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Frederick Douglass (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Marion Doss. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
Vice President Biden did right by Frederick Douglass.
The abolitionist taught that “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Accordingly, when the vice president marked the unveiling of a statue honoring abolitionist Douglass at the US Capitol, he made a demand.
And it was the appropriate one.
In the last years of his life Douglass was active with a pioneering voting rights group, the District Suffrage Petition Association. He attended the group’s meetings and asked, “What have the people of the District done that they should be excluded from the privileges of the ballot box?”
It was that question, and the advocacy associated with it, that Biden recalled at the dedication ceremony, declaring that he and President Obama “support home rule, budget autonomy and the vote for the people of the District of Columbia.”
It is remarkable that 118 years after the death of Douglass, the citizens of the District of Columbia still lack full voting rights. The denial of the full franchise to the residents of the nation’s capital city is one example of the patchwork approach to suffrage in the United States, where Americans who live in commonwealths, territories and possessions lack full representation rights in Congress and, in many instances, the right to vote for president. Even in the states, voting rights are ill-defined, and the Voting Rights Act is under legal assault. It is for that reason that Congressmen Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, have called for amending the Constitution to guarantee the right to vote and the right to have that vote counted.
The District of Columbia has perhaps the most complex definition of voting rights in the whole of the republic. While District residents can vote in presidential elections, they do not have the right to elect full representatives to the House and Senate. DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the veteran civil rights activist who campaigned for many years for the placement of the seven-foot statue placed in the Capitol, recalled, “There has been too little recognition that as a District of Columbia resident, three Republican presidents appointed Douglass to three local posts: to what was then the upper chamber of the DC Council, part of the home-rule government given the District by the Republican Congress and president during Reconstruction, as DC Recorder of Deeds and as US Marshal for the local and federal courts. Who knew that Douglass lost the Republican nomination for delegate to the US House of Representatives?”
Norton and others know that, today, though DC has an elected local government, the power of that government—and, thus, of Washington residents to determine their own affairs—is constrained by Congress.
Were they free to do so, there is little reason to doubt that the citizens of the District would petition immediately for statehood.
But the cause of statehood has been thwarted since the days when members of Congress refused the request of the great radical senator from South Dakota, Richard F. Pettigrew, who urged after the death of Douglass in 1895 “that out of respect to his memory his remains be permitted to lie in state in the rotunda of the National Capitol between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on to-morrow.”
Biden’s raising of the issue of DC voting rights at the ceremony on Wednesday may not have pleased House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has resisted efforts to advance DC voting rights legislation in Congress, or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who pointedly emphasized that Douglass had been a Republican.
But, by making a direct demand, Biden honored not just a great man but also the great man’s stated intentions for the city he made his home.
To his credit, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, went even further, declaring, “Washington, DC, residents pay taxes, just like residents of Nevada, California, or any other state. Washington, DC, residents have fought and died in every American war, just like residents of Ohio, Kentucky or any other state. And Washington, DC, residents deserve the same right to self-government and congressional representation as residents of any other state.”
“The district deserves statehood. And Congress should act to grant it,” said Reid.
That good sentiment must be coupled with determined congressional and executive action to advance it, however. The dream of voting rights has been deferred since the days when Douglass wrote of the district as “the one spot where there is no government for the people, of the people and by the people. Its citizens submit to rulers whom they have no choice in selecting. They obey laws which they had no voice in making.”
That’s got to change.
For that to happen, Biden and Reid will have to do more than make speeches.
They must make the demands of which Douglass spoke—and their demands must be coupled with those of Washington residents, who should be given the right to vote on whether the district should finally have “government for the people, of the people and by the people.”
Biden was on message when he said, “The people of the District made the right choice in selecting Frederick Douglass as their representative, and they put both Eleanor Holmes Norton and Frederick Douglass in this Capitol, and quite frankly, I don’t see either of them leaving until all the District residents get their voice.”
With Robert W. McChesney, John Nichols is the author of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), which examines the denial of voting rights in the District of Columbia and US commonwealths and territories, and which outlines the case for enactment of a constitutional amendment to guarantee voting rights.
Will the new anti-abortion bill hold up in the Senate? Read William Greider’s analysis here.
A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo, June 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman)
The Constitution is clear. Written by revolutionaries fresh from a protracted battle against a colonial empire that was forever involving them in wars of whim, the document was designed to assure that the powers of war making and military adventuring would never be concentrated in the hands of a monarch—or a president. So it is that, while the American president has from the founding of the republic been designated as the commander-in-chief, it is the Congress that retains the sole power to declare wars and to set terms for the engagement of the United States in the country in the “attachments and entanglements in foreign affairs” against which George Washington warned.
While it can be argued that presidents have the authority to act unilaterally to repel attacks and defend the country, there is far less justification for the wars of whim and casual military engagements that have come to define the United States in the latter part of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first.
Yet, since 1941, succeeding executives have entered into wars, military engagements and schemes to aid foreign armies without ever seeking or receiving congressional authorization.
Often, the United States has policed the world without the informed consent of the American people, and without any evidence of the popular support that ought to be achieved before any country mingles its destiny with the struggles of distant lands.
Such is the case with the Syrian imbroglio.
That Syria has degenerated into crisis is clear.
That the violence on the ground is atrocious, and horrifying, goes without saying.
But the notion that the Syrian mess is an American problem, or that the United States can or should choose a favorite in the fight, is highly debatable. There is no defense for the actions of the Syrian government, but only the most casual observers presume that the rebels are universally committed to noble and democratic ends.
The American people “get” that the Syrian conflict is complicated, and that any US involvement there had the potential to make untenable demands on this country’s future. Polls by the Pew Research Center and various media outlets have found high levels of opposition to even the most minimal of US engagement with the rebels.
Roughly two-thirds of Americans have consistently said that the United States does not have a responsibility to intervene in the Syrian conflict. Late last year, Pew found that 65 percent of Americans oppose any move by the United States and its allies to provide arms to anti-government forces in Syria.
Since the Obama administration—under pressure from Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, and other hawks—announced this month that the United States would aid the Syrian rebels, opposition to the move has actually risen. Indeed, the latest polling shows that 70 percent of Americans oppose the United States and its allies’ sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria. A mere 20 percent favor the initiative.
Yet Obama is taking the next step toward an active US role in the conflict.
Public opinion is not the only measure to be applied in weighing military engagements. But the wisdom of the people ought not be casually dismissed—especially when it comes to questions of whether their country should involve itself in distant civil wars.
If ever there was a time when congressional oversight needed—make that required, if one inclined toward a literal reading of the Constitution—this would seem to be it.
But Congress is disengaged and dysfunctional.
The House and the Senate choose not, for the most part, to govern. And they are especially resistant to governing when it comes to checking and balancing presidential decisions to embark upon military endeavors that carry with them the prospect of escalation and blowback. Congress relies too frequently on the convoluted and constitutionally dubious War Powers Act as an out for avoiding direct responsibility.
This is deeply unfortunate, not just in the immediate moment but on the long arc of history.
The United States is ill-suited to a career of empire, as former Secretary of State John Quincy Adams reminded the Congress in 1821.
