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The US Supreme Court building. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
What the US Supreme Court has done, with its decision to strike down essential elements of the Voting Rights Act, is wrong.
But the Court has not gone so rogue as might immediately seem to be the case in a nation that our civics teachers tell us is committed to democratic values.
Rather, the Court’s conservative majority has taken advantage of a gap in the Constitution that must be addressed.
The Court’s 5-4 ruling invalidated the formula used to determine which states come under the requirement that changes to voting laws, procedures and polling place locations in all or part of fifteen targeted states be approved in advance by the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges. The ruling says that Congress went too far in seeking to prevent racial discrimination in voting when it reauthorized the historic act in 2006, with votes of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House.
It fell to Congressman John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who came to national prominence as a civil right movement campaigner for voting rights to say it: "Today, the Supreme Court stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shares that viiew. The justice, in a scathing dissent, wrote, “After exhaustive evidence-gathering and deliberative process, Congress reauthorized the VRA, including the coverage provision, with overwhelming bipartisan support. In my judgment, the Court errs egregiously by overriding Congress’s decision.”
Lewis and Ginsburg are right. As Brennan Center for Justice president Michael Waldman argues: “The Supreme Court’s decision is at odds with recent history. The Voting Rights Act was vital in 2012, not just 1965. For nearly five decades, it has been the nation’s most effective tool to eradicate racial discrimination in voting. And it is still critical today."
Congress can and should come back at the issue, following the counsel of groups such as the Brennan Center, which argues that, because the court rejected the part of the law (Section 4) that determines which jurisdictions are covered by the most vital component of the law for addressing the threat of discrimination (Section 5), "Section 5 stands. Congress now has the duty to upgrade this key protection and ensure our elections remain free, fair, and accessible for all Americans.”
But getting a Congress that can't even pass a Farm Bill won’t be easy at a time when voting issues have been politicized, and when the Voting Rights Act earned the scorn of Republicans who object to its use in legal efforts to strike down restrictive “Voter ID” laws.
There is more that citizens, state legislators and responsible members of the House and Senate can do to ramp up pressure on Congress and the courts.
The Court’s ruling emphasizes a little-noted reality: that the United States does not, in the most fundamental sense, protect the right to vote.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has been making this point for years. He emphasized during the Bush v. Gore arguments in December 2000 that there is no federal constitutional guarantee of a right to vote for president. Scalia was right. Indeed, as the reform group FairVote reminds us, “Because there is no right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, individual states set their own electoral policies and procedures. This leads to confusing and sometimes contradictory policies regarding ballot design, polling hours, voting equipment, voter registration requirements, and ex-felon voting rights. As a result, our electoral system is divided into 50 states, more than 3,000 counties and approximately 13,000 voting districts, all separate and unequal.”
Mark Pocan and Keith Ellison want to do something about that.
The two congressmen, both former state legislators with long histories of engagement with voting-rights issues, in May unveiled a proposal to explicitly guarantee the right to vote in the Constitution.
“The right to vote is too important to be left unprotected,” explained Pocan, who announced the initiative at the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, where the Republican legislators were rushing to enact restrictive “voter ID” legislation before the 2014 election. “At a time when there are far too many efforts to disenfranchise Americans, a voting rights amendment would positively affirm our founding principle that our country is at its strongest when everyone participates. As the world’s leading democracy, we must demand of ourselves what we demand of others—a guaranteed right to vote for all.”
Without that clear guarantee, argues Ellison, politicians continue to propose and enact legislation that impedes voting rights. Noting recent wrangling over voter identification laws, burdensome registration requirements and reduced early voting opportunities in various states, as well as the challenge to the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court embraced, the Minnesota Democrat, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says, “Even though the right to vote is the most-mentioned right in the Constitution, legislatures across the country have been trying to deny that right to millions of Americans, including in my home state of Minnesota. It’s time we made it clear once and for all: every citizen in the United States has a fundamental right to vote.”
If approved by the Congress and then ratified by three-fourths of the states, it would add to the founding document this declaration:
SECTION 1: Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.
SECTION 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.
There is nothing radical about that language. It outlines a basic premise of the American experiment, and a concept that the United States has proudly exported. Indeed, when the United States has had a hand in shaping the destinies of other lands, as well as international agreements, the primacy of the right to vote has been well understood and explicitly stated.
The constitution of Iraq guarantees that “Iraqi citizens, men and women, shall have the right to participate in public affairs and to enjoy political rights including the right to vote, elect, and run for office.”
In Afghanistan, the constitution provides every citizen with “the right to elect and be elected.”
The German constitution crafted in the aftermath of World War II declared that every adult “shall be entitled to vote.”
In Japan, the constitution announced, “Universal adult suffrage is guaranteed.”
And, of course, when former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the commission that outlined a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the document declared:
1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
2. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Americans have considered right-to-vote amendments in the past. But the frequency with which contentious debates are erupting nationwide—just this year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than eighty bills to restrict voting have been introduced in more than thirty states—has already inspired significant activism on behalf of constitutional reform.
There is no question that it will be challenging to enact a right-to-vote amendment. But it is necessary. And the movement to amend the Constitution, if it is broad and vigorous, will create space for more immediate action at the congressional and state levels to address the Supreme Court’s decision.
“The right to vote is the foundation of any democracy,” says FairVote executive director Rob Richie. “Adding an affirmative right to vote to the US Constitution is the best way to guarantee that the government, whether at the federal, state, or local level, cannot infringe upon our individual right to vote. Building support for this amendment offers an opportunity to inspire a twenty-first-century suffrage movement where Americans come together to protect voting rights, promote voter participation and debate suffrage expansion.”
John Nichols is the author with Robert w. McChesney of the new book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. Hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fervent call to action for reformers,” it examines a host of voting rights and democracy issues—including the case for a right-to-vote amendment to the Constitution.
Representative Ed Markey speaks during a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy and Power and the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo)
Massachusetts is, by standard measures, a Democratic state. But special elections in the Bay State have produced their share of Republican senators. Indeed, since the 1940s, Edward Kennedy is the only Democrat to have won a special election for a Senate seat—the 1962 race to finish the term his older brother gave up to assume the presidency.
So when Massachusetts voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect a senator to finish the term of Secretary of State John Kerry, the results will be watched closely for signals from the state that shocked the nation in 2010 by electing Republican Scott Brown to finish Kennedy’s last term.
The Democratic nominee in this year’s special election, Congressman Ed Markey, has run a relatively old-school Democratic race, and most polls give him the lead. But Republican Gabriel Gomez, a wealthy private equity investor who self-financed his way into the Republican nomination, has mounted an aggressive challenge as “a new generation of Republican leader with a great American story.” He’s gotten significant financial support from outside the state, including a boost from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who desperately wants a Massachusetts win to promote the notion that Republicans are on their way to a Senate takeover in 2014.
