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In case there was any remaining confusion with regard to the precise political intentions of the US Supreme Court’s activist majority, things were clarified Monday. The same majority that has made it easier for corporations to buy elections (with the Citizens United v. FEC decision) and for billionaires to become the dominant players in elections across the country (with the McCutcheon v. FEC decision) decided to make it harder for people in Ohio to vote.
Yes, this Court has messed with voting rights before, frequently and in damaging ways. It has barely been a year since the majority struck down key elements of the Voting Rights Act.
But Monday’s decision by the majority was especially blatant—and immediate. One day before early voting was set to begin in Ohio on Tuesday, the Supreme Court delayed the start of the process with a decision that will reduce the early voting period from thirty-five days to twenty-eight days.
Assaults on early voting are particularly troublesome, as the changes limit the time available for working people to cast ballots and increase the likelihood of long lines on Election Day. And changes of this kind are doubly troublesome when they come in close proximity to high-stakes elections, as they create confusion about when and how to vote.
American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Executive Director Freda Levenson decried the ruling, calling it “a real loss for Ohio voters, especially those who must use evenings, weekends and same-day voter registration to cast their ballot.”
The ACLU fought the legal battle for extended early voting on behalf of the National Association of Colored People and the League of Women Voters, among others.
“To make (the Supreme Court ruling) even worse,” Levenson told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “this last-minute decision will cause tremendous confusion among Ohioans about when and how they can vote.”
Ohio Republicans had no complaints. They have made no secret of their disdain for extended early voting, which has been allowed for a number of years and which has become a standard part of the political process in urban areas where voters seek to avoid the long lines that have plagued Ohio on past Election Days.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a top Republican, has taken the lead in efforts to restrict voting. In June, he established a restricted voting schedule. Husted’s scheme was upset by lower-court rulings. In particular, the courts sought to preserve early voting in the evening and on Sundays, which is especially important for working people.
Fully aware of that reality, the Supreme Court scrambled to issue a 5-4 decision that “temporarily” allows the limits on early voting to be restored. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy voted to allow Husted to limit voting, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan opposed the ruling.
Monday’s ruling was not a final decision; the Court could revisit the matter. But that won’t happen in time to restore full early voting before his year’s November 4 election.
The Court is sending a single of at least tacit approval of controversial moves by officials in other states—such as Wisconsin and North Carolina– to curtail early voting and access to the polls. Legal wrangling also continues over the implementation of restrictive Voter ID rules in those states and others—with special concern regarding Wisconsin, where a September federal appeals court ruling has officials scrambling to implement a Voter ID law that had been blocked by a lower-court judge.
Expressing disappointment that a narrow majority on the Supreme Court has permitted “changes that could make it harder for tens of thousands of Ohioans to vote,” Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, said, “Courts should serve as a bulwark against rollbacks to voting rights and prevent politicians from disenfranchising voters for political reasons.”
Weiser is right.
Unfortunately, the High Court is focused on expanding the influence of billionaires, not voters.
It has been thirteen years since Congresswoman Barbara Lee cast her lonely vote against authorizing President Bush to launch what she warned could be an ill-defined and endless war. Days after she cast that vote, the California Democrat appeared before hundreds of students at Mills College in Oakland and was greeted for the first time by the chant, “Barbara Lee speaks for me.”
At time when media and political elites said Lee had isolated herself politically, she was embraced by Americans who questioned why Congress was not living up to its constitutionally defined responsibility to check and balance the tendency of executives to “blank check” powers for continual warmaking.
So it was, once more, on Tuesday evening, as television screens were filled with reports of airstrikes by the United States and its allies against targets in Syria. Lee appeared at the 2014 convention of National Nurses United in Las Vegas, where she was honored for her championship of peace and justice during the course of her congressional career.
When Lee came to the stage, a thousand nurses spontaneously began to chant, “Barbara Lee speaks for me.”
Lee was moved by the recognition, yet during a conversation Tuesday evening she told me that she and other members of Congress should have been in session on Capitol Hill. Instead of debating and voting on issues of war and peace, as the the Constitution requires, Congress fled Washington for the 2014 campaign trail.
Lee is blunt in arguing that this is simply wrong.
As she has for more than a decade, with Republican presidents and Democratic presidents, the congresswoman argues that members of the House and Senate must debate and vote on whether to declare the wars that the United States wages. Along with a handful allies in Congress, some fellow Democratic members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and some “old-right” conservative Republicans such as North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones, Lee rejects the argument that resolutions from years ago and votes on amendments to funding measures meet the standard for congressional authorization of new military strikes.
A “gravely concerned” Lee said in a statement that with the news of the expansion of US airstrikes into Syria, in continuation of airstrikes in Iraq, “it is clear we are rapidly becoming more involved in another war in the Middle East.”
“I have called and will continue to call for a full congressional debate and vote on any military action, as required by the Constitution,” Lee continued. “The American people deserve a public debate on all the options to dismantle ISIS, including their costs and consequences to our national security and domestic priorities.”
Lee has done this again and again. But this time she had a powerful media ally. In an editorial headlined, “Wrong Turn on Syria: No Convincing Plan,” The New York Times writes:
Mr. Obama has failed to ask for or receive congressional authorization for such military action. The White House claims that Mr. Obama has all the authority he needs under the 2001 law approving the use of force in Afghanistan and the 2002 law permitting the use of force in Iraq, but he does not. He has given Congress notification of the military action in Iraq and Syria under the 1973 War Powers Resolution, but that is not a substitute for congressional authorization.