“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” Adams explained four years before he would assume the presidency. “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force… She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
It was an understanding of the many threats that go with the search for monsters to destroy that led the framers to rest the war-making power with the Congress. Now, however, Congress is resistant to taking up the basic work of oversight.
Indeed, its inclination is toward writing blank checks.
During the recent debate over the National Defense Authorization Act, Congressman Chris Gibson, R-New York, and John Garamendi, D-California, submitted a bipartisan amendment that would have removed “Sense of Congress” language—previously added to the NDAA—which might be read as signaling support for US military interventions and engagements in Syria. Only 123 members of the House (sixty-two Republicans, sixty-one Democrats) supported the amendment, while 301 members (168 Republicans and 133 Democrats) opposed it.
Garamendi is generally a supporter of President Obama, as are most of the sixty Democrats who joined him in supporting the amendment. They understand that congressional oversight does not weaken or undermine the executive; rather, it establishes a framework in which presidents, their aides and military commanders can operate.
It is not a matter of partisanship that argues for congressional action. It is a combination of common sense and respect for the Constitution.
In arguing for the amendment, Gibson made the wise case that “we need to proceed with more caution—having a full and robust debate on the situation in Syria and how and if the United States should be involved. As we saw in Libya—operations I opposed from the start—it is critical we use the utmost caution when involving Americans overseas.”
That was the common sense argument. But it did not prevail.
This is troubling.
It made even more troubling by the fact that the practical argument made by the congressman from New York is, as well, the constitutional argument.
A Congress that cedes its authority to check and balance the military manipulations of the executive branch does not merely diminish its own stature. It undermines the separation of powers that is essential to keeping the United States from involving itself “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”
No war of whim should ever be embarked upon without a declaration from Congress.
No military endeavor—and that certainly includes the arming of rebels in foreign conflicts—should ever be engaged in without oversight from the US House and the US Senate. That’s a standard that ought to be applied by congressional conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, no matter who sits in the White House.
The new book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Book),explores how big money has made politics and government dysfunctional. Naomi Klein says: “John Nichols and Bob McChesney make a compelling, and terrifying, case that American democracy is becoming American dollarocracy. Even more compelling, and hopeful, is their case for a radical reform agenda to take power back from the corporations and give it to the people.”
The Supreme Court defended voting rights in Arizona, but what part of the bill did the leave intact? Read Aura Bogado’s report here.
A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, holds up his rifle and waves a Syrian independence flag in the Damascus suburb of Saqba January 27, 2012. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
The US House of Representatives took an important step last week toward the restoration of the separation of powers that was established so that Congress would check and balance presidential war-making.
But Congress has not hit its stride.
The House voted overwhelming for a measure supporting a full and accelerated end to the war in Afghanistan and expressing the sense of Congress that any post-2014 US military force in Afghanistan requires new and explicit authorization.
After twelve years of failing to check and balance the war-making of successive administrations, the House voted 305-121 for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which
[requires] the President to complete the accelerated transition of combat operations from U.S. Armed Forces to the Government of Afghanistan no later than by the end of 2013; the accelerated transition of military and security operations by the end of 2014, including the redeployment of U.S. troops; and to pursue robust negotiations to address Afghanistan’s and the region’s security and stability.
“Today is the first time in twelve years of war that a majority of the House of Representatives has voted to end the war in Afghanistan,” Stephen Miles of the Win Without War coalition said after last Thursday’s vote.
Because the Senate endorsed a similar measure in 2012—by a 62-33 vote—veteran antiwar activist Tom Hayden notes that “politically, the development means that the Obama administration effectively lacks any congressional authorization for a permanent military occupation of Afghanistan.”
The amendment, sponsored by Congressman Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who has long been allied with antiwar groups such as Progressive Democrats of America, also “establishes the sense of Congress that should the President determine the necessity for post 2014 deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Congress should vote to authorize such a presence and mission by no later than June 2014.”
In urging his colleagues to support the amendment, McGovern (who worked on the measure with Representatives Walter Jones, R-North Carolina; Barbara Lee, D-California, and John Garamendi, D-California) explained before the vote: “It is time to end the war in Afghanistan, bring our troops home and take seriously our duty as a Congress.”
That stance, which once would have been considered radical, drew broad bipartisan support.
The amendment secured widespread backing from Democrats: 185 were in favor of the proposal (including Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi of California, and Steny Hoyer of Maryland) while just nine Democrats opposed it.
The amendment also won among Republicans, with 120 in favor to 112 opposed. But the Republican support came with a caveat: Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, did not vote. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-California, voted “no,” as did many prominent Republicans who chair House committees, including Oversight and Government Reform’s Darrell Issa, R-California, and Homeland Security’s Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
The position of the Republican leaders does not bode well for a broad shift in the approach of Congress to questions about military adventures abroad. That’s especially unfortunate at a time when the Obama administration is ramping up US support for Syrian rebels—a move that should be checked and balanced by Congress.
And its not just a leadership challenge.
When two members of the House—New York Republican Chris Gibson and California Democrat John Garamendi—submitted a bipartisan amendment that would have eliminated Sense of Congress language calling for a US military intervention in Syria, it failed with just 123 “yes” votes to 301 “no” votes.
So where does this leave us?
It is significant that the House has laid a marker down with regard to the Afghanistan occupation—with an appropriate signal about the need for the president to seek congressional approval for further action in the country.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who cast the lone vote in opposition to the 2001 resolution that the Bush and Obama administrations cited as justification for an open-ended “war of terror” that has sent tens of thousands of US troops to Afghanistan, was pleased by the show of backbone.
“I have long called for a responsible and immediate end to the war in Afghanistan and [last week’s] congressional action is long overdue,” said Lee. “With the passage of this amendment, it’s clear that we are turning a corner on the war in Afghanistan. It’s long past time for the longest war in America’s history to come to an end.”
But that should not be the end of it.
It is long past time for Congress to fully and unapologetically reassert its role as the branch of the federal government that is supposed to declare wars and to check and balance the administrations that pursue them.
That’s true with regard to Afghanistan. But it is equally true with regard to conflicts that are now drawing more and more US attention, including the Syria imbroglio.
So while Congress may be starting to “get it” with regard to Afghanistan, Congress does not yet “get it” with regard to its broader constitutional mandate to declare wars and check and balance all military endeavors.
The new book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), is out this week—with an introduction by Senator Bernie Sanders.
The Supreme Court struck down Arizona's voter suppression law. Read Ari Berman's analysis here.
Representative Peter King on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, January 2, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
New York Congressman Peter King, with his call for the prosecution of journalist Glenn Greenwald, recalls a long and dishonorable American tradition.
Never mind that, as The Washington Post notes, King is guilty of “willfully misquoting and misconstruing the many public comments made by both Greenwald and Edward Snowden.”
The congressman is not satisfied to go after Snowden, the private contractor who has provided a measure of insight regarding the extent to which we live in a surveillance state. King wants at the journalist who dared to tell the people.
Growling that “legal action should be taken against [Greenwald],” the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security dismissed First Amendment concerns, declaring that “no right is absolute!”—and that includes the First Amendment right of the people to be served by a free press.