Additionally, this contest has played out during a period when Washington Democrats, including President Obama, have been battered by negative headlines and persistent congressional inquiries. That’s tough for Markey, a House veteran who has served thirty-six years in Washington and, thus, is positioned as the “experienced” candidate at a time when that commodity is not always valued.
So this is a real race.
And the message from its finish will be an important one.
Markey and Gomez are very different individuals with very different positions on the issues. Some effort has been made to pitch Gomez as a moderate who could work with President Obama, in the spirit of Brown at his most mainstream. But Markey and Gomez have little shared ground—they’ve clashed on everything from whether Edward Snowden should be labeled a “traitor” to the threat posed by big-money influence on politics.
The most fundamental difference, however, is on the question of austerity.
And that’s where this race will turn in one direction or the other.
Gomez is a classic proponent of austerity. He seeks to balance budgets on the backs of working families and retirees. The Republican nominee supports raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits for future retirees and he wants to alter the formula for cost-of-living adjustments for seniors. Gomez is an ardent supporter of the “chained CPI” scheme, or chained consumer price index scheme, which is generally seen as a strategy for cutting costs at the expense of the elderly.
Though President Obama has entertained the “chained CPI” shift, Markey—like many of his fellow members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—is explicit in his opposition to the change. Indeed, with backing from unions and groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Progressive Democrats of America, he has made that opposition central to his campaign message in the special-election race.
While McConnell and Gomez have tried to pitch the Republican candidate’s support for the “chained CPI” switch as evidence of his “bipartisan” commitment—an ironic message coming from the fiercely partisan minority leader—Markey has been steadfast in rejecting the arguments of politicians of both parties who would undermine Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Decrying chained CPI as “cutting people’s income,” the congressman says of adjusted figures under the plan: “That new number won’t keep up with inflation on things like food and health care, the basics we need to live on, and that is just plain wrong.”
“My opponent Gabriel Gomez, he supports chained CPI and cuts to Social Security benefits,” Markey said at a recent event at the Hebrew Senior Life center in Brookline, Massachusetts. “Current and future seniors and veterans would lose $146 billion in benefits over the next 10 years.”
The congressman has said pretty much the same thing in intense televised debates with Gomez, who adopts the standard DC-insider line of suggesting that he wants to “tell you the truth” about so-called “entitlement” programs, debts and deficits.
The truth, of course, is that there are many ways to balance budgets.
Wealthy campaign donors who would prefer not to surrender their advantaged positions when it comes to tax policies, and corporations that do not want to face reasonable regulations or basic accountability, would prefer to shift the burden toward working Americans and the elderly. That’s the austerity line that Gomez promotes.
Working Americans prefer investments in infrastructure and job creation, fairer taxes and guarantees that earned benefits will not be threatened. That’s the growth agenda that is at odds with austerity, and Markey has embraced its core themes.
It is this debate over basic economics that has defined the Massachusetts race.
The choice that voters render Tuesday will have less to do with the candidates than with sentiments regarding an approach to balancing budgets that errs on the side of fairness or on the side of ever-expanding income inequality. Ultimately, that is what the austerity debate comes down to, and the austerity debate is what the Markey-Gomez race is all about.
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of the new book, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.”
Mitch McConnell has a new answer for the question of what causes distrust of government: unions.
Imagine if the Sunday morning talk shows had existed in 1776.
Surely, they would have welcomed the most widely read and provocative journalist of that historic year.
Perhaps the hosts would have asked Tom Paine if he felt that by penning articles calling out the hypocrisy of colonial officials—and incendiary pamphlets such as Common Sense—he was “aiding and abetting” the revolutionaries that King George III imagined to be “traitors.”
An intimidating question, to be sure.
Too intimidating, determined the founders of the American experiment.
After Paine’s compatriots prevailed in their revolutionary endeavor, they wrote into the Bill of Rights a protection of the ability of a free press to speak truth to power, to call out and challenge the machinations of those in government.
Unfortunately, this history is sometimes lost on contemporary Washington.
So it was that when Glenn Greenwald appeared Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press to discuss his reporting on leaks detailing National Security Agency programs that monitor phone calls and digital communications, he was asked whether he was the bad guy.
NBC’s David Gregory initially asked Greenwald to discuss the whereabouts of Edward Snowden, a source of the leaks. Greenwald recounted the reported details of Snowden’s transit from Hong Kong and spoke at length about his own reporting on the NSA and violations of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. He returned, repeatedly, to the fundamental issues that are at stake, arguing that Snowden “learned of wrongdoing and exposed it so we could have a democratic debate about the spying system, do we really want to put people like that in prison for life when all they’re doing is telling us as citizens what our political officials are doing in the dark?”
Then Gregory asked: “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”
Greenwald countered with a suggestion that Gregory had embraced a theory—advanced by the Department of Justice in its investigation of Fox correspondent James Rosen—that journalists who report on leaks might be considered co-conspirators with those who reveal classified information.
“I think it’s pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies. The assumption in your question, David, is completely without evidence, the idea that I’ve aided and abetted him in anyway,” argued Greenwald, who worked as a constitutional lawyer before he began writing about threats to essential liberties. “The scandal that arose in Washington before our stories began was about the fact that the Obama administration is trying to criminalize investigative journalism by going through the e-mails and phone records of AP reporters, accusing a Fox News journalist of the theory that you just embraced, being a co-conspirator with felony—in felonies for working with sources. If you want to embrace that theory, it means that every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information is a criminal, and it’s precisely those theories and precisely that climate that has become so menacing in the United States. That’s why The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer said investigative reporting has come to a standstill, her word, as a result of the theories that you just referenced”
Gregory backed off, saying, “That question has been raised by lawmakers as well. I’m not embracing anything, but, obviously, I take your point.”
At the same time, however, Gregory suggested that “the question of who is a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you are doing.”
By any reasonable measure, Greenwald is a journalist. While most of his work in the United States has been online, he is associated with Britain’s venerable Guardian newspaper. Yet, even if he had no such association, even if he was a freelance blogger who had not published widely hailed books on civil liberties, Greenwald would qualify for the protections afforded by the First Amendment. He is, after all, an American writer following stories about what the US government does in our name but without our informed consent. That’s a classic journalistic endeavor, as is protecting a source.
Gregory is also a journalist. He can and should ask probing questions. He should stir things up, even if that upsets or provokes guests—including Greenwald. What was problematic was the approach, which seemed to go at the task backwards. Instead of providing context—by noting that lawmakers had been griping about Greenwald, or even by referencing the Department of Justice inquiry that targeted Rosen—Gregory simply popped the “aiding and abetting” question.
Only when Greenwald challenged him did the host respond with context.
