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Charles Dickens would find these times rather too familiar for comfort. In seeking to awaken a spirit of charity in his countrymen, the author called attention to those who callously dismissed the poor as a burden and the unemployed as a lazy lot best forced by hunger to grab at bootstraps and pull themselves upward.
Dickens was, to be sure, more articulate than House Speaker John Boehner and the members of Congress who on the cusp of this Christmas season left Washington without extending jobless benefits for 2 million long-unemployed Americans. But surely he captured the essence of their sentiments with his imagining of a certain conservative businessman’s response to a visit by two gentlemen—“liberals,” we will call them—on Christmas Eve. Wrote Dickens:
They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Scrooge’s office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him. “Scrooge and Marley’s, I believe,” said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Marley?”
“Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years,” Scrooge replied.“He died seven years ago, this very night.”
“We have no doubt his liberality is well-represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentleman, presenting his credentials. It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality,” Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge.“I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned.
So Dickens began A Christmas Carol, a book very much in keeping with the radical tenor of a time when the world was awakening to the truth that poverty and desolation need not be accepted by civil society—or civilized people. The language employed by Scrooge was not a Dickensian creation; rather, it was a sort of reporting on the political platforms and statements of those who opposed the burgeoning movements for reform and revolution, which were sweeping through Europe as the author composed his ghost tale.
Ultimately an optimist, Dickens imagined that spirited prodding from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future would change Scrooge—just as there are those today who imagine that a bit more enlightenment might cause even the most rigid Republican to reconsider his disdain for the unemployed, the underemployed and the never employed.
In Scrooge’s case, a little otherworldly pressure did the trick.
After his unsettling Christmas Eve, the formerly conservative businessman hastened into the streets of London and rather too quickly for his own comfort came upon one of the two liberals:
“My dear sir,” said Scrooge, quickening his pace, and taking the old gentleman by both his hands. “How do you do. I hope you succeeded yesterday. It was very kind of you. A merry Christmas to you, sir!”
“Yes,” said Scrooge. “That is my name, and I fear it may not be pleasant to you. Allow me to ask your pardon. And will you have the goodness”—here Scrooge whispered in his ear.
“Lord bless me!” cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. “My dear Mr. Scrooge, are you serious?”
“If you please,” said Scrooge. “Not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favour?”
Dickens tells us Scrooge was frightened into such humanity that he now thanked the gentleman who asked him to open his wallet in order to “make idle people merry.” The poor were suddenly the miser’s business.
And he was a better man for it.
Indeed, notes Dickens: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”
So it is this season, as it was in the winter of 1843. The debate goes on, in much the same language as Dickens heard more than a century and a half ago. The poor are still with us, as are the Scrooges who speak of “makers” and “takers” and imagine a 47 percent that is “unworthy” of concern. We’d best bless them all, with hopes that the ghosts of Past, Present and Future will again visit those who are in need of some seasonal prodding.
Republicans in Congress also threaten to cut off single mothers from vital social services. Check out Greg Kaufmann's coverage here.
No one has worked harder in recent days to delegitimize John Boehner than John Boehner.
Boehner’s boneheaded “Plan B” scheme, which crashed and burned Thursday night after his own House Republican Caucus refused to provide the needed votes, will rank as one of the greatest failures ever by a House Speaker.
The latest Gallup Poll suggests only a quarter of Americans now support Boehner’s approach to the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, as opposed to 48 percent who approve the way President Obama is handling the fight over taxes and spending.
So Boehner is losing it. Literally.
So embarrassing was the Plan B charade that there is now widespread discussion not about if but rather about when Boehner will be relieved of his speakership.
But Boehner‘s troubles did not start this week, or this month.
He lost his legitimacy on November 6.
The American people voted that day for a Democratic House of Representatives.
The Democratic vote was 59,318,160.
The Republican vote was 58,143,273.
The Democrats won 49.1 percent of the vote to 48.1 percent of the vote.
Yes, of course, Republicans control the majority of House seats. Thanks in no small measure to redistricting abuses and massive spending, the Republicans took 53.8 percent of the seats in the House versus 46.2 percent.
But the fact that Republicans in the states gamed the redistricting process sufficiently to hold the House, and to keep Boehner as the Speaker, did not make Boehner a legitimate leader, or a legitimate “fiscal cliff” negotiator.
He needed to earn that status.
Boehner and his Republican colleagues should have recognized the weakness of their position when they went into negotiations with President Obama, who won re-election on November 6 by almost 5 million votes, for a 51-47 margin and an overwhelming majority in the Electoral College. That does not mean that the Republicans needed to surrender all of their positions; but they should, at the least, have bent to the political reality of their dwindling circumstance.
Instead, Boehner negotiated as if he was the political and popular equal of the president. He’s is not that—at least if we’re still taking election results seriously. Despite Boehner’s diminished status, President Obama gave the Speaker the respect that is afforded a credible negotiating partner.
Unfortunately, Boehner squandered the opportunity.
He did not negotiate well.
He did not even organize his own caucus for the fight.
Instead of his boneheaded Plan B, Boehner gave us Plan C—for “chaos.”
A significant—make that definitional—percentage of the House Republican Caucus does not appear to see Boehner as a legitimate leader.
They are, for all intents and purposes, right.
The American people voted for a Democratic Congress on November 6.
