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Why Immigration Reform Has to Go Hand-in-Hand With Stronger Labor Rights

Protesters at an immigration reform rally in Arizona in 2010 (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

This weekend, President Obama again pushed away the issue of immigration. Despite growing pressure to take executive action to curtail deportations, Obama again swept the lives of millions of immigrants off this fall’s agenda—enraging advocacy groups by heeding his party’s fears of angering right-wing voters before key mid-term elections.

But while politicians dismiss immigration as a third rail, they cruelly ignore the fact that another major election issue, the economic woes plaguing workers, is also an immigration issue.

With Congress paralyzed on immigration reform, Obama has mulled taking some form of executive action to provide deportation relief and work authorization for the undocumented. Obama has already created a template for such a move with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, issued two years ago to provide temporary protection from deportation to undocumented students and military members.

There’s a basic moral imperative to expand the deportation reprieve to the older family members of the youth who qualify for Deferred Action. Right-wingers will no doubt stoke fears that the country will be overrun by hordes of cheap labor. But racist canards about “border security” mask the real injustice at stake. In order for any worker to be fully empowered and protected at work, labor and immigration policy must ensure equal rights across the workforce, including—and especially—the immigrants working the most exploitative jobs.

According to the Center for American Progress, even temporary work permits would help bring more immigrants into the “above ground” economy and “increase the earnings of undocumented immigrants by about 8.5 percent as they are able to work legally and find jobs that match their skills.” A reprieve for immigrants with at least five years’ residency, allowing nearly 10 million people to stay in the United States, “would increase payroll tax revenues…by $44.96 billion over five years.”

But aside from the economic rationale for executive action, the government has, at the bare minimum, an ethical obligation to keep embattled immigrant families intact, by providing relief, at least temporarily, from the threat of forced exile. You can’t calculate the social opportunity cost of living under the terror of detention and deportation.

Since demonizing and marginalizing the undocumented only keeps the workforce segregated, all workers are hurt when employers can skirt responsibility for egregious violations of workers’ rights. And the whole workforce benefits from ensuring that everyone, with or without papers, has an equal right to justice against abuse and discrimination.

Research on low-wage workers in Los Angeles by the University of California–Los Angeles Labor Center reveals that while immigration is linked to precarious labor, the problem is systemic. And the responsibility lies with employers and policymakers.

Labor Center researchers Tia Knoose and Victor Narro explain via e-mail, “Labor violations rates can be influenced by demographic characteristics of the workforce”—for example, immigrants are often much more likely to suffer labor violations compared to native-born workers. However, “such violations are widespread across a variety of demographic categories and in industries and occupations.” Under labor and immigration policies that facilitate exploitation, “workplace violations are the result of employer decisions—whether to pay the minimum wage or overtime, whether to give workers meal breaks, or how to respond to complaints about working conditions.”

A study on California’s construction industry, published by the think tank Economic Roundtable (ERT) with support from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, analyzes a complex system of informal, precarious work that destabilizes every rung of the labor structure—documented, undocumented and native-born alike.

According to researchers Yvonne Yen Liu (a former colleague of the author’s at Colorlines.com), Daniel Flaming and Patrick Burns, informal employment has increased four-fold in California’s construction industry since 1972. Informal workers—those working “off the books” or misclassified as independent contractors rather than formal employees—now constitute about one-sixth of the workforce. Their marginal jobs enable firms to avoid taxes and insurance costs and escape regulatory oversight.

Contrary to stereotypes, the problem is not cheap labor “stealing Americans’ jobs.” It is massive corporate theft, and everyone pays for it. In 2011 alone, “[t]he federal government lost $301 million in taxes.… California lost a total of $473 million, including $264 million for workers’ compensation, $146 million for state disability, and $63 million for state unemployment insurance.” Overall, informal construction workers make just 50 or 60 percent what their formal counterparts earn. The households informal workers support are three times more likely to suffer from poverty.

One worker interviewed in the ERT report, Valentin Perez, recalled getting injured at his drywalling job:

I couldn’t work, because I couldn’t walk. I felt like I had legs made of rubber, with no muscle, but they made me work for a month after my surgery. They said you have to show up or you’ll get fired. They threatened me.

Perez was later fired, but because his job had been misreported, he was owed more than $100,000 in unpaid wages, according to the study. Anemic enforcement of wage laws has left many workers like him stuck in a perpetual labor underclass. UCLA Labor Center’s research shows that even workers who file formal complaints are often unable to recover lost wages.

The prevalence of informal labor is another reason why work authorization alone wouldn’t fully protect low-wage immigrant workers. Although deportation relief would help struggling workers stabilize, to achieve full equity the undocumented need a fully inclusive labor structure. A racially and socially stratrified workforce ensures that many will remain stuck in poverty-wage jobs and vulnerable to abuse. That’s why unions are calling for administrative relief that is not conditioned on a worker’s employment. This way, immigrants who are unemployed or working irregular and casual jobs, such as domestic workers and day laborers, are not further penalized for their precarious economic situation.

A more proactive approach, for example, would be enacting and fully enforcing a comprehensive anti-wage theft law. Or in construction work, instituting a fair floor wage industry-wide, regardless of immigration or employment status. According to the ERT, paying informal and formal workers on an equal wage scale would yield $1.5 billion in economic stimulus, and in turn generate 9,500 new jobs.

When a subset of any labor force is deterred from organizing by the risk of being fired or deported, the boss wins and all workers lose. (This is a tried-and-true tactic that corporations have used to retaliate against immigrant workers who organize or raise grievances). So legal relief is key, but only if it opens up the door to empowerment.

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Nadia Marin-Molina, workers rights program coordinator for the National Day Labor Organizing Network, says via e-mail, “Addressing the issue of immigration status would remove one of the key tactics used by employers to destroy worker organizing to change this situation.” But in the long run, “we need more worker organizing, into unions, workers centers, and any kind of organization that will counteract the downward pressure being constantly exerted by employers on wages and working conditions.”

The workers awaiting immigration reform need the ability to work legally, but they also need to be empowered at work. Maybe Washington fears immigration reform not only because it might damage their electoral prospects but because it might set in motion a process of social reckoning. Just imagine if the country’s most dispossessed workers finally got a chance to stand up and lay claim to what they’re owed. Instead of seeing the law as a force of oppression, they’d wield it as a tool for seeking justice.


Read Next: Michelle Chen on the fast-food worker campaign

The Revictimizing of Janay Rice

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice speaks to the media, with Janay Rice

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice speaks to the media, with Janay Rice. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)


I was listening to a nationally syndicated sports radio show this morning about the release of the Ray Rice videotape that shows the Baltimore Ravens running back knocking his then-fiancée Janay unconscious in a casino elevator. We, the public, already knew this had taken place. We, the public, already knew Rice had been suspended for a much-criticized two games. We, the public, had not seen the actual physical blow that removed Janay Rice from her conscious self. Now we had, and the fallout was clearly going to be extreme.