That’s troubling, because we are at a stage where contemporary and historical context are desperately needed. There is too little understanding today that the freedom of the press protection outlined in the First Amendment is not a privilege provided to reporters—it is a tool established by the founders so that citizens would have access to the information they need to be their own governors.
Criminalizing investigative reporting may undermine and intimidate journalism, but it is even more devastating to democracy. Thomas Jefferson got it right when told John Jay, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
Jefferson’s friend and comrade, Tom Paine argued similarly that citizens must be informed in order to be free. Paine saw the free flow of information and ideas—especially controversial information and ideas—as the essential tool for shifting power from the elites to the people. “A nation under a well regulated government, should permit none to remain uninstructed,” he observed in The Rights of Man. “It is monarchical and aristocratical government only that requires ignorance for its support.”
Jefferson, Paine and their contemporaries often griped about the newspapers of their day. But they recognized, correctly, that the chains of ignorance had to be broken. They supported a free and freewheeling press as an underpinning of democracy in their day. As we should in ours.
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books). Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, says: “US representative democracy is built on four pillars: independent journalists, informed and engaged citizens, fair and free elections, and responsive and responsible government. These pillars have been eroded by what Nichols and McChesney label ‘the money-and-media election complex,’ an incestuous and self-interested marriage of big media and big money. The result is a ‘dollarocracy’ resting on four new pillars: media corporations, disenchanted and manipulated citizens, elections that go to the highest bidder, and government that is only responsive to and responsible for the needs of the privileged class. Read this book, then go to your window and shout ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ ”
McClatchy uncovered more revelations about Obama’s “insider theat program”—but unlike The Guardian’s investigations, this news is going almost entirely unreported.
Mitch McConnell. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
After spending the better part of a decade obstructing majority rule in the US Senate, and preventing the Congress from acting on fundamental issues that are of concern to the great mass of Americans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has figured out who is to blame for mistrust of government: public employees and their unions.
Declaring that he wants to open up a “serious national debate” about public-sector unions, the Kentucky Republican came out swinging at a Friday event with the American Enterprise Institute. “They are the reason so many state and local municipalities are flat broke,” he said of unions that represent public employees at the local, state and federal levels of government. “They’re behind the unsustainable expansion of public pensions. They’re a major problem.”
McConnell even went so far as to suggest that unions are to blame for inappropriate targeting for extra scrutiny of requests for charity exemptions from groups with Tea Party ties.
Referring to the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents Internal Revenue Service workers, the senator asked: “Why would we even expect a public employee—whose union more or less exists to grow the government—to treat someone who opposes that goal to a fair hearing?”
The senator has also suggested that President Obama’s criticisms of conservative groups influenced choices made by IRS employees.
But when he is pressed on the issue, McConnell backs off—trying to have it both ways with a line about how: “The president and his political allies encouraged this kind of bureaucratic overreach by their public comments. But that’s quite different from saying they ordered it. I think with regard to who’s actually responsible for it we need to find out, and that investigation will go on for quite some time.”
So why is McConnell bashing the NTEU?
As NTEU President Colleen Kelley told The Hill, the senator “has long…opposed the existence of public sector unions.” NTEU is not the only target of McConnell’s wrath. He’s generally upset with public-sector unions: the American Federation of Government Employees; the National Weather Service Employees Organization; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the International Association of Fire Fighters… you name it.
On this point, McConnell is blunt, declaring that “public sector unions are a fifty-year mistake.”
Charging that elected officials who accept the endorsements of public-sector unions—including, presumably, a number of his Republican colleagues—are responsible for “the fleecing” of taxpayers through a vast expansion of government, the Senate minority leader said: “That’s what happens when politicians start competing for the support of public-sector unions: they stop serving the interests of the people who elected them and start serving the interests of a government they’re supposed to be keeping in check.”
McConnell says that public-sector unions, such as the NTEU, don’t care about “how well government works, or how well it’s serving the public.”
In fact, the NTEU recently led the fight on a host of high-profile customs and border security issues, seeking to maintain operations at US airports, seaports and land border crossings in this period of sequestration. The union has fought to maintain the federal Food and Drug Administration’s “vital, complex public health responsibilities, that include safe food, medicine and medical devices, cannot be accomplished with this level of funding.” It has campaigned for cost savings by seeking approval of a plan to “reduce substantially the amount taxpayers have to pay in salary reimbursements for government contractors.” And it’s been in the forefront of efforts to protect whistleblowers and to promote transparency.
It is true that NTEU and other federal, state and local public-sector unions defend the interests of their members. That’s what labor organizations do. But when McConnell and his minions imagine that federal unions have no concern for the public interest, they miss the reality that these unions are often the loudest and most determined defenders of programs that most Americans consider to be vital.
When they imagine that public-sector unions are the source of general frustration with dysfunctional government, politicians like McConnell neglect the polling that shows approval of Congress has fallen to historic lows. According to the Real Clear Politics summary of recent polls, only 14 percent of Americans approve of how Congress is doing its job. The disapproval rate is 78 percent. Noitably, when voters in states across the country were polled regarding their congressional representatives, the senator with the lowest net job approval rating was… Mitch McConnell.
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of the new book, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), about which Senator Bernie Sanders says: “With this book, John Nichols and Bob McChesney invite Americans to examine the challenges facing America in new ways, and to fully recognize the threat that the combination of big money and big media poses to the promise of self-government. They paint a daunting picture, rich in detail based on intense reporting and groundbreaking research. But they do not offer us a pessimistic take. Rather, they call us, as Tom Paine did more than two centuries ago, to turn knowledge into power. And they tell us that we can and must respond to our contemporary challenges as a nation by rejecting the Dollarocracy and renewing our commitment to democracy.”
Giant corporations are in agreement with Mitch McConnell when it comes to unions—Walmart just fired eleven striking workers who were organizing with OUR Walmart.
A radio host started an interview the other day by asking about “the $2 billion election” of 2012. I had to correct him. The commonly used $2 billion figure is a reference to an early estimate of spending on the presidential race. When the final figures came in, the campaigns, the parties, the political action committee and the various and sundry other vehicles for moving money into politics had spent well in excess of $2 billion. And that was just the start of it.
In our new book, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books), Bob McChesney and I detail how the actual spending on politics during the 2012 election cycle was closer to $10 billion.
Yes, $10 billion.
How did the figure get so high? In the aftermath of a series of Supreme Court rulings, including but not limited to the decision in the Citizens United case, America’s wealthiest and most powerful political players were freed to flood the electoral process with direct donations to parties and candidates as well as massive spending on so-called “independent” and “dark-money” political projects. And they did not stop at the presidential level.
