Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

The Problem in New York Politics Is Big Money, Not Small Parties

Andrew Cuomo has proposed restricting third parties from placing candidates on their ballot lines without primary elections. (AP Photo/Mike Groll.)

Rahm Emanuel was right: A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Following the arrest of a leading state senator last month, which confirmed every New Yorker’s worst suspicions about the depths of our state’s corruption problem, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has a rare opportunity to push common sense reforms to get money out of our politics. But, instead, he's seized the moment to push a “reform” that would leave our state’s politics even more dominated by the wealthy and well-connected.

As I noted last month, Cuomo has endorsed a legal change that would hamstring New York State’s third parties, including the Working Families Party, a savvy and steadfast counterweight against the power of big business and its backers in both parties. The WFP has been able to maximize its leverage here because, unlike most states, New York allows fusion voting: third parties can endorse a worthy candidate who’s also running on the Democratic or Republican Party ballot line, and place that candidate on their own line as well. Or, if neither candidate deserves their support, third parties can run their own candidate against them. Strategically deploying that option has helped the WFP become a force to be reckoned with. (Just look at Connecticut, another fusion-voting state: After a victory he literally owed to the votes he’d racked up on the WFP ballot line, Governor Dan Malloy quickly and aggressively pushed through a major WFP priority, the country’s first statewide paid sick leave law.)

The WFP’s grassroots base has either led the charge, or provided heavy artillery, for nearly every economic justice victory our state has seen over the past decade. So it should come as no surprise that now, like its agrarian populist third party forebears, it faces an elite-backed backlash.

Now, to be fair to the Governor, he did not propose eliminating fusion voting entirely. Instead, he just called for banning the leaders of third parties from placing candidates on their ballot line without holding primary elections. But that's little comfort.

Imagine a scenario in which, say, a billionaire mayor who’s also a media baron decides he wants as many ballot lines as possible and floods the zone with misleading ads in an effort to scoop up the WFP’s ballot line, the Conservative Party’s, and any other line on offer. Given the name recognition advantage of incumbents and major party nominees, and the broken state of campaign finance, it’s not so hard to imagine. Cuomo’s proposal would strip third parties—which exist in large part as bulwarks against betrayal by Democrats and Republicans—of the right to do quality control on their own candidates. (Keep in mind that the leaders of the WFP are themselves elected by a committee elected by registered WFP voters.) What’s at issue here isn’t the right to run for office—anybody, Cuomo included, can run in the Democratic or Republican primary. It’s the chance for minor parties—a key vehicle for bringing new voices and neglected issues into the process—to choose how best to wield leverage against a broken system.

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That’s a system that Cuomo can do more to fix. As I noted last month, fusion voting is not what ails Albany (note that the scandal Cuomo has been citing involves a senator’s alleged efforts to buy his way onto the Republican ballot line, not the WFP’s); none of New York’s thirty corruption scandals over the past decade have involved fusion voting.

What we do need is serious campaign finance reform, a goal that Cuomo has pledged support for (including recently) but has sometimes failed to back with the political muscle we know he’s capable of. While the Governor was sitting on his hands as the Democratic Party was maneuvered out of a senate majority, the WFP was successfully carrying reform champion CeCe Tkaczyk to an underdog victory.

I appreciate that Andrew Cuomo cares about important social liberal causes like marriage equality, but I wish he were equally invested in economic equality. If he were, he would be joining arms with the Working Families Party to pass clean elections, not making their vital work even more difficult.

Read Katrina vanden Heuvel on Barney Frank, who sees an opportunity to shift federal spending away from the military and put it into programs that help Americans.

Barney Frank Talks Common Sense

Representative Barney Frank (D-MA). (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst.)

“Every time a group would come to my office,” says Frank, ‘and say, ‘We need more money for housing for the elderly, we need more money for transportation, we need more money for Superfund,’ at the end I would say, ‘You forgot one thing…. You forgot to say raise taxes and cut the military. Because if we don’t do some of each of those, then you’re never going to get anything you want.’”

And third, the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Americans’ well-grounded war-weariness, create an opportunity to reorient our spending to better reflect our needs and values. “In the immediate post-2001 period,” says Frank, “you could spook them with terrorists. The public now understands. Iraq [War] is now thoroughly discredited…. people are ready to pull back substantially.”

