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Glasgow, Scotland—Thursday’s Scottish referendum vote is often framed in terms of the politics of nationalism—and the desire of a people for self-determination. And of course there have always been, and there still are, impassioned Scottish nationalists.
But the reality that becomes overwhelmingly clear in the last hours before the referendum vote—which polls suggest will see an exceptionally high turnout and a close finish—is that this process is being shaped by the politics of austerity.
This is highlighted by the campaigning of supporters of a “yes” vote and, increasingly, this is being acknowledged in the last-minute promises being made by British Prime Minister David Cameron and the most fervent foes of a Scottish break with the United Kingdom.
The politics of Scotland has long been at odds with the politics of Britain, as my Nation colleague D.D. Guttenplan has ably explained. The Conservative Party has ruled the United Kingdom for the majority of the past sixty years. Yet the Tories last finished first in a Scottish election in 1955. And as Britain has moved to the right, not just under the right-wing leadership of Conservatives like Margaret Thatcher but also under the neoliberal leadership of Labour Party prime ministers such as Tony Blair, Scotland has felt increasingly isolated politically.
This isolation has a huge economic component, as Cameron has implemented an austerity agenda that threatens the National Health Service and broader social services, undermines trade unions and communities, and deepens inequality. Despite the devolution of some powers to a Scottish Parliament over the past decade, Scotland is still governed in many of the most important senses from London—even though less than 17 percent of Scots backed Cameron’s Conservatives in the last election, giving the Tories just one of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats in the British Parliament.
So it was that the posters on sound trucks rolling through the streets of Glasgow Wednesday shouted: “End Tory Rule Forever.” The energetic Radical Independence Campaign was putting up posters with an “X” over Cameron’s face and the promise that “Another Scotland Is Possible.”
This is not about nationalism in some old-fashioned sense, tweets Radical Independence Campaign activist Cat Boyd; this is about democracy is a very modern and practical sense. “It is 59 years since Scotland returned a Conservative majority and half of that time we have [had] a Conservative government,” she notes.
Author and activist Tariq Ali, who appeared with Boyd at a forum in Glasgow just before the election, agreed, explaining that the referendum is “all about giving the people the power to determine their own future—rather than to have it determined for them.” Ali traveled from London to Glasgow to support the “yes” campaign, arguing that bringing governing power closer to the people changes the dynamic of the austerity debate in Scotland—and in other places around the world. “The symbiosis of big money and politics is not just America’s problem,” he said. “It has now spread to Europe in a big way.”
The notion that Scottish rule will change the circumstance has been at the heart of the broad-based “Yes Scotland” campaign, which says a “yes” vote will mean
We can use Scotland’s wealth to build a fairer nation.
Scotland’s NHS [National Health Service] will be protected from creeping privatization.
We spend money on childcare instead of Trident missiles.
A lower pension age and higher pensions.
The end of Tory governments we don’t vote for.
Decisions about Scotland will be made by the people who care most about Scotland, the people who live here.
A radical notion?
David Cameron no longer seems to think so.
The prime minister was in Scotland on the eve of the voting to promise that if Scots vote “no,” he and other British party leaders will push for the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament—which is all but certain to be led by the left-leaning Scottish National Party. This so-called “devo-max” approach would afford Scotland far greater control of its own affairs—with greater authority over taxation and spending shifted to Scottish leaders—while maintaining the basic outlines of the United Kingdom.
Critically, the “devo-max” promise, at least to the extent that it is understood at this point, would allow a Scottish Parliament to steer a different course from the British on issues of social spending and the broader austerity debate.
Cameron, his governing coalition partner Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democratic Party and Labour Party opposition leader Ed Miliband actually signed a vow—published on the front page of the Scottish Daily Record—to work together to give the Scots more of a voice in their future if the independence vote fails. “People want to see change,” Brown said. “A ‘No’ vote will deliver faster, safer, and better change than separation.”
Of course, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, termed the promise from Cameron and the other leaders a “desperate offer” that only came as the British leaders recognized Scotland might vote “yes” for independence.
With the polls so close, it is certainly possible that the “devo-max” gambit will tip the balance toward the “no” camp.
But even if that happens, this remarkable democratic debate over independence has forced an admission that austerity is a vital, perhaps definitive, issue in Scotland—and beyond. The only question then is how best to stop the cuts, stop the redistribution of wealth upward and begin shaping fairer and more humane policies.
Read Next: John Nichols on Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Scottish independence
Edinburgh, Scotland—Among the most high-profile opponents of Scottish independence are a number of non-Scots. British Prime Minister David Cameron has toured Scotland this week, urging a “no” vote on Thursday’s referendum on whether to separate from the United Kingdom. That’s to be expected. What was less expected was the intervention of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumed front-runner in the 2016 race for the presidency of the United States.
When Clinton traveled to Scotland earlier this year to accept an honorary degree from University of St. Andrews, she was explicit in her opposition to the proposal.
“I would hope it doesn’t happen,” she declared.
“I would think it would be a loss for both sides,” added Clinton, who told BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman that “I would hate to have you lose Scotland.”
That brought a reminder from Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond that “Scotland is not a property to be lost but a nation about to take a precious and consensual and democratic decision.”
Clinton is not the only American who has weighed in on the Scottish vote. President Obama said in June, “There is a referendum process in place and it is up to the people of Scotland.” That was a reasonably balanced statement. But then he added what sounded to many like a slightly subtler appeal for a “no” vote, suggesting that “we obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner.”
On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated the president’s earlier remarks, while acknowledging in response to a question about how the United States would respond to a “yes” vote by saying, “I suspect that there’s somebody at the administration who’s been thinking about that at some level.”
