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Many thoughtful media reports on the remarkable address that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren gave at the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s Humphrey-Mondale Dinner have focused on the fact that she took apart Paul Ryan.
There is no question that the senator from Massachusetts shamed the congressman from Wisconsin.
One report was headlined: “Elizabeth Warren schools Paul Ryan on poverty in 80 seconds.”
Another announced: “Elizabeth Warren Picks A Fight With Paul Ryan.”
All true. All accurate.
However, what Warren really did in her March 29 speech in Minneapolis was school Democrats with regard to what they should expect from a presidential contender.
Yes, yes, Warren has said that she is not running for the Democratic nomination in 2016. And there are plenty of polls to suggest that, were she to enter the race, she would not have an easy time competing with a prospective Hillary Clinton candidacy—although, notably, Warren’s numbers rise rapidly in hypotheticals that do not feature Clinton.
But let’s put the polls aside for now.
Let’s recognize that a necessary politics does not just reflect public opinion, it anticipates concerns and answers them in bolder and better ways than pollsters and pundits can calculate. Those who would lead the nation ought to offer much more than a set of approved talking points. There must be a vision, a language, that explains the crisis, and inspires a response.
This is a truth that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has brought into his discussions of a possible presidential run, especially when he suggests that any bid by a progressive in 2016 would have to be “revolutionary” in its rejection of the narrow thinking and narrow strategies that have produced low-turnout elections and low-results governance. Sanders gets that the politics of 2014 and 2016 must go deeper—as does Warren.
This has a lot to do with issues.
But it also has to do with approach.
Democrats can’t just talk about inequality. They have to address the economic and political underpinnings of insecurity and injustice. They have to challenge the assumptions of those who argue for the failed strategies of the past.
That’s what Warren did the other night in Minneapolis when she said to the DFL faithful, “So let’s take a look at what we’re up against.”
“Take a look at Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate for the Republicans,” she said. “Now let’s just look at the facts. Congressman Ryan attacked unemployment insurance, saying it is, and I’m quoting here, ‘a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.’ I am really serious: I want you to think about that. If our neighbors and friends who are laid off when a company moves overseas, or the recession shuts them down, Paul Ryan thinks that a little help—to try to help keep the mortgage paid and to put food on the table—will cause them to kick back and live large, with no plans to work again.”
Piecing together her argument, going not for applause lines but for a point, she continued. “While Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and I were working with other Democrats to extend unemployment benefits, Congressman Ryan actually doubled down, saying, and I am going to quote him again, ‘We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.’”
Then she pounced:
Paul Ryan looks around, sees three unemployed workers for every job opening in American, and blames people who can’t find a job.
In 2008 this economy crashed, wiping out millions of jobs. Paul Ryan says don’t blame Wall Street: the guys who made billions of dollars cheating American families. Don’t blame decades of deregulation that took the cops off the beat while the big banks looted the American economy. Don’t blame the Republican Secretary of the Treasury, and the Republican president who set in motion a no-strings-attached bailout for the biggest banks—nope. Paul Ryan says keep the monies flowing to the powerful corporations, keep their huge tax breaks, keep the special deals for the too-big-to-fail banks and put the blame on hardworking, play-to-the-rules Americans who lost their jobs.
Let me tell you: That may be Paul Ryan’s vision of how America works, but that is not our vision of this great country.
The DFL crowd gave her a knowing ovation—not just for a point well made but for a concept fully formed, an argument taken to its logical and effective conclusion.
Whether or not Elizabeth Warren ever runs for the presidency, she is teaching her party a great deal about how to take the events of a moment and weave them into a narrative that addresses the fundamental challenges facing the country.
This is powerful, and powerfully important—especially at a point when the Democrats are wrestling with how to connect with the great mass of Americans who feel insecure economically, who worry about income inequality, but who are not quite sure that either party is on their side.
When Democrats have been at their best politically, there has never been a question of where the party stood.
There was no lack of clarity, when Franklin Roosevelt referred in 1936 to “the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering,” and said, “They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”
There was no triangulation when Harry Truman announced in 1948 that, “On the one hand, the Republicans are telling industrial workers that the high cost of food in the cities is due to this government’s farm policy. On the other hand, the Republicans are telling the farmers that the high cost of manufactured goods on the farm is due to this government’s labor policy. That’s plain hokum. It’s an old political trick: ‘If you can’t convince ‘em, confuse ‘em.’ But this time it won’t work.”
And there was no mystery when Truman explained, “I’ve seen it happen time after time. When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the Fair Deal, and says he really doesn’t believe in them, he is sure to lose. The people don’t want a phony Democrat. If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat, and I don’t want any phony Democratic candidates in this campaign.”
Political parties are at their strongest when their tribunes argue for what they believe.
Elizabeth Warren knows this, instinctually.
And she knows this because she could not have missed the roar of approval from the crowd in Minneapolis when she told them, “I am fighting to level that playing field. I am fighting to build real opportunity—fighting to give every child a chance to build something extraordinary. And I want you to fight along beside me. We are in this together.”
Read Next: Elizabeth Warren steps up for populist democratic candidates.
Across the country, at the grassroots level, Republicans have formed alliances with Democrats to demand that the influence of money in our politics be reduced. As the reform group Free Speech for People noted last year, dozens of Republican legislators have backed calls by states for a Constitutional amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but other barriers to the regulation of money in politics. With backing from third-party and independent legislators, as well, the passage of the state resolutions highlights what the group refers to as “a growing trans-partisan movement…calling for the US Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) to be overturned, through one or more amendments to the US Constitution.”