As Frank notes, a confluence of factors now offers us a real opportunity to tame the out-of-control military spending that’s eating away at national priorities and possibilities. First, there’s the attention—some prudent, some unhinged—to our federal deficit. “Now everybody understands it’s a zero-sum game…” Frank said on a call with Campaign for America last month. “The way it’s set up, either you make these kinds of cuts to the military, or they devastate Medicare and Medicaid.” On that question, he adds, like on legalizing marijuana, “some of the politicians, including the president, suffer from cultural lag, and the public, for its part, is way ahead of them.”

Frank notes that after a bipartisan drawdown helped achieve the Clinton budget surplus, the trend reversed under George W. Bush. He says that after 9/11, neocons “managed to inflate terrorism to the level of an existential threat, of the level we had seen with the terrorists and the Nazis. And obviously the terrorists are terrible people, and we need to fight them, but that is not remotely the order of magnitude of threat that we’ve had previously, nor do you fight them in the same way.” Frank also notes that, in contrast to the “isolationist” notes Ron Paul sometimes struck while criticizing the Pentagon budget, “I’m in favor of increasing money that we give to fight AIDS, I’m in favor of increasing money to feed hungry children.” Frank says he just rejects “the notion that you can bring about social change elsewhere in the world, and enhance America’s influence, by military force.”

Frank notes that military jobs could be scaled down by attrition, rather than through layoffs. Still, any proposal for military cuts comes up against the claim that our economy can’t afford the loss of military jobs. Last month, Washington Post reporters Ylan Q. Mui and Marjorie Censer wrote that a new government GDP report revealed recent military spending cuts as the cause of slow GDP growth. Two days later, the Post’s Zachary Goldfarb wrote that liberals face “a conundrum,” because “the significant reductions in military spending that they have long sought are also taking a huge bite out of economic growth.”

How far can we pull back? Over the next three or four years, argues Frank, “it is easily achievable, consistent with any legitimate national security, and some sense of responsibility to help others in need, to spend less than 80 percent” of current non-Afghanistan expenditures. As one example of a common sense cut, Frank offers the F35. “One of the things that you must demand of a weapon is that it have an enemy,” says Frank. “And the F35 has no enemy…It’s already the case that the second-largest air force in the world is the US Navy.”

Second, Frank sees greater grounds for bipartisan bridge-building than we’ve had in years: liberals increasingly recognize that tackling defense spending is a necessary condition for preserving social progress, and some principled conservatives are applying their cost-cutting philosophy to the military-industrial complex. While Rand Paul may be the most prominent Republican breaking with the defense industry, Frank urges that we keep an eye on South Carolina Congressman Mick Mulvaney, “a leading Tea Party activist” whom he also calls “a very good guy, very well respected.” Frank notes Mulvaney “was my co-author on the first amendment that passed in my thirty-two years” in which the House reduced the level of military spending that had reached the floor from the Appropriations Committee.

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Those arguments pack a punch in part because in recent decades, military Keynesianism has been nearly the only Keynesianism we’ve had. But as the Political Economy Research Institute’s Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier explained in our pages last May, military spending is one of the least effective ways for the government to create jobs: “1 billion in spending on the military will generate about 11,200 jobs within the US economy. That same $1 billion would create 16,800 jobs through clean energy investments, 17,200 jobs within the healthcare sector or 26,700 jobs through support of education.”

To avert draconian cuts, and bring sanity to the Pentagon budget, says Frank, “people really need to press the president.” Among the reasons for urgency is one that Frank notes too often gets overlooked: “It is the key to getting back to an effective government.” As Frank, the first member of Congress to marry a same-sex partner, notes, “my marriage now polls better than my congressional service.” He sees cutting the military budget as a necessary step to restoring faith in government. “The less the government can deliver,” says Frank, “the more unpopular it gets.”

When it comes to confronting military bloat, are we finally reaching a turning point? “We are on the verge, I think, of some major progress,” says Barney Frank. And if anyone would know, it’s Frank, the trailblazing former congressman and candor addict.

Read Katrina vanden Heuvel on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attempts to get rid of the Working Families Party confronting big business.

This Week in 'Nation' History: George W. Bush Opens His Presidential Library & Collective Amnesia Reigns

The opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas, last week has led to a re-examination of the forty-third president’s legacy. An article in The Washington Post noted Bush’s approval rating has enjoyed a steady increase in the four years since he left office, attributing that spike to “the passage of time and Bush’s relative invisibility.” While that public invisibility has indeed been enjoyable, the library dedication should be an occasion to remember what it actually felt like in America during the Bush years. To take a tour through The Nation’s early judgments of Bush—before the wars, the cronyism, and the rejection of the rule of law brought such criticisms mainstream—is to be truly spoiled because there is so much to choose from, and there are many articles that deserve a second reading.