So King is calling for the “very targeted, very selective” prosecution of journalists for informing the American people about what their government is doing—and why it might be wrong.
How very 1798 of him.
It was in that year that President John Adams presided over the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts in a mad rush to disregard civil liberties and begin jailing his political and journalistic critics. In doing so, Adams and his allies opened what would be a defining debate when it came to the American understanding of the freedom of the press protection in particular and the broader right to challenge the claims of the government.
It was an intense time, arguably the most dangerous moment faced by the new nation. Dissenters were accused of threatening the safety and security of the republic.
Those who did not meet the approval of Adams and his cronies were punished for sharing information and ideas that provided citizens with dissent from the official line. Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon was prosecuted and jailed for, among other things, publishing a condemnation of Adams’s “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice” in his newspaper The Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truth.
Lyon believed that Adams was steering the United States toward war with France, and he wrote and spoke about the folly of that endeavor. Adams and his allies used the hastily enacted Alien and Sedition Acts to punish what was perceived as malicious writing with regard to the government in general, and Adams in particular.
The abuses of basic liberties were so extreme that the sitting vice president, Thomas Jefferson, openly broke with Adams and emerged as the outspoken leader of the opposition.
“A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles,” wrote Jefferson after the passage of the laws that would be used to assault not just freedom of the press but also the right to dissent.
The Virginian challenged Adams for the presidency in 1800, declaring, “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Jefferson defeated Adams, securing a victory that would renew the revolutionary “spirit of ’76” and secure—for a time—the promise of the Bill of Rights.
But only for a time.
In his rant about the current controversy, Peter King said something about crackdowns on a free press being a “certainly very rare” shredding of the Constitution. Actually, it’s not very rare.
The conflict over the right of a free press to speak truth to power—and to state truths that power would prefer to keep hidden—has never really ended.
It stirred during World War I, when the government sought to run socialist and anarchist newspapers out of business.
It stirred in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon’s administration was busy placing the names of journalists on its enemies list—and seeking to thwart the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
It has stirred in recent weeks, with revelations that the Department of Justice has targeted journalists for inquiries that the head of the Associated Press warns could create a circumstance where “the people of the United States will only know what the government wants them to know.”
There have always been Peter Kings—politicians, motivated by “selfish avarice,” who would prosecute and jail those who inform Americans of what is being done in their name but without their informed consent.
What must be just as constant is the confident defense of the Bill of Rights that says, as Jefferson did in the midst of the great struggle to thwart the abuses of Adams, “I am…for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of the new book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books). Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says: “Dollarocracy gets at what’s ailing America better than any other diagnosis I’ve encountered. Plus it prescribes a cure. What else could a reader—or a citizen—ask? To me, it’s the book of the year.”
Tech experts say Glenn Greenwald misinterpreted one of the NSA slides leaked by Edward Snowden. Read Rick Perlstein’s report here.
A member of the audience uses their celphone to take a picture of President Barack Obama speaking at a fundraiser in Chicago, Wednesday, May 29, 2013. (AP Photo/ Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
As long as we’re opening a discussion about data mining, might we consider the fact that it’s not just the government that’s paying attention to our digital entanglements?
There’s a reason the National Security Agency was interested in accessing the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. When you’re mining, you go where the precious resources are, and technology companies have got the gold.
Data is digital gold. Corporations know that. They’re big into data mining.
But it’s not just profits that data can yield.
Data is also mined by those who seek power.
Political candidates, political parties, Super PACS and dark-money groups are among the most ambitious data miners around. They use data to supercharge their fund-raising, to target multimillion-dollar ad buys and to stir passions and fears at election time.
Data mining drives the money-and-media election complex that is rapidly turning American democracy into an American Dollarocracy, where election campaigns are long on technical savvy but short, very short, on vision.
Here’s a short excerpt from the new book by myself and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books), which is published today. It focuses on data mining by political campaigns:
* * *
If there was one assessment of the 2012 campaign that the campaign consultants loved above all others, it was the analysis that said, “Thar’s gold in them thar iPhones.” After two decades of trying to figure out how to monetize bits and bytes, the consulting class is now all in for the digitalization of our politics. Indeed, the final election-season issue of Campaigns & Elections (“the magazine for people in politics”) featured “10 Bold Ideas for the Future of Consulting.” This was the money-and-media election complex talking to itself, and there was no mistaking the message. Yes, of course, there were the calls for more spending: “Money in Politics: Time to Embrace It.” And complaints about even the most minimal restraints on campaign donations: “Give Candidates the Ability to Fight Back: With Contribution Limits Intact, What’s a Candidate to Do?”
But the primary focus of the “bold proposals” was on spreading the political pathologies of the “old media”—brutal negative campaigning, crude messaging, divisive tactics, and, above all big spending—to the “new media.” “Political Technology Is Best Served Partisan,” declared one headline, which was sandwiched between “The Future of Direct Mail Is Digital” and “Software Will Revolutionize Local Politics.” Any fleeting talk of ideals and values was mostly muffled by the drooling over dollars: “The political technology field is still relatively new and whenever a new industry shows promise and money is being made, venture capitalists are quick to notice and search out promising opportunities for investment,” noted one of the more thoughtful commentators. “Some in the political technology space have been quick to meet these new players with a ready grin and an open palm.”
The political players who have mastered television and radio and direct mail, the Karl Roves and the David Axelrods, as well as the thousands of consultants you’ve never heard of, are deep into a process that they believe will allow them to master the Internet. The reality is that the consulting class no longer views the Internet as a “new frontier” or a tool that needs to be understood. Those are the discussions of ten, even fifteen years ago.
Now, their professional journals are packed with ads that scream “Big Data. Bigger Results” and “Canvassing Tools for the Mobile Campaign.” The digital tipping point has not been reached, but we can see it from here—and so can the consultants, slow as they may once have been. They are now racing toward it because they have come to understand, thanks to the innovations and successes of the Obama campaign, that there could well be another pot of gold just beyond the tipping point.
Truth be told, there’s already a good deal of gold being spread around. By our calculations, the total amount of campaign money spent online for political advertising in 2012 was in the range of $300-350 million. This was a good tenfold increase from 2008, and what was spent on the Internet in 2012 was almost twice what was spent on television candidate ads in the entirety of the 1972 election, even when inflation is factored in. Recall that in 1972 this level of TV advertising was widely considered scandalous and could have had no small number of Americans fantasizing about burning their TV sets in effigy. So 2012 Internet political advertising was hardly chopped liver, and by all accounts its exponential growth rate will continue through election cycles for the foreseeable future.
Online advertising is, of course, the easiest measure of political activity on the Internet. But it is neither the beginning nor the end of the Internet’s role in American politics. In our view, the focus on advertising understates the Internet’s overall role in campaigns. In 2012, the Pew Research Center determined that 47 percent of voters categorized the Internet as a “main campaign news source,” second only to television, well ahead of newspapers and radio, and up from 36 percent in 2008 and 21 percent in 2004. Pew research also determined that 55 percent of registered voters watched political videos online and nearly 25 percent watched live videos online of candidate speeches, press conferences, or debates. Moreover, 45 percent of smartphone owners used their phones to read other people’s comments about a campaign or candidate on a social networking site, while 35 percent of smartphone owners actually used their phones to “look up whether something they just heard about a candidate or the campaign in general was true.” A Google poll found that 64 percent of battleground-state voters used the Internet to fact-check the candidates. After the first Obama-Romney debates, there were more than 10 million tweets, making it to that point the most tweeted about event ever in U.S. politics. By November 2012, there were 110,000 political Facebook pages in the United States and more than 11,000 pages just for American politicians. Nearly 25 percent of all the time that Americans spend online is spent on Facebook.
