Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
I read with interest Katrina vanden Heuvel's weblog in which she laments the recent decision by Alabama voters to vote down a referendum that would shift taxes from the "folks" to under-taxed business interests. I'm from the south, so I'd like to offer an explanation for this oddity.
Two reasons why this happens:
1) Ignorance. You mention this, and it's just a sad fact. So many people really do not know what the hell is going on. Noam Chomsky said it best in one of his interviews that the powerful simply want the mass of folk to stay dumb and complacent. As long as we watch our sports and soap operas, and eagerly follow the J Lo/Ben romance, they are satisfied that we will not cause too many problems by asking questions and actually being concerned. As long as most of us are mindless consumers everything is a-okay. And lest we forget, Alabama isn't reknowned for its educational system.
2) Who actually votes? I'd be willing to bet that most of the voters in this Alabama referendum could care less about most government services. They are the well-off, the affluent, the very business owners who do not want increased taxes on their business interests. A key point: it's the average folks (those outside of the power bases) that distrust and remain wary of politicians, and sadly, so many of these folks never vote. The rich and powerful slap backs and work deals with the pols. They keep them in their pockets. As long as people have their National Enquirer, cable TV, and porn, that's probably the way it will stay. Think about how things are going now: if you criticize the Bush Administration, especially on the War on Terror, you are damn-near branded a traitor, unpatriotic, and not worthy to be critical of our national policies. Believe me, I'm a soldier in the US Army.
James O. Hacker, El Paso, Texas
I am a white male born and bred in Leon County, Florida, eighteen miles from the Georgia line. I don't drive a pick-up truck with a gun rack in the back and I have never shown the Confederate flag but I wear a Seminole baseball hat, hoop and holler every fall for the FSU football team and would defend to the death the red clay foothills of the Appalachians that form this corner of what is known as the "South."
I just read "Alabama on my Mind" by Katrina vanden Heuvel in the November 10 edition of Editor's Cut. I do not have a direct answer for why people in Alabama voted against what vanden Heuvel considers their best interest but I hope to offer a clue as to why vanden Heuvel and others of her political persuasion remain perplexed by the voting ways of southerners, westerners, hunters and other residents of "red" America (Bush country).
After Howard Dean's recent reiteration of his aspiration to bring under the Democrat's tent the guys who drive pick-up trucks with confederate flags in the back windows, I heard vanden Heuvel on MSNBC's "Hardball."
She described the confederate flag with the same terminology as Mr. Dean as he tried to recover from what he called a clumsy attempt to appeal to voters. "The confederate flag is a loathsome symbol," she said.
Now, ain't that a sure fire cure for clumsiness?
This choice of words reveals a misunderstanding of white men in the South and of people in general, a misunderstanding that speaks volumes about why Democrats, the party of the people, have performed so abysmally since Nixon first adopted the Southern Strategy, in leading and maintaining the prominence in Presidential politics of Republicans, the party of the rich.
I do not dispute that the flag is justifiably rejected by many African-Americans whose ancestors suffered terribly under it and who encounter daily the legacy of slavery in their lives today. They stand on proven ground when they advocate that the Confederate flag not be flown over their state capitols. Nor will I argue that those who show the flag do not have tendencies, or worse, toward racism.
But southern white men do not normally put that flag in the back of their truck to recruit Ku Klux Klan members, advocate racist policies or proclaim that they are white supremacists.
They show the Confederate flag to make the statement "I am a man." "Look at me," they demand. "Look at my pick-up truck, my gun-rack, my flag that symbolizes as few symbols can: DEFIANCE."
"The South will rise again," they say. "And the federal government will never, ever be able to extinguish its spirit, a sprit worthy of honor because it is associated with being a god-fearing man who protects his wife, takes care of his children and makes sacrifices for the good of his family."
Conversely, that flag in the back window says of the truck owner you can tax my property, my income, charge me fees to hunt and drive my truck, educate me and mine poorly, deny me good jobs, regulate me to death, and demean me every which way but it will not work. Because you cannot rob me of my manhood."
That flag says something else, too. It says, "whenever a politician (or a pundit on television advocating for a group of politicians) tells me that my manhood is "loathsome", you can bet your bottom dollar, he'll never get my vote. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER."
Unfortunately for Democrats, George W. Bush and most of the Republicans have an intuitive grasp for what those who wave the Confederate flag intend to communicate.
And like it or not - no matter vanden Heuvel's intellectual or emotional take or Howard Dean's instinctive appeal compromised by offensive apology - their intuition will continue to attract votes.