The administration also claims that the airstrikes are legal under international law because they were done in defense of Iraq. In a Sept. 20 letter to the United Nations, Iraq complained that the Islamic State was attacking its territory and said American assistance was needed to repel the threat. But the United Nations Security Council should vote on the issue.
Meanwhile, Congress has utterly failed in its constitutional responsibilities. It has left Washington and gone into campaign fund-raising mode, shamelessly ducking a vote on this critical issue. That has deprived the country of a full and comprehensive debate over the mission in Syria and has shielded administration officials and military commanders from tough questions about every aspect of this operation—from its costs to its very obvious risks—that should be asked and answered publicly.
This is the point that Barbara Lee has been making over all these years. The congresswoman explains that she is not a pacifist, that she grew up in a military family and that she understands that there are times when conflicts will turn violent. She recognizes the genuine concerns that have been raised regarding with the rise of Islamic State militancy. She compliments President Obama for seeking to establish “a strong international and regional coalition to address the ISIS threat.”
But Lee says, “The rapid escalation of another war in the Middle East underscores the danger of the blank check for endless war passed by Congress in 2001. I could not support this blank check for endless war or the 2002 blank check for war in Iraq. I have introduced legislation to repeal the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force and continue to build bipartisan support for their repeal.”
The member of Congress whom President Obama appointed as a representative of the United States to the United Nations General Assembly, and who has established a record as one of the most internationally focused and engaged members of the House, said, “There is no military solution to the crisis in Iraq and Syria. In fact, continued US military action will result in unintended consequences. We must remember the roots of ISIS—President Bush’s ill-begotten war. Congress needs to debate the political, economic, diplomatic and regionally led solutions that will ultimately be the tools for US and regional security.”
Edinburgh, Scotland—Five days before the Scottish independence referendum, one of the larger demonstrations of a long and intense campaign was held in Glasgow. It wasn’t a rally for a “yes” or a “no” vote. It was a protest outside the Scottish headquarters of the BBC.
Thousands of independence supporters showed up to object to the coverage of the campaign by the broadcaster in particular, and media in general.
At a point when polling suggested Scotland was closely divided on the issue of independence, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said, “I think there’s real public concern in terms of some of the nature and balance of the coverage.”
Well beyond the Scottish borders, there was recognition of the concern. English commentator George Monbiot ripped into media coverage that frequently referred to “the threat” rather than the prospect of independence, compared the democratically elected Salmond to a dictator and dismissed Scottish complaints about austerity as a demand for a “something for nothing society.“ Monbiot’s important essay was headlined, “How the media shafted the people of Scotland.”
Salmond’s “yes” side ultimately lost, as Scots decided Thursday by a convincing 400,000-vote margin to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
But the debate about media coverage carried forward after the count was finished, with Iain Macwhirter, a veteran Scottish political commentator and the author of the book Road to Referendum, asserting on a post-election television panel, “Anyone who reviews the press coverage of this campaign will not be able to come out with any other conclusion than that it was extremely one-sided.”
Political campaigns often produce complaints and concerns about media coverage. And in an age of radically transforming media landscapes, the debate itself is changing—as analysts seek to weigh the impact of social media as an alternative to traditional media. Yet author and activist Tariq Ali noted after speaking to a pro-independence rally Monday in Glasgow, “Yes, yes, people should be concerned about the media coverage. The newspapers have been appalling when it comes to covering the story of what’s been happening in Scotland.”
Major media outlets remain powerful forces in our democratic life. They are not always definitional—as any newspaper editorial writer will tell you—and it is important to recognize that in Scotland and beyond a great many factors influence election results.
Still, there are those moments that illustrate the extent to which major media outlets tend to echo one another rather than the range of popular debate.
That has been evident in the United States on a number of high-stakes issues in recent decades. When the US was weighing whether to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, polls suggested that the country was deeply divided, and the House split 234-200. Yet the chattering classes were overwhelmingly pro-NAFTA, and newspaper editorial pages were very nearly universal in their support for the controversial pact. It wasn’t just the editorial pages; an analysis by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that pro-NAFTA sources highlighted by major media outnumbered opponents by more than 3-to-1. When matters of war and peace are in play, as was the case before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, FAIR has found even more overwhelming patterns of media turning up the volume on pro-war voices while dismissing those urging caution.
In Scotland, on the morning after Thursday’s vote, discussions of the media coverage became an important part of the overall analysis of the result.
Macwhirter and others argued that the media fueled a sense that a “yes” vote would lead to economic disaster—despite the fact that Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and others had dismissed key elements of the “no” campaign as “a bluff.”
Referring to the “no” campaign, Stiglitz said before the vote, “I’ve been a little bit shocked how much of it is based on fear, trying to get anxiety levels up and how little of it has been based on vision.”
The BBC rejected complaints that it hyped claims about economic challenges that might be faced by an independent Scotland. And, notably, the broadcaster covered what Stiglitz had to say.
Yet there was no debating the imbalance in the positions taken by the newspapers that circulate in Scotland.
Scottish-based daily newspapers, which are widely read and influential, were overwhelmingly opposed to independence—with just one major newspaper, the Sunday Herald, urging a “yes” vote. The British national dailies, which circulate widely in Scotland, were even more determined in their opposition—offering up intense criticism of the idea of independence and of independence campaigners.
That was especially true after a key poll published almost two weeks before the vote suggested that the “yes” side had moved into a narrow lead. Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader of the Scottish National Party and an outspoken independence campaigner, said the numbers “rattled the cages” of economic and political elites in London.
It was at that point that the papers turned up the “no” volume.