In short, these aren’t your grandfather’s elections, or your father’s, or even your older sister’s. “Shaking hands and all the traditional campaign stuff has not gone away. You must still do it to win,” Alan Rosenblatt of the Center for American Progress put it, “but if you don’t have a complementary online strategy you can’t win either.” Of course, digital political ad spending matters, and, yes, it will matter a whole lot more in the elections to come. But emphasizing digital political ad spending over all other aspects of the Internet as a source of political insight, inspiration and manipulation does a grave injustice to the digital revolution occurring in political campaigns. The Internet is already in the bone marrow of the American election system.
And not just at the grassroots.
The digital revolution has not rendered giant corporations clumsy dinosaurs on their way to extinction with a tidal wave of competition and consumer empowerment. In grand irony, the Internet has arguably become the greatest generator of monopoly power in the history of economics. Everywhere enormous firms all ranking among the most valuable in the world—Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, with eBay and Facebook not far behind—have monopolistic domination of huge digital markets often equal to or greater than what John D. Rockefeller enjoyed with Standard Oil in the Gilded Age. As The Economist put it, the Internet invariably generates “quasi-monopoly” through “winner-take-almost-all markets.” The reasons for this development have been spelled out elsewhere and derive from network economics, the capacity of digital communication to collapse space, patents, standards, and, with time, good old barriers to entry with the enormous capital requirements of cloud computing.
The significance of this digital monopoly capitalism for our argument is twofold. There is the general issue of Dollarocracy versus democracy: this much-concentrated economic power and wealth inequality are invariably dangerous for the survival of credible self-government. And then there is the issue of how this new kind of economic power translates into political power. Given the titanic power these firms have in the overall global economy, their political power should soon approach untouchable status under Dollarocracy, if it is not there already. This is especially true for policy debates directly affecting the direction of the Internet, where a number of crucial issues are in play, ranging from copyright law, network neutrality, community broadband, and the digital divide to taxation, antitrust, and, arguably most important of all, privacy. The old saw in politics is that if you’re not at the negotiating table when deals are being made, you’re what’s being served.
To address this new world, and to take advantage of cookies themselves, Internet publishers are increasingly “personalizing” their Web sites so that different users get different content at the sites depending upon what their personal data tell about them. Already Google search results for the same entry generate different responses for users depending on their extensive Google profile. Click on a major news site, and different people get different headlines and stories depending upon their demographics. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt noted that individual targeting is “so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” The age of people sharing a similar digital experience or having a serendipitous experience online is fading, with all that loss suggests. We now experience a “filter bubble,” as Eli Pariser put it. Jeffrey Rosen wrote that “a world of customized ads, news, and politics is one where advertisers, publishers and politicians rank and differentiate us. They evaluate us not as citizens but as consumers, putting us in different—and often secret—categories, based on the amount of money they predict we’ll spend or the votes they predict we’ll cast.
“Personal data is the oil of the information age,” the New York Times observed, and that captures exactly where the most important transformation of election campaigns, digital or otherwise, is occurring. In 2012, digital data collection moved from the margins to the center for the presidential campaigns. “While the media coverage is focused on rallies and the last-minute dash by Obama and Romney through seven swing states,” a reporter observed on the eve of the election, “the real work of the first ever billion-dollar campaign is being done behind closed doors.”
Some, perhaps much, of the ease with which President Obama won reelection despite historically unfavorable metrics has been attributed to his decided advantage over the Romney campaign in the underpublicized development of data collection and its effective utilization. Although both sides fought to a draw with their carpet-bombing of TV political ads, Politico tech reporter Jennifer Martinez wrote, “Obama’s treasure trove of data helped give him a notable edge over Republican Mitt Romney.” It was striking that when Tim Dickinson did his postmortem of the 2012 presidential campaign, his top six most valuable Obama operatives were the folks in charge of or directly connected to the digital operation; strategist David Axelrod and the traditional TV ad managers and pollsters followed them well down the list.
Obama’s Chicago-based campaign offices were dominated by his secretive analytics department, where hundreds of specialists crunched numbers. As one reporter who got an inside look put it, the football-field-sized office “looks like a corporate research and development lab.” The “Chief Data Scientist” of the Obama team was Rayid Ghani, an expert in artificial intelligence who came from Accenture Technology Labs, where he was a trailblazer in consumer data mining for retail purposes. Ghani’s directive “was to devise algorithms that could sift through the massive amounts of data collected by the campaign,” as Dickinson put it. “If you used Facebook to log onto the Obama campaign’s Web site, you revealed to them your entire social network.”
Among other things, the Obama team consolidated all of its disparate databases from 2008, and placed nearly all of the material on the Amazon Web Services cloud, where Ghani and his staff could slice and dice the data as never before. “The biggest idea we brought to bear,” said Dan Wagner, who ran Obama’s analytics team, “was integrating data and then acting on what it told us.”
The secrecy of the effort was such that we cannot accurately determine how much money the Obama campaign spent in this area—or what all the campaigns together spent. But we do know the Obama campaign cut no corners here. In 2008, the Obama campaign dominated Republicans on the burgeoning social media platforms, and that dominance on the increasingly ubiquitous Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube continued through 2012. But the campaign’s 2012 initiative went much further. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina acknowledged that he made the 2012 analytics staff five times larger than the much-ballyhooed analytics staff in the 2008 campaign, because 2012 was going to be a “totally different, metric-driven kind of campaign.” When asked for any specifics about the data work before the election, the campaign clammed up. “They are our nuclear codes,” campaign spokesperson Ben LaBolt told reporters. Data accumulation and evaluation were the Obama campaign’s Manhattan Project.
The Obama data operation took Schmidt’s advice and drew heavily from private sector talent; one operative called the effort a $1 billion “disposable startup.” No, it did not cost $1 billion to create or run; but it got that sort of bang for the buck. That is what so intrigued corporate observers. The Obama campaign was not only joined to the corporate data industry at the hip; it also proved to have been the dominant partner in the relationship.
“Until recently, everyone in politics thought the commercial sector knew better how to locate and engage with their customers, and tried to apply that to politics,” a reporter for Britain’s Spectator put it. Now experts believe “the Obama campaign has now leapfrogged the commercial world.” The morning after the election, Messina said of his high-tech staff, “Corporate America, Silicon Valley were knocking down the door trying to hire these guys.” Romney’s campaign engaged in much the same activities. As the Wall Street Journal put it, both “presidential campaigns have gone further than commercial advertisers ever have in using online and offline data to target people.” Obama’s campaign, by most accounts, just did more of it and was better at it.