What the American people got, however, is a Republican House. That’s how our system works sometimes. The trouble is that, with the Republicans came John Boehner. And the trouble with Boehner is that he lacks the external and internal legitimacy that is required for a “leader” to lead.
For more on the fiscal cliff, read Dean Baker on the chained CPI proposition.
There are a lot of complicated ways in which to describe the schemes being floated by President Obama and congressional Republicans to abandon the traditional Consumer Price Index in favor of the so-called “chained-CPI” scheme. But there is nothing complicated about the reality that changing the calculations on which cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients are based has the potential to dramatically reduce the buying power of Americans who rely on this successful and stable federal program.
So the word for what is being proposed is “cut”—as in: President Obama and congressional Republicans are proposing to cut Social Security.
“This is a cut affecting every single beneficiary—widows, orphans, people with disabilities and many others. It is a cut which hurts the most those who are most vulnerable: the oldest of the old, those disabled at the youngest ages, and the poorest of the poor. Perhaps fittingly, this will be done during the holiday season, when the American people are distracted,” says Nancy Altman, the founding co-director of the advocacy group Social Security Works. “They will cut Social Security not openly but by stealth—through a cruel cut known colloquially as the chained CPI.”
This is what Democrats—and most Republicans—said during the recently finished campaign that they would never do.
If Obama cuts the deal, he will, in the words of CREDO political director Becky Bond, be engaging in a “massive betrayal” of his own campaign commitments, and of the voters who reelected him barely a month ago.
The question is whether the president’s backers will back the betrayal.
The only responsible response is to say “No!”
The American Association of Retired People has does just that, rejecting the “chained-CPI” scheme as a “dramatic benefit cut would push thousands more into poverty and result in increased economic hardship for those trying desperately to keep up with rising prices.”
In this case, AARP speaks not just for seniors but for the vast majority of voters. Sixty percent of voters say it is unacceptable to change the way Social Security benefits are calculated so that benefits increase with inflation at a slower rate than they do now, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll.
Needless to say, those numbers put congressional Democrats and progressive interest groups in a bind. They can look the other way as President Obama cuts a deal that cuts Social Security, or they can do what the American people expect them to do: raise their voices in loud objection—so loud that the president has no choice except to keep his campaign promises. For congressional Democrats, the stakes are much higher than they are for Obama. The president is done with elections. But the Democratic Party must compete in elections to come, and the fight that is now playing out will define whether they do so as defenders of Social Security or as a party that is always on the watch for ways to compromise with House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and other Republicans who salivate at the prospect of weakening and eventually privatizing Social Security.
No one will be surprised that Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who has been a stalwart defender of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is objecting.
“I want him to keep that promise,” Sanders says of the president’s commitment on the campaign trail and in the early stages of the fiscal-cliff negotiations to keep Social Security “off the table.” Adds Sanders: “I hope the president stays strong.”
Nor will there be much surprise with labor’s opposition.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is calling on Congress “to reject any cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, or Medicare benefits, regardless of who proposes them.”
That “regardless-of-who-proposes-them” stance is spreading. Rapidly.
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown calls Obama’s “chained-CPI” proposal “terrible.” Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, an Obama campaign co-chair, says: “I hope that offer…will be reconsidered.” A frustrated Schakowsky said what every Democrat must if the party is to retain its image as the defender of Social Security: “This should be off the table.”
A lot of Democrats, many with close ties to the president, are saying the same thing.
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who was one of Obama’s earliest and most enthusiastic backers in 2008, did the math: “The current average earned benefit for a 65 year old on Social Security is $17,134. Using chained CPI will result in a $6,000 loss for retirees in the first fifteen years of retirement and adds up to a $16,000 loss over twenty-five years. This change would be devastating to beneficiaries, especially widowed women, more than a third of whom rely on the program for 90% of their income and use every single dollar of the Social Security checks they’ve earned. This would require the most vulnerable Americans to dig further into their savings to fill the hole left by unnecessary and irresponsible cuts to Social Security.”
Ellison’s bottom line: “I am committed to standing against any benefit cuts to programs Americans rely on and tying Social Security benefits to chained CPI is a benefit cut.”
Joining Ellison in opposition were other House Democrats who played critical roles in getting Obama elected in 2008 and reelected in 2012, including Schakowsky, California Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Michigan Congressman John Conyers, who says: “Any debt deal that cuts Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits is unacceptable.”
For Obama, these voices are significant. He is losing the allies who should be in the forefront of the fight to seal any deal he reaches with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Without a solid base of Democratic votes in the House and Senate for it, this deal won’t be done.
And make no mistake: a fiscal-cliff compromise that compromises Social Security should not be done. Period.
That’s the message coming from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which as usual has moved rapidly — and effectively — to build mass opposition to a cut that will only happen if Americans are unaware of the threat.
Former US Senator Russ Feingold’s group Progressives United has partnered with MoveOn.org and leading progressive groups to develop a “whip count” that names the names of Senate Democrats who are “Weak-Kneed,” who are “Part-way there, or Wavering,” and who are “Champions” committed to opposing any deal that cuts Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits.
The president has placed himself in the “Weak-Kneed” camp.
Congressional Democrats should not stumble with him.
As Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon says, “We had an election, and the voters sent a message to Congress to focus on jobs and fairness—not cutting benefits for people who have worked all their lives and are now making ends meet on fixed incomes. The formula we use to adjust cost-of-living changes for seniors needs to reflect the real costs they face, not the budgetary fantasies of Washington.”
No matter who is peddling those fantasies.
Low-income, elderly women will be the hardest hit by benefit cuts. Check out Bryce Covert’s coverage here.
US Senator Daniel Inouye speaks at the Japanese Cultural Center in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia, File)
Daniel Inouye, who as the son of Japanese immigrants petitioned his government for the right to serve in World War II and then earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for that service in the fight against fascism, became the highest-ranking Asian-American political figure in the United States.
Indeed, at the time of his death Monday at the age of 88, Inouye was third in line to the presidency.
But he never stopped confronting power on behalf of the rights of people of color, people with disabilities, women, lesbians and gays and political dissenters to equal justice and equal opportunity. A modest man who served in the Senate for more than fifty years, Inouye was not always accorded proper recognition of his historic advocacy on behalf of civil rights and civil liberties. But that is the error of those who underestimate Inouye, not of the senator. Indeed, as Vice President Joe Biden, who knew Inouye better than most in Washington, said after the senior senator’s death: “To his dying day, he fought for a new era of politics where all men and women are treated with equality.”
The American Civil Liberties Union got it right when the group hailed Inouye as “a champion of civil rights and civil liberties” who recognized that his own political successes required him to champion the rights of others. He did so when it mattered most. Inouye was the last sitting senator to have participated in the great debates over Southern segregation. And unlike other senior senators who have died in recent years after long tenures, he was on the right side of those debates.
The last sitting senator who joined the epic struggles to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, he led the fight for the Americans with Disabilities Act and was a key sponsor of the constitutional amendment to extend voting rights to 18-to-20-year-olds.
Inouye battled for reparations for Japanese-Americans who were interned in government compounds during World War II. And he was a passionate defender of the right to dissent. Indeed, the ACLU recalls, “Senator Inouye fought every iteration of proposed constitutional amendments to ban flag desecration—support that was particularly meaningful to the defense of free speech because of his military service.”
Inouye was one of the handful of senators who rejected the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s and he emerged as one of the earliest and most determined backers of marriage equality in the Senate, asking: “How can we call ourselves the land of the free, if we do not permit people who love one another to get married?”
When the debate over whether gays and lesbians serving in the military arose, Inouye declared as a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient: “In every war we have had men and women of different sexual orientation who have stood in harm’s way and given their lives for their country. I fought alongside gay men during World War II, many of them were killed in combat. Are we to suggest that because of their sexual orientation they are not heroes?”
That was classic Dan Inouye. He never hesitated to use his own experience, as a genuine “greatest generation” American hero, as tool for championing the rights of all Americans.
Inouye’s advocacy across a career that brought him to Washington in 1959—as one of Hawaii’s first congressional representatives—was perhaps best illustrated in a remarkable 1968 keynote address to the most tumultuous Democratic Nation Convention in the party’s history.
Addressing a deeply divided convention just four years after he joined fellow senators in breaking the filibusters and advancing landmark civil rights legislation, Inouye stood before a convention where many delegates had been on the other side of the fight. He did so as a World War II hero, a Bronze Star and Purple Heart (and later Medal of Honor) winner whose arm was amputated in a field hospital on the edge of an Italian battleground. And he quietly demanded that the delegates recognize the sacrifices of all Americans.
“This is my country,” the 43-year-old senator declared on that hot summer night. “Many of us have fought hard for the right to say that. Many are now struggling today from Harlem to Da Nang that they may say this with conviction. This is our country.”
The Democratic convention of 1968 is usually remembered for the wrangling over the Vietnam War—which Inouye, who had been an ally of Lyndon Johnson’s administration, decried as “immoral” in his remarks. But Inouye, the first person of color ever to deliver a keynote address, devoted his remarkable speech to a deep discussion of lingering racism in the land, and by extension in a party that would that fall see many “solid South” states back the renegade third-party presidential run of Alabama segregationist George Wallace.
Less than a quarter century after Japanese-Americans were confined to internment camps, the young senator spoke of his Japanese ancestry. But he pointed out that racism takes many forms, explaining to the convention and the nation that, though he was a person of color, his circumstance was different from that of African-Americans in Southern states and inner cities.
Recalling a businessman who challenged his advocacy for civil rights after the urban riots of the 1960s. “Tell me,” the man asked, “why can’t the Negro be like you?”
“First, although my skin is colored, it is not black,” Inouye explained. “In this country, the color of my skin does not ignite prejudices which have smoldered for generations. Second, although my grandfather came to this country in poverty, he came without shackles. He came as a free man enjoying certain constitutional rights under the American flag.”
For African-Americans, in particular, the barriers had been cruder and more violent.
Recalling his speech four decades after the fact, in an interview with the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper, Inouye expressed delight that a young man who had grown up in Hawaii would be nominated by his party as its presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention.
But Daniel Inouye was not satisfied.
“You know,” he reflected, “after all these years—40 years later—racism is alive and doing well.”
That was Daniel Inouye in 2008, speaking as he had in 1969, bluntly, truthfully, about the racial divisions that still haunt America and the struggle to make the Democratic Party and the nation recognize and confront the causes of those divisions.