The radio hosts posed question after question: What will the NFL do now that the tape has been released? How will the Ravens organization react to this? (Now we know. The Ravens have released Ray Rice.) How will the Baltimore fans who’ve been cheering Ray Rice respond? How will the media—oh, the poor media!—react to having perhaps been lied to about whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had seen the videotape?

The one question they did not glaringly ask is, How will Janay Rice react to the release of the tape? The absence of concern for Janay Rice—in the press, on social media, among my own colleagues—is the most disheartening part of this entire ordeal.

No one cares that she is now going to have to relive this incident over and over again. No one cares that the world has now become privy to what may be the most humiliating moment of her entire life. No one cares that she’s basically now being used as a soapbox with otherwise apolitical NFL commentators using her prone body to get on their high horse and safely blast the league. There is video, and those who never raised their voice publicly about the axis of domestic violence and the NFL before are now bellowing the loudest.

ESPN “NFL insider” Adam Schefter was enraged and called the entire situation “the biggest black eye in league history.” Unfortunate phrasing aside, even the statement speaks volumes. What about every other act of domestic violence in league history that wasn’t caught on videotape? What about the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher two seasons ago actually killing the mother of his child, Kasandra Perkins, before taking his own life? Why are these actions seen as less of a black eye? The answer, of course, is that this one was caught on videotape. In other words, it damages the league’s public relations. In other words, this is—again—not about Janay Rice. It is about the well-being of the league.

So if no one is going to talk about the welfare of the person who is actually subjected to the violence on that tape, let’s talk about it here. I spent the morning communicating with people who work on issues involving domestic violence and violence against women nearly every day of their lives. They all said the same thing, without dissent: releasing this tape to the world is incredibly damaging to Janay Rice. Just as we would protect the name of an alleged rape victim, just as we would not show a video of Ray Rice committing a sexual assault, we should not be showing this video like it’s another episode of Rich People Behaving Badly. If Janay Rice wanted to show this tape to the world, in other words if she had offered her consent, that is a different matter. But showing and reshowing it just because we can is an act of harm.

Tragically, it seems—especially judging by my Twitter feed—that very few people agree with this sentiment. Their belief—and to be frank, this is shared by a lot of people whom I respect—is that seeing the video will shock people, advance the conversation and force action. Even some of the same people saying that nude photo hacks shouldn’t be clicked on are saying people have an obligation to bear witness to what Rice did.

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I have serious doubts about this. If you were outraged by violence against women before, will seeing this video really change your mind? If you are not outraged by violence against women, does this video actually make a damn bit of difference? My fear, and this happens whenever you have videos that spark outrage until the next new cycle, is that all it will provoke are the kinds of reactions that don’t necessarily help anybody, least of all the victims. I hear influential people like ESPN’s Mike Greenberg asking the question, “Why isn’t Ray Rice in prison?”

There is no thought given to restorative justice. Only how do we further punish, impoverish and crowd our prisons. As for Janay Rice, she has of course been standing with Ray Rice, even marrying him after the incident. I have no doubt that there are issues there, but they become our damn business only if Janay Rice wants them to be our damn business. I will ask again: What does Janay Rice want, and shouldn’t that matter? If it doesn’t matter, all we are doing is re-victimizing this person one click at a time.


Janay Rice has released a statement on her instagram account about the last 24 hours. She comments on both the release of her husband from the Baltimore Ravens as well on seeing her abuse played and replayed on a loop. People will surely pick her statement apart and make all kinds of judgments about her state of mind in making this statement. They shouldn't. I would ask that people just read it, without analyzing it as if we are all now experts on domestic violence as well as having some kind of voyeuristic insight on the lives of two individuals many had not even heard of 24 hours ago. 

"I woke up this morning feeling like I had a horrible nightmare, feeling like I'm mourning the death of my closest friend. But you have to accept the fact that reality is a nightmare in itself. No one knows the pain that the media and unwanted [opinions] from the public has cause my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass off for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific. THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don't you all get. If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow and show the world what real love is! Ravens nation we love you!"

There is another post afterwards that simply reads, "Hurt beyond words."

People by now have surely seen the video. Any site that actually cares about violence against women more than page clicks should take the damn thing down.

Read Next: Here’s what happens when an NFL player beats his fiancée unconscious

Hate To Say We Told You So: NATO Expansion Edition

The October 20, 1997, issue of The Nation contained a ten-page cover story titled “The Case Against NATO Enlargement,” by Sherle R. Schwenninger, then of the World Policy Institute and now director of the New America Foundation’s Economic Growth Program and American Strategy Program.

Schwenninger argued that the expansion of NATO to the east, as planned by the Clinton administration, would render impossible a lasting peace between Russia and the West. “Rather than establishing the foundation for a mutually agreed-upon security order,” he warned, “ NATO expansion opens the door for future geopolitical rivalry by in effect legitimizing Moscow’s efforts to create its own alliance.”

He continued:

NATO expansion does little or nothing to insure the cooperation or constraint from Russia that will be necessary to solve these conflicts. Indeed, it provides the opposite incentive: for Russia to compete in those areas not formally part of NATO and to exclude NATO from any involvement in areas of vital Russian interest. Russian nationalists could reasonably ask: Since the NATO-Russia agreement gives Moscow little or no say in its own area of interest, why should Moscow allow the United States to have a say in areas bordering Russia and in its sphere of influence?…

What is worse, NATO expansion threatens to create tensions and conflicts in the heart of Central and Eastern Europe that would otherwise not exist. For example, expansion puts back into geopolitical play most of the nations that are to be excluded from the first round of enlargement, making them again potential objects of renewed East-West rivalry. The Clinton Administration justifies NATO enlargement in part as an effort to avoid a new security vacuum in Central Europe, but even as it removes some countries from East-West competition it only increases the potential intensity of the rivalry over others, like the Baltic states and Ukraine. As NATO expands to include Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the exclusion of the Baltic states from NATO membership and Ukraine from a NATO sphere of influence will become even more important goals of Russian foreign policy.

The Baltic states, of course, joined NATO in 2004.

I spoke with Schwenninger today about how his 1997 predictions of what the consequences of NATO expansion would be have largely come to pass.

Do you feel that recent events have vindicated your essay on NATO expansion?

Substantively the essay stands up well. I was a little surprised The Nation gave me so much space to be so verbose. Space is in much greater demand these days.

NATO expansion negated the possibly of a real peace settlement between East and West, Russia and Europe. It prevented the sort of historical rapprochement that needed to take place, and, in consequence, introduced elements of new historical grievances and mistrust. It created additional security concerns both for Moscow and the West. It fostered uncertainty among those countries that were left out, created new divisions and endless pressures for those it excluded. That dynamic has ebbed and flowed but has constantly emerged and re-emerged over the last fifteen, sixteen years. It could have been avoided.