Barring failed Bush economic policies or handling of Iraq to propel a Democrat into the Presidency, the office will remain an elusive goal for Democrats if they cannot read the obvious central message of a flag from a war that ended more than a century ago and refrain from labeling as loathsome its messenger.
Ain't it the truth?
Trent Malone, Tallahassee, FL
In "Alabama on my Mind" Katrina vanden Heuvel addresses the seeming paradox that many (mostly) poor white Southerners are voting for Republican candidates at a time when they are experiencing rising inequality and a loss of social services.
Although I think part of the explanation is ignorance of the tax codes and a basic distrust of government, I think the general trend towards voting Republican in the South is entirely consistent with rationality. The majority in the South want no gun control, are strongly in favor of the death penalty, extremely opposed to abortion, and want a "tough guy" foreign policy instead of a multilateral approach. And they are willing to trade a little inequality in order to vote for people who they know won't waffle on these issues.
We on the left must not be tricked into believing most of those people are somehow dumb and confused- they know what they want and the Republicans give it to them. Until Democrats realize this they are going to be wasting a lot of time and effort trying to figure out why people are voting Republican instead of putting forth an alternative platform that can captivate the rest of the country.
Jason Scorse, Monterey, California
At the end of October, The Washington Post published a ground-breaking 3,200-word front-page story about Iraq's prewar nuclear weapons program. Post reporter Bart Gellman's reporting provided painstaking detail and overwhelming evidence to reveal what David Kay's inspectors have concluded (that Iraq had no WMD programs) but have been afraid to admit.
After the Post published Kay's cagey rebuttal of the piece's findings, without reply, given the Post's policy of not responding to letters about its stories, some readers concluded that the paper was acknowledging that Kay's assertions letter were correct.
But, Gellman and the Post's editors say they stand by the story 100 percent, as Gellman's convincing rebuttal to Kay--which was sent to "Iraq News," a listserv run by neocon pundit Laurie Mylroie--strongly shows. Gellman's letter, which we've reprinted below, should be widely circulated to counter a campaign underway--led by rightwing newspapers like the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, internet columnists like Matt Drudge, and think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute--to discredit Gellman's invaluable reporting and obscure the way the Bush Administration willfully deceived the American public.
Out of respect for you and the readership of Iraq News, I ask that you update a controversy you described in an earlier edition. It had to do with a story I wrote about the investigation of Iraq's prewar nuclear weapons program. David Kay, who declined to provide any answers for that story, and Brig. Gen. Stephen Meekin, whom I quoted, wrote in challenge of what I reported. They said, in effect, that I rendered Meekin's remarks incorrectly and that he was, in any case, neither involved in the WMD hunt nor qualified to pass judgments.
The Washington Post does not reply in print to letters and columns about our stories. Some readers, yourself perhaps included, concluded from this silence that The Post acknowledged the Kay and Meekin letters to be correct or our story to be wrong. We did not. Quite the reverse.
Since then, Leonard Downie, the executive editor, has sent an unpublished letter to David Kay. In it he said he reviewed my raw notes, the full context of two lengthy conversations with Meekin, the identities of my confidential sources and the information those sources supplied. On the basis of that investigation, Downie told Kay the Post is standing by the story without reservation. I believe he is prepared to release his letter to other interested parties.
For our internal review, I provided line by line answers to the Kay and Meekin letters. I will summarize my replies to the three points you highlighted in your previous email. If you reread the two letters closely, you will find that none of these three points are actually in dispute.
1. Meekin's unit was, by all accounts, integrated into the Iraq Survey Group when the ISG stood up in June. As a general officer and leader of a major ISG component -- this is according to Meekin, confirmed by DOD -- Meekin reports direct to Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, the ISG's commander. Meekin is also the ranking Australian officer in the ISG, which means that he retains some elements of national command over all his countrymen there. Dayton, of course, operates under the direction of David Kay. The survey group is a joint, combined and interagency task force, which blurs "reporting" chains to some degree. Kay makes use of that ambiguity in his artful denial that Meekin reports to him.
In ordinary English, Kay is in charge of the weapons hunt and Meekin works for him. Saying otherwise is roughly like saying the leaders of the DCI Counterterrorism Center don't work for George Tenet (because those leaders report through others, and include personnel from the FBI) -- except that there are several layers between the CTC and Tenet and only one between Meekin and Kay.