There will be books written on the overall character and the content of the coverage. But what was most striking was the stances taken by the newspaper editorial pages of the Scottish papers. No one expected them to be universal in their support for independence. But their opposition was exceptional.
“Perhaps the most arresting fact about the Scottish referendum is this: that there is no newspaper—local, regional or national, English or Scottish—that supports independence except the Sunday Herald. The Scots who will vote yes have been almost without representation in the media,” wrote Monbiot, one of the UK’s most prominent and media-savvy campaigners on environmental and democracy issues. “There is nothing unusual about this. Change in any direction, except further over the brink of market fundamentalism and planetary destruction, requires the defiance of almost the entire battery of salaried opinion. What distinguishes the independence campaign is that it has continued to prosper despite this assault.”
At the start of the referendum campaign, support for a “yes” vote was estimated at roughly 30 percent. In the end, 45 percent of Scots voted for independence. Much of the credit for the shift goes to effective use of social media and grassroots campaigning by “yes” supporters. Ultimately, however, as Monbiot reminds us, “Despite the rise of social media, the established media continue to define the scope of representative politics in Britain, to shape political demands and to punish and erase those who resist.”
Monbiot could have removed the words “in Britain” and been just as accurate in his observation.
Edinburgh, Scotland—If you want to know what democracy looks like, come to Scotland.
No matter how today’s independence referendum turns out—and the polls says it is likely to be a close result—there can be no doubt that Scotland’s venerable The Herald was right when the newspaper declared this week that “the atmosphere in Scotland is extraordinary.”
What makes it extraordinary is the extent to which the whole of Scotland is engaged with this referendum vote. Rallies and marches organized by “Yes” and “No” campaigners have drawn thousands, mass canvasses have gone to every doorstep and it has been virtually impossible to walk down the street in any community without encountering an earnest appeal to consider, or reconsider, how to vote.
Voter registration has soared since the referendum was announced, creating the largest electorate in Scottish history. A remarkable 97 percent of eligible Scots are registered, and polls suggest that well over 80 percent of the electorate will participate in the vote on whether to break away from the United Kingdom.
Jonathon Shafi, a co-founder of Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign, which organized mass registration drives among young people and in low-income neighborhoods, calls the 97 percent figure a “testament to a movement which has been engaging with thousands of people over the past two years.” Shafi says Scots see the referendum vote as “a huge opportunity to restore democracy.”
In fact, the campaign leading up to today’s vote has already restored a good measure of democracy—by showing how to engage a mass electorate and inspire mass turnout.
Since the referendum vote was scheduled, more than 300,000 Scots have registered to vote, pushing the total electorate to 4,285,323. An equivalent increase in the United States would see a registration spike numbering in the many millions over the course of a relatively short campaign.
Take a moment to ponder what a turnout in excess of 80 percent—perhaps as high as 90 percent—would mean in the United States: instead of the 130,292,355 Americans who had ballots counted in 2012 (out of a voting-eligible population of 221,925,820, according to the United States Elections Project at George Mason University), the turnout total would be closer to 180,000,000.
That level of turnout, creating a voting class that is dramatically more reflective of the overall US population, would undoubtedly transform not just elections but also policy debates.
So is the lesson that the United States should start scheduling high-stakes national referendums on fundamental questions regarding the nation’s future? That’s not a novel notion; indeed, it was proposed by the progressive reformers of a century ago. Many states adopted initiative and referendum structures, which remain in place to this day. In the 1924 presidential election, the Republican, Democratic and Progressive party platforms all endorsed national referendum proposals. Ultimately, however, the United States did not go the way of much of the rest of the world when it comes to national referendums.
At a time when American political campaigns are distinguished by nothing so much as their pettiness and when governing is so frequently ineffectual, however, the idea of using initiatives and referendums to settle major questions has appeal. A 2013 Gallup Poll found that 68 percent of Americans favor national referendums on vital issues that are raised by voter petitions for a popular vote.
Yet there is more to what Scotland has done than simply scheduling a referendum.
The process matters, as it always does when pursuing democracy.
And the Scots have done a lot of things right.
1. An expanded electorate. Recognizing the high level of interest in the independence vote, and the fact that its result will shape the lives of generations to come, officials lowered the voting age to 16. That increased the size of the overall electorate, and it also shifted the tenor of the debate, placing a greater focus on issues of interest to young people. As a result, polls show close to 80 percent of potential voters in the 16–24 demographic intend to cast ballots—an astronomical figure compared to US elections.
2. Simple ballot, simple question. Clarity in ballot design and wording matters immensely, as was illustrated by the 2000 electoral meltdown in Florida, with all its butterfly ballots, hanging chads and “under-votes” and “over-votes.” With so contested an issue on independence in play, any attempt to game the process or cut corners would have come back to haunt. The Scottish vote will not include multiple contests and questions. There is one issue on the ballot and the wording of the actual question was reviewed, debated and reframed to remove bias and complexity. What resulted was simplicity itself, a chance to vote “yes” or “no” on the question: Should Scotland be an independent country?
3. Limited Spending, lots of grassroots campaigning. Scotland strictly limits campaign spending, and there are no thirty-second TV or radio spots. This reduces costs for the campaigners and keeps negative advertising from flooding the airwaves. It also changes the character of the campaign. Unlike in the United States, where voters often reach Election Day with a sense of exhaustion and deep disenchantment, Scots have remained remarkably enthusiastic about a process that is far more focused on grassroots campaigning.