How does Ukraine fit into the picture?

Ukraine is the perfect example in the sense that NATO expansion created this new dividing line right up to the Ukrainian border. Ukraine then becomes a country that is put into play because of its position between the East and the West, rather than accepting its sort of shared destiny in the center of Central-Eastern Europe. There’s now this constant push, among the more Western nationalist forces in Ukraine, but also among their supporters in the US and Poland, for example, to extend NATO to include Ukraine. This obviously makes Russia highly sensitive to any political developments that may create a crisis affecting Ukraine’s political and economic alignment.

For those forces in Ukraine who don’t want to accept the need for a political-social contract balancing out the concerns of Russian-speaking people in the east and the rest of the country, the possibility of NATO expansion emboldens them to press their case in a bid to gain NATO support. They engage in the kind of reckless aggressive actions you’ve seen members of the new Ukrainian government take, with their so-called “anti-terrorist” operations in the east. It’s an attempt to entirely dismiss the legitimate political concerns people in those regions have about the orientation of the government and the necessity of balancing Western ties with Eastern ties. It is the very dynamic I was worried about in the 1997 piece.

How do your 1997 arguments against NATO expansion relate to the rise of Vladimir Putin, who seems to be getting all the blame—in the mainstream Western press—for the conflict over Ukraine?

One of the observations I made in the Nation article was that after NATO expansion was announced, even Boris Yeltsin—the most pro-Western Russian leader in recent memory, in some ways a weak and, to many Russians, incompetent defender of Russian national interests—even his administration took steps to organize a counter-alliance to NATO. This notion that Putin represents an aberrant nationalist response—that response was already evident even under a much more Western-oriented or compliant Russian regime. I think Putin has been much more organized and has been probably a little more effective in re-establishing the basis of the Russian state, strengthening the Russian military, but nothing he has pronounced is fundamentally different from the initial Russia reaction: that Russia should have some sort of economic organization, some alliance to, in part, to counter NATO and to organize its interests in the former Soviet states.

What should NATO leaders have learned from your 1997 article, and what could they learn today?

They would have allowed NATO to have a more natural passing away and they would have strengthened the pan-European security organizations to ensure that Russia felt it had a path toward having its interests and security concerns recognized. They would have established a framework for much-needed Russian cooperation, which would be useful now, whether on Afghanistan or Iran, or dealing with ISIS and the Islamic extremist threats.

The second thing is that the money that was channeled into military expansion could have been channeled into ensuring that countries like Ukraine had a jointly beneficent—for the East and the West—economic modernization program that would have built a twenty-first-century infrastructure and would have ensured you didn’t have such a sustained period of economic underperformance in the region between Russia and Poland. Instead of fueling speculation about whether NATO should expand to include Ukraine and Georgia, you would have had a neo–Marshall Plan to ensure economic development of that region and construction of a common infrastructure.

More recently, we shouldn’t have been fishing in troubled waters by encouraging right-wing Ukrainians to resort to extra-parliamentary, extra–civil society actions. We should not have immediately recognized what was in a sense a street coup led by Right Sector vigilantes—not that there wasn’t also legitimate protest against Yanukovych, but if you remember, the February 21 agreement essentially called for a fairly sensible transition plan with elections, with Yanukovych to give up office. Instead we had the street coup, which the US immediately recognized, and the rump group in parliament revoking Russian as an official language. The emphasis should always have been on holding accountable those forces in Kiev, to recognize the divided nature of Ukraine, to be sensitive to the diversity of the country and the political sensibilities of those areas that would be open to Russian separatists. It should have been that the US, Europe and Russia would have immediately agreed on a program for political and economic reconstruction, rather than the US emboldening the radical elements within the new Kiev government and encouraging them to settle internal conflict by force. The US should have worked jointly with Russia for immediate conflict resolution, to go back to the February 21 agreement.

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Even today, instead of ratcheting up sanctions on Russia we should be welcoming the peace initiatives Putin and Poroshenko worked on at Minsk. The US and Europe should work with Russia to help rebuild the eastern part of the country, to ensure that people can return to their homes, and to secure a lasting cease-fire.

Sherle Schwenninger’s 1997 essay can be read in full here.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Out for Executing the NBA Game Plan: The Atlanta Hawks and That Levenson E-mail

Bruce Levenson

Bruce Levenson (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

I really hope there is an “Edward Snowden” in the office of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. I really hope there is someone with a computer and a conscience who can tell us how the Atlanta Hawks franchise has come to be placed on the auction block. If you have missed the story, Hawks owner Bruce Levenson has “self-reported” a 2012 e-mail detailing the tragedy of how there are too many black fans at Atlanta’s home games. He posits that the hip-hop music, the number of black cheerleaders and the “too black” kiss cam is keeping “40 year old white guys” away from the arena. Chastened by his memory of the e-mail, we now hear, Levenson has sent it to the commissioner and agreed to sell the franchise.

If you believe this story, then you might also think that Daniel Snyder just started practicing Native American philanthropy out of the goodness of his heart. There are really only two scenarios that make sense. The first is that, following the expulsion of Clippers owner Donald Sterling after his racism went audio, owners are vulnerable. This e-mail was going to leak, and rather than deal with the firestorm, Levenson is getting out in the off-season.

The second is just a tad more cynical: the Sterling Family Trust just sold the Clippers for 2.4 billion bucks. Levenson has wanted to unload this team for years, even selling it in 2011, only to have the league void the sale. Now, in the wake of the owner-friendly 2011 collective bargaining agreement, NBA teams have seen their values skyrocket. The sorry Milwaukee Bucks went for $550 million earlier this year and Mavs owner Mark Cuban called this “a bargain.” Levenson gets a world of negative publicity, but his e-mail, which includes critiques of Southern whites’ “racist garbage” is ambiguous enough that it’s hardly a Don Sterling or Jimmy the Greek level of nuclear racist invective. In other words, he will still get invited to all the parties. He also probably spurs an NBA sponsored bidding war for his franchise. Maybe some owners think racism can be the new stock speculation, bringing publicity and putting air into the league’s financial bubble.

Either way, the NBA will help him because Levenson writes nothing in the letter that has not been on the front burner for the last twenty-five years. In the late 1970s, as David Halberstam wrote in 1981 book The Breaks of the Game, the powers-that-be in the NBA thought the league was too thuggish, too urban and, in their minds, too black. The dream was to make the league palatable to a stereotypical, upscale suburban audience. New commissioner David Stern, with the help of three players named Magic, Bird and Jordan, did exactly that and sent the league into the global stratosphere. Starting in the post-Jordan late 1990s, this executive racial panic returned with a vengeance. Players were now “too gangsta”. Sportswriters were reaching for their monocles at the sight of these new ruffians. Now Stern was consulting Republican strategist Matthew Dowd on how to give the league “red state appeal.” Then the infamous player dress code was instituted. Allen Iverson’s tattoos were airbrushed off of his skin in a league magazine, and high school players were denied entry into the draft. In addition, the league made a big show of announcing new penalties for marijuana use. This reflected their fears that profit margins would shrink if they did not show upscale white fans who was in charge of this majority black league, all with an eye on the green. (Recommended here: David Leonard’s book After Artest: the NBA and the Assault on Blackness about the sport’s racial agenda in this era).

