much as I want, this bill does ensure that the wealthy will be contributing more as we work to bring our deficits under control. I far prefer that choice to further cuts to education, law enforcement, and investments in the infrastructure our economy depends on,” Merkley said of the measure. “But let’s be clear: this deal carries great risks as well. This deal sets up more cliffs in the near future, including the expiring debt ceiling and the sequestration, pre-planned cuts to programs essential to working families. And as before, there will be some who use these cliffs to launch renewed attacks on Medicare and Social Security. We cannot let those attacks succeed.”
For a handful of progressives, however, the risks were too great to secure their support.
A few House stalwarts refused to go along with the 257-167 vote on New Year’s Day. Among the objectors were Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Washington, and Congressman Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who has a history of breaking with his party’s leadership when he feels it has compromised on tax fairness, economic justice and infrastructure investment. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chaired the party’s platform drafting committee in 2004, said she voted “no” because the bill did not do enough to benefit working families. “I was hopeful that we would be voting on legislation that prioritized working families and the middle class over the wealthiest Americans in taking a balanced approach to the challenges we face as a nation,” she explained. “However, the bill before the House of Representatives tonight is not that.”
In the Senate, where the vote for the measure was a lopsided 89-8, the one progressive “no” vote was that of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who echoed the vow of grassroots groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which argued: “The president ran on and won on $250,000 twice. Voters across the country overwhelmingly agree with the $250,000 threshold. And in real human costs, the billions lost by raising the threshold to $400,000 will come out of the pockets of grandparents and working families across the nation.”
Harkin, an old-school populist who worked closely with former Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, outlined his opposition in a statement of principle. Issued at the time of the Senate vote, it read:
Tonight, at the eleventh hour, we find ourselves considering legislation to address a manufactured ‘fiscal cliff.’ Much of this could have been avoided had the US House taken up the Senate-passed legislation to avert tax hikes on 98 percent of Americans.
Instead, we find ourselves voting on an agreement that fails to address our number one priority—creating good, middle class jobs in Iowa and throughout the country. Further, it does not generate the revenue necessary for the country to meet its needs for everything from education for our children, to job training, to other critical supports for the middle class.
The deal also makes tax benefits for high income earners permanent, while tax benefits designed to help those of modest means and the middle class are only extended for five years. In essence, this agreement locks in a tax structure that is grossly unfair to middle class Americans, one which provides permanent tax assistance to wealthy Americans, and only temporary relief to everyone else.
Every dollar that wealthy taxpayers do not pay under this deal, we will eventually ask Americans of modest means to forgo in Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits. It is shortsighted to look at these issues in isolation from one another, especially when Congressional Republicans have been crystal clear that they intend to seek spending cuts to programs like Social Security just two months from now, using the debt limit as leverage.
I am all for compromise, but a compromise that sets a new tax threshold for the wealthiest Americans while neglecting the very backbone of our country—the middle class—is a compromise I simply cannot support. This is the wrong direction for Iowa and our country, and at a time when our fragile economy cannot sustain further damage.
For more on the fiscal cliff, read DC correspondent George Zornick’s coverage here.
America was called into being not with mere cannon fire or musket shots but with ideas, with words that inspired yeomen farmers and small shopkeepers to throw off the physical and mental yoke of empire.
Thomas Jefferson offered some of the finest words, in a Declaration of Independence that proposed the radical notion “that all men are created equal.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Seneca Falls Convention would extend the Jeffersonian promise by opening their Declaration of Sentiments with the line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would further bend the arc of history with his declaration: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”
But the truest imagining of the American prospect came not from Jefferson but from the writer who the third president said did “with [his] pen what in other times was done with the sword.”
Thomas Paine electrified the colonies with a call to action that promised much more than mere independence from the British crown. Much more, even, than basic liberty or cherished freedoms.
Paine promised that a United States, founded in revolution against the British Crown, could become the city on a hill that would inspire all the peoples of all the world to reject the brutish repressions of empire, to throw off the barbarous hands of prejudice and superstition, to usher in an age of reason and justice.
“We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth,” wrote Paine in the seminal work of the American experiment, Common Sense. “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, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months.”
It is not merely good but indeed necessary to remember, on this and every New Year’s Day, that we still have it in our power to begin the world over again.
In the midst of the absurd “fiscal cliff” debate, it is easy to imagine an American experiment so decayed that it is incapable of getting anything done. Or, at the very least, incapable of getting anything done right.
But politicians, be they honorable leaders or disreputable scoundrels, do not make or break great nations.
Citizens, with equal rights and equal say in the governing of the republic, remain the definers of America’s destiny—if they are willing to seize their country back from the “economic royalists” who seek to built “new kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things”—as the great reader of Paine, Franklin Roosevelt, put it in his Depression-era renewal of Common Sense. That will take radical action, and a willingness to march, to protest, to occupy and to renew the Constitution by amending away the “Money Power” that denies full and functional democracy.