4. Lots of debates. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leading campaigner for a “yes” vote, and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, a Scottish member of the British Parliament who has represented the “no” camp, have faced off in extended debates in the six weeks leading up to the election, taking questions from journalists and citizens. But that is just the start of it: Scottish television and radio programs, as well as the opinion pages of Scottish newspapers, feature daily debates. And even the smallest communities in Scotland have seen organized events where “yes’ and “no” campaigners go at it.
5. Easy voting. The Electoral Commission, which is charged with overseeing the election, has run its own “You Can’t Miss It” campaign to increase voter registration and participation, and to assure that voters know where and how to vote. Unlike in the United States, where different states—and even different jurisdictions within states—produce distinct sets of rules regarding who can vote, when and where voting takes place and how votes are counted, the Electoral Commission sets universal standards. And those standards encourage high turnout by making it easy to vote. Arrangements have been made for 789,024 postal voters: Scots who have difficulties making it to the polls. And those who vote September 18 will not have to go far. A total of 5,579 polling stations will be open from 7 am to 10 pm September 18.
6. Majority rule. Elections in the US are often complicated by rules that make it difficult to get a definitional result; for instance, there have been efforts in a number of US states to require so-called “super majorities” to decide referendums on critical issues. The additional requirements foster frustration with the process by telling voters that winning isn’t enough. Democracy works best when voters believe the process is fair and that their ballot could be decisive. That’s the standard Scotland has set for referendum voting, as 50 percent plus one—be the balance on the “yes” side or the “no” side—will determine if independence is to be.
US officials aren’t about to schedule national referendums on critical issues anytime soon. But they should take a serious look at the systematic approach Scotland has taken to boosting turnout and voter engagement. This is what democracy looks like.
Read Next: John Nichols on “Scotland’s Referendum on Austerity”
Glasgow, Scotland—Thursday’s Scottish referendum vote is often framed in terms of the politics of nationalism—and the desire of a people for self-determination. And of course there have always been, and there still are, impassioned Scottish nationalists.
But the reality that becomes overwhelmingly clear in the last hours before the referendum vote—which polls suggest will see an exceptionally high turnout and a close finish—is that this process is being shaped by the politics of austerity.
This is highlighted by the campaigning of supporters of a “yes” vote and, increasingly, this is being acknowledged in the last-minute promises being made by British Prime Minister David Cameron and the most fervent foes of a Scottish break with the United Kingdom.
The politics of Scotland has long been at odds with the politics of Britain, as my Nation colleague D.D. Guttenplan has ably explained. The Conservative Party has ruled the United Kingdom for the majority of the past sixty years. Yet the Tories last finished first in a Scottish election in 1955. And as Britain has moved to the right, not just under the right-wing leadership of Conservatives like Margaret Thatcher but also under the neoliberal leadership of Labour Party prime ministers such as Tony Blair, Scotland has felt increasingly isolated politically.
This isolation has a huge economic component, as Cameron has implemented an austerity agenda that threatens the National Health Service and broader social services, undermines trade unions and communities, and deepens inequality. Despite the devolution of some powers to a Scottish Parliament over the past decade, Scotland is still governed in many of the most important senses from London—even though less than 17 percent of Scots backed Cameron’s Conservatives in the last election, giving the Tories just one of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats in the British Parliament.
So it was that the posters on sound trucks rolling through the streets of Glasgow Wednesday shouted: “End Tory Rule Forever.” The energetic Radical Independence Campaign was putting up posters with an “X” over Cameron’s face and the promise that “Another Scotland Is Possible.”
This is not about nationalism in some old-fashioned sense, tweets Radical Independence Campaign activist Cat Boyd; this is about democracy is a very modern and practical sense. “It is 59 years since Scotland returned a Conservative majority and half of that time we have [had] a Conservative government,” she notes.
Author and activist Tariq Ali, who appeared with Boyd at a forum in Glasgow just before the election, agreed, explaining that the referendum is “all about giving the people the power to determine their own future—rather than to have it determined for them.” Ali traveled from London to Glasgow to support the “yes” campaign, arguing that bringing governing power closer to the people changes the dynamic of the austerity debate in Scotland—and in other places around the world. “The symbiosis of big money and politics is not just America’s problem,” he said. “It has now spread to Europe in a big way.”
The notion that Scottish rule will change the circumstance has been at the heart of the broad-based “Yes Scotland” campaign, which says a “yes” vote will mean
We can use Scotland’s wealth to build a fairer nation.
Scotland’s NHS [National Health Service] will be protected from creeping privatization.
We spend money on childcare instead of Trident missiles.
A lower pension age and higher pensions.
The end of Tory governments we don’t vote for.
Decisions about Scotland will be made by the people who care most about Scotland, the people who live here.
A radical notion?
David Cameron no longer seems to think so.
The prime minister was in Scotland on the eve of the voting to promise that if Scots vote “no,” he and other British party leaders will push for the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament—which is all but certain to be led by the left-leaning Scottish National Party. This so-called “devo-max” approach would afford Scotland far greater control of its own affairs—with greater authority over taxation and spending shifted to Scottish leaders—while maintaining the basic outlines of the United Kingdom.
Critically, the “devo-max” promise, at least to the extent that it is understood at this point, would allow a Scottish Parliament to steer a different course from the British on issues of social spending and the broader austerity debate.
Cameron, his governing coalition partner Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democratic Party and Labour Party opposition leader Ed Miliband actually signed a vow—published on the front page of the Scottish Daily Record—to work together to give the Scots more of a voice in their future if the independence vote fails. “People want to see change,” Brown said. “A ‘No’ vote will deliver faster, safer, and better change than separation.”
Of course, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, termed the promise from Cameron and the other leaders a “desperate offer” that only came as the British leaders recognized Scotland might vote “yes” for independence.