Levenson expressed those anxieties as clear as day. The most revealing and disturbing part of his e-mail is how many people with whom I have spoken find it to be defensible. This is not only because Levenson also blasts the “racist garbage” of white fans avoiding the team. It is apparently defensible because it is so transparently obvious that this is how the NBA has approached their business for decades. After all, does anyone honestly think that racial calculations were never discussed when Warriors owner Joe Lacob orchestrated his team’s move from Oakland to San Francisco or when the Nets relocated from Jersey to gentrifying Brooklyn? But to defend Levenson on that basis, while accurate, misses the larger point. It is a problem that this has been the NBA’s business plan for thirty-five years. To see it written out is to see in stark terms not just the reality of how owners talk about racial issues related to their business but also to how racism is actually organized in corporate circles.

Please read the entire e-mail. It’s fascinating (spelling errors aside). But here are a couple pertinent passages:

[W]hen digging into why our season ticket base is so small, i was told it is because we can’t get 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league. when i pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders. then i start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:

– it’s 70 pct black

– the cheerleaders are black

– the music is hip hop

– at the bars it’s 90 pct black

– there are few fathers and sons at the games.…

My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean back then. i never felt uncomfortable, but i think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority. On fan sites i would read comments about how dangerous it is around [the arena] yet in our 9 years, i don’t know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.

I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some white cheerleader…, i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy… i have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black. Gradually things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 pct still feels like 70 pet to some whites at our games.”

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There is more, but that is the section that demands reading and rereading. This is not just a “random Caucasian” spouting his racial theories, complaining that there is too much hippety hop at the games. This is a powerful CEO with the power to put flesh and bone on those ideas: to give away fewer tickets to poor black kids (something he complains about earlier in the e-mail), to fire cheerleaders who are too black, to make the game prohibitive economically or just unwelcoming to a black audience. Or put another way, to give it “red state appeal.” The fact that the NBA operates this way should not excuse Levenson. Instead, it should shine a spotlight on how widespread this kind of thinking has been in the league’s corporate offices. It should also remind us that racism is often a financial and institutional imperative.


Read Next: You Can’t Unsee It: Washington Football Name and Quiet Acts of Resistance

This Is a ‘Pivotal Moment’ for the Movement to Remove Big Money From Politics

Senator Bernie Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The Senate will wrangle this week over whether to amend the Constitution to allow citizens and their representatives to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars.

The amendment that is being considered is a consequential, if relatively constrained, proposal, which focuses on core money in political concerns but which does not go as far as many Americans would like when it comes to establishing that money is not speech, corporations are not people and elections should not be up for sale to the highest bidder.

Yet it is difficult to underestimate the importance of the debate that will unfold this week. The debate signals that a grassroots movement has established the rational response to a political crisis created by US Supreme Court rulings (including, but certainly not exclusively, the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions) that have opened the floodgates for domination of political debates by billionaire campaign donors and corporate cash.

Organizing and campaigning by citizens—working in conjunction with groups that has never been adequately funded, on a project that has never received a fair share of media attention—has gotten sixteen states and more than 600 towns, villages, cities and counties to demand an amendment. And the Senate is taking that demand seriously enough to propose a fix, to organize a debate and to schedule votes that will provide a measure of the prospects for making a democracy amendment the twenty-eighth addition to the Constitution.

Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has proposed a more specific and aggressively worded amendment than the compromise measure that is expected to be considered this week, argues that this Senate debate on the issue of money in politics marks “a pivotal moment in American history.”

Though Sanders would go further than Democratic leaders in the Senate on a number of points, he has joined them in co-sponsoring the amendment by New Mexico Senator Tom Udall that will be debated this week.

The Vermonter understands why this debate is so significant.

It is not because Senate consideration of the issue at this point will lead to the rapid amendment of the Constitution. In fact, no matter what Senate Democrats do, there will not be a sufficient majority in the chamber where a two-thirds vote is required to approve an amendment for consideration by the states. Nor is there any realistic chance that John Boehner will suddenly decide to lead the charge against the corporate campaign spending and billionaire manipulations that bought him the House speakership.

It is not because the amendment that is being advanced now is the amendment that will ultimately be added to the Constitution. Make no mistake, there will be a Twenty-Eighth Amendment; there must be if the American experiment is to survive as anything akin to a democratic republic. As with past amendments, however, this initial proposal for updating the Constitution will likely be altered—with language strengthened or weakened based on the ability of mass movements to place demands for more or less radical change

So why exactly is this a pivotal moment?

Because when a movement becomes sufficiently dynamic to force a Senate debate—after just four years of organizing by groups like Move to Amend, Free Speech For People, Public Citizen, Common Cause, People for the American Way and allied groups at the local and state levels—that debate ought not be seen as beginning or the end of anything. It is a part of a process—an essential teaching moment, an essential organizing moment.

“It’s overwhelmingly clear what the citizenry wants: fed up with a system in which the super-rich and giant corporations are effectively able to buy politicians and policy, the American people are rising up and demanding a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and restore our democracy,” explains Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen. “Whatever happens on (this week), the day is not long off when the 28th amendment becomes the law of the land.”

That’s what Sanders means when he speaks of a pivotal moment.

Millions of Americans are already engaged with the movement to amend the Constitution to get money out of politics—and with the broader movement to address the twin fallacies that money is speech and that corporations should have the same rights as human beings. Tens of millions more are supportive of the struggle. Indeed, polls show there is overwhelming support for the amendment among Americans—73 percent in favor versus 24 percent opposed, according to a new Democracy Corps survey—and that this support crosses all lines of partisanship and ideology.

The Senate debate has the potential to get millions of additional Americans engaged with what Sanders refers to as “the major issue of our time—whether the United States of America retains its democratic foundation or whether we devolve into an oligarchic form of society where a handful of billionaires are able to control our political process by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to elect candidates who represent their interests.”

The fact that the issue is being treated seriously at the congressional level will merge a sense of urgency with a sense of possibility. This could have an impact on the 2014 Senate races; indeed, the Democracy Corps survey found “overwhelming cross-partisan support (73 percent) for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United that can translate into added support for Democratic candidates who support the amendment and damage Republicans who oppose it.”

Significantly, the Senate debate has the potential to influence the outcome of election contests. The Democracy Corps polling memo concluded, “Democratic candidates can gain from supporting this amendment. A 48-11 percent plurality of voters say they are more likely to support the named Democratic candidate after hearing an argument for the proposal. This represents broad support, as the number actually increases among voters under 50 to a 41-point gap and among independents to 42 points.”