An early article on Bush’s first presidential campaign, “Running on Empty: The Truth About George W. Bush’s ‘Compassionate Conservatism,’ ” from April 1999, tried and failed to find a single way Bush had been compassionate to any constituency in Texas apart from his oil and gas industry cronies, arms manufacturers, polluters and other corporate malefactors. It also previewed Bush’s penchant for “speaking in tongues intended to be understood by the Christian right” and the regular-guy routine that became an important and effective component of his electoral strategy. “You think that if you could only forget the policies, the appointment and the vetoes, you could really love this guy,” Texas Observer editor Louis Dubose wrote. “He’s that good.”

An article published just before the 2000 election by David Corn, recent Polk Award winner and former Washington bureau chief for The Nation, considered the governor’s performance during the campaign—in which “Bush’s intelligence became a campaign issue”—and weighed the candidates’ respective closing arguments. “The dominant theme is, trust people, not the government,” Karl Rove told Corn. His boss’s own argument was more, well, succinct. “The greatness of America exists because our country is great,” Bush declared. At a certain point, one does feel a little nostalgic.

After Bush v. Gore, and after 9/11, The Nation had much more serious concerns about Bush than his garbled diction. In an editorial called “Bush’s Domestic War,” from December 2001, we took issue with Bush “invoking his wartime popularity and authority” for the purpose of ramming his conservative social and economic agenda through a reluctant Democratic Congress. “September 11 was supposed to change everything, but despite war and recession the President remains wedded to the same reactionary agenda he pushed before the attack,” we wrote. “Bush is squandering his chance to be a national unity President in order to pursue a conservative agenda out of step with the nation’s needs and the people’s expectations.” It was his pernicious combination of imperialistic foreign policy and reactionary domestic agenda that marked the Bush era in real time, and which deserves to be remembered today, despite the $500 million library and museum—and the former president’s calculated invisibility—designed to help us forget.

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The idea of the presidential library—first conceived by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939—has endured its own share of Nation criticism and parody, as in a 1971 article by Los Angeles Times reporter Nicholas Chriss. In “Lyndon Gets His Library,” Chriss wrote that Johnson, like Bush, was “no longer all that interested in the gut politics that absorbed him in the past” and would probably spend much time in the library if he could ever pass through the rows of University of Texas students protesting the war he escalated beyond repair. Chriss further questioned the objectivity of the museum’s account of the Johnson years, the completeness of its documentation and the anonymity of its donors.

A mock advertisement for the future George W. Bush Presidential Library was published in The Nation in September 2004, written by senior editor Richard Lingeman, purporting to offer billionaire donors “an opportunity to discharge your debt to George W. Bush for the handsome returns provided by his administration.” The circular continues:

Visitors enter through the imposing three-foot-thick Rumsefeld Memorial Bronze Doors, inlaid with scenes of George W. Bush’s Ten Most Statesmanlike Moments. Once inside, visitors are escorted to the John Ashcroft Lounge for interrogation and full orifice search. After screening they may proceed to the Great Hall, where two large dioramas are displayed: “Mission Accomplished: George W. Bush Bringing Democracy to a Grateful Iraqi People” and “Mission Accomplished: George W. Bush Bringing Tax Relief to Grateful Billionaires.” In the rear will be the Wall of Fame, on which are prominently displayed the names or corporate logos of $5 million donors to the Library.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Governor Cuomo and the Working Families Party: Eve of Destruction?

Governor Andrew Cuomo. (AP Photo/Mike Groll.)

The last few weeks have seen an amazing move by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. In response to a prominent set of arrests of high-ranking Democrats and Republicans, the governor has proposed a series of proposals to strengthen the power of district attorneys to investigate corruption. Okay, that seems like a reasonable enough response.

But the governor has also proposed another response to the corruption scandal. He has proposed banning the Working Families Party. I know, he can’t ban a political party. But he has proposed to eliminate “fusion” voting. He calls it “cross-endorsement,” but fusion is the historical term. More on fusion below, but let’s stay in the news cycle for another moment.

The governor’s stated reason for banning fusion is silly. But his real, unstated reason is not. Let’s take them in turn.

Three weeks ago, State Senator Malcolm Smith was arrested for allegedly trying to bribe his way into the Republican Primary for mayor, despite being a registered Democrat. The governor seized on this and said to the New York Post, “In an ideal world, there would be no cross-endorsements.” In other words, because Smith attempted to bribe his way to a “cross-endorsement,” we ought to ban cross-endorsements. By this logic, as one Working Families Party leader said on television recently, if Malcolm Smith had tried to bribe someone to get his kid a job, would we then pass a law to ban jobs?