The task at hand is great.
But Paine expected great things of America because he placed great faith in Americans.
The pamphleteer who declared, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion” never believed that America was merely of or for itself. Rather, he argued, “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.”
America is a still young country. With its great influence in the world, its great resources and its great humanity, America can and should be an inspired and inspiring nation—leading not with weaponry but with the words and deeds that are worthy of our past, our present and our limitless future.
It falls to progressives, as it has since America’s founding, to ask more of the American experiment. To say not as a historical reference but as a contemporary call: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
In 2013, America should seize the power of Paine, and of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King and Patti Smith—“the power to dream…to rule…to wrestle the world from fools”—and use it to do great things—as a people and as a nation.
This can be a just nation.
This can be a great nation at peace with itself, with its neighbors and the planet.
This can be the America that Paine imagined and that the heirs to his radical vision share.
This is the year to make it so.
How did progressives fare in the fiscal cliff deal? Check out George Zornick's rundown here.
Preserving Social Security should never have been all that difficult.
But it took Harry Reid to settle the issue—at least as regards the miserably long and absurdly inappropriate debate of 2012.
“We’re not going to have any Social Security cuts,” the Senate majority leader said on the floor of the chamber Sunday. “It’s just doesn’t seem appropriate at this time.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, had attempted Saturday to use the “fiscal cliff” fight to advance a proposal to adopt a chained consumer price index—“chained CPI”—scheme that would slash cost-of-living increases for Americans who rely on Social Security and other government programs. The Obama administration had entertained the “chained CPI” switch earlier in December. But as the critical point when a deal to cut Social Security might have been made, Reid said “no.”
That simple rejection of the false premises of Paul Ryan and all the other fantasists who have tried to push Social Security over the “fiscal cliff”—and into the grips of the Wall Street speculators—confounded the political pawns and the “expert” pundits who imagined that “entitlement reforms” (Washington for Social Security cuts) were “inevitable.”
Within hours of Reid’s Sunday announcement, McConnell and the Republicans backed down and it was clear, finally, that Social Security was “off the table.”
Reid’s firm rejection of any cuts actually moved the negotiations forward—making clear to the Republicans that they would get no deal on Social Security.
“I was really gratified to hear the Republicans have taken their demand for Social Security benefit cuts off the table,” said Reid, the wily Nevadan who has repeatedly defied political expectations to save his own seat (in 2010) and then to increase the Democratic Senate majority (in 2012). “The truth is they should never have been on the table to begin with.”
But it took Reid’s rejection of the Republican proposal to foreclose any more wheeling and dealing with the economic security of Americans who rely on Social Security to make ends meet.
Groups that have battled to save Social Security hailed Reid Sunday night.
“Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats are to be applauded for standing up for the American people by standing firm against cutting Social Security,” said Nancy Altman, co-director of Social Security Works. “Social Security has no place in this fiscal showdown. It does not and, by law, cannot add a penny to the federal debt. Republican policymakers are wrong to try to ram through unpopular cuts, ones which are opposed by the vast majority of Americans they have been elected to serve.”
Altman was right to hail Reid, who was certainly not the only Democratic absolutist in the Social Security fight but who took the critical stand at the critical moment.
Reid deserves the praise. But it is important to remember that all he did was embrace economic, social and political reality.
Social Security does not contribute a penny to the federal deficit. “In fact,” as the coalition explains, “it currently enjoys a $2.6 trillion surplus that will grow to $4.3 trillion by 2025. Social Security has its own dedicated revenue stream described above. And Social Security is forbidden by law from borrowing, so it cannot deficit spend.”
Cutting Social Security, especially using the privatization schemes outlined by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and other fiscal fools, would undermine the current recovery and threaten prospects for long-term economic stability.
The Social Security program is fiscally sound, efficiently run and it works. In the most recent year for which premise statistics are available, Social Security lifted 19,808,000 Americans out of poverty.
And Social Security is popular.
Extraordinarily popular. “When asked which was more important, 70 percent of respondents said that protecting education, Medicare and Social Security was more important than broad cuts to reduce the deficit,” notes the AFL-CIO’s analysis of a post-election poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research on behalf of Democracy Corps and Campaign for America’s Future. “More than half—58 percent—of the overall sample said that they felt strongly about opposing such cuts. Only 17 percent of the survey said they felt strongly that across-the-board cuts were important enough to cut the popular programs.”
With numbers like that on his side, Harry Reid did not take a political risk Sunday night.
He simply did the right thing.
That settled it for 2012.
But what of next year?
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which did so much to strengthen the backbones of Reid and other Democrats, responded in with the proper mix of celebration and resolve.