Sasha Issenberg said the great breakthrough in 2012 was “linking a person’s offline political identity with their online presence.” Both presidential campaigns had on average around one thousand data points on each voter. Strategists affiliated with the campaigns acknowledged they had “access to information about the personal lives of voters never before imagined.” Whereas much of commercial online data collection tends to keep the actual identities of computer users anonymous—because advertisers target users by demographic criteria that do not require knowing the precise identity—political campaigns had every incentive to know who exactly was connected to the online profiles and where exactly they lived. There was no such thing as “too much information.”
This is where the “fun” begins. As The Economist put it, “The point of all these data is to mine them for insights into the electorate and identify pockets of voters who can be won over—either to vote, spend or volunteer.” Ghani’s team plumbed the data for “motivations, attitudes, and protestations.” As Bloomberg Businessweek described it, the “campaign’s Orwellian knowledge of the electorate—its deep understanding of precisely what, or whom, would motivate someone to act on Obama’s behalf—was such that it could get supporters to appeal to wavering or unreliable friends and acquaintances with individually tailored messages.” The Obama team took the data to predict “which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals.” It created an “optimizer” that was able to crunch all the data to create a new rating system for all Americans based on their likelihood of being an Obama voter. The data-miners created support scores “for every single voter in battleground states,” Messina explained after the election, on a scale of “1 to 100, on whether they would support us.” This gave them a far superior means to evaluate where and how resources would be best deployed.
Even more importantly, the Obama campaign used its computer power to test and retest and retest again messages to see what worked best with specific sets of individuals and with individuals themselves. It developed the unprecedented “targeted-sharing program”—what Messina termed its “true innovation”—to determine which person should contact another person to get that person to vote for Obama and precisely what type of message would be most effective. “People really trust their friends, not political advertising,” Obama campaign digital director Teddy Goff said. Goff’s team provided people with all the “high-quality, shareable content” they needed to be “effective ambassadors for the campaign.” It was basically idiot-proof. The Obama campaign was able to use targeted sharing on 85 percent of its turnout targets aged twenty-nine and under, largely through Facebook, which was used to reach 5 million such prospects. “What businesses find so tantalizing about the Obama campaign is that it has advanced this phenomenon to its next iteration,” Bloomberg Businessweek noted. “Your friend isn’t just raving about Pepsi; he’s telling you, in language and images likely to resonate with you, that you should be drinking Pepsi, too.”
The significance of this observation cannot be underestimated, as if offers deep perspective on the extent to which the civic and democratic values that ought to underpin our politics are being replaced by commercial and entertainment values—so much so that businesses now emulate campaigns. We have come full circle from the days when Adlai Stevenson said in 1956, “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process.” Now the folks who sell breakfast cereal are taking marketing cues from the folks who do politics.
The lesson of 2012 was summed up by reporter Molly McHugh: “No interested candidate is going to see this campaign and not want to replicate what the Obama team was able to do by taking the mountains of information the Internet holds and turn it into deliverables.” “Everyone will want to jump on the data train,” ElectNext CEO Keya Dannenbaum said after the election. “Much like Obama pioneered campaigning on social media and now all politicians are there, so too it will be with big data.” Or as Kantar Media president Ken Goldstein put it, “Future campaigns ignore the targeting strategy of the Obama campaign of 2012 at their peril.” This is the next stop on the path of the money-and-media election complex.
At this point, the ethical and social implications of the digital transformation of campaigns are still mostly unexplored. It is a world where the guiding principle is, as Ghani put it, “Will it get me more votes? If not, I don’t care.” For some insiders, the seamy underside of digital data collection and microtargeting may be better left unsaid. “These are the kinds of things that I think smart people would keep to themselves,” an interactive political consultant said. The process may be getting to the point where it cannot be ignored. An ad executive with experience on Republican campaigns provided a sober assessment: “They are tactics that are pretty standard in marketing, but they are nonetheless ‘Orwellian.’ Those of us who’ve read 1984 look at this and say, ‘This is unbelievable.’” Nor should Democrats regard the digital transformation as not especially problematic because their guy won. The great political reporter David Broder interviewed LBJ staffers after their landslide election victory in 1964. Broder noted the “lip-smacking glee” they exhibited at how the revolutionary Daisy TV ad “had foisted on the American public a picture of Barry Goldwater as the nuclear-mad bomber who was going to saw off the eastern seaboard of the United States.” “The only thing that worries me, Dave,” one of the staffers confided to Broder, “is that some year an outfit as good as ours might go to work for the wrong candidate.”
The new book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America, is published this week by Nation Books. Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says: “Dollarocracy gets at what’s ailing America better than any other diagnosis I’ve encountered. Plus it prescribes a cure. What else could a reader—or a citizen—ask? To me, it’s the book of the year.”
After the Greek government announced the closing of the state broadcaster ERT, workers occupied the building while protesters gathered outside. Read Maria Margaronis’s report here.
A member of the US Secret Service looks out from the roof of the White House in Washington April 11, 2010. REUTERS/Richard Clement (UNITED STATES—Tags: POLITICS)
With backing from the the American Civil Liberties Union, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), the American Association of Law Libraries, The Constitution Project and open-government groups, eight Democratic and Republican senators have introduced legislation that would end the “secret law” governing controversial government surveillance programs.
The measure, coming amid daily revelations about the extent to which the National Security Agency is monitoring communications by Americans, would require the Attorney General to declassify significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions. The senators say the move would allow Americans to know how broad of a legal authority the government is claiming to spy on Americans under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” explains Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat who has been an outspoken advocate for congressional oversight of surveillance programs. “There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies. We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’s communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”
Merkley’s co-sponsors include Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, as well as Senators Dean Heller, a Republican from Nevada; Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska; Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota; Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana; and Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.
The senators explain: “The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is a special US federal court tasked with authorizing requests for surveillance both inside and outside the United States. Because of the sensitive nature of these requests, the FISC is a “secret court.” The FISC rulings, orders, and other deliberations are highly classified. The Court’s rulings can include substantive interpretations of the law that could be quite different from a plain reading of the law passed by Congress, and such interpretations determine the extent of the government’s surveillance authority. There is certainly information included in the Court’s orders and rulings that is necessarily classified, related to the sources and methods of collection used by intelligence agencies. However, the substantive legal interpretations of what the FISC says the law means should be made public.”
Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, which has for a number of years been raising concerns about the FISA court, sees an opening for legislative oversight that has been missing for so long.
“The ultimate check on governmental overreach is the American public,” says Abdo. “For years, the government has secretly relied on sweeping interpretations of its surveillance powers, preventing the very debate it has now belatedly invited on the wisdom and legality of those powers.”
Leahy’s embrace of the initiative is especially significant.
The Judiciary Committee chair’s willingness to step up as a cosponsor of this proposal offers a sense of frustration, even among key players in the Congress, with NSA secrecy—and, frankly, with the failure of the House and Senate to respond effectively, at least to this point, to privacy concerns that have been raised repeatedly since the enactment of the Patriot Act in 2001.
“For years, I have pressed for information about the business records program authorized by the Patriot Act to be declassified,” says Leahy. “I am proud to join in this bipartisan legislative effort to increase openness and transparency so that we can shed further light on the business records program authorized by this law.”