The more likely (if unvoiced) reason for this proposal is plain. For reasons both similar and different, the governor and the real estate/Wall Street/low-wage employer wings of the Democratic Party in New York would like to see the Working Families Party disappear. The WFP is the most persistent threat to the power of business interests in the Empire State, and the governor doesn’t want anyone to point out that he governs as a centrist on economic issues and a liberal only on social issues. The business lobby is serious about crushing “the little party that could” (a Newsday headline of a few years ago), spending millions of dollars on television and mail against WFP candidates, and even trying to hire well-known progressive public relations firms to wage a PR battle against them. So far, they have failed.

Now, the governor’s aides are pushing a line to the press that the “third parties” in New York have “too much” influence. It’s true that the Conservatives have power and influence with the Republicans, and that the Working Families Party has the same with the Democrats. But that’s because they have support among the voting public, they have ideas, and they have verve. The Millionaire’s Tax, Paid Sick Days, the minimum wage, Rockefeller Drug Law reform, the Green Jobs Act, the emergence of the Progressive Caucus in NYC, the inclusionary zoning rules, the passage of the Wage Theft and Domestic Workers Acts—each of these, in ways large or small, got a boost from the electoral savvy and relationships that the WFP shows day after day across the state.

So it’s not a surprise that the business class and its allies want to see them weakened or, better yet, destroyed. One can’t help but point out that this is not the first time that establishment power has decided that one potent way to weaken the progressive left is to eliminate fusion voting. It happened more than a hundred years ago, and it’s a vital if little-known part of our political history. It’s unlikely that the legislators and press corps in Albany are aware of this, but it’s a history worth reciting as they consider the current proposals from the governor and Senator Jeff Klein, the renegade/independent Democrat who has aligned with the Republican State Senate majority.

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In a fusion system, a candidate can run with the endorsement of more than one party, with the votes on either line counting towards the total. Basically, fusion allows third parties to avoid the “wasted vote” or “spoiler” dilemmas that otherwise doom third parties in America to irrelevance. In the winner-take-all system that we have in America—meaning, no proportional representation—fusion is the best way past those twin dilemmas. In fact, some political scientists call it “modified proportional representation.” My sense, having watched the vicious attacks in the Murdoch press over the years, is that the WFP is entirely correct about the value of fusion. The right doesn’t waste time attacking people it doesn’t care about.

Fusion was once legal in every state. Especially during the agrarian insurgencies of the post–Civil War era, fusion parties were at the heart of the challenge to the powers-that-be. The Populists are the most famous, and their rise in the late 1800’s eventually produced a fierce counter-reaction. After the 1896 election in which William Jennings Bryan, running on a Democrat-Populist fusion ticket, was soundly defeated by McKinley and the railroad barons, the anti-fusion movement got serious. In one state after another, the electoral rule that allowed the workers (mostly Democrats) to unite with the farmers (mostly Populists), was changed.

Non-fusion third parties continued to exist, of course, and the Socialists were a vibrant presence until the First World War, but in general it’s fair to say that the anti-fusion rules made traditional third-party organizing less than it once was. The labor movement long ago threw in with the Democrats, because to do otherwise simply did not seem tenable. It’s been a barren marriage in many respects, and one hears plenty of frustration with the Democrats today from labor leaders Rich Trumka or Lee Saunders or Mary Kay Henry’s words. In most states today, the fusion option is not available, but a “Working Families Organization”—non-party parties, really—strategy is indeed available and popular among institutional progressive leaders in many states.

So, nothing new under the sun. The Populists made a real play for power, and the forces of capital united to crush them. No doubt the Populists made some mistakes, but their real sin was that they stood up for what they believed in. Today in New York and Connecticut, the more conservative elements in the Democratic Party are trying to eliminate fusion voting, and it remains to be seen whether the WFP and its allies in community, labor, civil rights, environmental, student and feminist organizations can stop them. Pro-fusion forces on the right like Mike Long and the Conservative Party will no doubt push the Republicans to withstand the governor’s call, but in the end it will come down to progressive-minded leaders and legislators inside the Democratic Party voting yea or nay. Here’s hoping they stand with working families, lower and upper-case.

The research undergirding austerity politics has been exposed as fundamentally flawed—yet Republicans continue to call for drastic cuts, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes.