How can the Democratic Party carry on Daniel Inouye’s legacy of progressive politics? Find out here.
Barack Obama will on Monday win election to his second presidential term by 62 percent to 38 percent.
That’s a dramatically higher margin than he obtained with his 4.8 million popular-vote victory November 6. While there’s no question Obama earned a mandate when he beat Mitt Romney 51-47 in the popular-vote count, that's nowhere near the 2-1 win he will get when the 538 members of the Electoral College gather in state capitals to vote Monday.
It is vital to recognize—as unfortunate as the reality may be—that the Electoral College, not the American electorate, is the final determiner of who becomes president.
It is, as well, vital to realize that the Electoral College warps and sometimes denies the democratic will of the people—and that the Electoral College, itself, can be gamed by schemes such as the current Republican proposals to alter the ways in which states distribute the votes.
The Electoral College cannot be reformed.
It has to be opposed—and, ultimately, eliminated—by Americans who believe in democracy.
Anyone who doubts this need only consult the results of the 2000 election, when Democrat Al Gore won a solid popular-vote victory—540,000 ballots—over Republican George Bush. It is often suggested that the US Supreme Court made Bush president when it shut down the recount in the contested state of Florida. But once the court had engineered the assignment of Florida’s electoral votes to Bush, it was the Electoral College that formally canceled out the popular will of the people and gave the presidency to the loser of the election.
In fact, a number of candidates who were defeated at the ballot box assumed the US presidency because the Electoral College wiped away actual election results. In recent years, in addition to Gore versus Bush, there have been several instances where candidates who fell well short of a majority of the popular vote—John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996—assumed the presidency with overwhelming Electoral College “wins.”
Plenty of arguments are constructed for maintaining the Electoral College. Often they reflect the results of the moment. Many Democrats will delight in Obama’s likely 332 votes, as opposed to Romney’s mere 206. As the fiscal cliff wrangling drags on, Obama’s backers will enjoy this fresh reminder of the president’s substantial win.
Obama did win by a lot.
But not by as much as the Electoral College will suggest. And that’s what ought to concern all of us.
If America aspires to be a democracy, no one should be happy with the fact that a centuries-old political structure — established when elites fretted that democracy might threaten the institution of slavery — will choose a president.
It’s time to do away with the Electoral College and put the voters in charge of choosing presidents, as they are in charge of choosing members of the US House and Senate, governors, legislators, mayors and school board members. We almost made the change in the late 1960s, after Nixon secured the presidency with just 43 percent of the vote.
But America should not wait for the next contested or inconclusive election to make the move. A number of states have endorsed the National Popular Vote initiative of the reform group FairVote, which has the potential to build popular support for amending the Constitution to do away with the Electoral College.
Many of the electors will choose Obama Monday are state legislators. When they are done picking the president, they should endorse National Popular Vote initiative and other moves to make to establish genuine electoral democracy.
Check out Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel on why it's time to end the electoral college.
The first response of any country to violence of the sort seen in Connecticut must be one of horror.
President Obama showed that sorrow when he wiped his tears, like those so many Americans shed Friday.
But there is nothing more absurd than the suggestion that it is wrong to raise political concerns at a moment such as this.
It is in a moment such as this that responsible nations examine themselves, their cultures, their laws.
Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich is right when he says, “There is an undercurrent of violence in our society that is becoming more powerful.” He is right, as well, when he says, “We must reject violence and take an organized approach to averting violence.”
This is about more than guns. It is about healthcare, particularly mental health care. It is about media.
And it is about the quality of our discourse—what we allow ourselves to discuss, and how we discuss it.
California Congressman George Miller says: “We must come together as a nation to honestly discuss how to prevent people intent on carrying out these savage attacks from so easily obtaining guns and ammunition. The nation is ready for this conversation. More importantly, though, the safety of children and all Americans demands we have it.”
So why don’t we have that discussion?
It is easy to blame the National Rifle Association.
But it’s important to go beyond “easy” and understand that the NRA never walks alone. Reasonable people may have reasonable differences about how, when, where and whether to address the concerns Miller raises with regard to sales of assault weapons and ammunition. But no one should be comfortable with those who seek to silence the discourse and control against public responses to violence.
In this regard, the NRA has a powerful ally at the level of government, where the most meaningful interventions against violence can and frequently must be made.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch Brothers–guided group that aligns corporations with conservative legislators who will introduce the “model legislation” crafted by those corporations, has been in the forefront not just of averting sensible gun control but of trying to shut down public debate about gun control.
ALEC is known, of course, for its advocacy on behalf of the so-called “stand your ground,” or “shoot first,” or “kill at will” laws that became so much of an issue in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin slaying in Florida.
But, as the Center for Media and Democracy’s “ALEC Exposed” project has revealed, the group has a long history of seeking to undermine meaningful public discourse with regard to violence. ALEC does not merely oppose gun control, it seeks to prevent communities, states and the nation from even discussing gun control.
The group has, for instance, promoted:
A “Resolution on Semi-Automatic Firearms” that expresses opposition to proposals by local, state and federal governments to restrict the sale of semi-automatic weapons, known as assault weapons.