The notion of a “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom is not new. And Obama and his aides have every right to mention it, just as Clinton has every right to urge Scots to vote “no” on September 18.
But the notion that voting “yes” would represent “a loss for both sides,” as Clinton suggests, is every bit as debatable as the notion that the separation in 1776 of the United States from the Great Britain represented “a loss for both sides.” Britain obviously did not approve, as the long war that followed the American Declaration of Independence confirmed. But the idea that prominent Americans would go around discouraging others from declaring independence—especially via an orderly and nonviolent electoral process—does seem rather, well, hypocritical.
“It was very interesting hearing Obama in his own equivocal way telling the Scots ‘don’t do it,’ and Hillary Clinton in a much more vicious argument—‘Scotland shouldn’t do it,’ etcetera, etcetera,” observed the author and activist Tariq Ali, who noted that the United States supported the break-up of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.
“That’s all fine. But when it happens to one of your allies, then you scream: Oh, no, no, Scotland, don’t do it, don’t do it. Why not?” asks Ali, who worked with Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign to secure a “yes” vote. “There’s no principle. All that’s at stake is imperial interest.”
It is true, up to a point, that Scottish independence would create some complications for the United States. An independent Scotland could, for instance, demand the removal of British Trident missiles, which are carried on submarines that are based in Scotland. Scotland could well deviate from Britain on a variety of defense and foreign policy issues, and it would certainly deviate on the question of austerity—as one of the prime arguments for an independent Scotland is, as the Yes Scotland campaign says, to “protect our public services and welfare system.”
The Yes Scotland campaign argues that is it possible to “build a more prosperous and fairer nation,” and such a nation might well offer a fresh alternative to the model of cuts and redistribution of wealth upward that has taken hold not just in Britain but in the United States.
So, yes, an independent Scotland might require officials in Washington to make some foreign policy adjustments. Ultimately, however, the United States could have a “special relationship” with Britain and with an independent Scotland, which economists say would be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. After all, it has quite good relations with Norway, an oil-rich country with a slightly smaller population than Scotland. And Salmond has gone so far as to say with regard to Britain and an independent Scotland, “America has two great friends and allies here rather than one.”
Clinton and Obama and others should be thinking a good deal more about the adjustment they are making in the signal we send to the world. By speaking against independence—especially in the absolute terms used by Clinton—they signal that the United States is more interested in immediate geopolitical goals than in the vision that inspired the nation into being. That vision was outlined 238 years ago in a document that began with a rather warm embrace of self-determination: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”
Despite what Clinton and Obama may say, supporters of Scottish independence note with some relish that the American declaration concluded by stressing that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.”
This was noted earlier this year by Salmond, the Scottish nationalist who has forced the issue of independence and campaigned aggressively for a “yes” vote.
“Rather more than 200 years ago, America had to fight for its independence,” recalled Salmond. “We are very fortunate in Scotland that we have a democratically agreed, consented process by which we can vote for our independence.”
“So in summary,” says Salmond, “I suppose my message to President Obama is: Yes we can.”
Read Next: Will Scotland choose independence?
A majority of the United States Senate has voted to advance a constitutional amendment to restore the ability of Congress and the states to establish campaign fundraising and spending rules with an eye toward preventing billionaires and corporations from buying elections.
“Today was a historic day for campaign finance reform, with more than half of the Senate voting on a constitutional amendment to make it clear that the American people have the right to regulate campaign finance,” declared Senator Tom Udall, the New Mexico Democrat who in June proposed his amendment to address some of the worst results of the Supreme Court’s interventions in with the recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decisions, as well as the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that it’s going to take more than a majority to renew democracy.
Fifty-four senators, all Democrats and independents who caucus with the Democrats, voted Thursday for the amendment to clarify in the Constitution that Congress and the states have the authority to do what they did for a century before activist judges began intervening on behalf of wealthy donors and corporations: enact meaningful campaign finance rules and regulations.
But forty-two senators, all Republicans, voted no. As a result, Udall noted, the Republican minority was able to “filibuster this measure and instead choose to support a broken system that prioritizes corporations and billionaires over regular voters.”
The Republican opposition effectively blocked further consideration of the amendment proposal, since sixty votes were needed to end debate and force a vote. And, even if the Republicans had not filibustered the initiative, actual passage of an amendment would have required a two-thirds vote.
Though the Republican move was anticipated, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has been one of the Senate’s most ardent advocates for reform, expressed frustration with the result. “I am extremely disappointed that not one Republican voted today to stop billionaires from buying elections and undermining American democracy,” said the senator, who has advocated for a more sweeping amendment to address the influence and power of corporate cash on American elections and governance. “While the Senate vote was a victory for Republicans, it was a defeat for American democracy. The Koch brothers and other billionaires should not be allowed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars electing candidates who represent the wealthy and the powerful.“
Now, said Sanders, “the fight to overturn Citizens United must continue at the grassroots level in every state in this country.”
Sanders is right to reference the role of grassroots movements.
Four years ago, when the US Supreme Court removed barriers to corporate spending to buy elections, serious reformers said a constitutional amendment would be necessary to reverse the Court’s Citizens United ruling. Most pundits and politicians, even those who recognized the threat posed to democracy by the opening of the floodgates for big money, dismissed a constitutional fix as too bold and too difficult to achieve.
But the people embraced the constitutional route to reform. Grassroots organizing succeeded in getting sixteen states and close to 600 communities to formally demand that Congress act.
At the same time, the money poured in, with campaigning spending breaking records in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections—and heading toward breaking the record for midterm elections in 2014.