In Washington, however, Republican reformers are harder to come by—as was evidenced by the celebrations of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling by GOP congressional leaders. Leaving no doubt about his faith that those with the most money get to speak the loudest in our elections, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, hailed the Court’s decision to strike down limits on aggregated campaign donations by wealthy Americans with an announcement that “freedom of speech is being upheld.” At the same time, one of the attorneys who argued for elimination of the cap on aggregate donations said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell—who Kentucky media noted “filed an amicus brief on the McCutcheon v. FEC case as a part of his continued crusade against campaign finance reform”—had been “extremely helpful” in pushing the court to go even further than McCutcheon’s legal team had initially proposed.
Yet, despite Boehner’s enthusiasm and McConnell’s ambition, the party leaders do not speak for every Republican in Washington.
Three years ago, Congressman Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, signed on as a co-sponsor of one of several proposals to amend the constitution in order to renew the power of the people and their elected representatives to regulate money in politics. More recently, he co-sponsored a proposal by Congressman Jim Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, to develop public financing for congressional elections. Jones is on board with Government By the People Act of 2014, a “matching-funds” plan offered by Congressman John Sarbanes, D-Maryland. And he is the only Republican co-sponsor of the Empowering Citizens Act, a plan by Congressman David Price, D-North Carolina, to renew the public financing system for presidential elections.
On his own, Jones has sponsored legislation to bar the use of political funds for personal purposes.
What is Jones thinking? “I think Citizens United was one of the worst decisions by the Supreme Court in my adult lifetime,” the congressman said last year. “In Washington, the problem is that the leadership in both parties—and I want to be fair about that: both parties—seem to like the system the way it is… When the Democrats were in the majority, it was very difficult for those [reform] Democrats to get the bills moving on their own side. And on my side, it’s almost like it’s a dead issue, which disappoints me greatly as a Republican. Now, I will work this year, across party lines, to reform the campaign laws of our nation.”
Like many of the most progressive reformers in the country, the conservative congressman speaks specifically about the link between special-interest influence on elections and political dysfunction in Washington. “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed,” he says. “The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.”
Congressman Jones is noting something that too many DC insiders, be they Republicans or Democrats, members of Congress or pundits, fail to recognize: millions of Americans are already engaged on this issue. Support for real reform is widespread, crossing lines of partisan and ideological division. Sixteen states and more than 500 communities have called for amendments with varied language but one point: that “based on the American value of fair play, leveling the playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity to have their political views heard, there is a valid rationale for regulating political spending.”
Now, however, Jones faces a Republican primary challenge from a classic Washington power player, Taylor Griffin, a former aide to the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain who has been a consultant for big banks and trade groups and who put in a stint as the senior vice president for the Financial Services Forum, the DC voice of some of the biggest Wall Street banks. “[No] matter how he casts himself,” writes Politico, “Griffin is an insider.”
Griffin’s gripe with Jones appears to be that the veteran congressman is too independent-minded. And it is true that Jones breaks rank with party orthodoxy. For instance, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of US military adventurism, often working with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, on issues of war and peace. This has put him at odds with the Bush and Obama administrations, and more recently with House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, whose 2013 budget Jones said was too lavish in its funding of wars. But Jones is hardly a left-winger. He echoes the “old-right” language of conservative icons such as former Ohio Senator Robert Taft Sr. and former Nebraska Congressman Howard Buffett, and of some younger libertarian-leaning House members such as Michigan Republican Justin Amash.
What really bugs Griffin and his DC backers is that Jones does not follow the party line when it comes to doing Wall Street’s bidding. For the past decade, he’s been one of the steadiest congressional critics of free-trade agreements; and he recently joined twenty-one of his House Republican colleagues in expressing; opposition to “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority. And he’s been a steady critic of big banks, opposing bailouts, supporting regulation and arguing with Congressman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and others for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial and investment banking. Those stances undoubtedly played a role in getting Jones kicked off the House Financial Services Committee in Speaker John Boehner’s purge of so-called <“a href="http://projects.newsobserver.com/under_the_dome/walter_jones_kicked_off_house_committee" target="_blank">rebellious Republicans.”
Now Jeff Connaughton, the former Senate aide who wrote the book The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, suggests that Jones’s independence has earned him a challenge from Griffin in the May 6 Republican primary. “I doubt anyone in North Carolina needs me to point out this is a Wall Street bank hit job,” says Connaughton, who helped frame the fight for the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.
Bloomberg reports: “JPMorgan Chase (JPM) & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) are lining up behind Jones’ primary challenger, Taylor Griffin, an aide in President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department who later worked for groups that advocated in Washington for the biggest financial services companies.” Former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a top lobbyist, is a Griffin donor, as is former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Indeed, observes Politico, Griffin has had a cash influx from some of the most high-profile Republican lobbyists in Washington.
That’s helped Griffin get competitive with Jones, a rare accomplishment for a primary challenger. And as the May 6 election approaches, Griffin’s got the connections to bring in a lot more money. Like Mitch McConnell, he is a classic example of a candidate who could benefit in a very big way from the Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings.
Walter Jones will have a harder time tapping top Wall Street donors than Taylor Griffin—in no small part because of the incumbent’s record of saying “no” to the banks.
Most members of Congress have a hard time saying “no” not just to bankers but to big money in general. That’s one of the reasons why Jones has advocated for both financial services reform and political reform. The two go together. Indeed, in this era of Citizens United and McCutcheon, the measure of political independence must begin with a willingness to address the influence of money on our elections. It is Jones’s recognition of that fact that has made him a conservative advocate for reform. He understands that some truths go beyond partisanship and ideology, and the first of these is that, “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed.”
Read Next: Ari Berman on the Supreme Court’s ideology.