A “Defense of Free Market and Public Safety Resolution” that discourages efforts by law enforcement agencies to use their purchasing power to buy police and policing weapons only from gun manufacturers that improve gun safety to protect children. The same resolution discourages efforts to identify and limit public contracting with gun dealers that are not notorious for selling weapons used in crimes.
A unanimous 2011 endorsement by ALEC’s “Public Safety and Elections Task Force” of a proposal to expressly bar cities from banning machine guns.
Again and again in recent years, ALEC has worked not just to promote the economic agenda of weapons manufacturers and weapons dealers—including major retailers that sell guns and ammunition—but to undermine political debates about that agenda.
Many corporations exited ALEC as the role of the group in promoting “stand your ground” laws was exposed after the Trayvon Martin shooting. But many more, including ExxonMobil Corporation, GlaxoSmithKline, Koch Industries Inc., Pfizer Inc., PhRMA, Reynolds American Inc., United Parcel Service, AT&T and State Farm Insurance Companies—among others—remain ALEC members and sponsors.
These corporations may want to separate themselves from the crudest of ALEC’s anti-democratic initiatives. But they make ALEC possible, and strong, as do the better part of 2,000 legislators who remain aligned with the group.
When we seek to understand why we don’t have the discussion—and the action—that we should about violence, the place to begin is with those who seek to preempt debates and to limit the ability of communities, states and the federal government to respond to the cries of horrified and sorrowful Americans for a real response to individual incidents and patterns of violence that break our hearts.
ALEC's "model" legislation makes a more dangerous nation. Check out Sasha Abramsky on the gun control policy this country needs.
Michigan legislators did not write the so-called “right to work” legislation that they have enacted in a mad rush of anti-democratic excess.
They simply did as they were told.
The ideas, the outlines and the words themselves came from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the right-wing “bill mill” that produces “model legislation” at the behest of Koch Industries, Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, ExxonMobil and the corporate cabal that is always looking to “buy” states.
As the Center for Media and Democracy’s “ALEC Exposed” project revealed (in conjunction with The Nation), ALEC has developed binders full of “model legislation” that assaults the rights of working people, consumers and communities.
ALEC’s package of “model legislation” includes numerous bills and resolutions that, by any reasonable measure, would be referred to as “no rights at work” schemes.
Those measures formed the basis for HB 4003, the Michigan “Right-to-Work Act” that has provoked mass demonstrations in Lansing and other Michigan communities.
Section after section, line after line, of the Michigan legislation mirrors the ALEC model legislation, as revealed by the “ALEC Exposed” project. “The legislation is straight out of the Koch-funded ALEC playbook,” explains Brendan Fischer, the staff counsel with the Center for Media and Democracy. At some points, the Michigan lawmakers shifted words, from “resign or refrain from…a labor organization” in the ALEC model legislation to “refrain or resign from…a labor organization” in one of the two Michigan bills.
At other points, the Michigan Republicans simply lifted whole sections verbatim, outlining how workers who get the advantage of union representation will not have “to pay any dues, fees, assessments or other charges, of any kind or amount” to a labor organization.
The willingness of legislators in Michigan and, it should be noted, other states to simply take marching orders from ALEC is troubling enough.
But even more troubling is the reason why corporations and politicians in states where the middle class was forged by organized labor agree on the “need” to advance anti-labor legislation.
This is not about economic development, growth or job creation. And it is certainly not about “freedom,” as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder claims.
This is about warping democracy so that corporations have a consistent upper hand, with the result being that those politicians who are willing to do the bidding of corporations and wealthy donors are more likely to prevail. In this sense, the best way to understand the recent rush to enact anti-labor legislation is as part of the same initiative that has produced restrictive Voter ID laws, schemes to limit early voting and proposals to eliminate same-day registration.
What distinguishes the anti-labor initiatives is that they do not explicitly seek to make voting more difficult. They seek to make it harder for groups that seek high turnout to get voters motivated, to get voters organized and to get them to the polls.
Ultimately, however, the end result of the assault on labor rights is the same as a direct assault on voting rights: a diminished democracy.
Democracy is, of course, about more than elections. And that’s where the anti-union push becomes even more significant. It seeks to narrow the discourse by weakening groups that offer an alternative to a Wall Street–dictated future for communities, states and the nation.
Attacks on labor are nothing new. Michigan is not the first state to enact a “right to work” law—the most draconian of anti-labor initiatives. It is the twenty-fourth. Southern states enacted their laws restricting labor organizing and political engagement decades ago, at a time when legislators and governors in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and other bastions of segregation feared that integrated unions would unite white workers and African-American workers on the side of social improvement. That created barriers to the labor movement in the South at a time when it was still growing in much of the country.
Now, however, the anti-labor push has come north.
There is a reason ALEC and its corporate sponsors want to undermine unions.
In states such as Michigan, and Wisconsin, and Ohio, and Indiana, organized labor provides a political counterbalance to corporations. Unions cannot and do not match the spending on elections by wealthy donors and corporations. But the willingness of unions to commit financial and human resources to political fights makes a huge difference at election time in states where the labor movement has a significant presence. The 2012 election results—particularly the big wins for President Obama and Democratic Senate candidates in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—point to the connection.