Those numbers may explain why Democratic senators who will never be confused with reformers have signed on as co-sponsors of the amendment proposal.

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Ultimately, however, the amendment fight must be seen in a broader context than any Democratic political calculus. The movement must attract Republican support for an amendment. And this week’s debate will tell us about the prospects for bipartisanship. Will Republicans who face re-election this year in states where there is strong and well-organized support for an amendment—such as Maine’s Susan Collins, who faces amendment supporter Shenna Bellows—break with their party leadership and back this amendment? In open-seat races, will candidates such as South Dakota Democrat Rick Weiland, an outspoken amendment supporter, find their positions strengthened by an increased focus on the issue?

Constitutional amendments become viable when support for them grows so overwhelming that traditional partisan and ideological boundaries are broken. When this happens, the divide becomes less a matter of Republican versus Democrat or left versus right and more a matter of a broken present versus a functional future.

The corrupt political processes of the moment are not just anti-democratic, they are fundamentally unjust. What former Senator Russ Feingold refers to as a system of “legalized bribery” allows billionaires and corporations to buy more than elections; they buy policies and crony capitalist arrangements that undermine the fairness, the capacity for improvement and the basic stability of America.

There is no question that the arc of human progress is long. But nor is there any question that it bends toward justice. This week’s Senate debate will not produce justice; but it will help to build the movements that are necessary to bend the arc.

Read Next: John Nichols on America's Most Dynamic (Yet Under-Covered) Movement: Overturning 'Citizens United'

More Police Will Never Be a Solution to Black America’s Woes


Police officers patrol in Brownsville, New York. (Reuters/Eric Thayer)

While riding the subway the other day, I overheard a mother and daughter discussing the police. The two of them had just boarded the train after witnessing an officer stop a young man whom the officer believed didn’t pay the fare. Apparently, the young man had explained to the subway booth attendant that he didn’t have any money, and the attendant took pity on him and let him through. The young man became defensive when the police officer didn’t believe his story.

The mother, a black woman who looked to be in her 50s, was upset about the interaction she witnessed. “As a police officer, you should be out trying to catch people doing murders and robberies, not things like hopping the turnstile,” she kept saying. “I feel like they’re just picking on these kids.” The daughter, also black and probably in her 30s, had a different view: “They’re doing their job. They know enough to know which kids are the ones coming on the train stealing iPhones. Not paying the fare is the beginning of mischief. These kids are bad,” she said.

“These kids are bad” isn’t solely the opinion of that one woman I overheard on the train. And as such it wasn’t surprising to read the findings of this Quinnipiac University poll that shows that 57 percent of black voters support “broken windows” policing. It’s one reason why folks like President Obama and the Rev. Al Sharpton can go before black audiences and, as The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart argues, “air the dirty laundry” of black America and receive rapturous applause. “These kids are bad”—and if we don’t set them straight early on, the thinking goes, they’ll be worse adults. Even given the adversarial (at best) relationship between black folks and the state, many black Americans still view police as part of the solution.

It’s important to note, though, that this particular poll surveyed registered voters. As Kristen West Savali points out at The Root, “Older black people are more likely to be registered voters than younger black people, and in populations most affected by police brutality—low-income, black communities—access to a landline or cellphone is not assured.” She adds: “When reading these results, one also has to take into consideration the disenfranchisement restrictions placed on black voters on parole.” In other words, the people not as likely to face police harassment are the ones who support a crackdown on so-called “quality-of-life” crimes.

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Fact is, black people can also be complicit in upholding the system of racism, having internalized the idea of black criminality and inferiority. Consider that during the 1980s, at the dawn of the crack epidemic, the War on Drugs had the support of many black activists. They saw it as a means of cleaning up their neighborhoods; in reality, it was a way of creating a new racial caste system through mass incarceration.

I understand where the impulse comes from. We look around our neighborhoods, witnessing despair and desperately wanting a solution. But the police aren’t it. They are not disciplinarians. They are agents of the state whom we have authorized to use force, often with impunity, against mostly black youth. But when you believe the answer to “these kids are bad” is police intervention, and then don’t take into account what those interactions often entail—harassment and disrespect, sometimes violence—you’re damning those children even further. Instead of pushing for more police intervention, while simultaneously chastising black youth for their behavior (much of which is not, or should not be, criminal), we need to find the political will to invest in the things that actually work. Affordable housing, recreation, education, food security. These are things that will build the type of neighborhoods and communities we want to see.

Even if we were all to concede that “these kids are bad,” more policing won’t make them any better.


>Read Next: How Trayvon Martin launched a new black youth movement.

$15 and a Union: Fast-Food Workers Take Their Demands Nationwide

Fast food strike

Activists stage a sit-in protest to demand a $15 dollar wage outside of a McDonald's in Manhattan, September 4, 2014. (Reuters/Adrees Latif) 

As New Yorkers bustled along Eighth Avenue at lunchtime on Thursday, fast-food workers proudly marched off the job. And unlike most days, when workers quietly shuffle burgers over a fluorescent-lit counter, the protesters sat solemnly on the street under the glaring sun, waiting to be rounded up by police.

“What we’ve started and what we’ve become—it’s the same idea, but it’s branched out,” said Shantel Walker, who works as a shift manager at Papa John’s for $8.50 an hour. Standing with the crowd across the street from a McDonald’s, she said it was her sixth strike since joining the movement. “So [our] strength is growth.… We’re so proud of each other.”

Thursday’s protests hit about 150 sites, including Chicago, Detroit and other cities, reportedly leading to several hundred arrests. Unions and community activists joined the workers, holding up “#strikefastfood” signs and chanting “I believe that we can win.” Nearly two years since their mobilization began with about 200 workers in New York, the ruckus on Eighth Avenue indicated that fast food workers are following through on their pledge at their national convention in July, amplifying their two key demands: a $15 hourly wage and a union.

Now that the fast-food worker campaigns, backed by institutional support from SEIU, have evolved into a global phenomenon, with protests from São Paulo to Auckland, from Wendy’s to Starbucks to Sukiya beef bowl, no one knows exactly where the movement is headed next. But Thursday’s main message was that fast food workers’ plight represents the extreme inequality that plagues communities across the country.

Jeanina Jenkins, a McDonald’s worker from St. Louis, joined the New York protests in solidarity and declared: “We all need the same things: to put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and clothes on our backs.… The math doesn’t work on $8 an hour. So we’re here doing whatever it takes to win $15 an hour and union rights so the math does work.” Jenkins was one of several St. Louis area workers who chose to protest outside their hometown out of respect for the ongoing unrest in Ferguson.

As the campaign has exposed stories of extreme hardships besetting workers, who often earn less than $9 per hour—getting shorted on pay, relying on food stamps, living in homeless shelters—the protests have helped push the $15 wage demand to the center of economic policy debates.