John Nichols is the author (with Robert W. McChesney) of the new book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America, which outlines a reform agenda that calls for establishing a guaranteed right to vote, getting corporate money out of politics and opening up the political proces.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie answers a question during a campaign event in Manville, New Jersey, Monday, May 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
It is not just Democrats who object to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s gaming of the political process to schedule the state’s special Senate election twenty days before his own gubernatorial election.
State Senator Michael Doherty, one of the most conservative Republicans in the New Jersey legislature, ripped Christie for calling the election to replace the late US Senator Frank Lautenberg for October 16, rather than having it coincide with the regularly scheduled November 5 election.
Like everyone else who pays even passing attention to politics, Dohery knows why Christie scheduled the unnecessary extra election, at an expense to taxpayers of at least $12 million. The governor, who is looking to score a big re-election win to jumpstart a 2016 Republican presidential run, wanted to avoid having to deal with a lot of Democratic voters who will show up to vote in the Senate race (for a marquee nominee such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker or Congressman Rush Holt or Congressman Frank Pallone or Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver)—and who might stick around to vote for Christie’s hard-working if underfunded Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono.
Doherty, a movement conservative who has often sparred with his party’s governor, has called on Christie to scrap the October 16 scheme and schedule a November 5 Senate election. That would make it possible to move the Democratic and Republican primaries to later dates—allowing more candidates to run.
Of course, Christie is not interested in small-“d” democratic niceties. So he’s not going to reschedule the election without a fight.
As it happens, however, he has a fight on his hands: a key Democratic senator says the governor could be forced to do the right thing.
State Senator Shirley K. Turner has introduced legislation that would upset Christie’s scheme. Under Turner’s plan, the date of the state’s general election would be shifted from November to October 16.
“Moving an election is not unprecedented,” says Turner. “In 2005, we moved the presidential primary election from June to February and then passed legislation in 2011 to move it back to June. The trend is to have fewer elections to save taxpayers money and increase voter participation, not schedule more elections, create more waste, and have fewer people vote. Not only does it cost more to have a special election three weeks before the General election—a total of four elections in four months—it creates more confusion and voter fatigue. People are just too busy working two jobs, in some cases, and taking care of family obligations to carve out the time to vote every month.”
Indeed, argues Turner, “scheduling two special elections is a form of voter suppression, especially when October 16 is a Wednesday.”
Turner has asked for quick action on her bill. And she says she’s received strong support from colleagues.
Who knows? She might even get Republican Senator Doherty to vote with her. In fact, if enough principled conservatives do the right thing, the legislature might even beat a Christie veto, a result that could even teach the governor a thing or two about respecting the electorate—as opposed to his own ambitions.
John Nichols is the author (with Robert W. McChesney) of the upcoming book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America, which outlines a reform agenda that calls for establishing a guaranteed right to vote, getting corporate money out of politics and electing—rather than appointing—all senators.
Read more about the late Frank Lautenberg, the last of the New Deal liberals.
Former senator Russ Feingold. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Russ Feingold is no longer in the US Senate.
And that is unfortunate.
No one took more seriously the duty to defend privacy rights than the civil libertarian senator from Wisconsin, who served for the better part of two decades as the essential member of the Constitution Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee—and who cast the only Senate vote against the Patriot Act because of the threat he recognized to the guarantees outline in the Fourth Amendment.
But with the report by The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald that the NSA has been tracking every call by Verizon business customers, and with The Washington Post report that a National Security Agency program took e-mails and other information from companies that included “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, it is vital that the new Feingolds in the Senate start to make a lot more noise.
With revelations that "open the possibility of communications made entirely within the US being collected without warrants," engagd members of the House and Senate know that congressional response has to be far more aggressive, as past failures by the House and Senate to provide proper oversight has left the Fourth Amendment at best vulnerable and at worst shredded.
Some senators think that’s acceptable. Indeed, Senator Lindsay Graham, R-SC, has declared himself “glad” that the National Security Agency is obtaining the phone records of millions of Verizon customers. And key Democrats, such as Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-California, have adopted a “what’s-the-big-deal?” stance that says the spying is old news that senators should have been aware of.
But many of the sharpest and most engaged members of the chamber are rejecting that assessment. Among those stepping up today were Democrats and Republicans who have histories of expressing concern about abuses of privacy rights. In the House, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, Jr., and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, Virginia Democrat Robert C. "Bobby" Scott moved fast to declare: "The recent revelation that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has approved the blanket and ongoing collection of telephone records -- including those of everyday Americans with absolutely no ties to terrorism -- is highly problematic and reveals serious flaws in the scope and application of the USA PATRIOT Act. We believe this type of program is far too broad and is inconsistent with our Nation's founding principles. We cannot defeat terrorism by compromising our commitment to our civil rights and liberties."
They're calling for immediate hearings.
But the real action is likely to be in the Senate.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has become increasingly outspoken on civil liberties issues, was quick to respond to the Greenwald story, saying: "The American people have a right to know whether their government thinks that the sweeping, dragnet surveillance that has been alleged in this story is allowed under the law and whether it is actually being conducted."
Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who has led the fight to declassify secret rulings by so-called FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts, was even more pointed in his response to the revelations.
“This type of secret bulk data collection is an outrageous breach of Americans’ privacy. I have had significant concerns about the intelligence community over-collecting information about Americans’ telephone calls, emails, and other records and that is why I voted against the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act provisions in 2011 and the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act just six months ago,” says Merkley. “This bulk data collection is being done under interpretations of the law that have been kept secret from the public. Significant FISA court opinions that determine the scope of our laws should be declassified. Can the FBI or the NSA really claim that they need data scooped up on tens of millions of Americans?”
Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who voted against the Patriot Act as a member of the House, made no bones about his objections to Obama-era extensions of a domestic surveillance program that has swept up millions of telephone records on calls by Americans who were not suspected of any wrongdoing.
“The United States should not be accumulating phone records on tens of millions of innocent Americans. That is not what democracy is about. That is not what freedom is about. Congress must address this issue and protect the constitutional rights of the American people,” said Sanders. “While we must aggressively pursue international terrorists and all of those who would do us harm, we must do it in a way that protects the Constitution and the civil liberties which make us proud to be Americans.”
The senator cut the current administration no slack. But he put the broad debate over the NSA phone sweeps—which Senate Intelligence Committee leaders say have been going on since 2007—in perspective.
“As one of the few members of Congress who consistently voted against the Patriot Act, I expressed concern at the time of passage that it gave the government far too much power to spy on innocent United State citizens and provided for very little oversight or disclosure,” said Sanders. “Unfortunately, what I said turned out to be exactly true.”
Their expressions of concern have been echoed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who termed the NSA activities an “astounding assault on the Constitution.”
Paul argues that “If the President and Congress would obey the Fourth Amendment we all swore to uphold, this new shocking revelation that the government is now spying on citizens’ phone data en masse would never have happened.”
The key there is the reference to Congress. The inconvenient truth is that presidents, be they Republicans or Democrats, tend to claim the constitutional space that is afforded them by the House and Senate.
That’s no excuse for the actions of George Bush or Barack Obama. But it is a fact that Congress has done a lousy job of checking and balancing successive administrations who it comes to privacy concerns.