Even as the US Supreme Court attempts to expand the scope and reach of the already dangerous dominance of our politics by billionaires and their willing servants, Americans are voting in overwhelming numbers against the new politics of dollarocracy.
The headline of the week with regard to the campaign-finance debate comes from Washington, where a 5-4 court majority has—with its McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision—freed elite donors such as the politically-ambitious Koch Brothers to steer dramatically more money into the accounts of favored candidates, parties and political action committees. The decision makes it clear that the high court's activist majority will stop at nothing in their drive to renew the old Tory principle that those with wealth ought to decide the direction of federal, state and local government.
But the five errand boys for the oligarchs who make up that majority are more thoroughly at odds with the sentiments of the American people than at any time in the modern history of this country's judiciary.
We know this because the people are having their say with regard to the question of whether money is speech, whether corporations have the same rights as human beings and whether billionaires should be able to buy elections.
In every part of the country, in every sort of political jurisdiction, citizens are casting ballots for referendum proposals supporting a Constitutional amendment to overturn US Supreme Court rulings that have tipped the balance toward big money.
In so doing, these citizens are taking the essential first step in restoring democracy.
On Tuesday, thirteen Wisconsin communities, urban and rural, liberal and conservative, Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning answered the call of constitutional reform. Even as groups associated with billionaire donors Charles and David Koch were meddling in local elections in the state, voters were demanding, by overwhelming margins, that the right to organize fair and open elections be restored.
It even happened in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s hometown of Delavan, where voters faced the question:
Shall the City of Delavan adopt the following resolution:
RESOLVED, the City of Delavan, Wisconsin, calls for reclaiming democracy from the corrupting effects of undue corporate influence by amending the United States Constitution to establish that:
1. Only human beings, not corporations, unions, nonprofit organizations nor similar associations are entitled to constitutional rights, and
2. Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we hereby instruct our state and federal representatives to enact resolutions and legislation to advance this effort.
76 percent of the Delavan residents who went to the polls voted “Yes!”
They were not alone. A dozen other Wisconsin communities faced referendums on the same day. Every town, village and city that was offered a choice voted to call on state and federal officials to move to amend the US Constitution so that citizens will again be able to organize elections in which votes matter more than dollars.
The Wisconsin votes provided the latest indication of a remarkable upsurge in support for bold action to renew the promise of American democracy. Since the Supreme Court began dismantling the last barriers to elite dominance of American politics, with its 2010 Citizens United decision, sixteen states and more than 500 communities have formally requested that federal officials begin the process of amending the constitution so that the court's wrongheaded rulings can be reversed.
Last fall, John Bonifaz, the co-founder and executive director of the reform group Free Speech For People, calculated that “In just three years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, we have come one third of the way to amending the US Constitution to reclaim our democracy and to ensure that people, not corporations, shall govern in America."
Since the start of 2014, however, the movement has seen a dramatic acceleration in the grassroots pressure for action. During the first weeks of March, forty-seven town meetings called for a constitutional amendment—in a move that put renewed pressure on the New Hampshire legislature to act on the issue.
It is the experience of big-money politics that has inspired renewed activism for reform.
Wisconsin has had more experience than most states with the warping of democracy by out-of-state billionaires, "independent" expenditures and SuperPAC interventions. Governor Walker’s campaigns have reaped funds from top conservative donors, including the Koch Brothers. And a Koch Brothers-funded group, Americans for Prosperity waded into contests this spring for the local board of supervisors in northern Iron County, where mining and environmental issues are at stake; and in the city of Kenosha, where school board elections revolved around questions of whether to bargain fairly with unions representing teachers. In other parts of the state, business interests poured money into school board contests and local races Tuesday, providing a glimpse of the role corporate cash is likely to play in local, state and national elections in the months and years to come.
The Koch Brothers had mixed success Tuesday. Three Iron County Board candidates who were attacked by Americans for Prosperity mailings and on-the-ground "field" efforts in the county won their elections—beating incumbents who were promoted by the outside group. But in Kenosha, two school board contenders who were seen as anti-union zealots won.
There were, however, no mixed results when voters were given a clear choice between dollarocracy and democracy.
The signal from Wisconsin is that grassroots politics can and does still win.
In fact, it wins big.
Encouraged by groups such as United Wisconsin and Move to Amend, activists went door to door in the depths of winter to place amendment questions on local ballots in towns, villages and cities across the state. Many of the communities were in heavily Republican regions of Wisconsin. Yet, the pattern of support was strikingly consistent; in no community did an amendment proposal win less than 60 percent of the vote, and in several the support was over 85 percent.
“Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending in our elections. Now, Wisconsin voters are standing up to the corrupting influence the flood of special interest money has had on our elections and in our state and national capitols where laws are made,” says Lisa Subeck, the director of United Wisconsin. “Tuesday’s victories send a clear message to our elected officials in Madison and in Washington that we demand action to overturn Citizens United and restore our democracy.”
Whether all those elected representatives will get the message remains to be seen. Several of the communities that voted Tuesday are in the district of Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, who has already introduced an amendment proposal and has been an ardent backer of reform. But many other communities are represented by recipients of the big-money largesse of Wall Street traders, hedge-fund managers, casino moguls and billionaires looking to cover their bets.
Communities in the home district of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, voted by margins as high as three to one to support an amendment strategy. The results were similar in conservative Waukesha County, which has historically been a Republican stronghold; in the city of Waukesha, for instance, 69 percent of the electorate called for action to amend the constitution. In Wauwatosa, the Milwaukee suburb where Governor Walker now maintains his voting residence, the vote for an amendment was 64 percent.