“Democrats stood firm—and Harry Reid declared from the Senate floor that no deal would pass this year that touched Social Security,” declared PCCC co-founders Stephanie Taylor and Adam Green in a message to the hundreds of thousands of PCCC members who contacted Congress with messages opposing any cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. “Today’s victory shows that activism works. In 2013, we’ll keep fighting any proposed cuts to these benefits.”
Social Security was worth fighting for in 2012.
And because activists prevailed—with an assist from Harry Reid—it will be worth fighting for in 2013.
The United States Senate, never a perfectly representative body, is in the process of becoming a good deal less representative.
One new senator, Tim Scott, has been appointed by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, rather than elected by the people of that state. Another senator will be appointed by Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie to fill the vacancy created by the death of Senator Dan Inouye. A third is expected to be appointed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to replace secretary of state–nominee John Kerry.
These appointed senators will be powerful players. They will have critical roles in deciding whether to approve or reject cabinet nominees and Supreme Court selections, they will vote on tax policies and budget measures, they will decide whether to send the United States over a “fiscal cliff”—or off to war. But they will do so without democratic legitimacy.
No member of Congress should serve without having been elected by the people of the district or state they represent.
Unfortunately, the new Senate will have at least three members who serve not as representatives but as mandarins—appointees assigned to positions by governors who have assumed unreasonable authority.
What all this means is that more laws will be proposed, more filibusters will be broken, more critical votes will be tipped in one direction or another by “senators” who never earned a single vote.
Because of a deliberate misreading of the vague 1913 amendment to the US Constitution that replaced the old system of appointing senators with one that said they were all supposed to be directly elected.
The Seventeenth Amendment sought to end the corrupt, and corrupting, process of appointing senators. But a loophole was included to give governors the authority to make temporary appointments. That meant that, while no one has ever been allowed to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives without having first been elected, dozens and dozens of men and women have served in the Senate without having been elected. And those appointed senators often serve for two full years, as will South Carolina’s Scott, who will not face the voters until 2014. That means that, to the end of the 113th Congress, a senator chosen by one governor (Scott) will have the same power as a senator elected by 7,748,994 voters (California Democrat Dianne Feinstein).
Former US Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, tried to amend the Constitution to address the problem.
His proposal, which would have required special elections to fill all Senate vacancies, got a little bit of traction when Feingold was still serving in the Senate. In 2009, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution approved Feingold’s proposed amendment to end gubernatorial appointments to vacant Senate seats.
Recalling a series of appointments following the 2008 election, Feingold said: “I applaud my colleagues on the subcommittee for passing the Senate Vacancies Amendment, which will end an anti-democratic process that denies voters the opportunity to determine who represents them in the U.S. Senate. The nation witnessed four gubernatorial appointments to Senate seats earlier this year, some mired in controversy, and we will soon see another one in Texas. This will leave more than 20 percent of Americans represented by a senator whom they did not elect.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, was not enthusiastic about the amendment. He defended the appointment of senators, saying, “In the state of Nevada the governor appoints. Even though we have a Republican governor now I think that’s the way it should be so I don’t support his legislation.”
Nevada also permits prostitution. And gambling.
So Reid might get some debate about whether its approaches are the ideal touchstone for setting national policies.
But no one with a taste for democracy can possibly respect the majority leader’s position on appointed senators.
More thoughtful senators, including the number-two Democrat in the chamber, Illinoisan Dick Durbin, co-sponsored Feingold’s amendment.
Reid got that one wrong. Feingold got it right.
“It is time to finish the job started by the great progressive Bob La Follette of Wisconsin to require the direct election of senators,” the former senator from Wisconsin said in 2009. “No one can represent the American people in the House of Representatives without the approval of the voters. The same should be true for the Senate. I hope the full Senate Judiciary Committee will soon get the chance to consider this important constitutional amendment to entrust the people, not state governors, with the power to select U.S. senators.”
The worst deficit facing America is the democracy deficit.
It can be addressed, at least in part, by making the Senate a representative chamber.
Feingold can’t complete the process he began. But his former colleagues, led by Dick Durbin, should do so.
Another way to restore democracy is to end the electoral college. Check out Katrina vanden Heuvel's take here.
Charles Dickens would find these times rather too familiar for comfort. In seeking to awaken a spirit of charity in his countrymen, the author called attention to those who callously dismissed the poor as a burden and the unemployed as a lazy lot best forced by hunger to grab at bootstraps and pull themselves upward.
Dickens was, to be sure, more articulate than House Speaker John Boehner and the members of Congress who on the cusp of this Christmas season left Washington without extending jobless benefits for 2 million long-unemployed Americans. But surely he captured the essence of their sentiments with his imagining of a certain conservative businessman’s response to a visit by two gentlemen—“liberals,” we will call them—on Christmas Eve. Wrote Dickens:
They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Scrooge’s office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him. “Scrooge and Marley’s, I believe,” said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Marley?”
“Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years,” Scrooge replied.“He died seven years ago, this very night.”