Billions of dollars were spent in 2012 on the fight for control of the House and Senate. Billions more were spent on state, local and judicial contests. And billions more on state and local referendum fights over issues as diverse as the labeling of genetically-modified food (in California) to the confirming of collective-bargaining rights in Michigan. The wealthiest donors and corporations did not win every election bet they made. But as they spread their money across the political landscape, they cleaned up where it mattered—from city councils to state legislatures to state attorneys general offices and judicial benches.
That’s how the Dollarocracy works. It constantly repositions, reorganizes and reasserts “the money power”—as the progressive reformers of old described it—at every level of governance. Ultimately, it makes the dollar more meaningful than the vote. That’s worth $10 billion. Or $20 billion, which is what election cycles will soon cost—if we do not respond with a reform movement every bit as determined, and every bit as forceful, as the progressive thrust that beat back the robber barons of a century ago.
While politicians are running campaigns funded by corporations, John Nichols argues that they're also datamining average Americans to better target donors and potential voters.
Frederick Douglass (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Marion Doss. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
Vice President Biden did right by Frederick Douglass.
The abolitionist taught that “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Accordingly, when the vice president marked the unveiling of a statue honoring abolitionist Douglass at the US Capitol, he made a demand.
And it was the appropriate one.
In the last years of his life Douglass was active with a pioneering voting rights group, the District Suffrage Petition Association. He attended the group’s meetings and asked, “What have the people of the District done that they should be excluded from the privileges of the ballot box?”
It was that question, and the advocacy associated with it, that Biden recalled at the dedication ceremony, declaring that he and President Obama “support home rule, budget autonomy and the vote for the people of the District of Columbia.”
It is remarkable that 118 years after the death of Douglass, the citizens of the District of Columbia still lack full voting rights. The denial of the full franchise to the residents of the nation’s capital city is one example of the patchwork approach to suffrage in the United States, where Americans who live in commonwealths, territories and possessions lack full representation rights in Congress and, in many instances, the right to vote for president. Even in the states, voting rights are ill-defined, and the Voting Rights Act is under legal assault. It is for that reason that Congressmen Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, have called for amending the Constitution to guarantee the right to vote and the right to have that vote counted.
The District of Columbia has perhaps the most complex definition of voting rights in the whole of the republic. While District residents can vote in presidential elections, they do not have the right to elect full representatives to the House and Senate. DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the veteran civil rights activist who campaigned for many years for the placement of the seven-foot statue placed in the Capitol, recalled, “There has been too little recognition that as a District of Columbia resident, three Republican presidents appointed Douglass to three local posts: to what was then the upper chamber of the DC Council, part of the home-rule government given the District by the Republican Congress and president during Reconstruction, as DC Recorder of Deeds and as US Marshal for the local and federal courts. Who knew that Douglass lost the Republican nomination for delegate to the US House of Representatives?”
Norton and others know that, today, though DC has an elected local government, the power of that government—and, thus, of Washington residents to determine their own affairs—is constrained by Congress.
Were they free to do so, there is little reason to doubt that the citizens of the District would petition immediately for statehood.
But the cause of statehood has been thwarted since the days when members of Congress refused the request of the great radical senator from South Dakota, Richard F. Pettigrew, who urged after the death of Douglass in 1895 “that out of respect to his memory his remains be permitted to lie in state in the rotunda of the National Capitol between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on to-morrow.”
Biden’s raising of the issue of DC voting rights at the ceremony on Wednesday may not have pleased House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has resisted efforts to advance DC voting rights legislation in Congress, or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who pointedly emphasized that Douglass had been a Republican.
But, by making a direct demand, Biden honored not just a great man but also the great man’s stated intentions for the city he made his home.
To his credit, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, went even further, declaring, “Washington, DC, residents pay taxes, just like residents of Nevada, California, or any other state. Washington, DC, residents have fought and died in every American war, just like residents of Ohio, Kentucky or any other state. And Washington, DC, residents deserve the same right to self-government and congressional representation as residents of any other state.”
“The district deserves statehood. And Congress should act to grant it,” said Reid.
That good sentiment must be coupled with determined congressional and executive action to advance it, however. The dream of voting rights has been deferred since the days when Douglass wrote of the district as “the one spot where there is no government for the people, of the people and by the people. Its citizens submit to rulers whom they have no choice in selecting. They obey laws which they had no voice in making.”
That’s got to change.
For that to happen, Biden and Reid will have to do more than make speeches.
They must make the demands of which Douglass spoke—and their demands must be coupled with those of Washington residents, who should be given the right to vote on whether the district should finally have “government for the people, of the people and by the people.”
Biden was on message when he said, “The people of the District made the right choice in selecting Frederick Douglass as their representative, and they put both Eleanor Holmes Norton and Frederick Douglass in this Capitol, and quite frankly, I don’t see either of them leaving until all the District residents get their voice.”
With Robert W. McChesney, John Nichols is the author of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), which examines the denial of voting rights in the District of Columbia and US commonwealths and territories, and which outlines the case for enactment of a constitutional amendment to guarantee voting rights.
Will the new anti-abortion bill hold up in the Senate? Read William Greider’s analysis here.
A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo, June 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman)
The Constitution is clear. Written by revolutionaries fresh from a protracted battle against a colonial empire that was forever involving them in wars of whim, the document was designed to assure that the powers of war making and military adventuring would never be concentrated in the hands of a monarch—or a president. So it is that, while the American president has from the founding of the republic been designated as the commander-in-chief, it is the Congress that retains the sole power to declare wars and to set terms for the engagement of the United States in the country in the “attachments and entanglements in foreign affairs” against which George Washington warned.
While it can be argued that presidents have the authority to act unilaterally to repel attacks and defend the country, there is far less justification for the wars of whim and casual military engagements that have come to define the United States in the latter part of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first.
Yet, since 1941, succeeding executives have entered into wars, military engagements and schemes to aid foreign armies without ever seeking or receiving congressional authorization.
Often, the United States has policed the world without the informed consent of the American people, and without any evidence of the popular support that ought to be achieved before any country mingles its destiny with the struggles of distant lands.
Such is the case with the Syrian imbroglio.
That Syria has degenerated into crisis is clear.
That the violence on the ground is atrocious, and horrifying, goes without saying.
But the notion that the Syrian mess is an American problem, or that the United States can or should choose a favorite in the fight, is highly debatable. There is no defense for the actions of the Syrian government, but only the most casual observers presume that the rebels are universally committed to noble and democratic ends.
The American people “get” that the Syrian conflict is complicated, and that any US involvement there had the potential to make untenable demands on this country’s future. Polls by the Pew Research Center and various media outlets have found high levels of opposition to even the most minimal of US engagement with the rebels.
Roughly two-thirds of Americans have consistently said that the United States does not have a responsibility to intervene in the Syrian conflict. Late last year, Pew found that 65 percent of Americans oppose any move by the United States and its allies to provide arms to anti-government forces in Syria.