This is not, however, simply about Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Among the Michigan legislators who opposed the latest attack on union rights were six state House Republicans. Unions have long traditions of aiding Republicans, and even social conservatives, who have proven to be allies of working people. Prominent conservatives once opposed “right to work” laws, as Ronald Reagan did at the start of his political career, writing as he launched his 1966 California gubernatorial race: “I also was a leader of our [Screen Actors] Guild in the fight in 1958 against the [California] right-to-work bill. I am still opposed to right-to-work.”
Now, for the most part, conservatives have cast their lot with corporations. And the demand of corporations, particularly those engaged in the ALEC project, is that politicians who want to earn the favor of corporations and wealthy donors such as Charles and David Koch or Michigan right-wingers Dick and Betsy DeVos must advance anti-labor legislation.
Anti-labor laws in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan—and the attempts to do so in states such as New Hampshire—have been advanced by political figures with ALEC ties. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is an ALEC alumnus, as is Ohio Governor John Kasich. Among the key sponsors of the Michigan law that Governor Snyder signed today was state Senator Dave Hildenbrand, a Republican who famously paid his ALEC dues with taxpayer funds.
Those political figures are determined to limit the ability of unions to engage in political activity on behalf or working families, communities, public services and public education.
Why? By making it harder for unions to organize and to represent workers, “right to work” laws make it easier for corporations to get their political allies elected. The corporations and the legislators come together in the American Legislative Exchange Council. They produce “model legislation” to advance their project. And that project is about rewriting the rules so that the corporations win.
“What they’re doing is basically, betraying democracy,” says Teamsters president James Hoffa, who promises a great struggle to restore labor rights in Michigan.
Hoffa’s point is well taken.
Michigan politicians have betrayed democracy.
And democracy betrayed is democracy denied.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Speaker John Boehner has grown increasingly belligerent in his “fiscal cliff” fight with the Obama administration. Struggling to hold together a caucus that never really respected his “leadership,” Boehner is trying to rally his troops by ripping President Obama’s supposed disregard for Republican control of the House of Representatives.
Arguing that the Obama White House must meet his demands for deep cuts in programs that benefit the elderly and the disabled, Boehner griped on Fox News this week that “they must have forgotten Republicans continue to hold a majority in the House.”
It is unlikely that the president and his aides have forgotten that Boehner and his crew continue to control one chamber of the Congress. But they also recognize that President Obama won a clear mandate—a 332-206 advantage in the Electoral College, a 4.7 million popular vote margin for a 51-47 percent victory—on November 6.
In July, Boehner said the November 6 election would be a “referendum on the president’s economic policies.” On November 6, Obama won that referendum.
The president was not the only winner.
Beyond Obama’s personal mandate, Democrats can point to a clear signal from the voting for the US Senate. The Democratic caucus added two new members—despite the fact that the pattern of contests was overwhelmingly favorable to the Republicans—for a clear 55-45 advantage in the chamber.
Notably, the Democratic mandate extends to the House.
How’s that? Doesn’t John Boehner have a mandate of his own?
Not if we're counting actual votes.
In the 2012 voting for US House seats that formally finished Saturday with a runoff in Louisiana, 59,262,059 Americans voted Democratic, while only 58,105,500 voted Republican.
It is true, of course, that Boehner and his caucus control the majority of seats. While their numbers are diminished from where they were in 2010, the Republicans still maintain a 234-201 advantage in the chamber. But that advantage in not based on the popular will; it is based on the manipulated maps created by the redrawing of congressional districts following the 2010 Census, and on the fact that Democratic votes are concentrated in urban and college-town districts, as well as those with substantial minority populations.
While the maps didn’t favor the Democrats on November 6, the voters did. Indeed the national popular-vote margin for the Democrats in the race for the House was substantial: a 1,156,550 advantage.
It has been seventy years since the party that controlled the Congress did not win the most votes.
Usually, the party that wins the House wins it with a solid popular-vote majority—even if the president is of the other party. Consider what happened when Democrats won control of the House during George W. Bush’s second term. They prevailed in the 2006 elections by 6.4 million votes.
Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats did not just win control of the House in 2006, they won an overwhelming popular-vote mandate to challenge a sitting president of the other party.
John Boehner and House Republicans won no such mandate on November 6. In fact, they lost the popular vote, and with it the claim that President Obama—who so overwhelmingly won the popular vote—should bend to Boehner’s belligerence.
In hopes of winning a presidential mandate in 2016, Republicans are attempting to gerrymander the electoral college. Check out Ari Berman's coverage here.
A union steel worker holds up a sign during a rally outside the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, Thursday, December 6, 2012, as Senate Republicans introduced “right to work” legislation in the waning days of the legislative session. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
In the state where workers sat down in Flint General Motors plants seventy-five years ago and emboldened the industrial labor movement that would give birth to the American middle class, Republican legislators on Thursday voted to gut basic labor rights.
Union leaders warned that, if organized labor can be so battered in the union heartland of Michigan, it can—and may—be attacked anywhere. And the national significance of the move was highlighted by a statement from the Obama White House, which said:
President Obama has long opposed so-called “right-to-work” laws and he continues to oppose them now. The President believes our economy is stronger when workers get good wages and good benefits, and he opposes attempts to roll back their rights. Michigan—and its workers’ role in the revival of the US automobile industry—is a prime example of how unions have helped build a strong middle class and a strong American economy.
But, while the president carried Michigan by a 54-44 margin on November 6, neither he nor his fellow Democrats were calling the shots Thursday.