The Austerity Doctrine Exposed

House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan Ryan has cited austerity research that was fundamentally flawed. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin.)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

The austerity claque got it wrong. And the harsh bill is being paid by millions of Americans and millions more in Europe in jobs lost, homes foreclosed, families split apart, hopes crushed.

They can’t repay the costs of their folly. We don’t really need an apology. But could they at least get out of the way so we could get on with the jobs programs that we should have undertaken years ago?

Austerity has been tried and found wanting in practice. Instead of expansion and growth, Europe has been driven back into recession. With Britain’s credit rating downgraded, its economy contracting, its unemployment rolls soaring, its debts rising, three years of rosy forecasts shredded, Tory Chancellor George Osborne’s tears at the lavish funeral for Margaret Thatcher may well have been for the burial of his own reputation. Britain is “playing with fire,” warned the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, who told Sky News, “The danger of having no growth, or very little growth, for a long time, is very high. You get a number of vicious circles that come into play.”

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in Nation History: The NRA and the Politics of Fear

The defeat of President Obama’s gun-control package last week undoubtedly represents the most dramatic disappointment in the entire history of the movement to restrict firearms abuse in the United States. Many observers sadly noted that it might take another tragedy on the scale of December’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary to secure enough votes for a serious reform measure. It is interesting, though, and perhaps even instructive, to recall just how brief is the history of gun control advocacy.

Rather than critique the outsized role guns play in American culture and society, as many Nation articles do now, our earliest pieces on the subject discussed firearms much as one would talk about books or paintings: public discussion of guns was seemingly limited to comparison, criticism, and review.

The Nation doesn’t appear to have even noticed the first modern gun control legislation, the National Firearms Act of 1934, which imposed heavy taxes and other restrictions on sawed-off rifles and machine guns. The issue was not an especially divisive one at the time, and the bill was supported by the National Rifle Association.

The first Nation article to critically consider the prevalence of guns in America was “Get Your Gun From the Army,” in June 1964 by Stanley Meisler, which used the Kennedy assassination as a jumping-off point to explore the unseemly collaboration between the US Army and the NRA—“the main force in the gun lobby that has prevented Congress so far from passing any meaningful legislation to restrict the ownership and use of guns,” Meisler wrote—to distribute weapons to hundreds of thousands of civilians and train them in their use. In effect, Meisler argued, the federal government, through the Army and the NRA, was subsidizing far-right-wing militias. If some of Meisler’s criticisms of the Civilian Marksmanship Program are no longer relevant—it was privatized in 1996, though it remains quasi-governmental and tax-exempt—his broad characterization of the gun lobby remains as apt as it was 49 years ago: “Despite the shock of the assassination,” gun legislation “will not be easy. It will be resisted every step of the way by the National Rifle Association.”

Public support for gun legislation after the JFK assassination reached a crescendo after the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the spring of 1968. “Guns, Congress and the Networks,” by Maureen Christopher, an editor of Advertising Age, examined the now-forgotten role the advertising industry played in early gun-control advocacy. “These image makers, adroit at consumer persuasion, are having much less success convincing Congressmen that the United States needs a strong national firearms law,” Christopher wrote. Eventually, the Gun Control Act of 1968 did pass, prohibiting felons and the mentally ill from purchasing weapons, broadly speaking.

Gun control advocacy in The Nation really took off in the early 1970s, with articles like “Getting Serious About Guns,” “The Demographics of Gun Control,” and “The Politics of Gun Control.” In the last of those, Michael Harrington—the congressman, not the socialist—bullet-pointed some of the NRA’s time-tested strategies: “They use their extensive media connections to misstate the details of proposed bills, and to play to fears about race, government domination and subversion by radicals.

An editorial from the following year, 1975, offers an optimistic analysis depressingly similar to those heard after Newtown: “Congress has let [the] slaughter continue—despite polls showing more than 70 per cent of the American people favor gun control—primarily because of the power of the National Rifle Association… But there are signs that the NRA’s ability to veto gun control legislation is eroding.” Richard Bruner announced a similar false dawn in 1988, beginning his article, “How Citizens Can Beat the Gun Lobby,” by declaring: “Suddenly, the National Rifle Association is on the defensive.” If The Nation has made a habit of wishfully heralding the imminent demise of the powerful gun lobby, the key for truly defeating it is not magic, and it has long been known. “You’ve got to be willing to stand up and take them on,” as Bruner quoted one New Jersey politician saying.

Yet the Senate’s rejection of universal background checks should be the start of a popular movement to hold our leaders accountable. As I argue this week, we’ve forgotten that it took five years of persistent effort across the nation to pass the Brady Billl, the ban on assault weapons and the ban on large capacity magazines in the ’90s. In that period we built a national movement, changed the dialogue, and did what everyone thought was impossible. We slayed the dragon.