Since the Obama administration—under pressure from Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, and other hawks—announced this month that the United States would aid the Syrian rebels, opposition to the move has actually risen. Indeed, the latest polling shows that 70 percent of Americans oppose the United States and its allies’ sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria. A mere 20 percent favor the initiative.
Yet Obama is taking the next step toward an active US role in the conflict.
Public opinion is not the only measure to be applied in weighing military engagements. But the wisdom of the people ought not be casually dismissed—especially when it comes to questions of whether their country should involve itself in distant civil wars.
If ever there was a time when congressional oversight needed—make that required, if one inclined toward a literal reading of the Constitution—this would seem to be it.
But Congress is disengaged and dysfunctional.
The House and the Senate choose not, for the most part, to govern. And they are especially resistant to governing when it comes to checking and balancing presidential decisions to embark upon military endeavors that carry with them the prospect of escalation and blowback. Congress relies too frequently on the convoluted and constitutionally dubious War Powers Act as an out for avoiding direct responsibility.
This is deeply unfortunate, not just in the immediate moment but on the long arc of history.
The United States is ill-suited to a career of empire, as former Secretary of State John Quincy Adams reminded the Congress in 1821.
“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” Adams explained four years before he would assume the presidency. “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force… She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
It was an understanding of the many threats that go with the search for monsters to destroy that led the framers to rest the war-making power with the Congress. Now, however, Congress is resistant to taking up the basic work of oversight.
Indeed, its inclination is toward writing blank checks.
During the recent debate over the National Defense Authorization Act, Congressman Chris Gibson, R-New York, and John Garamendi, D-California, submitted a bipartisan amendment that would have removed “Sense of Congress” language—previously added to the NDAA—which might be read as signaling support for US military interventions and engagements in Syria. Only 123 members of the House (sixty-two Republicans, sixty-one Democrats) supported the amendment, while 301 members (168 Republicans and 133 Democrats) opposed it.
Garamendi is generally a supporter of President Obama, as are most of the sixty Democrats who joined him in supporting the amendment. They understand that congressional oversight does not weaken or undermine the executive; rather, it establishes a framework in which presidents, their aides and military commanders can operate.
It is not a matter of partisanship that argues for congressional action. It is a combination of common sense and respect for the Constitution.
In arguing for the amendment, Gibson made the wise case that “we need to proceed with more caution—having a full and robust debate on the situation in Syria and how and if the United States should be involved. As we saw in Libya—operations I opposed from the start—it is critical we use the utmost caution when involving Americans overseas.”
That was the common sense argument. But it did not prevail.
This is troubling.
It made even more troubling by the fact that the practical argument made by the congressman from New York is, as well, the constitutional argument.
A Congress that cedes its authority to check and balance the military manipulations of the executive branch does not merely diminish its own stature. It undermines the separation of powers that is essential to keeping the United States from involving itself “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”
No war of whim should ever be embarked upon without a declaration from Congress.
No military endeavor—and that certainly includes the arming of rebels in foreign conflicts—should ever be engaged in without oversight from the US House and the US Senate. That’s a standard that ought to be applied by congressional conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, no matter who sits in the White House.
The new book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Book),explores how big money has made politics and government dysfunctional. Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.”
The Supreme Court defended voting rights in Arizona, but what part of the bill did the leave intact? Read Aura Bogado’s report here.
A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, holds up his rifle and waves a Syrian independence flag in the Damascus suburb of Saqba January 27, 2012. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
The US House of Representatives took an important step last week toward the restoration of the separation of powers that was established so that Congress would check and balance presidential war-making.
But Congress has not hit its stride.
The House voted overwhelming for a measure supporting a full and accelerated end to the war in Afghanistan and expressing the sense of Congress that any post-2014 US military force in Afghanistan requires new and explicit authorization.
After twelve years of failing to check and balance the war-making of successive administrations, the House voted 305-121 for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which
[requires] the President to complete the accelerated transition of combat operations from U.S. Armed Forces to the Government of Afghanistan no later than by the end of 2013; the accelerated transition of military and security operations by the end of 2014, including the redeployment of U.S. troops; and to pursue robust negotiations to address Afghanistan’s and the region’s security and stability.
“Today is the first time in twelve years of war that a majority of the House of Representatives has voted to end the war in Afghanistan,” Stephen Miles of the Win Without War coalition said after last Thursday’s vote.
Because the Senate endorsed a similar measure in 2012—by a 62-33 vote—veteran antiwar activist Tom Hayden notes that “politically, the development means that the Obama administration effectively lacks any congressional authorization for a permanent military occupation of Afghanistan.”
The amendment, sponsored by Congressman Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who has long been allied with antiwar groups such as Progressive Democrats of America, also “establishes the sense of Congress that should the President determine the necessity for post 2014 deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Congress should vote to authorize such a presence and mission by no later than June 2014.”
In urging his colleagues to support the amendment, McGovern (who worked on the measure with Representatives Walter Jones, R-North Carolina; Barbara Lee, D-California, and John Garamendi, D-California) explained before the vote: “It is time to end the war in Afghanistan, bring our troops home and take seriously our duty as a Congress.”
That stance, which once would have been considered radical, drew broad bipartisan support.
The amendment secured widespread backing from Democrats: 185 were in favor of the proposal (including Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi of California, and Steny Hoyer of Maryland) while just nine Democrats opposed it.
The amendment also won among Republicans, with 120 in favor to 112 opposed. But the Republican support came with a caveat: Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, did not vote. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-California, voted “no,” as did many prominent Republicans who chair House committees, including Oversight and Government Reform’s Darrell Issa, R-California, and Homeland Security’s Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
The position of the Republican leaders does not bode well for a broad shift in the approach of Congress to questions about military adventures abroad. That’s especially unfortunate at a time when the Obama administration is ramping up US support for Syrian rebels—a move that should be checked and balanced by Congress.
And its not just a leadership challenge.
When two members of the House—New York Republican Chris Gibson and California Democrat John Garamendi—submitted a bipartisan amendment that would have eliminated Sense of Congress language calling for a US military intervention in Syria, it failed with just 123 “yes” votes to 301 “no” votes.
So where does this leave us?
It is significant that the House has laid a marker down with regard to the Afghanistan occupation—with an appropriate signal about the need for the president to seek congressional approval for further action in the country.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who cast the lone vote in opposition to the 2001 resolution that the Bush and Obama administrations cited as justification for an open-ended “war of terror” that has sent tens of thousands of US troops to Afghanistan, was pleased by the show of backbone.
“I have long called for a responsible and immediate end to the war in Afghanistan and [last week’s] congressional action is long overdue,” said Lee. “With the passage of this amendment, it’s clear that we are turning a corner on the war in Afghanistan. It’s long past time for the longest war in America’s history to come to an end.”
But that should not be the end of it.