Wisconsin has several legislative proposals to put the state on record in support of a constitutional amendment. But they face uphill climbs in the current Republican-controlled legislature. And Walker shows no enthusiasm for reforming the system that has so richly rewarded his campaigns. Yet, grassroots activists like Ellen Holly, who helped organize the amendment vote in Walworth County—the heart of Paul Ryan's district and Walker's old home turf—is not blinking. She says it's essential for the Move to Amend campaign to take the fight into even the most conservative areas and to deliver messages to politicians like Ryan.
The widespread support for overturning Citizens United, especially from rural and Republican-leaning areas offers a reminder that the reform impulse is bipartisan and widespread. The same goes from the broad coalitions that have developed. Among the loudest voices on behalf of the referendum campaign in rural Wisconsin was the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which hailed Tuesday’s voting as “a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy."
“Citizens United has allowed big money to drown out the voices of ordinary people and created an environment where, too often, our elected officials are sold to the highest bidder,” says Subeck, a Madison city council member who this year is running for the legislature on a promise to focus on campaign-finance issues. “To fully restore public trust in our democracy, we must return control of our elections to the people through common sense campaign finance reform, starting with the reversal of Citizens United.”
Any doubts about the determination of an activist United States Supreme Court to rewrite election rules so that the dollar matters more than the vote were removed Wednesday, when McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission was decided in favor of the dollar.
The court that in 2010, with its Citizens United v. FEC decision, cleared the way for corporations to spend as freely as they choose to buy elections has now effectively eliminated the ability of the American people and their elected representatives to establish meaningful limits on direct donations by millionaires and billionaires to campaigns.
The Citizens United ruling, coming after many previous judicial assaults on campaign finance rules and regulations, was a disaster for democracy. But it left in place at least some constraints on the campaign donors. Key among these was a limitation on the ability of a wealthy individual to donate more than a total dollar amount of $123,000 total in each two-year election cycle to political candidates and parties.
With the ruling in the McCutcheon case—where the court was actively encouraged to intervene on behalf of big-money politics by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky—a 5-4 court majority (signing on to various opinions) has ruled that caps on the total amount of money an individual donor can give to political candidates, parties and political action committees are unconstitutional. In so doing, says U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, says the court has further tipped the balance of power toward those who did not need any more influence over the affairs of state.
"It is far too often the case in Washington that powerful corporate interests, the wealthy, and the well-connected get to write the rules," says Baldwin, "and now the Supreme Court has given them more power to rule the ballot box by creating an uneven playing field where big money matters more than the voice of ordinary citizens.”
The think-tank Demos says the high court's ruling has "overturned nearly forty years of campaign finance law," which is certainly true. But the court has done much more than that. By going to the next extreme when it comes to questions of money in politics, the justices who make up the court's activist majority have opted for full-on plutocracy—and it is unimaginable that this week's ruling will be the last assault by the justices who make up that majority upon the underpinnings of democracy.
Those justices have made their political intent entirely clear. Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito in a support of an opinion that rejects the notion that limits on the total amount of money that can be given by wealthy donors—such as the billionaire Koch Brothers or casino mogul Sheldon Adelson—are needed to prevent corruption. Justice Clarence Thomas went even further, writing an opinion that all limits on political contributions are unconstitutional. The extreme stance of Thomas—which would overturn the high court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld basic contribution limits, may signal the next frontier for the court.
But the McCutcheon ruling will be more than sufficient for the big-money interests that worried that their ability to buy elections was hindered by what remained of campaign finance law.
“What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” asked US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”
The decision, while not unexpected considering the court's track record, horrified clean-government and campaign-finance reform activists.
“This is truly a decision establishing plutocrat rights. The Supreme Court today holds that the purported right of a few hundred super rich individuals to spend outrageously large sums on campaign contributions outweighs the national interest in political equality and a government free of corruption,” said Rob Weissman, the president of Public Citizen. “In practical terms, the decision means that one individual can write a single check for $5.9 million to be spent by candidates, political parties and political committees. Even after Citizens United, this case is absolutely stunning. It is sure to go down as one of the worst decisions in the history of American jurisprudence.”
Public Citizen and other reform groups associated with the Money Out/Voters In movement have organized a national “rapid response” to the McCutcheon ruling. Thousands of Americans are rallying today in cities across the country to protest the decision—and to call for a constitutional amendment to restore the rights of citizens to organize free and fair elections.
“We, the People insist that our government and our country remain of, by and for the people—all the people, not just those few who have amassed billions in wealth,” says Weissman. “A vibrant movement for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and reclaim our democracy has emerged since the 2010 issuance of that fateful decision. The demonstrations today—unprecedented as a same-day response to a Supreme Court decision—are just the latest manifestation of how that movement is now exploding across the country.”
The Koch Brothers don't actually run for office—at least not since David Koch's amusingly ambitious 1980 bid for the vice presidency on a Libertarian Party ticket that proposed the gutting of corporate taxes, the minimum wage, occupational health and safety oversight, environmental protections and Social Security.
That project, while exceptionally well-funded for a third-party campaign, secured just 1.06 percent of the vote. The Kochs determined it would be easier to fund conservative campaigns than to pitch the program openly. Initially, the project was hampered by what passed for campaign-finance rules and regulations, to the frustration of David Koch, who once told The New Yorker, "We'd like to abolish the Federal Elections Commission and all the limits on campaign spending anyway."
The FEC still exists. But the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v FEC and the general diminution of campaign finance rules and regulations has cleared the way for David Koch and his brother Charles to play politics as they choose. And they are playing hard—especially in Wisconsin, a state where they have made supporting and sustaining the governorship of Scott Walker a personal priority.