2. Meekin's unit did indeed have (as Kay said) a major conventional mission -- collecting and analyzing Iraqi radars and SAMS and so on. It also had, according to Meekin and all U.S. officials who spoke of it, two major missions specific to WMD. One was to find delivery systems for CW/BW/nuclear payloads (bombs, warheads, etc.). The other was what Meekin called a "due diligence or counterproliferation mission" to prevent the dispersal of materials that could be used to produce WMD. It was in the latter context that I interviewed Meekin for most of an hour on the aluminum tubes. It's true that among the reasons he cited for calling them innocuous is that the tubes posed no conventional threat to coalition troops. But that part of the conversation took less than a minute, because Meekin did not need many words to persuade me that a rocket body without motor, fins or warhead is fairly benign. The rest of the conversation had to do with the possible use of the tubes as centrifuges, or evidence that would bear on that question.
3. Meekin is not the person responsible for making the nuclear judgment on the tubes, but he did accurately reflect the judgment of those who are. (Please note that Kay writes carefully around this point. He says for himself that it is too soon to make a judgment, but he does not dispute that my story accurately described the judgment of nuclear team leaders.) From confidential sources I know authoritatively what the nuclear team has reported, and the story noted that those sources were afraid to be named. Meekin's value was that he spoke on the record, which is highly prized by our editors and readers alike. As for qualifications, Meekin (a) is director-general of scientific and technical assessment for Australia's Defence Intelligence Organisation, (b) commands a staff of subject matter experts with similar background, including in dual use technology, (c) borrowed experts from other ISG units when his mission required them, specifically including the nuclear team for the tubes, and (d) was describing -- accurately, as I already knew -- the views of his colleagues most directly involved in the question. He need not be a nuclear expert himself to be a credible source in light of these credentials.
I think I am as surprised as anyone at the absence of evidence for Iraqi biological, chemical and missile programs. (Neither I nor most of the experts in the field thought a nuclear program had been revived.) I made some bets before the war that such evidence would be found. That's what I like about my business. It's empirical, and I don't get paid for predictions. I have followed the developing facts to the best of my ability.
It must be tempting, but it's silly, to suppose that my editors or I are looking for a story that discounts the threat. My Unscom series of 1998, linked on the home page below, did as much to highlight Iraq's obstruction of inspectors -- and the Clinton administration's inability to address it in the U.N. -- as any journalism of its day. I'd like as much as you would to find out how the story ends, and I'm not done looking.
Thank you for enabling me to reach your important audience with this reply.
Barton Gellman, The Washington Post
Massive street protests--and the biggest security operation Britain has ever seen for a visiting head of state--will greet George W. Bush when he visits London tomorrow. Antiwar protesters say they will resist moves to enforce an "exclusion zone" designed to keep them from Buckingham Palace, where Bush and his wife will be staying with the Queen.
As the organizer of the Stop the War coalition said last week, "It is an outrage that the most unwelcome guest this country has ever received will be given the freedom of the streets, while a movement that represents majority opinion is denied the right to protest in the area which is the heart of government."
Meanwhile, miles away from Buckingham Palace in a rundown part of London, another kind of protest is being staged during Bush's visit. Americans: A New Century Begins with an Act of Blood, is a play about the rise and decline of imperial power. Eric Schlosser--who demolished the junk food industry in the best-selling Fast Food Nation--wrote it in 1985, at a time when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were giving old imperial attitudes a new spin for a new generation.
Empire has once again become fashionable. So, ironically a play written nearly twenty years ago, about early 20th century America's determination to replace Britain as the world's leading imperial power, is being staged for the first time as King George arrives in London.
Set in the period before and after President William McKinley's assassination, "Americans" explores the fall of the British empire, the birth of the American colossus, and the historical parallels between the late 19th and 20th centuries. "On both sides of the Atlantic," Schlosser says, "worship of the 'free market', growing corporate power, union-busting and a widening gap between rich and poor suggested the dawn of another Gilded Age."
Leon Czolgosz,, the anarchist who assassinated McKinley at the Pan American Exposition in 1901, is a central figure in the play, and many of his lines resonate today. "If America chooses to become the big bully of the world," he tells another US President, "I promise you, America will pay." Czolgosz saw himself as a Brutus warning his country against the horrors that tyranny and the misuse of power would inflict.
One of the most chilling moments in the play has the unrepentant Czolgosz going to the electric chair warning the assembled witnesses that American cities will one day go up in flames, paying the price for "your outrageous vanity."
