Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
When Ralph Nader chided what he called the "liberal intelligentsia" for appealing to him not to run in 2004 as "a contemptuous statement against democracy, against freedom, against more voices and choices for the American people," he added, "You'd never find that type of thing in Canada or Western democracies in Europe."
But Ralph was being disingenuous by not acknowledging that before Americans can take advantage of the heightened democracy enjoyed by those nations, we need a slew of electoral reforms that he may support on his campaign website, but which have gone virtually unmentioned in his media appearances and speeches.
I agree with Nader that America's democratic promise isn't fulfilled and that we live with a downsized politics of excluded alternatives. But, as The Nation noted in our "Open Letter" appealing to him not to run in an election when the overwhelming mass of progressive voters have only one focus--beating Bush--Nader's perceived role as a spoiler is likely to attract far more attention than the valuable issues he raises.
Instead of demonizing Nader though, progressives and indeed all Democrats should fight for reforms that open up our electoral system. One place to start would be to demand that the Democratic presidential candidate--and the party's platform--support electoral reforms that reflect an understanding that the party that can capture the hearts and minds of political newcomers can build a voting majority.
For the first time in nearly a century more than a quarter of US voters are not registered as either Republicans or Democrats. We need an electoral system that accommodates and indeed celebrates our country's diverse views. It's no accident that Howard Dean drew his strongest support among young people. Like Dennis Kucinich, he embraced instant runoff voting and stressed the importance of reforms that allow the range of voices and choices found in democracies with more modern voting systems.
Both Dean and Kucinich, like Nader, know that our two major parties have effectively colluded to dramatically narrow voter options. But there's nothing in American political culture that mandates the present system. It's an artifact of self-protection by the two party duopoly that at this point is particularly damaging to Democrats.
So here's my list of some ideas on how to reconstruct American democracywith links to groups working on their behalf:
1. Proportional Representation. The most obvious difference between electoral politics in the United States and Europe is our plurality, winner-take-all electoral system. Giving all representation to the candidate with the most votes by definition shuts the door on political minorities. Nearly all European legislatures have forms of proportional representation--called "full representation" by reformers here--where 51 percent of the vote wins a majority of seats, but not all seats. Winning 10 percent of the vote wins 10 percent of seats, and in some nations, like Germany and Belgium, candidates and parties can win with far less support.
Indeed new parties form in European democracies in roughly comparable numbers as they do in the United States; the difference is that with "full representation," more than half of these parties ultimately win seats and a chance to bring new voters and issues into politics even as the leading parties typically function as stable pillars of coalition governments. Arguments about how difficult it is to govern under proportional representation--as in Italy--collapse under the weight of sensible policies coming from countries like Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Reflecting Americans' limited understanding of the political systems of other nations, it's unlikely that the Democrats will embrace full proportional representation yet--although they do have the wisdom to use it to elect delegates to their presidential convention. But if they turn to Illinois' experience with its more modest system of cumulative voting in three-seat districts (essentially three adjoining legislative districts that are combined into one), they will see they have nothing to fear and much to gain.
Illinois used cumulative voting from 1870 to 1980, and there's increasing bipartisan support in the state to restore it. Three-seat districts with full representation lower the share of voter support necessary to earn a seat to roughly 25 percent. That change alone would open up nearly every area in the country to healthy two-party competition, give third parties a better chance and address the goals of redistricting reformers. (It's worth noting that restoring cumulative voting in Illinois has support from a range of political figures, including the two most recent Republican governors and African-American Democratic figures like the Secretary of State Jesse White and Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.)
Amarillo, Texas shows what cumulative voting can do for fair representation in the US: after having had an all-white school board for two decades, it adopted cumulative voting in 1999 and now has a school board which looks much more like its voter base with four white members, two Latinas and an African American.
2. Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Most presidential democracies have runoff elections in which the top two candidates face off if no candidate wins a majority. This allows voters more luxury in supporting any candidate they like in the first round with little fear that doing so will assist in electing their least favorite candidate.
Ireland has an even better system: instant runoff voting (IRV). IRV simulates a full runoff election in a single round of voting through the simple device of allowing citizens to vote both for their favorite candidate as well as for the candidate they would support if their favorite fails to advance to the runoff. The result is a winning candidate able to build a true majority coalition.