With the polls so close, it is certainly possible that the “devo-max” gambit will tip the balance toward the “no” camp.
But even if that happens, this remarkable democratic debate over independence has forced an admission that austerity is a vital, perhaps definitive, issue in Scotland—and beyond. The only question then is how best to stop the cuts, stop the redistribution of wealth upward and begin shaping fairer and more humane policies.
Read Next: John Nichols on Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Scottish independence
Edinburgh, Scotland—Among the most high-profile opponents of Scottish independence are a number of non-Scots. British Prime Minister David Cameron has toured Scotland this week, urging a “no” vote on Thursday’s referendum on whether to separate from the United Kingdom. That’s to be expected. What was less expected was the intervention of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumed front-runner in the 2016 race for the presidency of the United States.
When Clinton traveled to Scotland earlier this year to accept an honorary degree from University of St. Andrews, she was explicit in her opposition to the proposal.
“I would hope it doesn’t happen,” she declared.
“I would think it would be a loss for both sides,” added Clinton, who told BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman that “I would hate to have you lose Scotland.”
That brought a reminder from Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond that “Scotland is not a property to be lost but a nation about to take a precious and consensual and democratic decision.”
Clinton is not the only American who has weighed in on the Scottish vote. President Obama said in June, “There is a referendum process in place and it is up to the people of Scotland.” That was a reasonably balanced statement. But then he added what sounded to many like a slightly subtler appeal for a “no” vote, suggesting that “we obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner.”
On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated the president’s earlier remarks, while acknowledging in response to a question about how the United States would respond to a “yes” vote by saying, “I suspect that there’s somebody at the administration who’s been thinking about that at some level.”
The notion of a “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom is not new. And Obama and his aides have every right to mention it, just as Clinton has every right to urge Scots to vote “no” on September 18.
But the notion that voting “yes” would represent “a loss for both sides,” as Clinton suggests, is every bit as debatable as the notion that the separation in 1776 of the United States from the Great Britain represented “a loss for both sides.” Britain obviously did not approve, as the long war that followed the American Declaration of Independence confirmed. But the idea that prominent Americans would go around discouraging others from declaring independence—especially via an orderly and nonviolent electoral process—does seem rather, well, hypocritical.
“It was very interesting hearing Obama in his own equivocal way telling the Scots ‘don’t do it,’ and Hillary Clinton in a much more vicious argument—‘Scotland shouldn’t do it,’ etcetera, etcetera,” observed the author and activist Tariq Ali, who noted that the United States supported the break-up of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.
“That’s all fine. But when it happens to one of your allies, then you scream: Oh, no, no, Scotland, don’t do it, don’t do it. Why not?” asks Ali, who worked with Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign to secure a “yes” vote. “There’s no principle. All that’s at stake is imperial interest.”
It is true, up to a point, that Scottish independence would create some complications for the United States. An independent Scotland could, for instance, demand the removal of British Trident missiles, which are carried on submarines that are based in Scotland. Scotland could well deviate from Britain on a variety of defense and foreign policy issues, and it would certainly deviate on the question of austerity—as one of the prime arguments for an independent Scotland is, as the Yes Scotland campaign says, to “protect our public services and welfare system.”
The Yes Scotland campaign argues that is it possible to “build a more prosperous and fairer nation,” and such a nation might well offer a fresh alternative to the model of cuts and redistribution of wealth upward that has taken hold not just in Britain but in the United States.
So, yes, an independent Scotland might require officials in Washington to make some foreign policy adjustments. Ultimately, however, the United States could have a “special relationship” with Britain and with an independent Scotland, which economists say would be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. After all, it has quite good relations with Norway, an oil-rich country with a slightly smaller population than Scotland. And Salmond has gone so far as to say with regard to Britain and an independent Scotland, “America has two great friends and allies here rather than one.”
Clinton and Obama and others should be thinking a good deal more about the adjustment they are making in the signal we send to the world. By speaking against independence—especially in the absolute terms used by Clinton—they signal that the United States is more interested in immediate geopolitical goals than in the vision that inspired the nation into being. That vision was outlined 238 years ago in a document that began with a rather warm embrace of self-determination: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”
Despite what Clinton and Obama may say, supporters of Scottish independence note with some relish that the American declaration concluded by stressing that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.”
This was noted earlier this year by Salmond, the Scottish nationalist who has forced the issue of independence and campaigned aggressively for a “yes” vote.
“Rather more than 200 years ago, America had to fight for its independence,” recalled Salmond. “We are very fortunate in Scotland that we have a democratically agreed, consented process by which we can vote for our independence.”
“So in summary,” says Salmond, “I suppose my message to President Obama is: Yes we can.”
Read Next: Will Scotland choose independence?
A majority of the United States Senate has voted to advance a constitutional amendment to restore the ability of Congress and the states to establish campaign fundraising and spending rules with an eye toward preventing billionaires and corporations from buying elections.
“Today was a historic day for campaign finance reform, with more than half of the Senate voting on a constitutional amendment to make it clear that the American people have the right to regulate campaign finance,” declared Senator Tom Udall, the New Mexico Democrat who in June proposed his amendment to address some of the worst results of the Supreme Court’s interventions in with the recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decisions, as well as the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that it’s going to take more than a majority to renew democracy.
Fifty-four senators, all Democrats and independents who caucus with the Democrats, voted Thursday for the amendment to clarify in the Constitution that Congress and the states have the authority to do what they did for a century before activist judges began intervening on behalf of wealthy donors and corporations: enact meaningful campaign finance rules and regulations.