After Republican leaders announced Thursday morning that they intended to enact so-called “right to work” legislation—which is always better described as “no rights at work” legislation—the Michigan state House voted Thursday afternoon to eliminate basic union organizing and workplace protections that generations of American workers fought to establish. Several hours later, the Michigan state Senate did the same thing, as part of a bold anti-labor initiative launched in coordination with a Koch Brothers–funded Americans for Prosperity project to “pave the way for right to work in states across our nation.”
As the Republicans launched the attack on unions and their members, Americans for Prosperity—a group developed and funded by right-wing industrialists and billionaire campaign donors Charles and David Koch—was in the thick of things. AFP recruited conservatives to show up at the state Capitol in Lansing to counter union protests and prepared materials supporting the Michigan initiative, including a fifteen-page booklet titled “Unions: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: How forced unionization has harmed workers and Michigan.” Within minutes of the announcement by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder that Republicans would ram through the “right to work” legislation, AFP was hailing the move in formal statements “as the shot heard around the world for workplace freedom.”
Snyder, a Republican, has indicated that he will sign the measure that was passed during a lame-duck session of the legislature.
Employing slick messaging and a timeline clearly developed to thwart opposition, Snyder and his legislative allies claimed that they were enacting anti-labor legislation to create “Freedom to Choose” in the workplace. But the Orwellian turn of phrase did not fool the working people of Michigan, thousands of whom surrounded and occupied the Capitol during a day of emotional protest. “Right-to-work would set all Michigan workers back in terms of wages, benefits and safety on the job,” declared Mike Polkki, a mine worker from Ishpeming who joined furious last-minute efforts to lobby members of the Republican-controlled legislative chambers. “Instead of attacking the middle class, our lawmakers should work to build it back up.”
This was theme or protests throughout the day, as Michigan unions made the point that undermining labor rights undermines the living standards of all working people—not just union members.
“There are some basic economic facts that should inform any thoughtful discussion of Right to Work legislation. Workers, union or nonunion, make an average of $1,500 less per year in Right to Work states. They are also less likely to have pension or health care benefits,” explained Michigan State AFL-CIO President Karla Swift. “The growth rate for Right to Work states before they adopted such policies is actually higher than the growth rate for these states after they adopted these laws.”
The statements were true.
But they were not taken seriously by the Republicans who—though they suffered setbacks in the November 6 election—control both chambers of the Michigan legislature. Swift and UAW president Bob King were among hundreds of workers who were locked out of the Michigan Capitol Thursday, as protesters inside were pepper-sprayed and arrested by State Police.
The Republican legislators evidenced no intention to listen to logic, or to entertain honest debate. GOP legislative leaders had plotted behind closed doors with Governor Snyder, to have Michigan join the traditionally lower-wage states that decades ago enacted “right to work” laws to thwart the rise of a labor movement that promoted civil rights, women’s rights and economic justice.
The Michigan legislation goes much further than proposals advanced last year by Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, which targeted public employees. Under the Michigan legislation, basic labor rights are stripped away from both public and private-sector workers.
That’s not the only difference between Michigan Governor Snyder and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose name became synonymous with aggressive anti-labor initiatives when in February 2011, he moved to strip collective bargaining rights from teachers and public employees.
“At least Scott Walker had the backbone to barge through the front door” and propose his legislation, argued Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a pro-labor Democrat from East Lansing. Michigan’s Snyder, who suggested for months that he was not interested in advancing “right to work” legislation, suddenly shifted position at the eleventh hour, when he sided with the most rigidly anti-labor of his party’s legislators.
“They’re cowards,” declared Whitmer, who bluntly declared: “They are taking away our rights.”
Whitmer got that right. But the cowards were in charge Thursday.
As in Wisconsin, where crucial elements of Walker’s anti-labor law have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts, the Michigan legislators bent the rules of their chambers to rush the law to Snyder’s desk.
Ultimately, those abuses could end up preventing implementation of the law—although that’s a hope rather than a certainty.
There is also the hope that voters in a state that voted overwhelmingly for President Obama and Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow on November 6 will eventually elect a new pro-labor governor and legislature.
The determination to fight for labor rights runs deep in Michigan. It’s a part of the state’s history, and UAW President King says it is far from finished.
Referring to anti-labor billionaire Dick DeVos, a Michigan Republican who has worked closely with fellow billionaires Charles and David Koch to fund anti-labor initiatives, King said: “This is a short-term victory for Dick DeVos and the radical right wing. In the long-term there will be a victory for working families in Michigan.”
For more on the assault on American worker rights, check out Steve Fraser’s “The Hollowing Out of America.”
We now know that top players with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News channel plotted with General David Petraeus about the prospect of using the cable network as a platform for launching a “Petraeus for President” campaign. As Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author Bob Woodward writes in the The Washington Post:
So in spring 2011, [former Republican campaign strategist and now Fox News president Roger] Ailes asked a Fox News analyst headed to Afghanistan to pass on his thoughts to Petraeus, who was then the commander of U.S. and coalition forces there. Petraeus, Ailes advised, should turn down an expected offer from President Obama to become CIA director and accept nothing less than the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top military post. If Obama did not offer the Joint Chiefs post, Petraeus should resign from the military and run for president, Ailes suggested.