And when given the chance, American voters seem to like IRV; this month Berkeley voters supported IRV for city elections by a margin of 72 percent to 28 percent; a recent telephone survey in Illinois found that a majority of voters-- including strong Democrats by a margin of two-to-one--supported IRV for presidential elections; in 2002, it was adopted in San Francisco for city elections; 53 of 56 town meetings in Vermont supported resolutions calling for IRV for gubernatorial elections, and in 2001 the Utah Republican Party adopted instant runoff voting for elections that take place at its state conventions.
Given their understandably angry reaction to Nader's candidacy, Democrats should consider a reform that would accommodate such a candidacy in the future. Instant runoff voting could be adopted for presidential elections in any state by a mere statute. Public backers in recent years have included the leaders of the state senates of Maine and New Mexico, two states where Democrats control the state government. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson-- one of Nader's fiercest critics--should take the lead in supporting a reform that is a win-win solution to the "spoiler" controversy.
3. Fusion. One American answer to the question that in most other systems is answered more straightforwardly by proportional representation, namely, how can you give representative weight to minority electoral sentiment, is fusion voting.
Fusion lifts prohibitions against more than one party nominating a candidate. That simple change permits people to vote their values without wasting their votes or supporting "spoilers." The positive experience of the Working Families Party in New York in recent years shows that you can build a viable minority party this way, even in the otherwise inhospitable electoral environment of the US.
Fusion also has the weight of long American experience behind it. Before the early 20th century, it was a frequent tool of emerging parties before major parties started banning it, and it has been particularly prominent in New York's electoral history. Fusion also has helped progressives focus on the challenge of building majorities in a winner-take-all system.
4.Democracy Toolkit: Then there are a slew of reforms that would increase voter engagement in the system, improve responsiveness of the major parties to the full electorate, and offer good complements to full representation, instant runoff voting and fusion.
*Public funding of elections, either through general revenues, individual tax credits or special scrip. Big money politics give disproportionate influence to the wealthy, and blocks the candidacies of those without access to money.
* Election day registration. A third of American adults are not registered and, even if caught up in the excitement of an election in its final days, are denied a chance to vote. Reforms in voter registration are all the more possible in the wake of technological innovation and recent movement to statewide voter registration databases.
*Election day as a holiday. The highest voter participation in the United States is in Puerto Rico, which makes election day a holiday (as incidentally, does The Nation's collective bargaining agreement). In addition to giving frenzied working people time to get to the polling booth, this contributes to a civic awareness of the importance of elections.
*Consolidation of election calendars. Because the United States spreads voting throughout the year, the impact of one's vote in any one election is weakened, and important primary and local elections often draw single-digit turnout as a consequence.
*Tying FCC licensing to more public affairs programming. A real public channel or two would dramatically increase electoral awareness.
* A Constitutional amendment enshrining the right to vote, as Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. has publicly proposed. The lack of a right to vote in the Constitution allows states to disenfranchise more than four million citizens convicted of felonies and to fail to establish and maintain voting systems that ensure everyone who wants to vote will be able to cast a vote that counts.
Admittedly, these are just a beginning. It's worth remembering that in recent years two out of five state legislative races haven't even been contested, and that the number of marginal congressional seats is at an all-time low. The Electoral College results in most voter mobilization being focused on the fifteen or so battleground states, not the the nation as a whole.
As so many citizens understand, America needs a democracy reconstruction project. I just wish Nader would use his pulpit and street cred as a legendary public interest advocate to fight for these measures rather than launching a candidacy that might help reelect the most reactionary government in our lifetime.
As President George W. Bush prepares to launch his first broadcast ads of the political season next week, it is clear that his well-groomed and well-rewarded donor network is doing their job. Relying on a pyramid scheme of Pioneers (those who raise $100,000 for the campaign) and Rangers (those who raise $200,000), Bush has amassed an astounding $143 million in less than a year, finance reports out last week revealed.