Americans need to be mobilized to overcome the intensity of the NRA. As long as the struggle remains one between a passion and a preference, the NRA—armed with a battery of scare tactics and willful lies—will win every time. As the President said Wednesday night, “all in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington. But this effort is not over.” If we act like it is, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

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How to Beat the Gun Lobby

Gun-control advocate Robin Kelly's election to Congress may be the start of a broader shift in the political landscape. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast.)

The Senate’s defeat of common sense gun reforms made Wednesday a dark day—for sensible legislation, and for American democracy. The failure of an already-watered down background check compromise (55 senators backed reform; 45 sided with the NRA) revealed stunning political cowardice. And it illuminated once again the ugly fault lines of our corroded democracy—from the power of special and moneyed interests, to the stranglehold of small state bias (consider North Dakota, whose Democratic and Republican senators both sided with the NRA: the state gets one-fiftieth of our senators, despite having just over one five-hundredth of our population).

If the nation’s laws fail to represent the views of the overwhelming majority of its people, representative democracy becomes an unsustainable exercise. Yesterday's vote—which too many media outlets casually and uncritically reported would “require sixty votes to pass”—showed how badly Democratic leaders miscalculated by not standing strong for true filibuster reform, and how urgent it is to take up that cause again. The 111th Congress saw more filibusters than the 1950s, '60s and ‘70s combined.

Yet amidst the shame and ignominy, what also must be understood is that this struggle to curb gun violence, to join the civilized world, will take time and—most of all—a movement. Supporters of common sense reform have strong and good allies within Congress, and outside of it. If activists were to walk away in disgust, and hand victory to those Republicans and Democrats who obstructed a humane compromise, then a painful setback would become a lasting tragedy.

In our collective shock over the horror of Sandy Hook, many in the country expected immediate action from Congress. But this Congress is incapable of acting quickly. While in the gaze of history it may have seemed quick, we’ve forgotten that it took five years of persistent effort across the nation to pass the Brady Bill, the ban on assault weapons and the ban on large capacity magazines in the '90s. In that period we built a national movement, changed the dialogue, and did what everyone thought was impossible. We slayed the dragon. You could well see that process replayed here, but over a comparatively shorter stretch of time.

The 2014 cycle is not that far away, and with polls consistently showing support for gun reform, members in marginal seats may well pay a price for resisting gun reform efforts. Gun reform advocate Robin Kelly’s recent Illinois special election victory offers a positive sign of things to come. As strategist Bob Creamer noted Wednesday night, siding with the NRA could prove a heavy electoral albatross for Republicans in keeping the House or taking the White House. As Gabby Giffords promised in a powerful op-ed, “if we cannot make our communitites safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s.” Even more encouraging has been the passage of strong, smart statewide gun control laws in Connecticut, Maryland and New York—all states led by governors with a rumored eye towards the Democratic presidential primary in 2016. Activists in these states and others should keep the pressure on to rack up more victories that can filter up to Congress.

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The struggle will stay fierce. As retired ATF special agent Ivar Paur wrote recently, “To most of us, including a majority of gun owners, universal background checks are a public safety issue. To the industry and NRA however, they are a loss of sales and stagnant membership.” For a historical view of the NRA’s descent into ghoulish theatrics, just comb through Mother Jones’ recent gallery of NRA ads through the years: from the tame “Do You Belong to a Rifle Club?” (1920) to the indefensible “What’s the first step to a police state?” (1993).

While working to transform the role of money in politics, at this moment we must build a countervailing force to the cash and lobbying of the gun manufacturers and their servants in the NRA, who put fear above safety time and again. The financial commitment made by Mayor Bloomberg to counter the NRA’s financial advantage through Mayors against Illegal Guns is a potential game-changer. So are newly emergent groups like Gabby Giffords' and Mark Kelly's Americans for Responsible Solutions.

But more than money, or a clever message, or a future horror, what will make it possible to beat the gun lobby is organized people. As New York’s crusading Attorney General Eric Schneiderman observed on Twitter, “We need to get Americans organized& passionate about #gunsafety& guaranteeing #background checks…” In the 90’s, the NRA massively outspent those fighting for an assault weapons ban/Brady Bill, but the good guys won.