It is long past time for Congress to fully and unapologetically reassert its role as the branch of the federal government that is supposed to declare wars and to check and balance the administrations that pursue them.
That’s true with regard to Afghanistan. But it is equally true with regard to conflicts that are now drawing more and more US attention, including the Syria imbroglio.
So while Congress may be starting to “get it” with regard to Afghanistan, Congress does not yet “get it” with regard to its broader constitutional mandate to declare wars and check and balance all military endeavors.
The new book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), is out this week—with an introduction by Senator Bernie Sanders.
The Supreme Court struck down Arizona's voter suppression law. Read Ari Berman's analysis here.
Representative Peter King on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, January 2, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
New York Congressman Peter King, with his call for the prosecution of journalist Glenn Greenwald, recalls a long and dishonorable American tradition.
Never mind that, as The Washington Post notes, King is guilty of “willfully misquoting and misconstruing the many public comments made by both Greenwald and Edward Snowden.”
The congressman is not satisfied to go after Snowden, the private contractor who has provided a measure of insight regarding the extent to which we live in a surveillance state. King wants at the journalist who dared to tell the people.
Growling that “legal action should be taken against [Greenwald],” the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security dismissed First Amendment concerns, declaring that “no right is absolute!”—and that includes the First Amendment right of the people to be served by a free press.
So King is calling for the “very targeted, very selective” prosecution of journalists for informing the American people about what their government is doing—and why it might be wrong.
How very 1798 of him.
It was in that year that President John Adams presided over the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts in a mad rush to disregard civil liberties and begin jailing his political and journalistic critics. In doing so, Adams and his allies opened what would be a defining debate when it came to the American understanding of the freedom of the press protection in particular and the broader right to challenge the claims of the government.
It was an intense time, arguably the most dangerous moment faced by the new nation. Dissenters were accused of threatening the safety and security of the republic.
Those who did not meet the approval of Adams and his cronies were punished for sharing information and ideas that provided citizens with dissent from the official line. Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon was prosecuted and jailed for, among other things, publishing a condemnation of Adams’s “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice” in his newspaper The Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truth.
Lyon believed that Adams was steering the United States toward war with France, and he wrote and spoke about the folly of that endeavor. Adams and his allies used the hastily enacted Alien and Sedition Acts to punish what was perceived as malicious writing with regard to the government in general, and Adams in particular.
The abuses of basic liberties were so extreme that the sitting vice president, Thomas Jefferson, openly broke with Adams and emerged as the outspoken leader of the opposition.
“A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles,” wrote Jefferson after the passage of the laws that would be used to assault not just freedom of the press but also the right to dissent.
The Virginian challenged Adams for the presidency in 1800, declaring, “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Jefferson defeated Adams, securing a victory that would renew the revolutionary “spirit of ’76” and secure—for a time—the promise of the Bill of Rights.
But only for a time.
In his rant about the current controversy, Peter King said something about crackdowns on a free press being a “certainly very rare” shredding of the Constitution. Actually, it’s not very rare.
The conflict over the right of a free press to speak truth to power—and to state truths that power would prefer to keep hidden—has never really ended.
It stirred during World War I, when the government sought to run socialist and anarchist newspapers out of business.
It stirred in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon’s administration was busy placing the names of journalists on its enemies list—and seeking to thwart the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
It has stirred in recent weeks, with revelations that the Department of Justice has targeted journalists for inquiries that the head of the Associated Press warns could create a circumstance where “the people of the United States will only know what the government wants them to know.”
There have always been Peter Kings—politicians, motivated by “selfish avarice,” who would prosecute and jail those who inform Americans of what is being done in their name but without their informed consent.
What must be just as constant is the confident defense of the Bill of Rights that says, as Jefferson did in the midst of the great struggle to thwart the abuses of Adams, “I am…for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of the new book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says: “Dollarocracy gets at what’s ailing America better than any other diagnosis I’ve encountered. Plus it prescribes a cure. What else could a reader—or a citizen—ask? To me, it’s the book of the year.”
Tech experts say Glenn Greenwald misinterpreted one of the NSA slides leaked by Edward Snowden. Read Rick Perlstein’s report here.
A member of the audience uses their celphone to take a picture of President Barack Obama speaking at a fundraiser in Chicago, Wednesday, May 29, 2013. (AP Photo/ Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
As long as we’re opening a discussion about data mining, might we consider the fact that it’s not just the government that’s paying attention to our digital entanglements?
There’s a reason the National Security Agency was interested in accessing the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. When you’re mining, you go where the precious resources are, and technology companies have got the gold.
Data is digital gold. Corporations know that. They’re big into data mining.
But it’s not just profits that data can yield.
Data is also mined by those who seek power.
Political candidates, political parties, Super PACS and dark-money groups are among the most ambitious data miners around. They use data to supercharge their fund-raising, to target multimillion-dollar ad buys and to stir passions and fears at election time.
Data mining drives the money-and-media election complex that is rapidly turning American democracy into an American Dollarocracy, where election campaigns are long on technical savvy but short, very short, on vision.
Here’s a short excerpt from the new book by myself and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books), which is published today. It focuses on data mining by political campaigns:
* * *
If there was one assessment of the 2012 campaign that the campaign consultants loved above all others, it was the analysis that said, “Thar’s gold in them thar iPhones.” After two decades of trying to figure out how to monetize bits and bytes, the consulting class is now all in for the digitalization of our politics. Indeed, the final election-season issue of Campaigns & Elections (“the magazine for people in politics”) featured “10 Bold Ideas for the Future of Consulting.” This was the money-and-media election complex talking to itself, and there was no mistaking the message. Yes, of course, there were the calls for more spending: “Money in Politics: Time to Embrace It.” And complaints about even the most minimal restraints on campaign donations: “Give Candidates the Ability to Fight Back: With Contribution Limits Intact, What’s a Candidate to Do?”
But the primary focus of the “bold proposals” was on spreading the political pathologies of the “old media”—brutal negative campaigning, crude messaging, divisive tactics, and, above all big spending—to the “new media.” “Political Technology Is Best Served Partisan,” declared one headline, which was sandwiched between “The Future of Direct Mail Is Digital” and “Software Will Revolutionize Local Politics.” Any fleeting talk of ideals and values was mostly muffled by the drooling over dollars: “The political technology field is still relatively new and whenever a new industry shows promise and money is being made, venture capitalists are quick to notice and search out promising opportunities for investment,” noted one of the more thoughtful commentators. “Some in the political technology space have been quick to meet these new players with a ready grin and an open palm.”
The political players who have mastered television and radio and direct mail, the Karl Roves and the David Axelrods, as well as the thousands of consultants you’ve never heard of, are deep into a process that they believe will allow them to master the Internet. The reality is that the consulting class no longer views the Internet as a “new frontier” or a tool that needs to be understood. Those are the discussions of ten, even fifteen years ago.