The Fox News chairman’s message was delivered to Petraeus by Kathleen T. McFarland, a Fox News national security analyst and former national security and Pentagon aide in three Republican administrations. She did so at the end of a 90-minute, unfiltered conversation with Petraeus that touched on the general’s future, his relationship with the media and his political aspirations—or lack thereof. The Washington Post has obtained a digital recording from the meeting, which took place in Petraeus’s office in Kabul.
McFarland also said that Ailes—who had a decades-long career as a Republican political consultant, advising Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—might resign as head of Fox to run a Petraeus presidential campaign. At one point, McFarland and Petraeus spoke about the possibility that Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corp., which owns Fox News, would “bankroll” the campaign.
“Rupert’s after me as well,” Petraeus told McFarland.
Murdoch is not the first media mogul to stand accused of plotting a presidential campaign for a favored contender. But the revelations regarding his network come at a particularly inconvenient moment, as Murdoch is seeking federal rule changes that would allow him to become a dramatically more definitional figure in American politics.
The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering a radical restructuring of media ownership rules that would benefit Murdoch. From its founding, the FCC has been charged with preventing media conglomerates from dominating local and national media in a manner that would allow an individual owner to define the discourse. Now, because Murdoch wants to buy major daily newspapers in communities where his News Corp combine already owns local television stations, he proposes to tear up the old rules.
Murdoch wants FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and his fellow commissioners to ease limits on what is referred to as “media cross-ownership” in the nation’s largest cities. If that happens, the nation’s media reform network, Free Press, warns that the move will “pave the way for Murdoch—and like-minded media moguls—to own the daily newspaper, two TV stations and up to eight radio stations in the same market.”
Free Press has been fighting the change, and it has rallied considerable support. So far:
* More than 100,000 people have signed a petition telling the FCC to abandon its giveaway to big media.
* More than 600 people have called members of Congress and asked them to oppose the FCC’s action.
* More than 40 local and national civil rights organizations representing millions of constituents have raised concerns about the rule changes.
* Ten senators have written letters to the FCC in protest of its march toward more media consolidation.
In recent days, the senators have stepped up their advocacy.
“We strongly believe that maintaining robust diversity of media ownership is fundamental to preserving the strength of our democracy. Broadcast media continues to be the primary source, by far, for local news in communities across the nation. When ownership of local television and radio stations is concentrated in too few hands, diversity is threatened, and when programming decisions are made by large media companies from hundreds of miles away, coverage of local news can become either diluted or neglected,” wrote Senators Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, Tom Harkin, Barbara Boxer, Patty Murray, Ron Wyden, Jon Tester, Al Franken and Jeff Merkley in a letter to Genachowski requesting that the FCC “not proceed” with the rule changes.
The letter is important, as it signals concern on the part of the Senate, which has significant oversight responsibility with regard to the FCC and media-ownership rules. Expressing concern, in particular, with regard to the negative impact that the easing of media cross-ownership rules might have on efforts to promote ownership of media by more women and minorities, the senators note that “past research shows that minority communities are the ones harmed most by further consolidation, and in particular by loosening the prohibitions on cross-ownership.”
These are not small matters. In a rapidly diversifying country, it becomes all the more important that media outlets reflect that diversity. Allowing further consolidation of ownership in the hands of existing owners makes that prospect more remote.
And that’s not the only concern.
In addition to demographic diversity when it comes to media ownership, communities are best served by basic diversity in their news sources. In other words, information should be gathered, reported and analyzed by outlets with different owners. If not, the risk is that communities and even states could end up with the sort of one-sized-fits-all communication that threatens genuine democratic discourse.
There are those who claim that these diversity concerns will be resolved by the development of new digital platforms. But there is scant evidence to suggest that the Internet fills the void, especially on the local and regional level.
“While the Internet has matured significantly in recent years, it does not solve this problem,” write the senators in their letter to the FCC. “Importantly, we still have many constituents in our states who rely solely on TV and radio broadcast news for news and information. According to a recent Pew study, 74 percent of adults get their local news information from their local TV news station, 51 percent from radio broadcasts, and 50 percent from local newspapers. Even when citizens have the opportunity to consume news over the Internet, they continue to rely on the websites of their local broadcasters and newspapers for information about their communities. The vast majority of respondents reported sampling multiple local news sources—an activity that would be impossible if their community had only one media owner.”
This is big deal not merely for communities and states but also for federal policymaking, especially when players like Rupert Murdoch are looking to buy up dominant newspapers in big cities where they already own television stations. Just as Fox is seen as a conservative network, so too are Murdoch owned outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post and The Weekly Standard magazine. America has always had media outlets that skew to the right and to the left. That won’t change. But a shift in cross-ownership rules could allow an individual media mogul or a media company to play an outsized role not just in major markets but—if the owner operates in multiple markets and nationally—the dialogues, the debates and even the campaigns of a whole country.
That’s not healthy for democracy, especially when we’re talking about owners who appear to be interested in picking candidates for president and using their networks to promote those candidates.
(John Nichols is a co-founder, with Robert W. McChesney, of Free Press, the nation's media reform network. Nichols and McChesney are the co-authors of a number of books on media policy, most recently The Death and Life of American Journalism.)
For more on the fight against expanding corporate power, check out Sasha Abramsky's coverage here.