The great Southern writer William Faulkner eloquently noted that the past is never dead. It isn't even past. Schlosser speaks for the millions of Americans who understand what Faulkner meant.
I originally posted this item below on November 14 because I seeDemocracy Aid '04 as an exciting sign of international collaboration inthese days when the Bush Administration has squandered global goodwilltoward America. But, these are charged days, when too many are quick tolabel Administration critics unpatriotic, and when valuable groups likeMoveOn--which is mobilizing citizens to take back theirdemocracy--confront thuggish and innacurate allegations. So when theWashington Post and other outlets characterized the work ofDemocracy Aid '04 as part of some leftwing Swedish plot to take over theUS, and the Drudge Report began falsely reporting that Move.On wasactively soliciting foreign donations, Move.On decided to beginaccepting only contributions from United States citizens. Meanwhile, Democracy Aidhas decided to focus on message rather than money. KVH, January 6, 2003
Here's an imaginativeproposal to help beat Bush. Two Swedish students are proposing thatevery citizen of the European Union contribute one dollar to MoveOn.org, the online liberal advocacy group, toensure that "an American president who believes in human rights andmultilateral solutions" is elected in 2004. They are not supporting aparticular candidate. "We leave that to the Americans."
Hanna Armelius and Kajsa Klein believe that in this increasinglyglobalized era, where the choice of the next American President will have a directimpact on the world's security, environmental and economic future, global citizenshave the right to provide "democracy aid" to the US.
Events since 9/11, they argue, have eroded the Bush Administration's legitimacy. And "ever since the scandal surrounding the Florida election results," they note, "there has been a growing sense that the US needs democracy aid...This stance can be justified by the widespread, international fear of aparanoid President, who has a strikingly limited understanding of the outsideworld--the same world he feels he has the right to treat whatever way he please, aslong as he can claim it to be in the US national interest."
Armelius and Klein wish that money was not a factor in democraticelections, but they are realpolitik enough to know that huge infusions of cash aregoing to be critical to unseat Bush in the next election. And that the onlyway this money can be raised is through small contributions by concernedindividuals. "This is our way of saying that we don't support a systemwhere rich individuals and multinationalcorporations control presidential campaigns."
One dollar from each of the EU's citizens, they point out, "wouldsuffice to raise more money than the entire Bush campaign budget for the2000 elections." Cheap compared to the cost of having Bush inthe White House for another four years. (When asked, should only EUcitizens contribute, they replied, "No! We want everyone to join us.Per world citizen it would be less than five cents. However, it doesn'tseem right to ask the poorest people on earth for money.")
And as for meddling in another country's politics--well, as they pointout, the US government has had some overseas experience of its own--with arms dealsand rigged elections--when it comes to attempts at overthrowing foreignregimes. What they're proposing involves peaceful, transparent and legalcross-border contributions.
The young Swedes' appeal has a clarity and simplicity that suggestspeople of sanity understand what America and the world have at stake in thiscoming election.
Last week, Governor Howard Dean was the front-runner everyone wanted to attack. And he gave his opponents some good reasons. After all, his statement that he wanted to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" was wrong and stupid. Wrong because the confederate flag is a loathsome symbol, which reopens old wounds and perpetuates old hatreds. And stupid because his statement caricatured the South's white working class.
But Dean was also right politically. As he said in reply to the Reverend Al Sharpton's attack on him, the Democratic Party isn't "going to win in this country anymore as Democrats if we don't have a big tent." It is high time for the Dems to engage in a serious discussion about how to win back working-class white voters in the South. As leading civil rights attorney Connie Rice wrote, in a nuanced defense of Dean, "Without a vision big enough to embrace southern white men--angry or not--this country cannot be diverted from its current path toward corporation-focused, downwardly mobile plutocracy and turned back toward people-focused, upwardly mobile democracy...We need to get beyond fighting over Confederate symbols and get to the critical re-founding of this country for its people."
As our Washington correspondent John Nichols recently reported, polls show that rural Americans are even more concerned than urban voters about access to healthcare, education and job loss under Bush. And with the massive job loss in the South, the Dems need to pump up the populist economic volume to counter the cynical and divisive tactics of the Southern Republican right. The bottom-line should be clear: A populist Democratic nominee fighting the next election on behalf of jobs, family farms, healthcare and education could give George "Herbert Hoover" Bush a real race in a region that the GOP now takes for granted. If the Administration's economic policies continue to destroy the industrial base of the region, the South need not be solid for Bush in 2004.