In May, 2011, a complicated set of votes were held on extension of the Patriot Act. Amendments that would have protected privacy rights were defeated and the final vote saw just twenty-three senators—eighteen Democrats including Merkley, independent Sanders and four Republicans including Paul—vote “no.”
That’s way better than the one “no” vote Feingold cast in 2001.
But it is way short of what is needed to defend privacy rights.
With the latest revelation, Congress has an opportunity to do what Feingold begged the House and especially the Senate to do from 2001 on: provide meaningful oversight and real checks and balances on surveillance initiatives that are clearly at odds with a Fourth Amendment protection that says, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”
Feingold warned us five years ago that Congress, through its inaction and its explicit authorizations of unchecked surveillance in the Patriot Act and rewrites of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, ushered in “one of the greatest intrusions, potentially, on the rights of Americans protected under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution in the history of our country.”
Ideally, the pair of former senators who once expressed deep concerns about abuses of privacy rights and now serve as president and vice president would take the lead in addressing abuses.
But it is an understanding that the executive branch rarely surrenders authority that had been ceded to it that led the founders to separate the powers of the federal government. They wanted to assure that, when the executive branch did not act properly, the legislative branch could step up.
It is time for Congress to recognize that Feingold was right in his warning. The potential for for intrusions on the rights of Americans protected under the Fourth Amendment has been realized.
And it must be addressed by a Congress that understands and embraces its role as a defender of the Constitution to which every member swears an oath.
John Nichols is the author (with Robert W. McChesney) of the upcoming book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America. Hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fervent call to action for reformers,” it details how the collapse of journalism and the rise of big-money politics threatens to turn our democracy into a dollarocracy.
Chris Christie. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
The last time that New Jersey voters elected a Republican to the United States Senate, Richard Nixon topped the party ticket and the winning Senate candidate was Clifford Case, a proudly liberal Republican who opposed the war in Vietnam, embraced civil rights and environmental protection and frequently ran with the backing of the AFL-CIO.
Since 1972, thirteen Republicans have been nominated in thirteen elections for Senate seats—four of which had no incumbent on the November ballot—and thirteen Republicans have been defeated.
In recognition of that reality, a typically cynical Republican governor might have taken advantage of the state’s confusing and contradictory statutes to appoint a Republican successor to Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died Monday. An appointed senator could have served through the end of 2014. With Senate deliberations so shaped by arcane rules, partisan divisions and ideological positioning, an appointed rather than elected senator would have provided a boost to the Senate Republican Caucus at a potentially definitional stage in Barack Obama’s second term.
But Chris Christie is not a typically cynical Republican governor.
Chris Christie is a supremely cynical Republican governor.
How cynical? Try this:
Christie has chosen to schedule the special election to fill Lautenberg’s seat on October 16—twenty days before the regularly scheduled state election. And he’s still going to send an unelected Republican-selected senator to Washington during a critical stage in congressional deliberations.
The governor wants New Jersey, and America, to think that his scheduling of the special election is a nobly nonpartisan gesture. There is, after all, a very real prospect that come October another Democrat—perhaps Newark Mayor Cory Booker, perhaps Congressman Frank Pallone, perhaps someone else—will win another New Jersey Senate election. “I’ve decided on a special election because I firmly believe we must allow the citizens of this state to have their say,” he piously announced on Tuesday.
But don’t confuse Christie with a small “d” democrat.
He’s twisting the process to his own advantage.
The governor could have scheduled the special election on a timeline that paralleled New Jersey’s November 5 election—in which polls peg Christie as a favorite to be re-elected. That would have saved taxpayers at least $24 million dollars and a lot of confusion. Instead, notes New Jersey Working Families Alliance executive director Bill Holland, Christie has chosen to hold two general elections in a one-month period—an approach that is all but certain to confuse the electorate and suppress turnout.
“What the governor’s done will disenfranchises voters,” says Holland. “It guarantees that turnout will be low, and that those whose voices are not being heard in Washington will be heard even less.”
Christie’s move—which has angered Senate Republicans in Washington, as well as Democrats in New Jersey—was entirely self-serving.
By gaming the ill-defined process, the governor has protected himself from the prospect that Democratic voters—mobilized by the Senate contest—might stick around to vote for his determined, yet underfunded, Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono. Were Cory Booker, the most prominent African-American political figure in the state and a popular figure with young voters, on the ballot as the Democratic nominee for the Senate, the boost in turnout might well change the dynamics up and down the ballot.
Christie wasn’t willing to take that risk.
And tailoring the election schedule to his advantage is just one of Christie’s offenses against democracy.
The governor—despite his declaration that “decisions that need to be made in Washington are too great to be determined by an appointee”—still plans to appoint an interim senator to fill the seat until after the October special election.
That appointee is likely to serve as a reliable member of the Senate Republican Caucus when the chamber addresses key issues ranging from the debt ceiling to trade policy to the future of Social Security and Medicare to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, if Christie chooses to play to the conservative base that will play an outsized role in selecting the 2016 Republican presidential nominee, his pick could make a dysfunctional Senate that much more dysfunctional.
But the worst thing about an interim senator is not the partisanship. It is the anti-democratic nature of the selection. For 120 of the most important days in the legislative calendar—perhaps more—New Jersey will be “represented” not by a senator selected by the voters but by a senator selected by one man, Chris Christie.
This is not what democracy looks like.
The Constitution absolutely bars anyone from sitting in the US House of Representatives by appointment. No seat can be filled except by a regular election or, when a vacancy occurs, by a special election. When the Constitution was amended 100 years ago this spring to establish a directly elected Senate—ending the former practice of choosing senators in the backroom legislative deals of the Gilded Age—the intention of progressive reformers was that Senate seats would be filled in the same manner as House seats.
Unfortunately, the Gilded Age hangers on identified a loophole that allowed governors to make appointments to finish the terms of senators who die or resign. Some states, such as Wisconsin, moved quickly to establish a clear system of special elections to fill vacancies. But most allowed governors to take advantage of the appointment power. And they have abused it ever since.
Dozens of senators have taken office via appointment rather than election over the past century, including ten currently sitting senators. Three senators have been appointed since the 2012 election, and Christie’s “interim” pick will push the number to four.
The appointment process is disorganized and inconsistent. Some governors appoint placeholders, others position allies—or even themselves—to run in upcoming elections. Some governors have to follow rules (in a few states they are required to appoint a member of the party of the departed senator), while others can make up the rules as they go along.
Five years ago, Senator Russ Feingold, the Democrat who then chaired the Constitution subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined with then–House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers to propose a constitutional amendment to require that all senators be elected. Under the Feingold-Conyers proposal, vacancies in the US Senate would be filled in the same manner as vacancies in the US House—by the voters in quickly called and organized special elections.
With Feingold out of the Senate, and with Conyers now in the minority in the House, there is less discussion of this reform—although some of us have raised the issue consistently since 2008, when Democratic and Republican seats have come open. The inconvenient truth is that both parties take advantage of the loophole. In February, after former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry quit to become President Obama’s secretary of state, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick selected a longtime aide and ally, William “Mo” Cowan, as Kerry’s interim successor.