Now, their professional journals are packed with ads that scream “Big Data. Bigger Results” and “Canvassing Tools for the Mobile Campaign.” The digital tipping point has not been reached, but we can see it from here—and so can the consultants, slow as they may once have been. They are now racing toward it because they have come to understand, thanks to the innovations and successes of the Obama campaign, that there could well be another pot of gold just beyond the tipping point.
Truth be told, there’s already a good deal of gold being spread around. By our calculations, the total amount of campaign money spent online for political advertising in 2012 was in the range of $300-350 million. This was a good tenfold increase from 2008, and what was spent on the Internet in 2012 was almost twice what was spent on television candidate ads in the entirety of the 1972 election, even when inflation is factored in. Recall that in 1972 this level of TV advertising was widely considered scandalous and could have had no small number of Americans fantasizing about burning their TV sets in effigy. So 2012 Internet political advertising was hardly chopped liver, and by all accounts its exponential growth rate will continue through election cycles for the foreseeable future.
Online advertising is, of course, the easiest measure of political activity on the Internet. But it is neither the beginning nor the end of the Internet’s role in American politics. In our view, the focus on advertising understates the Internet’s overall role in campaigns. In 2012, the Pew Research Center determined that 47 percent of voters categorized the Internet as a “main campaign news source,” second only to television, well ahead of newspapers and radio, and up from 36 percent in 2008 and 21 percent in 2004. Pew research also determined that 55 percent of registered voters watched political videos online and nearly 25 percent watched live videos online of candidate speeches, press conferences, or debates. Moreover, 45 percent of smartphone owners used their phones to read other people’s comments about a campaign or candidate on a social networking site, while 35 percent of smartphone owners actually used their phones to “look up whether something they just heard about a candidate or the campaign in general was true.” A Google poll found that 64 percent of battleground-state voters used the Internet to fact-check the candidates. After the first Obama-Romney debates, there were more than 10 million tweets, making it to that point the most tweeted about event ever in U.S. politics. By November 2012, there were 110,000 political Facebook pages in the United States and more than 11,000 pages just for American politicians. Nearly 25 percent of all the time that Americans spend online is spent on Facebook.
In short, these aren’t your grandfather’s elections, or your father’s, or even your older sister’s. “Shaking hands and all the traditional campaign stuff has not gone away. You must still do it to win,” Alan Rosenblatt of the Center for American Progress put it, “but if you don’t have a complementary online strategy you can’t win either.” Of course, digital political ad spending matters, and, yes, it will matter a whole lot more in the elections to come. But emphasizing digital political ad spending over all other aspects of the Internet as a source of political insight, inspiration and manipulation does a grave injustice to the digital revolution occurring in political campaigns. The Internet is already in the bone marrow of the American election system.
And not just at the grassroots.
The digital revolution has not rendered giant corporations clumsy dinosaurs on their way to extinction with a tidal wave of competition and consumer empowerment. In grand irony, the Internet has arguably become the greatest generator of monopoly power in the history of economics. Everywhere enormous firms all ranking among the most valuable in the world—Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, with eBay and Facebook not far behind—have monopolistic domination of huge digital markets often equal to or greater than what John D. Rockefeller enjoyed with Standard Oil in the Gilded Age. As The Economist put it, the Internet invariably generates “quasi-monopoly” through “winner-take-almost-all markets.” The reasons for this development have been spelled out elsewhere and derive from network economics, the capacity of digital communication to collapse space, patents, standards, and, with time, good old barriers to entry with the enormous capital requirements of cloud computing.
The significance of this digital monopoly capitalism for our argument is twofold. There is the general issue of Dollarocracy versus democracy: this much-concentrated economic power and wealth inequality are invariably dangerous for the survival of credible self-government. And then there is the issue of how this new kind of economic power translates into political power. Given the titanic power these firms have in the overall global economy, their political power should soon approach untouchable status under Dollarocracy, if it is not there already. This is especially true for policy debates directly affecting the direction of the Internet, where a number of crucial issues are in play, ranging from copyright law, network neutrality, community broadband, and the digital divide to taxation, antitrust, and, arguably most important of all, privacy. The old saw in politics is that if you’re not at the negotiating table when deals are being made, you’re what’s being served.
To address this new world, and to take advantage of cookies themselves, Internet publishers are increasingly “personalizing” their Web sites so that different users get different content at the sites depending upon what their personal data tell about them. Already Google search results for the same entry generate different responses for users depending on their extensive Google profile. Click on a major news site, and different people get different headlines and stories depending upon their demographics. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt noted that individual targeting is “so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” The age of people sharing a similar digital experience or having a serendipitous experience online is fading, with all that loss suggests. We now experience a “filter bubble,” as Eli Pariser put it. Jeffrey Rosen wrote that “a world of customized ads, news, and politics is one where advertisers, publishers and politicians rank and differentiate us. They evaluate us not as citizens but as consumers, putting us in different—and often secret—categories, based on the amount of money they predict we’ll spend or the votes they predict we’ll cast.
“Personal data is the oil of the information age,” the New York Times observed, and that captures exactly where the most important transformation of election campaigns, digital or otherwise, is occurring. In 2012, digital data collection moved from the margins to the center for the presidential campaigns. “While the media coverage is focused on rallies and the last-minute dash by Obama and Romney through seven swing states,” a reporter observed on the eve of the election, “the real work of the first ever billion-dollar campaign is being done behind closed doors.”
Some, perhaps much, of the ease with which President Obama won reelection despite historically unfavorable metrics has been attributed to his decided advantage over the Romney campaign in the underpublicized development of data collection and its effective utilization. Although both sides fought to a draw with their carpet-bombing of TV political ads, Politico tech reporter Jennifer Martinez wrote, “Obama’s treasure trove of data helped give him a notable edge over Republican Mitt Romney.” It was striking that when Tim Dickinson did his postmortem of the 2012 presidential campaign, his top six most valuable Obama operatives were the folks in charge of or directly connected to the digital operation; strategist David Axelrod and the traditional TV ad managers and pollsters followed them well down the list.
Obama’s Chicago-based campaign offices were dominated by his secretive analytics department, where hundreds of specialists crunched numbers. As one reporter who got an inside look put it, the football-field-sized office “looks like a corporate research and development lab.” The “Chief Data Scientist” of the Obama team was Rayid Ghani, an expert in artificial intelligence who came from Accenture Technology Labs, where he was a trailblazer in consumer data mining for retail purposes. Ghani’s directive “was to devise algorithms that could sift through the massive amounts of data collected by the campaign,” as Dickinson put it. “If you used Facebook to log onto the Obama campaign’s Web site, you revealed to them your entire social network.”