Then there was the attack on Dean by the other Democratic candidates for his decision to opt out of the presidential public financing system. Progressive candidate Dennis Kucinich, for example, attacked the former Vermont Governor for dealing a serious blow to efforts to keep money from dominating politics.
But aren't Kucinich and other candidates misreading the moment? As several leading campaign finance reformers argue, what's important is that a candidate be true to the spirit of the campaign finance law (i.e., level the playing field, reduce special interest influence, enhance the role of small donors), while facing up to the fact that the system has been wrecked by Bush's decision to opt out.
The McCain-Feingold bill is not working (the doubling of individual contributions to $2,000 has enriched Bush Inc.) and what's relevant, many reformers point out, is not how a candidate operates under the current system but what proposals they offer to repair it. (Dean's proposal for a dramatic overhaul of presidential public financing system---offering a five to one match of relatively small donations--would be a big step in the right direction.)
Dean's decision to opt out--through polling his supporters in a typically savvy display of grassroots engagement (85,000 of the 105,000 people who "voted" through e-mail, internet, telephone or regular mail, supported his decision)--was virtually a foregone conclusion as soon as it became apparent that his fundraising potential could exceed the $45 million cap that comes with accepting public matching funds in the primaries. In an ideal world, no candidate would have to consider opting out of the public financing system, but when one candidate declines it and that candidate's opponent accepts a $45 million spending cap, the playing field is not level. (Bush expects to raise close to $200 million for the general election, more than twice what the campaign spending limits for those receiving matching funds allow.)
It's no secret that many of the other candidates who criticized Dean for opting out would do the same thing if they were in his position. (In fact, John Kerry is said to be strongly leaning toward following Dean's lead, though he has said he would abide by the $45 million spending limit until the Democratic nominee is known--something Dean should also agree to.) And while I admire and respect Kucinich, he is attacking the wrong guy when he accuses Dean of "attempt[ing] to kill public financing" and "taking back America--for the corporations." That guy is Bush, not Dean. If Dean were as dependent on $2,000 corporate check writers as the other leading Democrats and Bush, perhaps Kucinich's charge would have more bite.
In announcing his decision, Dean insisted that he is empowering his army of small donors to defeat "the unabashed actions of this president to thwart our democratic processes with a flood of special interest money...Our campaign has not been talking of campaign finance reform. It has been actual reform. Over 200,000 people have given an average of $77." (The value of small donors was unwittingly revealed by John Kerry's former campaign manager Jim Jordan, who just yesterday lamented that Dean's large base of small donors are "disproportionately liberal," which empowers candidates who appeal to those from "the left side of the spectrum.")
It remains to be seen whether Dean's new--possibly transformative--way of raising funds will free him, as he argued in a November 10 Wall Street Journal Op-ed, "from answering to anyone except the people themselves." (Let's hope it frees him from those like former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin who reportedly told Dean last August that "I can't sell you on Wall Street," unless he reconsidered his position on trade.)
Sure, there are examples of Dean tilting toward corporate demands--both in his years as Vermont Governor and in his current campaign. But the vision of a people-powered campaign fueled by small donors challenging the most capital intensive President in US history is an enticing prospect.
We know there are rifts inside the Bush Administration, but what about the growing rift between Presidents 41 and 43? Even before the Iraq war, the schism between father and son wasn't hard to conceal. The former President (via associates like Brent Scowcroft) clearly disapproved of W's repudiation of traditional conservative internationalism in favor of adventurist neo-con extremism. (Remember Scowcroft's oped of August 2002 in which he argued that preemptive war against Iraq was an unwarranted and divisive distraction from the fight against global terrorism?)
Has Papa Bush decided it's time to inflict a little public humiliation on his son for disregarding wise paternal advice? How else to interpret his decision to give the George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service to Senator Edward Kennedy--one of his son's most ferocious critics and the same man who denounced the Iraq invasion as a "fraud" that had been "made up in Texas" for political gain? As The Guardian quipped, "The message could only have been clearer if Bush the elder had presented the award to Saddam Hussein himself."
According to sources, Senator Kennedy's speech at the November 7th ceremony, will adroitly praise the father's internationalism--in pointed contrast to the son's unilateralism. But the speech I'd love to hear is President Bush's parental address to his wayward son--laying out what he and his presidential team believe about George W's neocon extremists.