But showing appreciation for all the favors and rewards from the Bush Administration by raising a mere 200 grand is chickenfeed for some of these wealthy captains of industry. Rumors in January first reported by the Washington Post hinted at another category of donors--those who are able to haul in $500,000. And as I wrote on January 25 , ("Oligarchs for Bush"), Public Campaign Action Fund started a contest (http://www.pcactionfund.org/contest) to name this new category of bundlers for Bush. As a judge for the contest, I helped narrow the 1,191 entries down to five finalists (Cash Cowboys, Robber Barons, Weapons of Mass Corruption, Profiteers and The Funding Fathers) and now it's up to the public to pick their favorite.
The voting is open now, and will remain open until February 29, though if there is a lot of interest, the voting may remain open a little longer.
It's only fitting that as we are inundated with Bush's TV ads, we are also reminded who paid for them.
You never know who you'll meet in the "green room."
Recently,while waiting to be grilled by Chris Matthews on MSNBC I ran into the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who had just come from Harvard University where he delivered a speech marking the Rainbow Coalition's 20th anniversary. The Reverend was about to join Pat Buchanan and Jerry Brown on a "Hardball" segment that should have been billed "The Contenders." (Jackson ran for President in '84 and '88; Brown in '76 and '92 and Buchanan in '92, '96 and 2000.)
I'm posting a transcript of their conversation--with Matthews's inevitable Saturday Night Live-styleinterventions--because it was one of the better TV moments I've seen in these last months. And the transpartisan bonding, particularly between Brown and Buchanan, is worth noting.
When White House spokesman Scott McClellan was asked recently about The Price of Loyalty, the best-seller about former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill's disillusionment with the Bush Administration, he replied, "I don't do book reviews."
If he did, it would be a new full-time job, as a recent survey of anti-Bush books by Bob Minzesheimer in USA Today makes clear. The Price of Loyalty is just one in a wave of new titles, including Nation columnist Eric Alterman and Mark Green's The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America, Nation Washington Editor David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush and The Bush-Haters' Handbook, published by Nation Books.
It's great that there are all these anti-Bush books out there, but this political season we, progressives, also need to lay out what we stand for. That's the idea behind Taking Back America a forthcoming release from Nation Books I co-edited with frequent Nation contributor Robert Borosage--featuring pieces by Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Moyers, William Greider, Robert Reich and Benjamin Barber. It's a book for anyone interested in new strategies, institutions and movements that will challenge the conservative ideas and agenda that have dominated our political life. Watch this space and your bookstore shelves for its arrival in mid April.
(You can also click here here to read my review of Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, one of the leaders in the anti-Bush book pack, which was published in the New York Times on February 4.)
Last month, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a cover story about the death of dangerous art in the mainstream media. In the piece, a number of top illustrators complained about an undercurrent of fear, a new timidity, even censorship, when it came to publishing socially conscious art in mainstream newspapers and magazines.
Outside the mainstream, however, smart and rebellious art and design is flourishing. One brilliant example is Nozone's new book Empire (Princeton Architectural Press, April 2004).
A cross between a 'zine and a political pamphlet, Empire is an imaginative response to our imperial moment by a coalition of artists, designers, writers and photographers, including Michael Bierut, Seymour Chwast, Luba Lukova, Christoph Niemann, Paul Sahre, Ward Sutton, Robbie Conal, Edward Sorel, Robert Grossman, Peter Kuper and Scott Stowell/OPEN. (Full disclosure: Many of these artists have been featured in The Nation's pages, and I hope we'll run more of them in coming months.)
Published and edited by Nicholas Blechman, head of Knickerbocker Design, Empire is the ninth issue of Nozone--the alternative political graphic magazine, which has also published issues on "Destruction Dispatch," (inspired by Desert Storm), and "Extremism," in response to the rise of rightwing militias and other radical groups after the Oklahoma City bombing.)
Nozone's artistic crew follows in the grand and often subversive tradition of using illustrations, photographs, cartoons and design to skewer the mighty and expose the good, the bad and the ugly. As the great cartoonist Jules Feiffer explains, "For so many of us angry at so much of what goes on today with so little in print to represent our frustration, this is a book of graphic rage."
"I've always been attracted to protest art," Blechman says, " because of the urgency of the message and the implicit anger in rebel graphics. Furthermore, designers and artists are also citizens, and we have a responsibility to society to use our images in ways that benefit all of us. For some of us this means creating works of enduring beauty, for others it means fighting social injustices."