That was enough to shake up even the most cautious Senate Democrats, who began moving earlier this year to advance the Udall amendment. Though activists wanted a stronger amendment, the Senate deliberations confirmed that there is broad support for a constitutional response to the money-in-politics mess—and that a substantial number of senators now see that constitutional response as right and necessary.
“Less than five years after the Citizens United decision sparked national outrage, we have seen the movement to get big money out of politics go from local, grassroots organizing to a vote in the United States Senate,” explained People for the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker, who worked with activists from Public Citizen, Common Cause, Free Speech for People and other groups to collect and deliver 3.2 million signatures on petitions supporting an amendment. “Today’s historic majority vote is a remarkable milestone for this movement and a platform for taking the fight to the next level. The debate in the Senate this week is a debate that Americans across the country who are passionate about fixing our broken democracy have wanted to see.”
With the DC debate done, for now, the fight goes back to the grassroots. Activists with groups such as Move to Amend, Public Citizen’s “Democracy is for People” campaign and Free Speech for People will continue to organize and agitate, not just for an amendment but for an amendment that makes it absolutely clear that money is not speech, that corporations are not people and that citizens have a right to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars.
“We have amended the US Constitution before in our nation’s history. Twenty-seven times before. Seven of those times to overturn egregious Supreme Court rulings. For the promise of American democracy, we can and we will do it again,” declared John Bonifaz, the president of Free Speech for People, said Thursday. “The pressing question before the nation today is whether it is ‘we the people’ or ‘we the corporations and big money interests.’ This not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is a deeply American issue. Whatever our political differences may be, we all share the common vision of government of, for, and by the people. Today’s US Senate vote is just the beginning. While this amendment bill did not receive this time the required two-thirds support in order to pass the Senate, we will be back again and again until we win. History is on our side.’
Read Next: John Nichols on the “pivotal moment” in the fight to remove big money from politics
Buried in the data from the much-hyped CNN poll that suggested Americans were “alarmed” by the actions of the the ISIL, and that they feel “increasingly concerned” that ISIL could pose a threat to the United States, were two key details:
1. Americans want limits placed on the US military response to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and to the broader political challenges that have developed in those countries. For instance, a majority of Americans, 61 percent of Americans oppose placing US troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
2. More than 70 percent of Americans believe that President Obama should seek congressional authorization for military strikes against ISIL.
Amid all the “alarm” and “concern,” the American people remain wary about any rush to war, and they believe that Congress—not just the president—should have a say with regard to expansion of military action. And make no mistake, what President Obama described in his speech to the nation Wednesday night was a dramatic expansion of US military involvement and action in Iraq and Syria.
As Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, said in a statement after hearing the president’s proposals, “The facts are clear. We are no longer talking about limited strikes to prevent genocide and protect U.S. personnel. We are talking about sustained bombing and the use of military force.”
The president seemed to recognize the war wariness—and the war weariness—of the American people. Though he outlined plans for US involvment in a broad effort to “degrade and destroy and ultimately destroy ISIL,” Obama told the nation in a speech Wednesday night:
I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our partner forces on the ground.
Yet the initiative the president outlined was one of offensive warmaking in Iraq and Syria, with the United States taking the lead in mobilizing “a broad coalition of partners” for military action “to drive these terrorists from their lands.” This military action will involve not just “a systematic campaign of airstrikes” but the deployment of an additional 475 US troops “to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.” According to CNN, that brings the total number of US soldiers on the ground in Iraq to roughly 1,700.
Even as he described a dramatic increase in US military involvement in the region, the president avoided asking for the congressional consultation that is required by a US Constitution that explicitly affords Congress the power “to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.”
Rather, Obama announced, “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”
Translation: Obama is not inclined to seek the congressional advice and consent that is imagined and intended by the Constitution.
Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Washington, described the “I welcome congressional support” line as “really kind of condescending.”
The question now is whether Congress will assert its clear authority as a co-equal branch of government to debate and vote on plans for war and, through the power of the purse, to define the scope and character of warmaking.
That assertion is unlikely to come from congressional leaders. And many House and Senate Democrats were quick to express support for the president’s plans, while some Republicans argued that he should go further.
But a number of members of House and Senate continue to voice concerns about the lack of definition for the new initiative, and about the lack of clear congressional authorization for military action.
Senator Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, responded to Obama’s remarks by expressing respect for the restraint she said the president had shown. But Baldwin added, “I remain concerned about the potential for open-ended U.S. military engagement in the Middle East.” Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, D-California, expressed “reservations about expanding airstrikes into Syria. Committing U.S. military involvement to a country that is undergoing a complicated and lengthy civil war has serious potential international implications.” Echoing Baldwin, Sanchez added, “I am concerned about the possibility of a protracted military campaign that might put American troops in future danger.”
To address such concerns, Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats, says he is working with a bipartisan group of senators to draft a resolution defining the president’s authority. Unlike the open-ended authorizations given President George Bush in 2001 and 2002, King told The Washington Post, “I think that we should be talking about something that is much more limited. For example, in duration or defining who the enemy is.”
King said there should be a congressional debate before the November election. “We have a constitutional responsibility to be engaged in this,” he argued. ”I’m frustrated by Congress’s propensity to criticize and not make decisions. This is an opportunity where we should engage in this. I think it strengthens the country if we do so.”
Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, was blunter: “The Constitution is very clear. The power to declare war resides in Congress. If we are to go to war, Congress must approve.”