66 Things to Think About When We Watch The Reagans on Showtime.
As anyone reading today's papers knows, CBS (I hereby rename it the Craven Broadcasting System) announced yesterday that it had yanked "The Reagans" from its November lineup after being inundated with accusations from conservatives, led by Nancy Reagan, that it had done a hatchet job on the former president. (Click here to read Matt Bivens' survey of events leading to the docu-drama's cancellation.)
This latest media flap reminds me of the last time Reagan's name generated major controversy--back in 1998 when Washington DC's National Airport was renamed in honor of our 40th president. The Nation's Washington editor, David Corn, was inspired to publish a funny and enlightening editorial, which we've reprinted below.
66 Things to Think About When Flying Into Reagan National Airport by David Corn
The firing of the air traffic controllers, winnable nuclear war, recallable nuclear missiles, trees that cause pollution, Elliott Abrams lying to Congress, ketchup as a vegetable, colluding with Guatemalan thugs, pardons for F.B.I. lawbreakers, voodoo economics, budget deficits, toasts to Ferdinand Marcos, public housing cutbacks, redbaiting the nuclear freeze movement, James Watt.
Getting cozy with Argentine fascist generals, tax credits for segregated schools, disinformation campaigns, "homeless by choice," Manuel Noriega, falling wages, the HUD scandal, air raids on Libya, "constructive engagement" with apartheid South Africa, United States Information Agency blacklists of liberal speakers, attacks on OSHA and workplace safety, the invasion of Grenada, assassination manuals, Nancy's astrologer.
Drug tests, lie detector tests, Fawn Hall, female appointees (8 percent), mining harbors, the S&L scandal, 239 dead U.S. troops in Beirut, Al Haig "in control," silence on AIDS, food-stamp reductions, Debategate, White House shredding, Jonas Savimbi, tax cuts for the rich, "mistakes were made."
Michael Deaver's conviction for influence peddling, Lyn Nofziger's conviction for influence peddling, Caspar Weinberger's five-count indictment, Ed Meese ("You don't have many suspects who are innocent of a crime"), Donald Regan (women don't "understand throw-weights"), education cuts, massacres in El Salvador.
"The bombing begins in five minutes," $640 Pentagon toilet seats, African-American judicial appointees (1.9 percent), Reader's Digest, C.I.A.-sponsored car-bombing in Lebanon (more than eighty civilians killed), 200 officials accused of wrongdoing, William Casey, Iran/contra.
"Facts are stupid things," three-by-five cards, the MX missile, Bitburg, S.D.I., Robert Bork, naps, Teflon.
David Corn, March 2, 1998, The Nation
(And check out Corn's new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception recently released by Crown Publishers)
I get fundraising solicitations all the time. At work. At home. In the mail. In my in-box. Over the phone. Sometimes over the fax.
I even got a letter from Vice President Dick Cheney subtly suggesting that, for a thousand bucks, I could be a "neighborhood leader." Wonder what my neighbors would say? (He actually started the letter by saying that I must have forgotten to answer the previous letter I got from the President. Sorry, Dick, I was busy writing my weblog exposing your Administration's numerous assaults on women.)
I get these invitations because I give once in awhile. There's no other choice right now--the polluters give, so do the HMOs and pharmaceutical giants, and the K Street crowd. If a progressive stands a chance, he or she's got to have some money. (There's little chance we can compete with corporate wealth, but that doesn't mean we should hamstring good people who are running.) But we shouldn't kid ourselves. If all we do is try to keep up in the money chase we'll never get anywhere. Money-intensive politics in a country where wealth is so unequally distributed will forever tilt against the majority.
That's why we need a comprehensive break from the campaign finance status quo. We need to give candidates who can demonstrate public support an alternative way to run for office without having to rely on deep-pocketed donors. The full public financing systems in place in Maine and Arizona lend hope. (Click here for info on how these systems work.)
Obviously, the partial public financing system, put in place for the primaries a generation ago to prevent the buying of the presidency, is no longer serving its purpose. President Bush has opted again to circumvent its spending limits by foregoing matching funds, and instead turning to corporate America to pay for his re-election.
If you doubt the detrimental effects of putting the White House up for sale, go to Public Citizen's new website . Or, for fun, check out Public Campaign's GeorgeWBuy.com. Bush is on track to raise $200 million or more, double his take from four years ago. If the last few years are any guide, he's going to be delivering even more policy paybacks to all his big donors should he win re-election.
So what is to be done? It's not enough to get in the trenches for whatever Democratic candidate you think has the best shot at beating Bush. We've got to also make sure that by the time 2008 rolls around, the whole presidential campaign finance system is on a far fairer footing.