Two years ago, David Koch said of Walker: "We're helping him, as we should. We've gotten pretty good at this over the years. We've spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We're going to spend more." The Palm Beach Post interview in which that quote appeared explained, "By 'we' he says he means Americans for Prosperity," the group the Kochs have used as one of their prime vehicles for political engagement in the states.
AFP and its affiliates are expanding their reach this year, entering into fights at the local level where their big money can go far—and where the Koch Brothers can influence the process from the ground up.
As Walker prepares to seek a second term. AFP is clearing the way in supposedly nonpartisan county board and school board races that will occur Tuesday.
Consider the case of Iron County. Elections in the northern Wisconsin county have always been down-home affairs: an ad in the Iron County Miner newspaper, some leaflets dropped at the door, maybe a hand-painted yard sign.
This year, however, that’s changed. Determined to promote a controversial mining project—and, presumably, to advance Walker’s agenda—AFP has waded into Tuesday’s competition for control of the Iron County Board.
With dubious “facts” and over-the-top charges, the Wisconsin chapter of the Koch Brothers-backed group is pouring money into the county—where voter turnout in spring elections rarely tops 1,500—for one of the nastiest campaigns the region has ever seen. Small-business owners, farmers and retirees who have asked sensible questions about the impact of major developments on pristine lakes, rivers, waterfalls and tourism are being attacked as “anti-mining radicals” who “just want to shut the mines down, no matter what.”
Iron County is debating whether to allow new mining, not whether to shut mines down. And many of the candidates that AFP is ripping into have simply said they want to hear from all sides.
But those details don’t matter in the new world of Big Money politics ushered in by US Supreme Court rulings that have cleared the way for billionaires and corporations to buy elections.
Most of the attention to money in politics focuses on national and state races. But the best bargains for billionaires are found at the local level—where expenditures in the thousands can overwhelm the pocket-change campaigns of citizens who run for county boards, city councils and school boards out of a genuine desire to serve and protect their community.
That’s why it is important to pay attention to Tuesday’s voting in Iron County—and in communities such as Kenosha, where the group has waded into local school board races. The Kenosha contest goes to the core issues of recent struggles over collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin, pitting candidates who are willing to work with teachers and their union in a historically pro-labor town versus contenders who are being aided by the Koch Brothers contingent in Wisconsin.
But it is equally important to pay attention to the efforts by citizens, working at the local level, to upend the big money and to restore politics of, by and for the people.
The month of March started with a grassroots rebellion in New Hampshire, where dozens of towns called on their elected representatives to work to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the high court's Citizens United decision.
On Tuesday, the same day the Kochs are meddling in local elections in the state, communities across the state will vote to get money out of politics.
Clean-politics advisory referendums are on ballots across Wisconsin. Belleville, DeForest, Delavan, Edgerton, Elkhorn, Lake Mills, Shorewood, Waterloo, Waukesha, Waunakee, Wauwatosa, Whitefish Bay and Windsor will have an opportunity to urge their elected representatives to support an amendment to restore the authority of local, state and national officials to establish campaign finance rules ensuring that votes matter more than dollars. The initiative is backed by groups like Move to Amend and United Wisconsin. “The unlimited election spending by special-interest groups, allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, has drowned out the voices of ordinary people,” says United Wisconsin Executive Director Lisa Subeck. “Urgent action is needed to restore our democracy to the hands of the people.”
That urgency is especially real in rural communities—places like Iron County. That's why the Wisconsin Farmers Union is calling for a “yes” vote. “Citizens of all political stripes—Republicans, Democrats and independents—agree that we need to curb the corrupting influence of money in politics,” says WFU Executive Director Tom Quinn. “Voting yes…will send a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy.”
Democratic insiders have been slow to embrace the populist campaign of South Dakota Senate candidate Rick Weiland. As we noted this week on TheNation.com Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, has dismissed the Democratic candidate for South Dakota's open US Senate seat as "not my choice." Washington observers point out that "the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee routinely leaves off its competitive list, the seat of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, D-SD." And there will not be a lot of corporate cash flowing to Weiland, who says his first act as a senator will be to propose a constitutional amendment declaring “that the votes of all, rather than the wealth of a few, shall direct the course of the Republic, Congress shall have the power to limit the raising and spending of money with respect to federal elections.”
But Weiland, a veteran congressional aide and advocate who formerly headed the South Dakota branch of the American Association of Retired People, has mounted a high-energy campaign that has already seen the candidate visit more than 300 of the state's 311 towns with an old-school populist message. “I was born here. I grew up on this land. It was ours because our democracy kept it that way," he says. "Today our democracy is being bought by big money and turned against us. To feed their profits we lose our jobs, our homes and our farms, our kids’ education, even our health, and the Congress they have bought looks the other way, or worse."
Democrats who "get" that their party must embrace a people-centered grassroots politics if it is to be viable in 2014 and beyond are starting to take notice.
US Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, has given Weiland a strong endorsement—hailing him as a "smart, experienced, bold progressive." She's urging support for his campaign today as part of a national appeal circulated by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, with which the senator has worked closely. "Rick led South Dakota’s AARP and federal emergency management in his state, and he worked as a top Senate aide," says Warren, whose own populist campaign of 2012 dislodged Republican Senator Scott Brown. "He is campaigning actively on campaign finance reform and taking back government for hard-working everyday people."
The Weiland endorsement is coupled with support for Congressman Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who is running for the seat of retiring Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. The Iowa Senate candidate has his own populist credentials; indeed, Warren notes, "Bruce Braley led the Populist Caucus in the House of Representatives—and is focused on economic fairness, investing in education and addressing our retirement crisis."
While Braley (who is taking hits this week for referring to Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school") has received substantial support from national Democrats, Weiland has in the words of Washington's The Hill newspaper been "getting [the] cold shoulder."