That is the view that Congresswoman Lee has long held, and she restated it strongly on Wednesday night, saying, “The Constitution requires Congress to vote on the use of military force. This is not about this President. This is about any President and any Congress. We must re-establish the checks and balances laid out by the Constitution.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, joined Lee in asking for immediate debate. “Congress must weigh in when it comes to confronting ISIL through military action,” they said. “The voices of the American people must be heard during a full and robust debate in Congress on the use of military force. Speaker Boehner should put legislation authorizing military action on the floor of the House of Representatives before Congress leaves for the upcoming district work period.”
Appearing on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes Wednesday night, House Armed Services Committee member John Garamendi, D-California, declared, “This is about war and this is a very serious matter. Mr. President come to Congress and get your authorization.”
In a statement earlier Wednesday, Garamendi pointed out that “the U.S. Constitution and War Powers Resolution are clear: Congress is obligated to weigh in on extended U.S. military actions. No matter how noble the cause, no matter how just the engagement, Congress’ voice and vote are required within a 60-90 day window.”
Garamendi’s office reports that “the 60-day window in our military campaign against ISIL ends on October 7th, although the precise date is subject to some interpretation.”
While the congressman says “our current limited air strikes and special operations missions against the Islamic State have a clear purpose and are narrow and targeted in scope,” he explains that “it’s incumbent on Congress to vote on that strategy if it involves military action. To do otherwise ignores our Constitutionally-required duty. The people we represent and our brave men and women in uniform deserve better than that. They deserve a vote.”
Garamendi’s sentiments are shared by activists.
Democracy for America, the group formed by backers of Howard Dean’s antiwar presidential campaign of 2004 was pointed in its call for a vote. Even as he decried ISIL as “a collection of brutal barbarians who threaten the stability of the Middle East,” DFA’s Neil Sroka said, “We remain deeply troubled by any plan for U.S. military engagement that has not been explicitly debated by the American people and voted on by Congress.”
“While regional leaders and the global community must respond to ISIS’s growing list of atrocities,” Sroka explained in his statement, “after more than a decade of war, the American people and their representatives in Congress must have a calm, rational public debate of that response and the appropriate level of U.S. involvement.”
That debate, argued the national group Peace Action, should weigh the wisdom of the military response that Obama has proposed. “We agree with the president that there is no military solution to the problems posed by [ISIL],” said Peace Action executive director Kevin Martin. “And yet his proposed strategy relies far too heavily on the use of military force. It’s time to stop the bombing and escalation and use the other tools of U.S. foreign policy—working with allies in cutting off weapons, oil and funding streams for starters—which will be much more active in dealing with [ISIL].”
Read Next: Phyllis Bennis on the speech on diplomacy Obama should have given Wednesday night
As President Obama was preparing to outline his strategy regarding Iraq and Syria, Massachusetts Democrats turned out a sitting congressman and nominated an Iraq veteran who is absolutely opposed to deploying ground troops in the region—and absolutely determined to avoid the incremental missteps that lead back toward war.
While Seth Moulton supported the president’s decision to provide humanitarian assistance to Iraqi civilians in the face of imminent genocide as “the morally right thing to do,” the candidate has raised tough questions about sending US military advisers to the region. “We must be very careful not to put American combat troops on the ground in Iraq,” says Moulton, “and I remain deeply concerned about the risk of civilian casualties when airstrikes are used without direction from ground forces.”
Moulton says the instability and violence that has torn at Iraq—particularly in regions where the Islamic State movement is active—represents “a political crisis resulting from a complete loss of trust in [former] Prime Minister Maliki and his increasingly sectarian government. This must ultimately be met with a political solution, not a military response.”
In statements and interviews during his congressional campaign in northeast Massachusetts, Moulton made a compelling and consistent—as well as highly nuanced—case for avoiding the sort of military response that would steer US forces back into Iraq. And he did so with authority, as both a progressive Democrat who has opposed George Bush’s war in Iraq and a Marine veteran who served four tours of duty in Iraq from 2003 to 2008.
On Tuesday, Moulton swept to an easy victory over Congressman John Tierney, an eighteen-year incumbent who was the first and only House Democrat to be defeated in a party primary this year. Moulton still faces a fall contest with a well-known and well-funded Republican, but most observers agree the challenger’s greatest hurdle was the primary. Though Tierney was vulnerable, at least in part because of an old gambling scandal involving his wife and brother, few thought the incumbent would be defeated until the final weeks of the campaign.
It was during those final weeks that the Democratic primary debate took up the issue of Iraq—with both candidates seeking to position themselves as antiwar contenders. Questions of war and peace were certainly not the only ones on the agenda, but they were, as The Boston Globe noted, “in play.”
Tierney made the point that he voted against authorizing George Bush and Dick Cheney to go to war at a time when popular sentiment was divided on the issue. And the incumbent’s supporters argued that he deserved credit not just for his vote but for his foresight.
But Moulton’s campaign made a compelling case that he would come to Congress as a war-wary representative with profound knowledge of the region. “Although Seth was firmly against the Iraq War, Seth served his country and led his platoon—eventually serving four tours of duty in Iraq over five years,” the campaign noted. “Seth led an infantry platoon during the 2003 invasion and was in the first Marine company to enter Baghdad. Later, he worked to establish independent Iraqi media. The following year, Seth returned to Iraq as an infantry platoon commander and fought in the lead company in the Battle of Najaf.”
That knowledge was on display when Moulton explained the dangers involved in dispatching substantial numbers of military advisers to Iraq—as the president has already done. An Associated Press profile of the candidate began by recalling that “Seth Moulton’s opposition to another ground war in Iraq is rooted in firsthand experience acquired from four tours. As a young Marine, he saw how quickly a militant threat could transform U.S. military advisers into a force entangled in the months-long battle for control of Najaf, some 100 miles south of Baghdad.”