Empire was conceived soon after September 11, as the Bush Administration prepared to invade Afghanistan. Since then, the word "empire" has literally boomed. "Definitions of empire are everywhere," writes Blechman in the book's foreword. While acknowledging that the left, right and middle have their own definitions, "for us," he writes, " 'empire' doesn't refer to any one thing, but to a vast matrix of forces and counterforces. Billions drink its sodas, listen to its music, breathe its air, drive its cars, smoke its tobacco, practice its religions, watch its movies, ingest its pharmaceuticals, pay its debts, and benefit or suffer from its policies."
"We have no idea, for example," Blechman says, "that by wearing a certain sweatshirt we are contributing to labor abuse in North Korea (see graphic designer Knickerbocker's clever chart called 'Globalized'); that by using an ATM in Beirut, we are making a donation to the fortune of a banker in Boston (see Jesse Gordon's subversive photomontage, 'Altars to the Empire'); or that by starting our car we are tacitly endorsing a war in the oil fields of the Middle East (see CNN!). These connections exist, but, hidden, in the voluptuous vastness of the empire, they become invisible."
Definitions of empire--culled from an eclectic array of political thinkers, including Michael Parenti, Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, New Yorker writer William Finnegan, the late social critic Lewis Mumford and Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria--are provocatively intertwined with images and cartoons. Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham's interview on the theme of "American Oligarchy" is illustrated by Christoph Niemann. Wicked pencil portraits of Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld run with some of their choicest sayings set off in cartoon-style bubbles. There's even a film noir comic strip called "The Empire."
Comics, design and protest art, Blechman says, "can't change the world, or inform public policy, but they can plant a seed of questioning in people's mind and create an atmosphere in which change can happen. Moreover, I feel creating a space where alternative viewpoints can be expressed (or in this case drawn) has its own value, by injecting fresh blood into the body politic."
Long Live Political Art. And click here to check out Empire.
What planet does Rich Lowry live on? National Review's editor--someone I've sparred with on TV many times--recently weighed in on the causes of poverty. It "has nothing to do with corporations," he argued, "and little to do with other, more-relevant economic factors, such as wage rates."
In fact, Lowry lives in New York City, where hundreds of thousands of hardworking people--dish-washers, clerks, factory workers, security guards, salespeople--live in poverty. As Andrew Friedman of the Drum Major Institute recently noted in New York's Daily News, "New York is full of people who face the daily indignity of struggling to survive."
More than thirty million Americans currently earn less than $8.70 an hour, the official US poverty level for a family of four. (And most experts estimate that it takes at least double this level for a family to provide for its basic needs.) But for Lowry, "Poverty in America is primarily a cultural phenomenon, driven by a shattered work ethic and sexual irresponsibility."
Forget the low wage, no-benefit jobs which translate into billions of dollars in profits for the corporations Lowry holds blameless. Forget that the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage has fallen by 40 percent since 1968. For Lowry, poverty is a "cultural phenomenon."
Fortunately, not everyone reads National Review and legislation pending in the New York State Assembly would raise New York's minimum wage by almost $2 an hour. Such a change would help more than 500,000 New Yorkers. Lowry should stop whining about sexual irresponsibility, get a conscience and support efforts to improve the lives of his fellow New Yorkers--several of whom keep his office digs clean and secure.
Are Bush's plunging poll numbers rattling them over at MSNBC's Scarborough Country?
The other day, CBS News had Kerry topping Bush by five percent. The ABC/Washington Post poll has Kerry leading by nearly ten points. And a recent Time/CNN poll shows the public is now seriously split regarding Bush's credibility in key areas: the state of the economy, the federal budget deficit, Iraq's WMD prior to the war; and the cost of rebuilding Iraq. Americans are also convinced that Bush is more "tied to special interests" than Kerry and a recent focus group revealed that Bush's message fell flat on both college educated and non-college educated voters. As one non-college educated man from Phoenix put it, "what world is he in--Bush World?"
Over in Bush World, or Scarborough Country, the consequences of the President's cuts in education may be taking their toll faster than expected. As I sat on the set, waiting to be grilled by Scarborough and denounced by some vile man heading Vietnam Veterans Against Kerry, I couldn't help but be mesmerized by what appeared to be a caption malfunction. "Bush Under Seige" was slapped up on the screen for several minutes. Hey guys, great to see that Bush is under fire---but last I checked it was spelled "siege."