Cowan has served ably, and he is a Democrat filling a Democratic seat until a new senator is elected June 25. Two other appointees, South Carolina Republican Tim Scott and Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz, will serve until after the 2014 election as unelected senators. That’s the problem that Feingold and Conyers have highlighted: as appointed senators, they have the exact same ability to advance or obstruct legislation and presidential nominations as senators who fought and won elections. And in the case of Scott and Schatz, they will do so for the better part of two years.
Appointed senators are throwbacks to a less democratic time, when the economic and political elites disregarded and disrespected the will of the people. The same goes for the gaming of election schedules to benefit governors who are seeking re-election.
Chris Christie is practicing the politics of the Gilded Age, when powerful executives dismissed electoral niceties and did as they chose.
“This governor isn’t making decisions based on what’s best for New Jersey,” says Bill Holland. “This governor has got the power, and he’s using it to take care of himself. That’s all there is to it.”
John Nichols is the author (with Robert W. McChesney) of the upcoming book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America, which outlines a reform agenda that calls for establishing a guaranteed right to vote, getting corporate money out of politics and electing—rather than appointing—all senators.
Frank Lautenberg speaks on Hurricane Sandy, December 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Frank Lautenberg, the son of a Paterson, New Jersey, silk mill worker and the last World War II veteran serving in the US Senate, took his cues from another political time: a time when liberals were bold and unapologetic, a time when it was understood that government could and should do great things.
One of the few members of Congress who could remember listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio and going to college on the initial GI Bill, Lautenberg served five terms in the US Senate as a champion of great big infrastructure investments—especially for Amtrak and urban public transportation—great big environmental regulations, great big consumer protections and great big investigations of wrongdoing by Wall Street.
It can fairly be said that the New Jersey senator, who died Monday at age 89, kept the New Deal flame lit. Indeed, one of his last major pieces of legislation proposed to renew one of FDR’s greatest legacies: the Works Progress Administration, which provided public-works employment for millions of Americans during the Great Depression that defined Lautenberg’s youth.
When he introduced his “21st Century WPA Act” two years ago, Lautenberg declared, “Our economy will not recover and our nation will not move forward until we put jobs first. Establishing a 21st Century Works Progress Administration would immediately put Americans to work rebuilding our nation and strengthening our communities. Across the country, we continue to benefit from projects completed under President Roosevelt’s WPA, which employed more than three million Americans during a time of great need. A 21st Century WPA would tackle our nation’s job crisis head-on and accelerate our economic recovery.”
A self-made millionaire who paid his own way into politics at age 58, Lautenberg never forgot that government programs lifted him out of poverty. And he refused to bend to the austerity fantasies of official Washington. Indeed, he attacked them with gusto, especially after returning to the Senate in 2003 following a bizarre turn of political events in the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency.
First elected to the Senate in 1982, Lautenberg retired in 2000, saying he was sick of the money chase required to fund big-budget campaigns. Two years later, New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli, a more centrist Democrat with whom Lautenberg had frequently sparred, was hit with a corruption scandal in the midst of the 2002 campaign. Torricelli had to quit, creating a circumstance where it looked as if the Republicans would take the seat virtually by default. But Lautenberg elbowed his way into the race, fought in the courts for a place on the ballot and was easily reelected to the Senate at age 78.
While other Democrats were still trying to figure out how to take on the Bush administration, Lautenberg arrived ready for a fight—calling for investigations into the Bush-Cheney White House and launching blistering attacks on political cronyism. Democracy for America's Jim Dean recalls that the new senator was "vigorously opposing the war in Iraq when far too many Democrats in Washington stood silent."
Lautrenberg was, as well, an ardent foe of the social-conservative policies of the administration—and of Democrats who were willing to compromise with the White House. Unabashedly pro-choice and pro–LGBT rights, Lautenberg was a leading champion of gun control who, when his long battle with cancer and related ailments took a turn for the worse this spring, said that one of his biggest regrets was missing the debates over new gun-control legislation because “my victories over the gun lobby are among my proudest accomplishments.” The senator was, as well, a fierce defender of affirmative action—earning the admiration of the NAACP, along with a 100 percent rating for his votes. And, as Senator Bernie Sanders noted, "He was also one of the great environmental champions in Congress."
Lautenberg’s liberalism was robust. Unlike many members of the Democratic Caucus, his commitment to the ideology was of the broad-spectrum variety. Yes, Lautenberg was one of the most committed social liberals in the Senate. But like his old friend Paul Wellstone, Lautenberg was equally committed to economic liberalism.
The New Jersey senator sided with organized labor and earned top ratings from the Drum Major Institute for his battles on behalf of working families. A businessman who never forgot that his dad sweated in the silk mills and died young, Lautenberg fought for minimum-wage hikes, factory safety and fair trade—a commitment that led him to break with the Clinton administration to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement. But his biggest fight was for a renewal of the New Deal commitment of government to invest in job creation.
Lautenberg really did believe in putting the government to work on the task of putting people to work. His legislative record was packed with proposals for infrastructure investment and jobs programs—including the recent American Infrastructure Investment Fund Act of 2013, with its plan for a $5 billion fund to incentivize private, state and regional investments in transportation projects around the country by providing eligible products with financial assistance.
Even after he announced that he would retire in 2015, at the end of his current term (which will now be filled by an interim senator appointed by Republican Governor Chris Christie), Lautenberg kept that New Deal flame lit. Barely a week before his death, the senator was one of the first members of Congress to respond to the bridge collapse of the Interstate 5 in Washington State.
“The bridge collapse in Washington State is simply unacceptable. Families in America should not have to worry that the bridges they cross are unstable,” he said. “Far too many bridges across the country and in my home state of New Jersey are aging and in urgent need of repair. This scary bridge collapse shows why the Senate should act quickly to pass my bill to strengthen America’s crumbling infrastructure, create jobs and boost our economy.”
Frank Lautenberg, who made his fortune in the private sector before ever considering a political career, had no patience with those who would limit the ability of government to respond to the physical crisis of a bridge collapsing or the human crisis of widespread unemployment. Like FDR, he understood the power of government to renew the economy.
To a greater extent than all but a few in Congress, he kept alive the New Deal faith that Roosevelt articulated in one of those “fireside chats” Lautenberg listened to as child growing up poor in mill towns of north Jersey: “To those who say that our expenditures for Public Works and other means for recovery are a waste that we cannot afford, I answer that no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources,” FDR said. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order. Some people try to tell me that we must make up our minds that for the future we shall permanently have millions of unemployed just as other countries have had them for over a decade. What may be necessary for those countries is not my responsibility to determine. But as for this country, I stand or fall by my refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed.”
John Nichols is the author (with Robert W. McChesney) of the upcoming book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America. Center for Media and Democracy executive director Lisa Graves says: "The billionaires are buying our media and our elections. They're spinning our democracy into a dollarocracy. John Nichols and Bob McChesney expose the culprits who steered America into the quagmire of big money and provide us with the tools to free ourselves and our republic from the corporate kleptocrats."
Where have the seven seas gone? Read Lewis Lapham’s essay.