Seattle passed a compromise bill for a $15 minimum wage earlier this summer. Similar initiatives are underway in San Francisco and Los Angeles. New York’s legislature is weighing a $13 state minimum wage, and New York City officials seeking to set their own wage floor of $15 per hour. According to NBC News, “13 states and 10 county and city governments have increased their minimum wages during 2013 and 2014.”

For unions like SEIU, which provides funding and organizing support for the protests in an effort to engage non-union workers, the movement has helped springboard other campaigns to raise wages through local policy initiatives and in other low-wage sectors.

The activists and workers at Thursday’s rallies were joined by SEIU home healthcare aides, representing another service industry wracked by poverty wages. Labor groups at other low-wage retailers like Walmart have also included the $15 wage demand in their campaigns for better working conditions. Some retailers have even gone the other direction, touting relatively high wages as part of their social branding.

Even Uncle Sam has gotten called out as a poverty-wage employer. Following strikes and protests by low-wage federal contract workers, President Obama in February signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for contract workers to $10.10 from $7.25—a rare bright spot in a Washington agenda that has fixated on tax cuts for the rich and welfare cuts for the poor.

Still, despite the protests’ symbolic political value, the fast-food sector itself has not seen specific material gains, like a sector-wide wage hike. This is in large part because the industry runs on decentralized franchise operations, which impedes centralized organizing. So the question remains as to what kinds of tangible gains these workers, or the union backing them, can expect from their organizing in the long term, without major restructuring of the industry.

But one achievement is that the movement has put the powerful restaurant industry lobby on the defensive. McDonald’s and restaurant business groups have dismissed the movement as a union-coordinated public-relations gimmick and warned that $15 wages (which comes to roughly $31,000 a year) would damage the industry.

The industry’s fear of a $15 wage reveals the potency of the demand: just high enough to seem idealistic, but still within political reach—and wholly reasonable, given the fact that at current wage levels in fast food, about half of the sector’s workers are getting by on public assistance.

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The second demand of the fast food workers, getting a union, is an even trickier issue than raising wages due to the industry’s decentralized franchise ownership model. However, workers recently got a legal boost when they got approval to bring unfair labor practices charges against McDonald’s as a joint employer. This could open a new avenue for workers to challenge the company as their boss, thus moving toward recognition as a single national labor force.

Although the convoluted, bureaucratic process of forming a union remains a tremendous challenge in this precarious workforce, workers are generally becoming more organized and militant. Moreover, two years ago, $15 an hour for fast-food workers would have seemed like a utopian fantasy; the realm of possibility has broadened with each wave of strikes. That might be the biggest victory so far: the sense of confidence that workers have won as the movement has emerged at the foreground of a national discussion on inequality.

And for some, the energy of the movement could be subtly changing the atmosphere at work already. “We got respect now,” said Walker, describing what she sees as a changing attitude in how her workplace is run. Before the protests began, she recalled, “the disrespect was high, the pay was low. Now, there’s still something there, but they understand that I’m standing up for what I believe. And I’m making it known.”


Read Next: Michelle Chen on New York Unions

Stephen Cohen: ‘Russia Will React Militarily’ if Ukraine Joins NATO

“By NATO’s own rules, Ukraine cannot join NATO, [because it is] a country that does not control its own territory,” Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen said to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, addressing speculation that Ukraine will join NATO after it signed a cease-fire deal with pro-Russian rebels. Cohen went on: “You have to meet certain economic, political and military criteria to join NATO. Ukraine meets none of them…. most importantly, Ukraine is linked to Russia not only in terms of being Russia’s essential security zone, but it’s linked conjugally, so to speak, intermarriage. There are millions, if not tens of millions, of Russian and Ukrainians married together. Put it in NATO, and you’re going to put a barricade through millions of families. Russia will react militarily.”
—Aaron Cantú

Beltway to Obama: More Fear, Please

President Obama

(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Go here please to read my column this week, on why firing David Gregory won’t actually change Meet the Press.

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.


I don’t have much this week. I saw Jorma Kaukounen at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last weekend, where he was joined on acoustic guitar by the great Barry Mittelhoff and G.E. Smith. The room was so crowded (and I am so old) despite the $85/$100 cover that I had to sit on the floor in the back corner near the merch table for most of the show, so I couldn’t see. But I could hear. And Jorma has not lost a beat at 72. And the crowd was most appreciative and engaged. Generally I prefer electric Hot Tuna, but when you hear “Hesitation Blues” and “I Know You Rider,” played so exiquisitely in so intimate a room, it feels churlish to complain and I so won’t.

A couple of recommendations: I reviewed the first volume of Country Funk when it came out a couple of years ago. There’s a volume two now, “Country Funk Volume II 1967-1974,” from Light in the Attic, with newly re-mastered, featuring cuts by Bob Darin, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Willie Nelson and more. It’s a nice package with a comic with story by Jessica Hundley along with Jess Rotter's illustrations and the music is mostly stuff you won’t find anywhere. My favorite is “Rising Sign” by Jim Ford, who Sly Stone once called ''the baddest white man on the planet,” but it’s all kinda interesting and fun

Also I wanted to add my voice to all those recommending the new collection of long short stories and novellas by Stephan Zweig under the title, The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig. It’s 720 pages of pure surprise and I’m grateful to the Pushkin Press for bringing it out and helping me to figure out why I’ve been hearing that name for so many years, and finally delving in. You won’t regret it you do too.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Beltway to Obama: More Fear, Please!
By Reed Richardson

There really is a pathology that lurks within our elite media discourse when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. At the root of this pathology sits a well-cultivated neurosis about our country’s esteem, its place (rank) in the world. This insecurity, in turn, breeds an almost incessant neediness for displays of machismo and dominance and aggression from our political leaders. And precisely because the U.S. military serves as the biggest hammer in the world, it has become all too easy for lazy members of the media in this country to view every crisis overseas as a stubborn nail in need of some swift flattening.

In other words, ours is a nation where patience and diplomacy have fallen out of favor among an establishment that is now far more interested in rapid response and confronting the latest mortal enemy with “kinetic action” (the kind that involves Hellfire missiles, carrier groups, and, ultimately, an infantry division or three). The unrestrained id version of this mindset—via, naturally, Fox News—can be viewed here . As a result, our cable news talk shows and national op-ed pages have developed debilitating case of selective listening, one that tunes out context and deliberation in foreign policy discussions and only really tunes in when it’s being warned what to be afraid of.

But what happens when the president doesn’t reflexively indulge in saber-rattling hyperbole? When he doesn’t take every excuse to deploy our vast arsenal of weaponry? When doesn’t reliably offer up fear-based Pavlovian signals for the pundits? Well, as the past week demonstrated, the establishment freaks out.

Take, for instance, this jingoistic op-ed  by John McCain and Lindsey Graham that the New York Times  took it upon itself to run. At this point, McCain and Graham have so consistently beat the drums of war for so long I think of them as the Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr of the Senate’s war hawks. The notion that this pair would offer up any insights beyond ‘Bomb Country X now’ is silly, and yet the Times  gave them a platform.