But forty-two senators, all Republicans, voted no. As a result, Udall noted, the Republican minority was able to “filibuster this measure and instead choose to support a broken system that prioritizes corporations and billionaires over regular voters.”
The Republican opposition effectively blocked further consideration of the amendment proposal, since sixty votes were needed to end debate and force a vote. And, even if the Republicans had not filibustered the initiative, actual passage of an amendment would have required a two-thirds vote.
Though the Republican move was anticipated, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has been one of the Senate’s most ardent advocates for reform, expressed frustration with the result. “I am extremely disappointed that not one Republican voted today to stop billionaires from buying elections and undermining American democracy,” said the senator, who has advocated for a more sweeping amendment to address the influence and power of corporate cash on American elections and governance. “While the Senate vote was a victory for Republicans, it was a defeat for American democracy. The Koch brothers and other billionaires should not be allowed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars electing candidates who represent the wealthy and the powerful.“
Now, said Sanders, “the fight to overturn Citizens United must continue at the grassroots level in every state in this country.”
Sanders is right to reference the role of grassroots movements.
Four years ago, when the US Supreme Court removed barriers to corporate spending to buy elections, serious reformers said a constitutional amendment would be necessary to reverse the Court’s Citizens United ruling. Most pundits and politicians, even those who recognized the threat posed to democracy by the opening of the floodgates for big money, dismissed a constitutional fix as too bold and too difficult to achieve.
But the people embraced the constitutional route to reform. Grassroots organizing succeeded in getting sixteen states and close to 600 communities to formally demand that Congress act.
At the same time, the money poured in, with campaigning spending breaking records in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections—and heading toward breaking the record for midterm elections in 2014.
That was enough to shake up even the most cautious Senate Democrats, who began moving earlier this year to advance the Udall amendment. Though activists wanted a stronger amendment, the Senate deliberations confirmed that there is broad support for a constitutional response to the money-in-politics mess—and that a substantial number of senators now see that constitutional response as right and necessary.
“Less than five years after the Citizens United decision sparked national outrage, we have seen the movement to get big money out of politics go from local, grassroots organizing to a vote in the United States Senate,” explained People for the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker, who worked with activists from Public Citizen, Common Cause, Free Speech for People and other groups to collect and deliver 3.2 million signatures on petitions supporting an amendment. “Today’s historic majority vote is a remarkable milestone for this movement and a platform for taking the fight to the next level. The debate in the Senate this week is a debate that Americans across the country who are passionate about fixing our broken democracy have wanted to see.”
With the DC debate done, for now, the fight goes back to the grassroots. Activists with groups such as Move to Amend, Public Citizen’s “Democracy is for People” campaign and Free Speech for People will continue to organize and agitate, not just for an amendment but for an amendment that makes it absolutely clear that money is not speech, that corporations are not people and that citizens have a right to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars.
“We have amended the US Constitution before in our nation’s history. Twenty-seven times before. Seven of those times to overturn egregious Supreme Court rulings. For the promise of American democracy, we can and we will do it again,” declared John Bonifaz, the president of Free Speech for People, said Thursday. “The pressing question before the nation today is whether it is ‘we the people’ or ‘we the corporations and big money interests.’ This not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is a deeply American issue. Whatever our political differences may be, we all share the common vision of government of, for, and by the people. Today’s US Senate vote is just the beginning. While this amendment bill did not receive this time the required two-thirds support in order to pass the Senate, we will be back again and again until we win. History is on our side.’
Read Next: John Nichols on the “pivotal moment” in the fight to remove big money from politics
Buried in the data from the much-hyped CNN poll that suggested Americans were “alarmed” by the actions of the the ISIL, and that they feel “increasingly concerned” that ISIL could pose a threat to the United States, were two key details:
1. Americans want limits placed on the US military response to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and to the broader political challenges that have developed in those countries. For instance, a majority of Americans, 61 percent of Americans oppose placing US troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
2. More than 70 percent of Americans believe that President Obama should seek congressional authorization for military strikes against ISIL.
Amid all the “alarm” and “concern,” the American people remain wary about any rush to war, and they believe that Congress—not just the president—should have a say with regard to expansion of military action. And make no mistake, what President Obama described in his speech to the nation Wednesday night was a dramatic expansion of US military involvement and action in Iraq and Syria.
As Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, said in a statement after hearing the president’s proposals, “The facts are clear. We are no longer talking about limited strikes to prevent genocide and protect U.S. personnel. We are talking about sustained bombing and the use of military force.”
The president seemed to recognize the war wariness—and the war weariness—of the American people. Though he outlined plans for US involvment in a broad effort to “degrade and destroy and ultimately destroy ISIL,” Obama told the nation in a speech Wednesday night:
I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our partner forces on the ground.
Yet the initiative the president outlined was one of offensive warmaking in Iraq and Syria, with the United States taking the lead in mobilizing “a broad coalition of partners” for military action “to drive these terrorists from their lands.” This military action will involve not just “a systematic campaign of airstrikes” but the deployment of an additional 475 US troops “to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.” According to CNN, that brings the total number of US soldiers on the ground in Iraq to roughly 1,700.
Even as he described a dramatic increase in US military involvement in the region, the president avoided asking for the congressional consultation that is required by a US Constitution that explicitly affords Congress the power “to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.”
Rather, Obama announced, “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”
Translation: Obama is not inclined to seek the congressional advice and consent that is imagined and intended by the Constitution.
Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Washington, described the “I welcome congressional support” line as “really kind of condescending.”
The question now is whether Congress will assert its clear authority as a co-equal branch of government to debate and vote on plans for war and, through the power of the purse, to define the scope and character of warmaking.