And Moulton reinforced that point, saying, “Americans have to realize that when the president says he’s sending military advisers to Iraq, make no mistake, these are US special forces or Marines or Rangers or other units that are American ground troops.”
That’s an insight that Moulton brings to debates about military intervention—an insight that has, too frequently, been missing, not just in the debate about what to do now but in debates about US military actions going back to Vietnam. Memory and experience matter when complex issues of war and peace are in play. And it matters, in particular, when there are candidates who place themselves in what Moulton describes as “the long tradition of men and women who served and then used their public positions to speak out against war.”
Read Next: John Nichols on what it means when a top Republican runs as an ally of marriage equality
The markers by which we measure political progress are many. But few are more consequential than the decisions made by politicians at election time. It is one thing for a sitting senator or candidate to vote the right way on a procedural question or to quietly issue a press release. It is something else altogether when an incumbent or challenger spends money to link a candidacy with what was until relatively recently considered to be a controversial stance.
So it is significant that Dr. Monica Wehby, a prominent Republican recruit for the US Senate race in Oregon, has produced a new television commercial that identifies her as an ally of advocates for marriage equality. In the ad, Ben West, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that led to this year’s court decision overturning Oregon’s bar on marriage equality, hails Wehby, saying, “I know she’ll fight for every Oregon family, including mine.”
Politico says, “No Republican Senate candidate has ever run an ad like this statewide.” LGBT groups have been quick to make note of the ad, as have conservative websites.
What’s important to understand is that what is happening with this ad may have more to do with national trends than with political realities on the ground in the reasonably “blue” state of Oregon—with the exception, of course, of the reality that Wehby is behind in the polls, is not getting the support she had hoped for from national conservative and Republican groups and is looking for a boost for her candidacy.
Wehby’s appeal won’t necessarily shift ardent backers of equal rights away from the Democrat she is challenging, Senator Jeff Merkley. Merkley has been a stalwart advocate for LGBT rights for many years. His history of support for marriage equality is long, and it is part of a broader progressive record that has put him well ahead in the polls. The Human Rights Campaign gave Merkley a strong endorsement earlier this year, with the HRC’s David Stacy saying, “The historic passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate last year could not have happened without his tireless work. From the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to marriage equality and other issues of fairness, Merkley is a true ally, and HRC is proud to stand with him.”
Additionally, though Wehby says, “I don’t have a problem with gay marriage,” she takes conservative stances on a host of other issues, and she would, if elected, vote to organize the Senate under Republican leadership that is known for its resistance to LGBT rights initiatives. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell describes himself as a “traditionalist” and objected noisily in February to a federal judge’s decision striking down Kentucky’s measures that discriminated against same-sex couples seeking to marry.
Don’t see the Wehby ad as a signal that the Republican Party is about to make the big turn on marriage equality, or LGBT issues in general. There are already Republican senators who have moved on the issue, and more will. The polling data tell us that when the generation that is coming of age now starts to vote in significant numbers, the GOP will have to change—not just in states such as Oregon but nationwide. But the Republican National Committee as recently as last year reaffirmed the party’s “support for marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
So how should we see the Wehby ad? As evidence that support for marriage equality is no longer so politically “bold” or “courageous” as it once was. In some states, it is necessary to making a mainstream appeal.
What the Wehby ad provides is additional and meaningful confirmation of the speed with which the marriage-equality debate is shifting—that a fundamental political change is coming more rapidly, perhaps, than even proponents of that change had imagined.
When Republican candidates start to embrace marriage equality as part of a broader appeal for the backing of swing voters, when they see the stance as essential to a broad appeal, that’s the measure of progress. Support for marriage equality is no longer a risk in much of America. It’s advantageous politically—so advantageous that a prominent Republican is making it part to her 2014 election-season appeal. This is a first, but it will not be a last.
Read Next: Richard Kim on why gay marriage is winning
The Senate will wrangle this week over whether to amend the Constitution to allow citizens and their representatives to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars.
The amendment that is being considered is a consequential, if relatively constrained, proposal, which focuses on core money in political concerns but which does not go as far as many Americans would like when it comes to establishing that money is not speech, corporations are not people and elections should not be up for sale to the highest bidder.
Yet it is difficult to underestimate the importance of the debate that will unfold this week. The debate signals that a grassroots movement has established the rational response to a political crisis created by US Supreme Court rulings (including, but certainly not exclusively, the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions) that have opened the floodgates for domination of political debates by billionaire campaign donors and corporate cash.
Organizing and campaigning by citizens—working in conjunction with groups that has never been adequately funded, on a project that has never received a fair share of media attention—has gotten sixteen states and more than 600 towns, villages, cities and counties to demand an amendment. And the Senate is taking that demand seriously enough to propose a fix, to organize a debate and to schedule votes that will provide a measure of the prospects for making a democracy amendment the twenty-eighth addition to the Constitution.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has proposed a more specific and aggressively worded amendment than the compromise measure that is expected to be considered this week, argues that this Senate debate on the issue of money in politics marks “a pivotal moment in American history.”
Though Sanders would go further than Democratic leaders in the Senate on a number of points, he has joined them in co-sponsoring the amendment by New Mexico Senator Tom Udall that will be debated this week.
The Vermonter understands why this debate is so significant.
It is not because Senate consideration of the issue at this point will lead to the rapid amendment of the Constitution. In fact, no matter what Senate Democrats do, there will not be a sufficient majority in the chamber where a two-thirds vote is required to approve an amendment for consideration by the states. Nor is there any realistic chance that John Boehner will suddenly decide to lead the charge against the corporate campaign spending and billionaire manipulations that bought him the House speakership.