“We have no doubt his liberality is well-represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentleman, presenting his credentials. It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality,” Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge.“I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned.
So Dickens began A Christmas Carol, a book very much in keeping with the radical tenor of a time when the world was awakening to the truth that poverty and desolation need not be accepted by civil society—or civilized people. The language employed by Scrooge was not a Dickensian creation; rather, it was a sort of reporting on the political platforms and statements of those who opposed the burgeoning movements for reform and revolution, which were sweeping through Europe as the author composed his ghost tale.
Ultimately an optimist, Dickens imagined that spirited prodding from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future would change Scrooge—just as there are those today who imagine that a bit more enlightenment might cause even the most rigid Republican to reconsider his disdain for the unemployed, the underemployed and the never employed.
In Scrooge’s case, a little otherworldly pressure did the trick.
After his unsettling Christmas Eve, the formerly conservative businessman hastened into the streets of London and rather too quickly for his own comfort came upon one of the two liberals:
“My dear sir,” said Scrooge, quickening his pace, and taking the old gentleman by both his hands. “How do you do. I hope you succeeded yesterday. It was very kind of you. A merry Christmas to you, sir!”
“Yes,” said Scrooge. “That is my name, and I fear it may not be pleasant to you. Allow me to ask your pardon. And will you have the goodness”—here Scrooge whispered in his ear.
“Lord bless me!” cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. “My dear Mr. Scrooge, are you serious?”
“If you please,” said Scrooge. “Not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favour?”
Dickens tells us Scrooge was frightened into such humanity that he now thanked the gentleman who asked him to open his wallet in order to “make idle people merry.” The poor were suddenly the miser’s business.
And he was a better man for it.
Indeed, notes Dickens: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”
So it is this season, as it was in the winter of 1843. The debate goes on, in much the same language as Dickens heard more than a century and a half ago. The poor are still with us, as are the Scrooges who speak of “makers” and “takers” and imagine a 47 percent that is “unworthy” of concern. We’d best bless them all, with hopes that the ghosts of Past, Present and Future will again visit those who are in need of some seasonal prodding.
Republicans in Congress also threaten to cut off single mothers from vital social services. Check out Greg Kaufmann's coverage here.
No one has worked harder in recent days to delegitimize John Boehner than John Boehner.
Boehner’s boneheaded “Plan B” scheme, which crashed and burned Thursday night after his own House Republican Caucus refused to provide the needed votes, will rank as one of the greatest failures ever by a House Speaker.
The latest Gallup Poll suggests only a quarter of Americans now support Boehner’s approach to the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, as opposed to 48 percent who approve the way President Obama is handling the fight over taxes and spending.
So Boehner is losing it. Literally.
So embarrassing was the Plan B charade that there is now widespread discussion not about if but rather about when Boehner will be relieved of his speakership.
But Boehner‘s troubles did not start this week, or this month.
He lost his legitimacy on November 6.
The American people voted that day for a Democratic House of Representatives.
The Democratic vote was 59,318,160.
The Republican vote was 58,143,273.
The Democrats won 49.1 percent of the vote to 48.1 percent of the vote.
Yes, of course, Republicans control the majority of House seats. Thanks in no small measure to redistricting abuses and massive spending, the Republicans took 53.8 percent of the seats in the House versus 46.2 percent.
But the fact that Republicans in the states gamed the redistricting process sufficiently to hold the House, and to keep Boehner as the Speaker, did not make Boehner a legitimate leader, or a legitimate “fiscal cliff” negotiator.
He needed to earn that status.
Boehner and his Republican colleagues should have recognized the weakness of their position when they went into negotiations with President Obama, who won re-election on November 6 by almost 5 million votes, for a 51-47 margin and an overwhelming majority in the Electoral College. That does not mean that the Republicans needed to surrender all of their positions; but they should, at the least, have bent to the political reality of their dwindling circumstance.
Instead, Boehner negotiated as if he was the political and popular equal of the president. He’s is not that—at least if we’re still taking election results seriously. Despite Boehner’s diminished status, President Obama gave the Speaker the respect that is afforded a credible negotiating partner.
Unfortunately, Boehner squandered the opportunity.
He did not negotiate well.
He did not even organize his own caucus for the fight.
Instead of his boneheaded Plan B, Boehner gave us Plan C—for “chaos.”
A significant—make that definitional—percentage of the House Republican Caucus does not appear to see Boehner as a legitimate leader.
They are, for all intents and purposes, right.
The American people voted for a Democratic Congress on November 6.
What the American people got, however, is a Republican House. That’s how our system works sometimes. The trouble is that, with the Republicans came John Boehner. And the trouble with Boehner is that he lacks the external and internal legitimacy that is required for a “leader” to lead.
For more on the fiscal cliff, read Dean Baker on the chained CPI proposition.