That assertion is unlikely to come from congressional leaders. And many House and Senate Democrats were quick to express support for the president’s plans, while some Republicans argued that he should go further.
But a number of members of House and Senate continue to voice concerns about the lack of definition for the new initiative, and about the lack of clear congressional authorization for military action.
Senator Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, responded to Obama’s remarks by expressing respect for the restraint she said the president had shown. But Baldwin added, “I remain concerned about the potential for open-ended U.S. military engagement in the Middle East.” Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, D-California, expressed “reservations about expanding airstrikes into Syria. Committing U.S. military involvement to a country that is undergoing a complicated and lengthy civil war has serious potential international implications.” Echoing Baldwin, Sanchez added, “I am concerned about the possibility of a protracted military campaign that might put American troops in future danger.”
To address such concerns, Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, says he is working with a bipartisan group of senators to draft a resolution defining the president’s authority. Unlike the open-ended authorizations given President George Bush in 2001 and 2002, King told The Washington Post, “I think that we should be talking about something that is much more limited. For example, in duration or defining who the enemy is.”
King said there should be a congressional debate before the November election. “We have a constitutional responsibility to be engaged in this,” he argued. ”I’m frustrated by Congress’s propensity to criticize and not make decisions. This is an opportunity where we should engage in this. I think it strengthens the country if we do so.”
Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, was blunter: “The Constitution is very clear. The power to declare war resides in Congress. If we are to go to war, Congress must approve.”
That is the view that Congresswoman Lee has long held, and she restated it strongly on Wednesday night, saying, “The Constitution requires Congress to vote on the use of military force. This is not about this President. This is about any President and any Congress. We must re-establish the checks and balances laid out by the Constitution.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, joined Lee in asking for immediate debate. “Congress must weigh in when it comes to confronting ISIL through military action,” they said. “The voices of the American people must be heard during a full and robust debate in Congress on the use of military force. Speaker Boehner should put legislation authorizing military action on the floor of the House of Representatives before Congress leaves for the upcoming district work period.”
Appearing on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes Wednesday night, House Armed Services Committee member John Garamendi, D-California, declared, “This is about war and this is a very serious matter. Mr. President come to Congress and get your authorization.”
In a statement earlier Wednesday, Garamendi pointed out that “the U.S. Constitution and War Powers Resolution are clear: Congress is obligated to weigh in on extended U.S. military actions. No matter how noble the cause, no matter how just the engagement, Congress’ voice and vote are required within a 60-90 day window.”
Garamendi’s office reports that “the 60-day window in our military campaign against ISIL ends on October 7th, although the precise date is subject to some interpretation.”
While the congressman says “our current limited air strikes and special operations missions against the Islamic State have a clear purpose and are narrow and targeted in scope,” he explains that “it’s incumbent on Congress to vote on that strategy if it involves military action. To do otherwise ignores our Constitutionally-required duty. The people we represent and our brave men and women in uniform deserve better than that. They deserve a vote.”
Garamendi’s sentiments are shared by activists.
Democracy for America, the group formed by backers of Howard Dean’s antiwar presidential campaign of 2004 was pointed in its call for a vote. Even as he decried ISIL as “a collection of brutal barbarians who threaten the stability of the Middle East,” DFA’s Neil Sroka said, “We remain deeply troubled by any plan for U.S. military engagement that has not been explicitly debated by the American people and voted on by Congress.”
“While regional leaders and the global community must respond to ISIS’s growing list of atrocities,” Sroka explained in his statement, “after more than a decade of war, the American people and their representatives in Congress must have a calm, rational public debate of that response and the appropriate level of U.S. involvement.”
That debate, argued the national group Peace Action, should weigh the wisdom of the military response that Obama has proposed. “We agree with the president that there is no military solution to the problems posed by [ISIL],” said Peace Action executive director Kevin Martin. “And yet his proposed strategy relies far too heavily on the use of military force. It’s time to stop the bombing and escalation and use the other tools of U.S. foreign policy—working with allies in cutting off weapons, oil and funding streams for starters—which will be much more active in dealing with [ISIL].”
Read Next: Phyllis Bennis on the speech on diplomacy Obama should have given Wednesday night
As President Obama was preparing to outline his strategy regarding Iraq and Syria, Massachusetts Democrats turned out a sitting congressman and nominated an Iraq veteran who is absolutely opposed to deploying ground troops in the region—and absolutely determined to avoid the incremental missteps that lead back toward war.
While Seth Moulton supported the president’s decision to provide humanitarian assistance to Iraqi civilians in the face of imminent genocide as “the morally right thing to do,” the candidate has raised tough questions about sending US military advisers to the region. “We must be very careful not to put American combat troops on the ground in Iraq,” says Moulton, “and I remain deeply concerned about the risk of civilian casualties when airstrikes are used without direction from ground forces.”
Moulton says the instability and violence that has torn at Iraq—particularly in regions where the Islamic State movement is active—represents “a political crisis resulting from a complete loss of trust in [former] Prime Minister Maliki and his increasingly sectarian government. This must ultimately be met with a political solution, not a military response.”
In statements and interviews during his congressional campaign in northeast Massachusetts, Moulton made a compelling and consistent—as well as highly nuanced—case for avoiding the sort of military response that would steer US forces back into Iraq. And he did so with authority, as both a progressive Democrat who has opposed George Bush’s war in Iraq and a Marine veteran who served four tours of duty in Iraq from 2003 to 2008.