After knocking around Obama for “reactive half-measures” and endowing the brutal jihadist group Islamic State with everything but evil superpowers, Graham and McCain made this it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren’ t-so-tragic modest proposal: “No one is advocating unilateral invasion, occupation or nation-building. This should be more like Afghanistan in 2001.” Ahem.  In the end, their arguments were so shot through with shameless ambiguity and superficial justifications that Peter Beinart deftly ethered the whole thing here .

That didn’t stop the Washington Post ’s Dana Milbank from writing his own hyperventilating column . Pivoting off of a Russian-inflamed civil war in Ukraine and another grisly beheading by the brutal jihadist group Islamic State, Milbank also appears confounded by Obama’s lack of tough-guy histrionics. His column’s lede perfectly captures his up-is-down thinking: “President Obama is not worried. And that is unnerving.”

Of course, it’s not that Obama isn’t worried. On multiple occasions, and again at the Baltic Summit this week, the president expressed his concern about the alarming advances of the Islamic State and Russia’s revanchist strategy of fomenting unrest in its neighbor. What’s unnerving to Milbank is that Obama isn’t matching the level of outrage of the establishment’s conventional wisdom. To help maintain this ruse, Milbank notably omits any mention of the steps Obama has already taken in response to these crises— a wave of tough economic sanctions  on Russia and an ongoing campaign of limited airstrikes  on IS positions in Iraq. Nor, apparently, does Milbank read his colleague at the Washington Post , Walter Pincus, who has some great behind-the-scenes reporting  on the alliance building that the administration has undertaken across the region to box in IS and ultimately defeat the group.

To Milbank and his Beltway compadres, though, it is Obama’s leadership specifically that is lacking. Exhibit A: the president’s damning public admission last week that the US “didn’t have a strategy yet” on dealing with IS inside Syria. To say that one day and then turn around the next and reassure Americans that they’re safer than ever before amounts to “happy talk” per Milbank. However, if you set aside the outrageous boogeyman-type coverage that predominates in the most of the press, you find that, again, Obama is right .

What’s more—and this is important—there’s been a wholesale inversion of how the establishment defines hubris and overconfidence. No doubt, Obama owns his share of ill-advised military misadventures, among them a futile “surge” in Afghanistan and a misguided faith in a morally repugnant and counterproductive drone policy. But it’s only when he chooses a relatively cautious approach to a foreign threat like IS that he gets branded a naïve and dangerously optimistic president a la Bush. Eleven years ago, what constituted dangerous “happy talk”  from the White House looked very different and took a staggeringly higher toll, but it took years for the Beltway pundits to come out of their defensive crouch and figure this out.

This reminder of Bush’s dreadful legacy would no doubt be considered a cheap partisan shot by the National Journal ’s Ron Fournier, a bust of whom will no doubt one day adorn the Newseum’s “Both Sides Do It” installation. Right on cue, Fournier’s column this week  predictably flays Obama for a lack of leadership, which admittedly isn’t much of a surprise since he writes a version of this same column at least once a month . (This stubborn lack of editorial creativity on the part of Fournier long ago reached the point of easy parody.)

As you’d expect, Fournier takes the same shots at Obama that the rest of the Beltway centrists crowd. He claims Obama’s “dithering” helped “spawn the ISIS wave,” but presents no proof of this bold assertion. In a  clever bit of no-win logic, he dings the president for dismissing ISIS as a junior-varsity level threat last year, and then dings Obama again for ignoring a group that he said wasn’t a threat in the first place. And the Fournier shakes his venerable head at Obama for being “incapable of leading anybody to a solution.”

So what should have Obama done differently in Syria a year ago to fix everything, one might ask? (I mean, besides striking a courageous diplomatic deal  that rid that nation of its chemical weapons, a success Fournier conveniently omits.) Or, for that matter, what might that “solution” to the region’s sprawling sectarian unrest have looked like? Ah, but the answers to these questions are an intellectual burden that Fournier never even attempts to carry. He just knows leaders lead by leading, through leadership. And Obama ain’t one of them.

Like Milbank, Fournier, in his zeal to complain, minimizes the  actions  Obama currently is taking to stop IS’s spread in Iraq in order to further fixate on the president’s rhetoric :

“Despite ordering airstrikes against ISIS targets, Obama doesn't seem to agree that Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq pose an unprecedented threat to America.”


Fournier can’t even give Obama credit for actually doing something without couching it in as a backhanded insult. Also note he isn’t even brave enough to say whether he approves or disapproves of the airstrikes, wants more or less of them or anything else. Again, actual policy isn’t Fournier’s cup of tea. So instead he just moves on to quibble over Obama’s refusal to say IS represents an unprecedented threat, one he later characterizes as “existential.” Needless to say, this is goddam ridiculous. By definition, every new threat is unprecedented, which is to say nothing about how we should respond to it. More obviously, it is 100% wrong to imply IS will ever threaten the very existence of the United States. Yet this over-the-top language is what simple-minded Beltway critics seem to value more than anything else in a president.

Indeed, at times, this need for a good-guy, bad-guy foreign policy narrative can fully overwhelm a pundit’s journalistic instincts. Case in point, this atrocious Frank Bruni column , where the very headline gives the game away: “Obama’s Messy Words.” In it, Bruni practically begs for the president to shovel ominous scaremongering and saber-rattling braggadocio at the press.

For example, Bruni seems baffled by Obama’s perfectly innocuous observation that the current threat from IS pales in comparison to the one posed by the old Soviet Union. He simply cannot engage with the rational conclusions one might draw from it. “Set aside the question of how germane the Cold War example is,” Bruni says, right before reciting a list of IS’s grisly depredations. The point of this scare tactic? To infantilize the press and the public: “[T]he last thing that you want to be told is that it’s par for the historical course, all a matter of perspective and not so cosmically dire. Where’s the reassurance — or the sense of urgency — in that?”

Again, grok what Bruni is saying here as a member of the press—to paraphrase Col. Nathan Jessup: “I can’t handle the truth.” Personally, I think this country is better served with a president who exercises a little more circumspection and candor before massively overreacting to the foreign enemy du jour . After having just recently concluded a decade of mismanaged, unnecessary war, don’t we deserve a commander-in-chief that maintains his composure, instead of  uttering outrageously provocative, off-the-cuff statements  that only make matter worse and that he later regrets? (Sad to say, our current Vice President clearly shares the same affliction .)

But Bruni doesn’t stop there. Sounding like some soulless corporate image consultant who enables rather confronts the powerful, he practically recoils at Obama’s acceptance of rather tepid limits on U.S. power.

“He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that ‘America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything’; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.

“But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R.

“Message.” “savvy.” “P.R.” Gack.