Among other things, the Obama team consolidated all of its disparate databases from 2008, and placed nearly all of the material on the Amazon Web Services cloud, where Ghani and his staff could slice and dice the data as never before. “The biggest idea we brought to bear,” said Dan Wagner, who ran Obama’s analytics team, “was integrating data and then acting on what it told us.”
The secrecy of the effort was such that we cannot accurately determine how much money the Obama campaign spent in this area—or what all the campaigns together spent. But we do know the Obama campaign cut no corners here. In 2008, the Obama campaign dominated Republicans on the burgeoning social media platforms, and that dominance on the increasingly ubiquitous Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube continued through 2012. But the campaign’s 2012 initiative went much further. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina acknowledged that he made the 2012 analytics staff five times larger than the much-ballyhooed analytics staff in the 2008 campaign, because 2012 was going to be a “totally different, metric-driven kind of campaign.” When asked for any specifics about the data work before the election, the campaign clammed up. “They are our nuclear codes,” campaign spokesperson Ben LaBolt told reporters. Data accumulation and evaluation were the Obama campaign’s Manhattan Project.
The Obama data operation took Schmidt’s advice and drew heavily from private sector talent; one operative called the effort a $1 billion “disposable startup.” No, it did not cost $1 billion to create or run; but it got that sort of bang for the buck. That is what so intrigued corporate observers. The Obama campaign was not only joined to the corporate data industry at the hip; it also proved to have been the dominant partner in the relationship.
“Until recently, everyone in politics thought the commercial sector knew better how to locate and engage with their customers, and tried to apply that to politics,” a reporter for Britain’s Spectator put it. Now experts believe “the Obama campaign has now leapfrogged the commercial world.” The morning after the election, Messina said of his high-tech staff, “Corporate America, Silicon Valley were knocking down the door trying to hire these guys.” Romney’s campaign engaged in much the same activities. As the Wall Street Journal put it, both “presidential campaigns have gone further than commercial advertisers ever have in using online and offline data to target people.” Obama’s campaign, by most accounts, just did more of it and was better at it.
Sasha Issenberg said the great breakthrough in 2012 was “linking a person’s offline political identity with their online presence.” Both presidential campaigns had on average around one thousand data points on each voter. Strategists affiliated with the campaigns acknowledged they had “access to information about the personal lives of voters never before imagined.” Whereas much of commercial online data collection tends to keep the actual identities of computer users anonymous—because advertisers target users by demographic criteria that do not require knowing the precise identity—political campaigns had every incentive to know who exactly was connected to the online profiles and where exactly they lived. There was no such thing as “too much information.”
This is where the “fun” begins. As The Economist put it, “The point of all these data is to mine them for insights into the electorate and identify pockets of voters who can be won over—either to vote, spend or volunteer.” Ghani’s team plumbed the data for “motivations, attitudes, and protestations.” As Bloomberg Businessweek described it, the “campaign’s Orwellian knowledge of the electorate—its deep understanding of precisely what, or whom, would motivate someone to act on Obama’s behalf—was such that it could get supporters to appeal to wavering or unreliable friends and acquaintances with individually tailored messages.” The Obama team took the data to predict “which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals.” It created an “optimizer” that was able to crunch all the data to create a new rating system for all Americans based on their likelihood of being an Obama voter. The data-miners created support scores “for every single voter in battleground states,” Messina explained after the election, on a scale of “1 to 100, on whether they would support us.” This gave them a far superior means to evaluate where and how resources would be best deployed.
Even more importantly, the Obama campaign used its computer power to test and retest and retest again messages to see what worked best with specific sets of individuals and with individuals themselves. It developed the unprecedented “targeted-sharing program”—what Messina termed its “true innovation”—to determine which person should contact another person to get that person to vote for Obama and precisely what type of message would be most effective. “People really trust their friends, not political advertising,” Obama campaign digital director Teddy Goff said. Goff’s team provided people with all the “high-quality, shareable content” they needed to be “effective ambassadors for the campaign.” It was basically idiot-proof. The Obama campaign was able to use targeted sharing on 85 percent of its turnout targets aged twenty-nine and under, largely through Facebook, which was used to reach 5 million such prospects. “What businesses find so tantalizing about the Obama campaign is that it has advanced this phenomenon to its next iteration,” Bloomberg Businessweek noted. “Your friend isn’t just raving about Pepsi; he’s telling you, in language and images likely to resonate with you, that you should be drinking Pepsi, too.”
The significance of this observation cannot be underestimated, as if offers deep perspective on the extent to which the civic and democratic values that ought to underpin our politics are being replaced by commercial and entertainment values—so much so that businesses now emulate campaigns. We have come full circle from the days when Adlai Stevenson said in 1956, “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.” Now the folks who sell breakfast cereal are taking marketing cues from the folks who do politics.
The lesson of 2012 was summed up by reporter Molly McHugh: “No interested candidate is going to see this campaign and not want to replicate what the Obama team was able to do by taking the mountains of information the Internet holds and turn it into deliverables.” “Everyone will want to jump on the data train,” ElectNext CEO Keya Dannenbaum said after the election. “Much like Obama pioneered campaigning on social media and now all politicians are there, so too it will be with big data.” Or as Kantar Media president Ken Goldstein put it, “Future campaigns ignore the targeting strategy of the Obama campaign of 2012 at their peril.” This is the next stop on the path of the money-and-media election complex.
At this point, the ethical and social implications of the digital transformation of campaigns are still mostly unexplored. It is a world where the guiding principle is, as Ghani put it, “Will it get me more votes? If not, I don’t care.” For some insiders, the seamy underside of digital data collection and microtargeting may be better left unsaid. “These are the kinds of things that I think smart people would keep to themselves,” an interactive political consultant said. The process may be getting to the point where it cannot be ignored. An ad executive with experience on Republican campaigns provided a sober assessment: “They are tactics that are pretty standard in marketing, but they are nonetheless ‘Orwellian.’ Those of us who’ve read 1984 look at this and say, ‘This is unbelievable.’” Nor should Democrats regard the digital transformation as not especially problematic because their guy won. The great political reporter David Broder interviewed LBJ staffers after their landslide election victory in 1964. Broder noted the “lip-smacking glee” they exhibited at how the revolutionary Daisy TV ad “had foisted on the American public a picture of Barry Goldwater as the nuclear-mad bomber who was going to saw off the eastern seaboard of the United States.” “The only thing that worries me, Dave,” one of the staffers confided to Broder, “is that some year an outfit as good as ours might go to work for the wrong candidate.”
The new book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America, is published this week by Nation Books. Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says: “Dollarocracy gets at what’s ailing America better than any other diagnosis I’ve encountered. Plus it prescribes a cure. What else could a reader—or a citizen—ask? To me, it’s the book of the year.”
After the Greek government announced the closing of the state broadcaster ERT, workers occupied the building while protesters gathered outside. Read Maria Margaronis’s report here.