On Tuesday, Moulton swept to an easy victory over Congressman John Tierney, an eighteen-year incumbent who was the first and only House Democrat to be defeated in a party primary this year. Moulton still faces a fall contest with a well-known and well-funded Republican, but most observers agree the challenger’s greatest hurdle was the primary. Though Tierney was vulnerable, at least in part because of an old gambling scandal involving his wife and brother, few thought the incumbent would be defeated until the final weeks of the campaign.
It was during those final weeks that the Democratic primary debate took up the issue of Iraq—with both candidates seeking to position themselves as antiwar contenders. Questions of war and peace were certainly not the only ones on the agenda, but they were, as The Boston Globe noted, “in play.”
Tierney made the point that he voted against authorizing George Bush and Dick Cheney to go to war at a time when popular sentiment was divided on the issue. And the incumbent’s supporters argued that he deserved credit not just for his vote but for his foresight.
But Moulton’s campaign made a compelling case that he would come to Congress as a war-wary representative with profound knowledge of the region. “Although Seth was firmly against the Iraq War, Seth served his country and led his platoon—eventually serving four tours of duty in Iraq over five years,” the campaign noted. “Seth led an infantry platoon during the 2003 invasion and was in the first Marine company to enter Baghdad. Later, he worked to establish independent Iraqi media. The following year, Seth returned to Iraq as an infantry platoon commander and fought in the lead company in the Battle of Najaf.”
That knowledge was on display when Moulton explained the dangers involved in dispatching substantial numbers of military advisers to Iraq—as the president has already done. An Associated Press profile of the candidate began by recalling that “Seth Moulton’s opposition to another ground war in Iraq is rooted in firsthand experience acquired from four tours. As a young Marine, he saw how quickly a militant threat could transform U.S. military advisers into a force entangled in the months-long battle for control of Najaf, some 100 miles south of Baghdad.”
And Moulton reinforced that point, saying, “Americans have to realize that when the president says he’s sending military advisers to Iraq, make no mistake, these are US special forces or Marines or Rangers or other units that are American ground troops.”
That’s an insight that Moulton brings to debates about military intervention—an insight that has, too frequently, been missing, not just in the debate about what to do now but in debates about US military actions going back to Vietnam. Memory and experience matter when complex issues of war and peace are in play. And it matters, in particular, when there are candidates who place themselves in what Moulton describes as “the long tradition of men and women who served and then used their public positions to speak out against war.”
Read Next: John Nichols on what it means when a top Republican runs as an ally of marriage equality
The markers by which we measure political progress are many. But few are more consequential than the decisions made by politicians at election time. It is one thing for a sitting senator or candidate to vote the right way on a procedural question or to quietly issue a press release. It is something else altogether when an incumbent or challenger spends money to link a candidacy with what was until relatively recently considered to be a controversial stance.
So it is significant that Dr. Monica Wehby, a prominent Republican recruit for the US Senate race in Oregon, has produced a new television commercial that identifies her as an ally of advocates for marriage equality. In the ad, Ben West, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that led to this year’s court decision overturning Oregon’s bar on marriage equality, hails Wehby, saying, “I know she’ll fight for every Oregon family, including mine.”
Politico says, “No Republican Senate candidate has ever run an ad like this statewide.” LGBT groups have been quick to make note of the ad, as have conservative websites.
What’s important to understand is that what is happening with this ad may have more to do with national trends than with political realities on the ground in the reasonably “blue” state of Oregon—with the exception, of course, of the reality that Wehby is behind in the polls, is not getting the support she had hoped for from national conservative and Republican groups and is looking for a boost for her candidacy.
Wehby’s appeal won’t necessarily shift ardent backers of equal rights away from the Democrat she is challenging, Senator Jeff Merkley. Merkley has been a stalwart advocate for LGBT rights for many years. His history of support for marriage equality is long, and it is part of a broader progressive record that has put him well ahead in the polls. The Human Rights Campaign gave Merkley a strong endorsement earlier this year, with the HRC’s David Stacy saying, “The historic passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate last year could not have happened without his tireless work. From the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to marriage equality and other issues of fairness, Merkley is a true ally, and HRC is proud to stand with him.”
Additionally, though Wehby says, “I don’t have a problem with gay marriage,” she takes conservative stances on a host of other issues, and she would, if elected, vote to organize the Senate under Republican leadership that is known for its resistance to LGBT rights initiatives. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell describes himself as a “traditionalist” and objected noisily in February to a federal judge’s decision striking down Kentucky’s measures that discriminated against same-sex couples seeking to marry.
Don’t see the Wehby ad as a signal that the Republican Party is about to make the big turn on marriage equality, or LGBT issues in general. There are already Republican senators who have moved on the issue, and more will. The polling data tell us that when the generation that is coming of age now starts to vote in significant numbers, the GOP will have to change—not just in states such as Oregon but nationwide. But the Republican National Committee as recently as last year reaffirmed the party’s “support for marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
So how should we see the Wehby ad? As evidence that support for marriage equality is no longer so politically “bold” or “courageous” as it once was. In some states, it is necessary to making a mainstream appeal.
What the Wehby ad provides is additional and meaningful confirmation of the speed with which the marriage-equality debate is shifting—that a fundamental political change is coming more rapidly, perhaps, than even proponents of that change had imagined.
When Republican candidates start to embrace marriage equality as part of a broader appeal for the backing of swing voters, when they see the stance as essential to a broad appeal, that’s the measure of progress. Support for marriage equality is no longer a risk in much of America. It’s advantageous politically—so advantageous that a prominent Republican is making it part to her 2014 election-season appeal. This is a first, but it will not be a last.
Read Next: Richard Kim on why gay marriage is winning