It is not because the amendment that is being advanced now is the amendment that will ultimately be added to the Constitution. Make no mistake, there will be a Twenty-Eighth Amendment; there must be if the American experiment is to survive as anything akin to a democratic republic. As with past amendments, however, this initial proposal for updating the Constitution will likely be altered—with language strengthened or weakened based on the ability of mass movements to place demands for more or less radical change
So why exactly is this a pivotal moment?
Because when a movement becomes sufficiently dynamic to force a Senate debate—after just four years of organizing by groups like Move to Amend, Free Speech For People, Public Citizen, Common Cause, People for the American Way and allied groups at the local and state levels—that debate ought not be seen as beginning or the end of anything. It is a part of a process—an essential teaching moment, an essential organizing moment.
“It’s overwhelmingly clear what the citizenry wants: fed up with a system in which the super-rich and giant corporations are effectively able to buy politicians and policy, the American people are rising up and demanding a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and restore our democracy,” explains Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen. “Whatever happens on (this week), the day is not long off when the 28th amendment becomes the law of the land.”
That’s what Sanders means when he speaks of a pivotal moment.
Millions of Americans are already engaged with the movement to amend the Constitution to get money out of politics—and with the broader movement to address the twin fallacies that money is speech and that corporations should have the same rights as human beings. Tens of millions more are supportive of the struggle. Indeed, polls show there is overwhelming support for the amendment among Americans—73 percent in favor versus 24 percent opposed, according to a new Democracy Corps survey—and that this support crosses all lines of partisanship and ideology.
The Senate debate has the potential to get millions of additional Americans engaged with what Sanders refers to as “the major issue of our time—whether the United States of America retains its democratic foundation or whether we devolve into an oligarchic form of society where a handful of billionaires are able to control our political process by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to elect candidates who represent their interests.”
The fact that the issue is being treated seriously at the congressional level will merge a sense of urgency with a sense of possibility. This could have an impact on the 2014 Senate races; indeed, the Democracy Corps survey found “overwhelming cross-partisan support (73 percent) for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United that can translate into added support for Democratic candidates who support the amendment and damage Republicans who oppose it.”
Significantly, the Senate debate has the potential to influence the outcome of election contests. The Democracy Corps polling memo concluded, “Democratic candidates can gain from supporting this amendment. A 48-11 percent plurality of voters say they are more likely to support the named Democratic candidate after hearing an argument for the proposal. This represents broad support, as the number actually increases among voters under 50 to a 41-point gap and among independents to 42 points.”
Those numbers may explain why Democratic senators who will never be confused with reformers have signed on as co-sponsors of the amendment proposal.
Ultimately, however, the amendment fight must be seen in a broader context than any Democratic political calculus. The movement must attract Republican support for an amendment. And this week’s debate will tell us about the prospects for bipartisanship. Will Republicans who face re-election this year in states where there is strong and well-organized support for an amendment—such as Maine’s Susan Collins, who faces amendment supporter Shenna Bellows—break with their party leadership and back this amendment? In open-seat races, will candidates such as South Dakota Democrat Rick Weiland, an outspoken amendment supporter, find their positions strengthened by an increased focus on the issue?
Constitutional amendments become viable when support for them grows so overwhelming that traditional partisan and ideological boundaries are broken. When this happens, the divide becomes less a matter of Republican versus Democrat or left versus right and more a matter of a broken present versus a functional future.
The corrupt political processes of the moment are not just anti-democratic, they are fundamentally unjust. What former Senator Russ Feingold refers to as a system of “legalized bribery” allows billionaires and corporations to buy more than elections; they buy policies and crony capitalist arrangements that undermine the fairness, the capacity for improvement and the basic stability of America.
There is no question that the arc of human progress is long. But nor is there any question that it bends toward justice. This week’s Senate debate will not produce justice; but it will help to build the movements that are necessary to bend the arc.
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Don Berwick is making a vital point about the need for progressives to expand the discussion about healthcare reform.
Democratic and Republican strategists, and the candidates who let campaign consultants frame their range of opinion, are still engaging in picayune debates about the strengths and weaknesses of the Affordable Care Act.
But Berwick, who for seventeen months headed the Medicare and Medicaid programs under President Obama, isn’t getting lost in the political weeds. He’s blazing a trail in the direction of what ultimately must be done—pushing at the constraints of the conversation and offering an illustration of why it is so important for progressives to get specific about the need for a “Medicare for All” fix.
Mounting an admittedly uphill campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts, Berwick says, “I want us to be the first state in the nation to adopt single-payer health care—Medicare for All. With that one change, we can improve care and reduce costs for families and businesses. We can free up resources that will add tens of thousands of jobs all over Massachusetts. Single-payer health care— let’s lead.”
Berwick does not raise this issue casually. A Harvard Medical School graduate who practiced medicine serving low-income families before founding the nonprofit Institute for Healthcare Improvement, advised the World Health Organization and was so well regarded for his advice and counsel on improving Britain’s healthcare system that he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
But being one of the best thinkers and doers in the area of healthcare reform does not always bring rewards. During his tenure as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Berwick was a key player in implementing some of the best components of the Affordable Care Act, including initiatives “ensuring that young people can stay on their parents’ health plans until the age of 26, kids with preexisting conditions can no longer be denied the care they need, and insurance companies are subjected to new levels of transparency.”