We all know that Halliburton is gouging taxpayers--according to the Pentagon, Vice President Cheney's old company overcharged the US government by as much as $61 million for fuel in Iraq. But now we learn that more than 27,000 military contractors, or about one in nine, are evading taxes and still continuing to win new government business.
According to the General Accounting Office, these tax cheats owed an estimated $3 billion at the end of 2002, mainly in Social Security and other payroll taxes, including Medicare, that were diverted for business or personal use instead of being sent to the government. (Lesser amounts were owed in income taxes).
In one 2002 case, the New York Times reports, a company providing dining, security and custodial services to military bases received $3.5 million in payments from the Defense Department despite owing almost $10 million to the government. (Shockingly, the GAO estimated that the Defense Department could have collected $100 million in 2002 by offsetting payments to delinquent companies still on its payroll.)
The http://www.senate.gov/~gov_affairs/index.cfm?Fuseaction= Subcommittees.Home&SubcommitteeID=11&Initials=PSI"> Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has scheduled a hearing this Thursday to look into what committee chair Norm Coleman calls "an outrageous situation." At present, federal law does not bar contractors with unpaid federal taxes from obtaining new government contracts. (The GAO has recommended policy options for barring contracts to those who abuse the federal tax system.)
At a time when $200 million would purchase enough ceramic body armor--the kind that usually works, the kind the Pentagon wouldn't splurge for--to protect almost 150,000 GIs in Iraq, Republicans and Democrats should demand that these tax cheats pay up.
"All eyes of the nation should be on Philadelphia Wednesday, but now they're going to be on Michael Powell's public scolding of Janet Jackson," lamented Jeff Chester, head of the non-profit Center for Digital Democracy.
Wednesday, February 11, is when opening arguments on the FCC's new media ownership rules are scheduled to be heard in a Philadelphia appeals court. That's the same day that the GOP Congress has called back-to-back hearings in the House and Senate on violence and indecency on the public airwaves. (At least one Democratic FCC commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein, planned to travel to Philadelphia for opening arguments in the appeal of the agency's controversial decision last June, but had to change his plans when Congress tapped him--and the other four FCC commisioners, including Michael Powell--to testify. )
We can expect Powell to rail against profanity and smut on TV, and repeat his refrain that Viacom/CBS/MTV's Super Bowl stunt with Janet and Justin must be punished. He and several Republicans are already pushing a bill to increase indecency fines tenfold. But for most conglomerates, even major fines won't dent their massive lobbying budgets. Besides, given the multi, mega-billion giveaway that Congress and the last several Administrations gave the broadcasters (free broadcast spectrum in 1996 worth $300 billion plus; cable channel space in 1992, worth tens of billions more), what Congress is doing must be seen by TV industry lobbyists as a minor nuisance at most.
As Andrew Schwartzman, head of the Media Access Project, put it, "I don't think the solution to indecency and bad taste is more fines. I think it's selecting broadcasters that are going to be more responsive to the needs of the local community."
By holding the hearings on the same day as opening arguments in Philadelphia, the GOP Congress and Bush Administration are cravenly trying to change the channel--deflecting attention from their own role in creating the TV networks' weapons of mass distraction.
This week, the important implications are in Philadelphia--not DC. That's where public advocates, media labor unions, and church groups square off against Viacom/CBS; News Corp/Fox; GE/NBC, and lawyers representing almost every newspaper in the US, all of whom will be arguing that the court should affirm and extend what Michael Powell and his GOP wrecking crew did last June.
For years, the media industry has had a sympathetic hearing in the DC Appeals Court. So, the networks and newspaper companies were shocked when the Philly Court--after winning the case in a lottery--took the arguments of the media reformers seriously. (The court suspended implementation of Powell's rules--putting on hold all the deals planned to begin after the FCC June 2 decision.)
It would be a shame if the grandstanding in DC this week overshadows what happens in a courtroom in Philadelphia. It is there that the future of our media landscape may be decided. Will we live with Citizen Kane on steroids? Or can we achieve a media that serves the public interests of citizens? Now, that would be a victory for decency.