That any journalist would express a desire to essentially be manipulated instead of told the truth, however banal it may be, is chilling. To read the whole thing is to get a sense that Bruni was emotionally lashing out at the president, channeling the entire Beltway’s disgust at his unwillingness to stick to the normal U.S. foreign policy script. But it was his absurd “notes of defeatism” remark that made clear the media establishment has now fully bought into the idea that Obama’s presidency, much like the tail end of Jimmy Carter’s, is mired in a kind of intractable malaise. Unable to get any actual legislation through the Republican House, the only thing left that Obama actually could do was start another war somewhere. And here he’s not even keen to do that. What a failure.

This “malaise” narrative—and the myths that surround it—actually plays a key role in the foreign policy pathology I spoke of at the beginning. As Rick Hertzberg reminds us, the “crisis of confidence” speech he helped Carter write in 1979 [excerpted here ] never actually mentioned the word “malaise.” (That term was attached to it after the fact.) Nor was it the disaster that history tells us it was. In fact, Carter’s speech was quite popular . His approval numbers shot up 11 points overnight and the White House received an outpouring of positive mail. It was only after Carter clumsily sacked most of his Cabinet in the days that followed that elite opinion turned against him and the speech, and eventually the public’s disapproval followed as well. And while on one hand, that moment foreshadowed the end of Carter’s political career, Hertzberg argues that the speech and its aftermath also had a long-lasting ripple effect on the relationship between the president and the press.

“The speech was a truthful and prescient diagnosis of what was wrong with the country and what in many ways continues to be wrong with the country,” Hertzberg says, looking back. “A side effect was the discrediting of candor about unpleasant truths and the enshrinement of ‘optimism.’”

This “optimism” is not the hard-earned optimism that Carter spoke of at length in that same speech 35 years ago. Nor is it the measured, look-at-the-big-picture optimism that Obama stands accused of falling victim to today in dealing with Russia and the Middle East. Instead, the prevailing ‘optimism’ that has reigned over our foreign policy establishment for the past few decades—with disastrous results—is that of Reagan and of Bush. It’s a flawed American Exceptionalism that operates a de facto foreign policy of violence driven by a never-ending plague of manufactured threats. This pathological insecurity is all about pursuing vengeance abroad rather than justice, choosing condemnation of enemies over cooperation with allies. But perhaps the greatest danger of all is when it convinces the American public and the press that the most frightening thing we have to fear is when our leaders tell us the truth.

The Mail

Konstantin Kostov
Stockholm, Sweden

I agree with you, but want to bring something to your attention.

The established mass-media (NYT, WaPo, etc.) are so strong that they are able to make the public believe lies. I lived in Finland before and during the Iraq war and could see how the U.S. public was led to believe that Saddam Hussein was connected with the 9/11 and had WMD, but at that time at least the European media was not 100% following the USA's line. Since then a lot has changed.

USA and EU mainstream media now work in unison. Even people like you believe that Assad used chemical weapons, although there are very serious investigators who show otherwise—it's simply an old and forgotten story. The propaganda jumps to any new "facts" to justify whatever new war needs to be fought.

The MH17 [airplane downing] was used to justify sanctions against Russia. This wasn't so long, but it seems the issue is forgotten by those who used it and now they are pushing for new ways to escalate the conflict, although there are serious doubts that the initial reports, which were true - it looks like the Ukrainian army might have something to do with it, but nobody reverses the sanctions - there can be only push for more...

To me it is clear that some people decide to make Ukraine a NATO member and would do anything to achieve their goal.

All the best fighting with the strong propaganda machine!

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

SEC Faces Renewed Pressure to Consider a Corporate Disclosure Rule

Mary Jo White

Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chair Mary Jo White (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The campaign to lift the veil on secret corporate campaign donations hit a milestone on Thursday. More than 1 million comments have been submitted to the US Securities and Exchange Commission calling for a requirement that corporations disclose political spending to their shareholders—ten times more than for any other rule-making petition to the SEC, according to the Corporate Reform Coalition.

“Investors want to know how their money is being spent,” Tim Smith, director of shareholder engagement at the firm Walden Asset Management, said at a press conference outside the SEC in Washington. A sign over his right shoulder read, “Your money is being invested in secret. Why is the SEC doing nothing?”

Campaign finance reformers have long been pushing for the rule, which the SEC was slated to consider in 2013. But Mary Jo White, who took over as head of the agency that year, removed the proposal from the SEC’s agenda. The agency claims to be swamped with other regulations related to the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act and other legislation. But shelving the corporate disclosure rule was a win for business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Republicans, who’d strongly opposed it.

“At a minimum, the SEC should closely consider a rule like this—rather than turning its back on investors’ interests because of Republican objections,” said Robert Jackson, a Columbia University law professor who was one of the initial petitioners for the rule in 2011. “The SEC is an independent agency. They are charged with protecting investors, not politicians.”

The agency is expected to issue a new regulatory agenda this fall. Supporters of the disclosure rule hope the SEC will revisit it in light of what they called “unprecedented” public support.

The point of requiring corporations to disclose their political donations is twofold. First, it’s intended to protect investors, which is the SEC’s responsibility. Shareholders “understand that they have a right to know if the company they invest in is spending money on controversial political causes,” said Lisa Gilbert, the director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Project.

Secondly, reformers hope that disclosure will help stanch the flow of secret money in elections, which has increased dramatically since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United. A critical assumption in the majority’s ruling was that “prompt disclosure of expenditures” would allow shareholders to “determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits.” But without a mechanism to ensure that companies are truly transparent about their political spending, the Court’s faith in “the procedures of corporate democracy” is just wishful thinking.

Even without much transparency there are still examples that illustrate how a company’s political spending can run counter to its shareholders’ best interests. In 2010, Target caused an uproar by donating $150,000 to an anti-gay gubernatorial candidate in Minneapolis. In the following days, its shares declined by more than 3 percent, while those of its competitors rose.

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The renewed push for transparency in corporate political spending comes at an appropriate time: according to a Huffington Post analysis, dark-money groups have already spent $142 million on candidate ads in the past twenty months. Unlike Super PACs, these “social welfare” or 501(c)(4) nonprofits are not required to disclose their donors. And unlike labor unions, corporations in most states are not required to report the money they spend in elections. The result is that in many cases shareholders and the public have no way to know which corporations are donating, to whom and how much.

“This rule is squarely within the authority and the responsibility of SEC,” said Demos counsel Liz Kennedy, pushing back on a claim made by the rule’s opponents, who argue that campaign finance regulations are solely the provenance of the Federal Elections Commission. “They have clear statutory authority to regulate in the protection of not just investors but also in the public interest, as well as to require the kind of corporate disclosure that shareholders would need to make informed decisions.”

Fifteen senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Robert Menendez, along with seventy members of the House of Representatives, contributed to the 1 million comments.


Read Next: Zoë Carpenter analyzes Marco Rubio’s speech at the secret Koch brothers billionaire summit.

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