Yet, as Berwick’s campaign now notes, “The toxic politics of Washington cut short Don’s time there. Right-wing pundits attacked his commitment to equality and health care for all. Glenn Beck labeled him the ‘second most dangerous man in America.’ Senate Republicans vowed to filibuster his confirmation. In the face of the same Republicans who blocked Elizabeth Warren’s confirmation to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Don was forced to step aside after only seventeen months leading Medicaid and Medicare.”
The experience did not sour Berwick on the fight for healthcare reform.
But it did cause him to refocus his considerable energies.
The physician returned to his home state of Massachusetts and began preparing for a gubernatorial run in which he has argued that the states can and must lead on real healthcare reform.
To that end, he says, he wants to build on the leadership role Massachusetts has taken on reform to make Medicare for All a reality.
“I know from my first-hand experience in Washington guiding the early implementation of the Affordable Care Act that all eyes in the nation are on Massachusetts. Champions of real health care reform are crossing their fingers for us to succeed; opponents are hoping for us to fail. It is crucial that we lead, and show the rest of the nation that treating health care as a right, not a privilege, is sensible and successful public policy,” explains Berwick in a statement on his website.
It is time to find a way to get to yes on a single payer system in Massachusetts. The complexity of our health care payment system adds costs, uncertainties, and hassles for everyone—patients, families, doctors, and employers. On day one, I will appoint a multi-stakeholder Single Payer Advisory Panel to investigate and report back within six months on how Massachusetts moves to a single payer health insurance system like Medicare for all.
Massachusetts is not the only state where single-payer healthcare reform is being placed in the agenda. In Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin and his legislative allies have made significant progress on the issue. And they are not alone.
Last month’s “Organizing for Healthcare Justice in the Age of Obamacare” strategy conference in Oakland, California, brought together Labor Campaign for Single Payer, Healthcare NOW! and the One Payer States group, as well as members of Physicians for a National Health Program and leading figures in National Nurses United, the California Nurses Association, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and other labor groups. At the conference, much of the discussion was about state-based initiatives in Vermont, California, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and other regions of the country.
In Massachusetts, Berwick says the work that has already been done in the state to extend access to health care creates an circumstance for developing a single-payer system. His arguments are strong in this regard. But it will take leadership to take the next step, which is why Berwick entered the gubernatorial race.
As next week’s primary approaches, he’s trailing two primary foes, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Massachusetts Treasurer Steven Grossman, both of whom have more resources and party connections. While his poll numbers have improved some as the September 9 primary approaches, Berwick is behind. Yet, if the measure of a campaign is the extent to which it shifts the discourse, Berwick’s run has already been a success: He’s at the table, as a candidate who is getting a serious hearing, participating in debates and in many senses framing the discourse.
After a June debate, an analysis for WBUR radio noted that Berwick “seems to be shifting the conversation, at least at this early stage, further to the left.”
In particular, explained the WBUR report, “Berwick seems to be adjusting the conversation… on the issue of a single-payer health care system.”
The other candidates are still more cautious on the issue. But Grossman is now saying that he wants to lead a “conversation” on single-payer—arguing, “You’ve got to build a consensus in our society around any dramatic societal change.” And while Coakley says “We’re not ready to go to single-payer yet,” she adds, “I don’t rule it out ever.”
But as the Massacusetts race steers toward a close, Boston Globe columnist Alan Wirzbicki writes: “This lackluster Democratic primary wouldn’t have been the same without [Berwick]. The only doctor in the race has added some needed fiber to the Democratic diet during this year’s gubernatorial campaign. His single-payer health proposal has forced his opponents to engage in a substantive discussion of health care costs…”
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President Obama launched the fall campaign season with a robust call for increasing the minimum wage.
“If you work full time in America, you shouldn’t be living in poverty, you shouldn’t be trying to support a family in poverty,” Obama told thousands of cheering union members in Milwaukee, adding, “There is no denying the simple truth: America deserves a raise.”
The president wasn’t trying to convince the American people. They know that increasing the minimum wage is necessary to address income inequality and the injustice of a circumstance where millions of American families are struggling because their hard work is not adequately compensated. A poll conducted last summer for the National Employment Law Project Action Fund found that 80 percent of Americans surveyed favor a $10.10-an-hour wage floor. Ninety-two percent of Democrats favor the increase, as do 80 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans.
This enthusiasm is not just theoretical. It is immediate. Seventy-four percent of Americans say that Congress should make it a priority to significantly increase the minimum wage.
That focus on Congress is the key, as Obama acknowledged when he noted Monday that “in the year and a half since I first asked Congress to raise the minimum wage—of course, the Republicans in Congress have blocked it.”
“Eventually, Congress is going to hear [the people],” Obama continued. “We’ll break those folks down. We’ll just stay on them.… Persistence—you just stay at it. Because the only thing more powerful than an idea whose time has come is when millions of people are organizing around an idea whose time has come. Millions of people are voting for an idea whose time has come.”
This emphasis on voting, on the fall election, echoes the elite consensus in Washington that, while hiking the minimum wage (up to $15-an-hour) has become a big issue at the state and local levels of government, Congress will not budge on this issue. That consensus says that only an election will change the shape of things to come.
But that’s a bogus consensus. Telling full-time workers who are living in poverty that they must wait for the next election, and the next election, and the next election after that is a form of surrender.
Of course elections matter. But they are not an excuse for putting progress on hold.
The House and Senate will be in session this fall. A proposal to increase the base hourly wage to workers from $7.25 to $10.10 has been advanced. Top Republicans are on board for a higher minimum wage, with Mitt Romney saying “We ought to raise it,” and Rick Santorum saying “It just makes no sense” to oppose an increase.