Warren's endorsement rejects the narrow calculus of DC Democratic insiders, arguing that both Braley and Weiland deserve strong support—and that, with such support, both can be contenders in November.
"I know we can count on Bruce and Rick to be strong voices in our fight to level the playing field for working families—whether it’s protecting Social Security for our seniors, making college more affordable for our kids, or holding powerful interests accountable," explains Warren. "That’s precisely why the right-wing Super PACs are already lining up to stop Bruce and Rick from going to the Senate. With two new Senate pickups on the line, they’ll say whatever they need to say and spend whatever they need to spend to win."
The message is clear. Victories for Braley and Weiland could certainly help in the effort to preserve a Democratic majority in the Senate. But they would, as well, add members to the Senate caucus of what PCCC activists proudly refer to as "The Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party."
Read Next: More on Rick Weiland's candidacy and DC Democrats' cold shoulder.
South Dakota has sent Democrats to the Senate on a reasonably consistent basis for fifty years, and it has on an even more consistent basis over an even longer period of time sent prairie populists to the Senate: from the actual Populist Party’s James Kyle to Silver Republican Richard F. Pettigrew to modern Democrats George McGovern and Jim Abourezk.
This year, with South Dakota’s Senate seat open, Rick Weiland is running like the prairie populists of old—challenging the big corporations that don’t pay their fair share of taxes, big banks that seek bailouts and, above all, the big money that has come to dominate our politics. He has attracted considerable support in South Dakota. Unfortunately, a lot of Washington Democrats have a hard time understanding a politics that eschews concession and compromise and instead preaches of fire-and-brimstone gospel of economic and social justice.
Weiland speaks the language of the old-time populists. He says, “I was born here. I grew up on this land. It was ours because our democracy kept it that way. Today our democracy is being bought by big money and turned against us. To feed their profits we lose our jobs, our homes and our farms, our kids’ education, even our health, and the Congress they have bought looks the other way, or worse.”
The Democratic contender campaigns as the populists did, not with slick television commercials but on the road, with a commitment to visit every one of South Dakota’s 311 towns.
In those towns, he explains that:
Big money has rigged our economy so that heads they win and tails we lose:
· Crash the economy by blatant criminal and irresponsible behavior. Get bailed out.
· Get caught defrauding American tax payers and have to pay billions of dollars in fines… not to worry those fines are tax deductible.
· Donate a million dollars to a politician and get a billion dollar tax break. That is how they see it. That is how they have made it.
Weiland proposed voluntary campaign spending limits. But his likely foe, former Governor Mike Rounds, rejected the idea and has announced plans to raise an epic campaign fund of $9 million—with an eye toward scaring other candidates and Democratic donors away from the race.
Weiland refused to back down. He's running against the money, saying, “It is time to stand up and take our country back. We have done it before and we need to do it again.” To that end, he pledges that the first bill he will introduce as a senator is a constitutional amendment that reads, “So that the votes of all, rather than the wealth of a few, shall direct the course of the Republic, Congress shall have the power to limit the raising and spending of money with respect to federal elections.”
It is certainly true that Weiland faces a fight to keep the seat held by retiring US Senator Tim Johnson in Democratic hands. South Dakota has not backed a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and it has not elected a Democratic governor since Dick Kneip was re-elected in 1974—along with McGovern. Yet, Weiland is determined to spark a populist uprising.
And the political dynamics on the ground are, at the very least, intriguing. Rounds leads the race for the Republican nod. But former Republican US Congressman and US Senator Larry Pressler, a maverick who lost to Johnson in 1996 and has since criticized his party for moving too far to the right, plans to enter the race as an independent.
Why aren’t nationally Democrats taking Weiland's campaign to hold a Democratic seat more seriously?
“Why,” as the Washington-insider journal The Hill asked this week, “is South Dakota’s Rick Weiland getting [the] cold shoulder?”
As The Hill explains:
Rick Weiland will be the Democratic Senate nominee in South Dakota, but party leaders are less than thrilled about it.
Stuck with a candidate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has publicly trashed and a race the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee routinely leaves off its competitive list, the seat of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., now looks like a lost cause for Democrats who face an increasingly difficult map to hold onto the Senate.
Reid has been particularly dismissive of Weiland, bluntly declaring that the long-time aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and former South Dakota director for the American Association of Retired People (AARP), was “not my choice.”
Weiland has gotten support from Democracy for America (DFA), the activist group founded by former Vermont governor and 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean. When Dean chaired the Democratic National Committee, in a period that saw the party win back the Congress and then the White House, he championed a fifty-state strategy. That approach saw possibilities for organizing—and winning elections—in Republican-leaning regions that most Democratic strategists had previously avoided. Dean and DFA also recognized the power of populist appeals.
Part of Weiland’s message to DFA activists is a declaration by the candidate that:
I believe that we got half a loaf with health care reform because we did not get a public option. I believe that every American, regardless of age or health, should be allowed to buy into Medicare. I believe that big money special interests have taken over our government and turned it against us. Our campaign finance laws have failed to stop billionaires and corporations from being able to elect the politicians of their choosing—the same politicians who let them write laws that disproportionately favor their own personal and financial interests.
We are not going to get the change we need in this country until we get big money out of politics. American families are working harder and harder yet they are failing to get ahead. They are working themselves to the bone while Wall Street and big money special interests rig the economy against them. I am committed to fighting this distortion of our political system and putting our government on the side of ordinary citizens.
That is, unquestionably, a populist message.
A populist message very much in the tradition of the appeals that South Dakota has answered in the past—and that Washington has always struggled to understand.