That means full public funding for candidates once they gather a large number of relatively small contributions--not a never-ending money chase where our clean public dollars are used to match contributions from private givers. And it means making more public money available--say $75 million for the primaries--and giving some of it out earlier and getting rid of the state-by-state spending limits, which everyone evades anyway, and instead distributing the public funds in timed chunks, to force the candidates to spread their spending across the primary calendar. It also means, as is the case in Maine and Arizona, making additional funds available to match big-spending privately financed candidates, since there is no Constitutional right to drown out your opponent with your wallet.
Signing the "Lincoln Call: A Presidency Of, By, and For the People" issued last week by Public Campaign and Public Campaign Action Fund is a step in the right direction. Thousands already have signed on. I have.
The Lincoln Call lays out a vision ("We cannot preach democracy to the world when the leaders of our country are forced to sell access and influence to the highest bidder."). It sets the bar high for any presidential candidate considering his or her own campaign finance reform proposal precisely because it doesn't ask, "What is possible in Washington today?" Rather, the Lincoln Call forces the question, "How do we measure our progress against the ideals of democracy, against the principle of one person, one vote?"
Click here to take the first step. Then get involved. Bird-dog the candidates. Write letters to the editor. Call your local talk-radio host. Make sure they have a good answer to the present campaign finance mess. And keep your eyes on the prize.
Why do people consistently vote against their self-interest? Consider Alabama, where low-income people, who hardly benefit from tax cuts that jeopardize government services, recently voted down a referendum that tried to shift the burden from overtaxed working people to under-taxed business interests.
Alabama's citizens, as a New York Times editorial comment pointed out, voted "for fewer social services, less education, and a shoddier legal system--to become, that is, more like a third-world nation." Through a decision made by its own residents, Alabama is now entrenched at the bottom of the national rankings in government services.
The national landscape isn't much brighter. Is there some plausible explanation for why Americans support spending more on government programs like education and healthcare, express disappointment that the gap between rich and poor has widened, but then give their support to Bush's tax cuts, which disproportionately benefit the super-rich?
Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels' recent report, Homer Gets a Tax Cut: Inequality and Public Policy in the American Mind, offers some answers. As he points out, there is "a good deal of ignorance and uncertainty about the workings of the tax system" and a failure to connect tax cuts to rising inequality, the future tax burden or the availability of public services. The report also reveals how people are bamboozled by political spin and poor factual information offered up by our infotainment-ized media. (For more on the report, see Alan Krueger's Economic Scene," New York Times Business section, October 15).
I think that one reason why people vote against their self-interest is distrust of government. Alabama's low taxes and limited services are, in fact, legacies of this distrust-- fed equally by big business, fake-populists like the late Governor George Wallace and, now, a growing Republican majority.
Indeed, in interviews around the state on the eve of the referendum, voter disgust toward state government was palpable, with most people saying they did not trust legislators to spend taxpayers' money. These fears are fanned by rightwing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which have worked assiduously to denigrate government. As anti-government ideologues like Grover Norquist see it, lowering taxes and downsizing government are the way to destroy the social safety net. (Norquist, after all, promotes the idea that government should be shrunk to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub.) Then there are the consequences of signals people receive from politicians who have made an art of lowering expectations of what government can do even faster than they disappoint them.
Progressives have to take into account the historic libertarian, even anti-government, impulses of most Americans, and accept the role of market forces in many social solutions, but we must also challenge the widespread belief that because government has sometimes performed poorly in recent years, it cannot perform at all.
What's heartening is that even after decades of rightwing government bashing, a progressive domestic agenda is in fact quite popular with voters, as we know from polls and surveys. The problem is that Democrats have not coherently or consistently articulated that agenda, while the Republicans have hammered away with a disciplined message about the phony dangers of "big government." (Matt Miller effectively skewers this message in his valuable new book The Two Percent Solution:Fixing America's Problems in Ways that Liberals and Conservatives Can Love.) And a Murdochized, conglomeratized media too often peddles spin --not factual information that might contribute to citizens acting in their self-interest.
Progressives could begin by articulating a coherent, alternative vision of the purpose and meaning of government. Opposition to the tax cuts is all very good, but for what purpose, to do what?