Members of the Senate Democratic majority back higher wages and, despite the obstructionist tactics of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, the prospect of a high-profile vote just weeks before a critical national election might even get some Republicans—like Maine Senator Susan Collins— to do the right thing.
So where’s the problem? In the House.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has shown no inclination to allow a vote. But the rules of the House allow a majority of members to go around the speaker and use a “discharge petition” to force a vote, which is precisely what the Time for a Raise campaign being championed by Ralph Nader argues is the right approach.
“To date, 195 House members have signed the petition, meaning only 23 more member signatures are required to bring H.R. 1010 to a vote,” argues the Time for a Raise message going into the fall. “There has been insufficient effort by House Democrats, concerned Republicans, labor unions and poverty organizations to mount an effort find and persuade the 23 House members needed to complete the discharge petition and bring a raise in the federal minimum wage to a vote.”
“Time for a Raise” argues that Democratic leaders in the Senate and the House should ramp up the push for a minimum-wage hike as soon as their return to Washington.
Nader and his allies have produced compelling political math.
“To catalyze action,” they explain in a new action plan, “the Time for a Raise campaign has identified 55 House members worth pressuring to sign H.R. 1010’s discharge petition:
(a) 3 House Democrats who have not co-sponsored H.R. 1010 nor signed it’s discharge petition;
(b) 6 House Republicans who signed a letter to then-majority leader Boehner in 2006 arguing that “Nobody working full-time should have to live in poverty”;
(c) 17 House Republicans from districts won by President Obama in 2012;
(d) 26 other House Republicans who voted for a minimum wage increase in 2007; and
(e) 3 high-profile House Republican leaders.
Among the House members listed are Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia US Senate candidate who have advocated in the past for wage hikes, and House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, who has been trying to portray himself—with a new book and speaking tour—as a compassionate conservative friend of working families. They should both sign the petition, as should House Republicans in swing districts and reluctant Democrats who represent thousands of families that would experience an immediate improvement in their circumstance with a minimum-wage increase. A refusal to sign the petition by candidates of either party sends a “Which Side Are You On?” message to voters that goes far beyond partisanship or ideology as the November 4 election approaches.
But this is not just about Republicans. Democrats have to step up. When the discharge petition was circulated last winter, Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan declared, “The minimum wage is woefully inadequate to help keep hard-working people out of poverty. When millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules cannot support themselves or their families, when they live in poverty, we face an economic crisis. That’s why we must raise the minimum wage, which would give 24.5 million Americans and more than 500,000 hard-working Wisconsinites a pay raise and generate $500 million in increased economic activity in our state alone.”
That’s a powerful message that Pocan has continued to push the issue at every turn, going so far as to propose an amendment to the Republican budget as a vehicle to force a minimum-wage vote.
That’s the right idea, and the right level of aggressiveness.
Now, as members of the House return to Washington, Democrats should take up the call—not as an election issue but as an immediate demand for action. As Nader has illustrated, it is possible to turn the volume up on this issue quickly, and effectively.
Congress should put politics aside and raise the minimum wage. Now!
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Congressmen Keith Ellison and John Lewis have proposed legislation to protect union organizing as a civil right. “As go unions, so go middle-class jobs,” says Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who serves as a Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair. “That’s why I’m proud to introduce the Employee Empowerment Act with civil rights icon John Lewis. This ground-breaking legislation will give workers the same legal options for union organizing discrimination as for other forms of discrimination—stopping anti-union forces in their tracks”
Amending the National Labor Relations Act to allow workers who face discrimination for engaging in union organizing to sue for justice in the civil courts—and to collect compensatory and punitive damages—is a sound and necessary initiative.
But it is certainly not a radical initiative—at least by American standards.
Indeed, the best way to understand what Ellison, Lewis and the cosponsors of their legislation are proposing is as a reconnection with a very American idea.
Despite the battering that unions have taken in recent years—in Wisconsin, Michigan and states across the country—Americans once encouraged countries around the world to embrace, extend and respect labor rights.
There was a time, within the living memory of millions of Americans, when this country championed democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to organize in the same breath.
When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, General Douglas MacArthur and his aides encouraged the country to adopt a constitution designed to assure that Hideki Tojo’s militarized autocracy would be replaced with democracy. Fully aware that workers and their unions had a role to play in shaping the new Japan, they included language that explicitly recognized that “the right of workers to organize and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed.”
When the United States occupied Germany after World War II, General Dwight David Eisenhower and his aides urged the Germans to write a constitution that would assure that Adolf Hitler’s fascism was replaced with muscular democracy. Recognizing that workers would need to organize and make their voices heard in the new nation, the Germans included a provision that explicitly declared: “The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions shall be guaranteed to every individual and to every occupation or profession. Agreements that restrict or seek to impair this right shall be null and void; measures directed to this end shall be unlawful.”
When former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the International Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would in 1948 be adopted by the United Nations as a global covenant, Roosevelt and the drafters included a guarantee that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
For generations, Americans accepted the basic premise that labor rights are human rights. When this country counseled other countries on how to forge civil and democratic societies, Americans explained that the right to organize a trade union—and to have that trade union engage in collective bargaining as an equal partner with corporations and government agencies—had to be protected.
Now, with those rights under assault in America, it is wise, indeed, to recommit to the American ideal that working people must have a right to organize and to make their voices heard in a free and open society. As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said fifty years ago:
History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.
History remembers, as should we. The formal recognition of labor rights as human rights—and the extension of civil rights protections to prevent discrimination against labor organizing—is long overdue. Keith Ellison and John Lewis are renewing ideals that have historically enlarged America and made real the promise of democracy.