Read Next: John Nichols on New Hampshire's grassroots movement to get money out of politics.
Granny D would, no doubt, be quite proud of her hometown and her home state.
In 1999 and 2000, Doris “Granny D” Haddock walked 3,300 miles from California to Washington, DC, in order to highlight the crisis of money in politics. That was remarkable. What was even more remarkable was that she started the walk at age 88, finished at age 90 and then kept right on campaigning for another decade—until she died at age 100 in 2010. Indeed, Granny D celebrated her last birthdays lobbying for campaign finance reform at the capitol of her native New Hampshire.
So it was entirely fitting that, as dozens of New Hampshire communities voted this month on resolutions urging their state to take a stand in favor of amending the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, many of them referred to the town meeting proposals as “Granny D Warrant Articles.”
The Granny D Warrant Articles—which rejected the high court calculus that afforded corporations the same political rights as human being—proved to be exceptionally popular.
Organizers report that fourty-seven New Hampshire communities went on record in favor of the "Democracy Is For People" amendment, and more are in the process of doing so.
Most of the amendment proposals won big.
In a number of smaller towns, the vote was unanimous. In bigger communities, it was often overwhelming—in Pelham, the votes was 2235 in favor versus 1051 against; in Hampstead, it was 1098-391; in Atkinson, it was 1003-460.
The dozens of New Hampshire communities that have called for an amendment push the total number of towns, villages and cities that have moved to amend well over 500. In addition, 16 states have formally asked Congress to begin the amendment process.
The goal of the New Hampshire town meeting campaign this year—which was backed by Public Citizen’s Democracy is for People project, along with the New Hampshire Coalition for Open Democracy and national groups such as Move to Amend—was to create grassroots pressure on the state legislature to make New Hampshire the seventeenth state to call for an amendment.
The New Hampshire State House voted 189-139 last year to call on Congress to support an amendment to the US Constitution to make it clear that corporations are not people with constitutional rights. Ten Republican representatives joined Democrats in supporting that resolution.
The New Hampshire Senate has yet to join the House's call. So the town meeting campaign was organized to encourage Senate action. And the organizers were well pleased with the results. As Democracy Is For People's Jonah Minkoff-Zern explained, "With the voting results, the polls and grassroots organizing, it is crystal clear that the residents of New Hampshire want to join the nationwide movement and become the seventeenth state to call for a constitutional amendment to stop the flood of money from corporations and the ultra-wealthy into our elections."
In addition to adding another state to the national list, the New Hampshire town meeting campaign sought to build a muscular pro-amendment movement in the nation’s first-presidential primary state.
And it honored Doris Haddock's legacy as a reformer.
In Granny D’s hometown of Dublin, that legacy was discussed as citizens prepared to vote.
“Doris was one of the most illustrious of Dublin’s citizens,” declared Mary Loftis, who referred to the measure as the “Doris ‘Granny D’ Haddock” Warrant Article when she introduced it.
The town voted "yes"—by a wide margin.
“Basically if money talks, Citizens United gave it a voice that can drown out the rest of us,” Patrick Armstrong told the Dublin town meeting. “I think [Granny D] would also be in favor of this.”
That’s good thinking with regard to the woman who believed—and told us frequently—that “we must declare our independence from the corrupting bonds of big money in our election campaigns.”
STAY TUNED: The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on what experts and activists refer to as "Citizens United 2.0." The court could use the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision to allow big donors to flood even more money into the campaigns of favored candidates. A "Money Out/Voters In" coalition of activist groups is organizing a "rapid response" campaign of rallies, marches and protests. Learn more here.
Political insiders and prognosticators at the national level were, barely a year ago, casting doubts on the question of whether proposing a great big hike in the federal minimum wage was smart politics. While President Obama had proposed a $9-an-hour wage, Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Congressman George Miller, D-California, broke the double-digit barrier with a $10.10-an-hour proposal. But there was still skepticism about whether raising wages for the hardest-pressed American workers was a winning issue.
Polls have since confirmed that Americans from across the political and ideological spectrum are overwhelmingly in favor of a substantial increase in the minimum wage. And election results are now confirming the sentiment.
Even as they re-elected Governor Chris Christie last fall, New Jersey voters gave landslide support to a measure that not only raised the state minimum wage to $8.25 an hour but indexed future increases to keep up with inflation. On the same day, voters in Sea-Tac, Washington, approved a $15 hourly wage, while voters in Seattle elected socialist Kshama Sawant on a “Fight for $15” platform.
Now comes a powerful signal from Chicago.
When voters in the city went to the polls to cast ballots in Tuesday’s statewide and local primary elections, thousands of them faced an economic question: Would they support a $15-an-hour minimum wage for large employers in the city?
The results were overwhelming. With 100 of the 103 precincts where the issue was on the ballot reporting, 87 percent of voters were backing the $15-an-hour wage. Just 13 percent voted against the advisory referendum. That huge level of support will strengthen the hand of activists who are encouraging the city council to consider a major wage hike.
The Chicago vote illustrates a phenomenon that is being seen in many of the nation’s largest—and most expensive—urban areas.
“With inequality at record levels, more workers relying on public assistance just to afford the basics, and the federal minimum wage stalled at just $7.25, more and more cities are responding with higher minimum wages at the local level,” says Paul Sonn, general counsel for the National Employment Law Project. “We’re seeing this especially in high cost regions where the state-wide minimum wage just isn’t enough.”
According to NELP:
A growing number of localities across the country have already enacted minimum wages significantly above the federal and state level in an effort to address the impact of low-wage job growth and growing inequality throughout the post-recession recovery. Cities and counties that have enacted higher minimum wages in recent years include San Francisco ($10.74 per hour), Santa Fe ($10.66 per hour), San Jose ($10.15 per hour), Washington, DC ($11.50 by 2016), Montgomery County, MD ($11.50 by 2017), Prince George’s County, MD ($11.50 by 2017), and SeaTac, WA ($15 for certain occupations).