The hard truth is that while nine out of ten Americans say they support background checks, they aren’t mobilized in the ways they’ll need to be if we’re to overcome the intensity of the NRA. As long as the struggle remains one between a passion and a preference, the NRA – armed with a battery of scare tactics and willful lies – will win every time. As the President said Wednesday night, “all in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington. But this effort is not over.” If we act like it is, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

With the Obama administration invoking the Espionage Act a record number of times, we need to celebrate whistle-blowing now more than ever, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes.

Celebrating the Ridenhour Awards and Courageous Whistleblowers

One of this year's Ridenhour recipients was Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who sparked immigration reform debate at risk of deportation. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh.)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Next week marks the 10th anniversary of an event that celebrates truth telling in the public interest and honors the legacy of Ron Ridenhour, a man not often remembered, who irreversibly changed the course of history.

As a soldier in Vietnam, Ridenhour had started investigating troubling rumors of a terrible war crime committed by U.S. soldiers. In 1969, after returning home, he wrote a stunning letter to Congress and the Pentagon in which he described the horrific slaughter of innocent men, women and children. Ridenhour was a key source for the series on My Lai that Sy Hersh wrote for the Dispatch News Service, which later earned Hersh the Pulitzer Prize. The story of the massacre provoked widespread outrage and was a turning point in U.S. public opinion of the war. Ridenhour himself went on to become an award-winning investigative journalist before his sudden, tragic death at the age of 52.

At a moment when the government is aggressively clamping down on information, it’s worth remembering — and honoring — the importance of whistleblowers like Ridenhour, who tell us the hard truth even when nobody wants to hear it.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in 'Nation' History: Remembering Margaret Thatcher

It is one of the underappreciated advantages of the digital age that when certain prominent people pass away, we need not be held captive to amnesiac, white-washing eulogies. So while President Obama lauds the late Margaret Thatcher as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty,” it only takes a quick spin through The Nation’s archives to recall the magazine’s running critique of Thatcher and her ideology and, more generally, the great complexities in the folds of history now being steamed away.


In 1980, before his move to the United States and to The Nation, Christopher Hitchens profiled life in his native Britain—scornfully dubbed “Maggie’s Farm”—after “one calendar year of neoconservative governance.” Following the economic and social policies of Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, Thatcher and her fellow Conservatives had begun to tear up the fabric of British life they claimed to be protecting: prices skyrocketed, services were drastically cut, and the rich received massive tax cuts, all in the name of restoring national greatness. “There are no reliable reports on whether or not this enhanced national pride has made the unemployed feel any better,” Hitchens quipped. “Nothing concentrates the mind like a little poverty,” as Hitchens quotes one Conservative official saying.

In February 1985, New Statesman reporter Jane Dibblin wrote about the British miners’ strike, then approaching its one-year anniversary, which was perceived by many, including Thatcher herself, as the ultimate battle between the forces of austerity and the forces of resistance in Britain. Thatcher boasted of having already defeated the “enemy without,” in the Falklands War, and was now going after the “enemy within,” the miners. The strike cost the British government $123 million per week, but as Dibblin noted, that price was seen by Thatcher and her allies as “a worthwhile political investment.” When the miners voted to end their strike just one month later, The Nation editorialized that Thatcher had shown yet again that “her policies can only sharpen divisions, not heal them”—though the hope that her popularity was “finally waning” proved five years premature.

In 1989, Daniel Singer, the magazine’s longtime Europe correspondent, wrote about France’s preparations for celebrating the bicentennial of its 1789 revolution. He noted that Francois Mitterand would play host to the newly-elected President George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and German chancellor Helmut Kohl—“a party that appears more suited to honor Marie Antoinette than commemorate the storming of the Bastille.” Singer wrote that these politicians and their neoconservative/neoliberal intellectual counterparts, “preach the ‘end of ideology,’” yet “positively ooze their own brand of it.”

An especially penetrating critique of what the writer calls “third-term Thatcherism” was offered in April 1990, just as the premier was beginning to lose steam.  Taking special issue with Thatcher’s proposed poll tax or community charge—or, one might add, existence levy—the writer attacked Thatcher as “the engineer of social demolition” and her much-touted “enterprise culture” that, he said, “has not only failed to address Britain’s long-term economic decline but has also brought an era of social decay and disintegration. The author of this well-worded screed? Edward Miliband, a former Nation intern, and now leader of the British Labor Party. (Tangentially, Miliband—who is currently trying to steer his party away from its 1990s neoliberal iteration—took aim in the article at what he saw as the feckless transmogrifying of Labor into New Labor. The new strategy, he wrote, “is marked by extreme caution, an avoidance of any appearance of radicalism and a reluctance to argue for anything that might not command majority opinion-poll support.” Words to live up to, surely.)