Let's invoke President Lincoln's injunction that government exists to do what individuals cannot do for themselves. Let's challenge the view that we, as a society, cannot do things together and put forward new and compelling ideas about the role of government and how it can improve our lives. Let's reclaim the ability to articulate why government is a social good, that investments in schools, infrastructure, health care and social services are worth making and that everyone should pay their fair share. And to the wealthy who aren't paying their fair share--ask yourself if you aren't better off being prosperous and paying taxes than going down in the first-class cabins of a sinking ship.
State Senator and Deputy Minority Leader Eric Schneiderman is a politician New York Republicans love to hate. As the New York Observer put it: "Mr. Schneiderman's scrappy refusal to observe the traditions of Albany politics may earn him some short-term pain, but it also indicates the gritty stuff out of which New Yorkers mold their favorite politicians."
As one of the state's most important progressive voices on issues of social and economic justice, Schneiderman has led the successful effort to force the Senate to pass major gun control legislation and is a leading advocate for stronger environmental protections, increased funding for our city's schools and mass transit, and the reform of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. He was also the lead attorney in litigation against the MTA to roll back the fare hike. Most recently, Schneiderman has been one of the most active opponents of the proposed charter revision to eliminate party primaries.
The Op-Ed below is adapted from a longer paper--compiling fifty years of scholarly political science research--showing starkly that "non-partisan" elections favor the elite, the wealthy and the Republican party.
"Nonpartisan" Elections Favor the Wealthy by Eric Schneiderman
The most remarkable thing about the current debate over the proposed Charter Amendment to end party primaries and replace them with "nonpartisan" elections is the fact that the Mayor's Charter Revision Commission has been able to cover up fifty years of academic research showing that such elections favor the elite, the wealthy and the Republican Party.
While the Mayor's Commission has asserted that the academic literature is inconclusive, the overwhelming body of scholarly evidence is to the contrary. In a 1988 publication, Professors Chandler Davidson and Luis Ricardo Fraga summed it up as follows:
"Scholars are virtually unanimous that nonpartisan systems in general disadvantage the poor, the working classes, liberal voters and Democrats. "
In fact, scholars routinely use the term "Republican Advantage" or "Republican Bias" in discussions of the effect of a nonpartisan system. In 1991, Professor Edward Lascher of Harvard University wrote an article titled The Case of the Missing Democrats: Reexamining the 'Republican Advantage' in Nonpartisan Elections, which concluded: "These results dramatically underscore the Republican advantage [in nonpartisan elections] except at very high levels of Democratic voter registration.
The Commission managed to conceal the true record on nonpartisan elections in their report with the crudest kinds of distortions-quoting selectively, presenting quotes out of context, and in one case literally deleting the second half of a sentence they purport to quote because it squarely contradicts the argument they are making.
To attempt to rebut the overwhelming evidence of a Republican advantage in nonpartisan elections, the report relies heavily on only two articles, including a 1986 article by Susan Welch and Timothy Bledsoe. The commission quotes the authors stating that the Republican bias only "surfaced in smaller cities, in those of moderate income and in those with at-large elections."
The obvious inference is that New York does not fit this model. However, the Commission leaves out the very next line after the quoted sentence, which reads that a Republican bias "appears in cities dominated by Democrats but not in competitive or Republican ones." Clearly such a bias towards Republicans would occur in New York City.
Incredibly, the Commission's abuse of the Welch and Bledsoe study pales in comparison to its misrepresentations of Professor Carol A. Cassel's 1986 article, which is cited repeatedly and is the principle source offered to rebut decades of literature establishing that nonpartisan elections favor the wealthy, the elite and Republicans.
The Commission conveniently omits the following statements from Professor Cassel's article:
"It does appear that Republicans, members of the business community, and professionals are elected more frequently in nonpartisan than in partisan systems."
"Partisan elections do appear to provide better access to local office to persons who are not community elites."
The only other significant study cited in the Commission's report is a 1962 paper by Professor Charles Gilbert. Once again, the Commission misrepresents Gilbert's findings. They quote him as stating: "Republicans have been elected in nonpartisan cities only in circumstances in which they might equally have been elected in partisan elections…" In fact, Gilbert's statement goes on to say "or in situations in which their 'Republicanism' was not apparent and in which, therefore, few partisan benefits could accrue." The Commission's proposal would allow Republicans to run without identifying their party affiliation. Clearly, that would constitute a situation in which "their Republicanism was not apparent." It is hard to conceive of a cruder form of deception than cutting off the end of a sentence to change its meaning.
There is no need for New York City to rush into a vote on a Charter reform that will not take effect until 2009 without a full investigation of the research into these issues. We could also use an investigation into the crude misrepresentations in the Commission's report.