In addition to Chicago, other cities that are pursuing higher minimum wages currently include Seattle ($15 per hour), San Francisco ($15 per hour), New York City; San Diego; Oakland; Portland, Maine; and Las Cruces, New Mexico, among others.
The Chicago vote also offers an insight into why Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has been making the minimum-wage issue central to his re-election run. Quinn is a Democrat who has a long history of working on issues of concern to low-wage workers and the communities where they live. But he also knows a winning issue.
Quinn told the crowd at his Tuesday night victory rally, “There is a principle as old as the Bible: If you work hard. If you’re working 40 hours a week, and if you’re doing your job, you should not have to live in poverty. You should get a decent wage. We believe in that and we’re going to make it happen.”
At the same time, Quinn’s campaign began airing a fresh television ad ripping Republican nominee Bruce Rauner on the issue. A wealthy venture capitalist, who recently quipped that he was not just part of the 1 percent but “probably [the] 0.1 percent,” Rauner financed much of his own primary campaign with contributions estimated at $6 million. Yet in the new Quinn ad he is seen proclaiming, “I am adamantly, adamantly against raising the minimum wage.”
Rauner, whose GOP primary win was a narrow one, has been all over the place on the wage issue. He said early in the campaign that he would lower the state minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to the national rate of $7.25 an hour. Reports that one of the wealthiest men in the state was promising to cut wages for working Illinoisans did not go over well, and Rauner then suggested he might support raising the state rate if economic conditions were favorable.
Quinn has been far clearer when it comes to discussing wages—saying he favors an increase to at least $10 an hour this year—and the broader issue of economic inequality.
“I believe in everyday people. I think a governor has to have a heart,” the governor declared on primary night. “I may not have nine mansions. I have one house. I’m not a billionaire. Never will be. I’m not part of the 1 percent and never will be there. I’m not even part of the 0.1 percent. But I’ll tell you this. As long as I’m governor I’m going to fight hard for the 99.9 percent.”
Read Next: The tyranny of the on-call schedule, hourly injustice in retail labor.
Paul Ryan has spent the past several weeks apologizing.
First, he delivered a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference where he decried school lunch programs, arguing that organizing programs to feed hungry children could produce “a full stomach and an empty soul.” Unfortunately, Ryan illustrated his argument with a story that turned out to be unsettlingly inaccurate—in both specific details and broad premises.
The House Budget Committee chairman had to apologize—as best an ambitious advocate for austerity could—with a note explaining that the basis for his remarks had been “improperly sourced.”
Then Ryan went on a national radio program and ripped on unemployed “inner city” men, who he claimed were “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
The Wisconsin congressman had to apologize—as best an ambitious advocate for job-killing and factory-closing “free trade” deals could—for being “inarticulate.”
And Paul Ryan might want to make one more apology.
For disregarding his own history.
Just as he now disrespects and diminishes the experience of hungry and unemployed Americans, the British Tories of the mid-nineteenth-century disrespected and diminished starving Irish men, women and children—including, presumably, the ancestors Ryan says were “Irish peasants who came over during the potato famine.”
After reviewing Ryan’s remarks, the very wise New York Times essayist Timothy Egan noted over the weekend that “you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.”
Egan reminds us that historians of the Irish experience have for some time now been been picking up on the fact that Ryan seems to have forgotten where he came from—and what his immigrant ancestors went through.
“The whole British argument in the famine was that the poor are poor because of a character defect,” explains Christine Kinealy, a professor of Irish studies and director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. “It’s a dangerous, meanspirited and tired argument.”
John Kelly, a historian who has written extensively on the famine, has noted more broadly with regard to Ryan’s habit of blaming the disenfranchised for being disenfranchised that the congressman seems to adopt “the very same [approach] that hurt, not helped, his forebears during the famine—and hurt them badly.”
Like Ryan, I am descended from Irish immigrants who settled in Wisconsin. But mine was a different experience. I learned from an early age about Britain’s colonial repression of the Irish, and about the mistreatment of immigrants to the United States who were greeted with “Irish Need Not Apply” signs.
My Irish history inspired enthusiasm for anti-colonial, anti-apartheid and pro–civil rights movements—along with sympathy for immigrant rights. This is not uncommon. My friend Tom Hayden, whose Irish ancestors settled in Wisconsin, wrote the grand book Irish on the Inside: The Search for the Soul of Irish America (Verso), which explained why Irish-Americans should identify with the liberation struggles of immigrants, people of color and other victims of class and race discrimination.
Hayden’s exploration of his roots—in Ireland and in the immigrant communities of rural Wisconsin—helped him to unearth the seeds of his own radicalism. He employed a wonderful phrase in that book: suggesting that an understanding of the oppression of the Irish and of the experience of immigration provided “the fertile soil of awakenings.”
It is disappointing that in losing sight of his past, Paul Ryan has denied himself the opportunity for an awakening that might offer him with broader and better understanding of the issues that he admits he has been “inarticulate” in discussing.
It was certainly true in the nineteenth century that the last thing the impoverished people of Ireland needed was a British Tory politician blaming them for their hard times—or telling them that organizing programs to feed hungry children might do damage to the soul.
And it is certainly true in the twenty-first century that the last thing the impoverished people of the United States need is an American Tory politician blaming them for their hard times—or telling them that organizing programs to feed hungry children might do damage to the soul.
Read Next: John Nichols interviews Bernie Sanders on running for president.