In a provocative adieu to Thatcher’s reign later that year—she was indeed, as Miliband considered possible but unlikely, forced out by an intraparty coup—Hitchens disclosed the still-shocking fact that he had been spanked—yes, spanked—by Thatcher at a gathering in the House of Lords in 1977, and offered a subtle defense of those aspects of Thatcherism he thought worthy of leftist emulation. After cogently summarizing the “foulness” of Thatcherism, Hitchens concludes that Thatcher—by “hack[ing] away at the encrusted institutions and attitudes that stood in [her] path,” by undermining “every ancestral prop of the British state”—“was a radical and not a reactionary.” Mostly, he thought she had shown that “there is power and dignity to be won by defying the status quo and the majority rather than by adapting to them.” Anticipating Obama’s much-maligned expression of admiration, in a 2008 debate, for Ronald Reagan as a “transformative political figure,” Hitchens concluded: “If the British left, which she froze into immobility like Medusa, could bring itself to learn from this, then we might not have to look upon her like again.”


Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archives, which contain thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

'There Are Now States Where It's Not Safe to Be a Woman'

Pro-choice protest
Activists rally in support of abortion rights in Jackson, Mississippi. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis).

Chalk another one up for the extremists. Three weeks after Arkansas’ legislature overrode a veto and prohibited most second trimester abortions, North Dakota’s Governor signed into law a ban that kicks in just six weeks after conception. As the Associated Press noted, both sides recognize the laws for what they are: “an unprecedented frontal assault” on the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade.

“The thing that’s incredible to me – North Dakota being case in point – is the thought that women’s rights in this country depend on their ZIP code,” the inimitable Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards told the Huffington Post late last month. “There are now states where it’s not safe to be a woman.”

This didn’t happen by accident. Rather, there’s a disturbing pattern of states pushing blatantly unconstitutional anti-abortion measures, creating a patchwork of places in the United States where women are treated as second-class citizens who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions. The extreme anti-equality activists are intentionally defying Roe v. Wade in hopes of triggering a constitutional showdown. They want to rewrite the constitution as they go, using it to their benefit when it fits their draconian worldview and disregarding it when it doesn’t. That’s a dangerous precedent to set.

Watching last Sunday’s Meet the Press panel, you’d think that America was an evenly divided, or even center-right country when it comes to the right to choose (“You look at abortion,” insisted Tom Davis, “and actually the country’s moved slightly right”). But that’s just not so. A January Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll, pegged to the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, showed that a whopping 7 out of 10 Americans support the decision. The basic idea that women should have the right choose is mainstream in our culture. Alas, politics all too often takes far too long to catch up to where the culture is.

In polling, the best-tested language on abortion conveys the common sense concept that this is a decision no one can make for anyone else. People know this to be true: Every situation is different; that’s why the law allows latitude for women to make decisions about when and how they have children with their doctors and their families.

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Nonetheless, as the North Dakota debacle reminds us, progressives remain urgently outmatched at the state level. Personhood language is among the legislation pushed by Americans United for Life (AUL), an under-the-radar anti-choice group that shares the savvy state-level focus and the virulent brand of extremism of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). AUL shared its legislation with lawmakers at an ALEC policy retreat. As In These Times’ Sady Doyle noted, AUL’s battery of bills “present a surprisingly comprehensive plan for banning abortion at the state level”, from requiring notarized parental permission, to banning the use of taxes for “training to perform an abortion” at state schools (ALEC itself pushes model legislation including “parental notification” and deceptive “born alive” bills). As our own Lee Fang documents in his latest feature, “conservative think tanks are on the march, working from a similar script to tear down organized labor and promote extreme right-wing policies in state capitols from Alaska to Florida.” It’s long past time for liberals to catch up.

Here’s the good news: Women vote, and they won’t stand for these attempts to shove us back to the 50’s. Women know that our reproductive freedom is the key to our autonomy, and that we are better mothers, citizens, and professionals when we are able to make our own decisions about our own destinies. That’s why these draconian laws are already creating a backlash among women nationwide. These extreme efforts undermine the GOP’s electoral viability – as we already saw last November.

We know that when women are healthy and free, families thrive, communities thrive, marketplaces thrive and nations thrive. This has been proven over and over again. But the anti-family and anti-American bullies pushing these nasty bills could use a fresh reminder.

Lack of availability to safe abortion amounts to torture, according to a new report by the UN. Jessica Valenti covered it in Why Is North Dakota Torturing Women?

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