Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
Uncle Sam hovered over the small crowd of 200 protesters gathered in Moscow today to mark the first anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. The papier mache puppet--with dollar signs for eyes, a red white and blue top hat and cigar stuffed in his mouth--was held tightly by two young women wearing bandanas and Che buttons as a gaggle of photographers snapped away.
The demo--organized by an eclectic alliance of groups, including the Russian Communist Party youth offshoot, the Radical Socialist Party, Trotskyists, anarchists, Punk Rockers Against Putin, and the Globalization Institute--was one of many taking place across Russia. The marchers--most in their early twenties--were there to protest all forms of occupation and several of the speakers roused the crowd, despite a primitive sound system, by drawing a link between the US occupation of Iraq, Russia's occupation of Chechnya and Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. For many of these groups, the war in Chechnya is a cancer on their country's soul and without ending that war, they do not believe democracy in Russia is possible.
There were even chants of "Intifada, Intifada." Many called for "Vova"--as Vladimir Putin is nicknamed--to step down. "Down with this War President," the crowd chanted. Many spoke hopefully of the Socialist party's victory in Spain. "Let us take an example from the Spanish people and oust this war government." "Che unites, Putin divides," one protester said. Other placards at the demo said: "No war for Oil!" and "Capitalism Kills, Death to Capitalism!" The only English language sign read simply: "No War!"
Most of the kids out protesting were born during the perestroika years and have come to their leftism out of choice not necessity. ("We know our Marx far better than the older generation, which was forced to read him in school," one young woman told me.) When it came to style, the crowd looked like it would have at home at any protest march in the West: bandanas covered mouths, black ski masks were in vogue (as much to protect against Moscow's subzero temperatures as a political statement), Eminem t-shirts and Che buttons were worn and protest flags were flown. The few babushkas present--elderly Russian women who told me they hadn't received their pensions for months--were handing out Communist party pamphlets.
As the rally wound down, there was a roar from the last speaker--"Let us stomp out imperialist aggression!" Several protesters then gathered around Uncle Sam and began to tear apart the papier mache puppet. A young guy wearing an Arnold Schwarznegger/Terminator shirt began to stomp on Uncle Sam's top hat. "Let us march to the US Embassy," someone shouted through the megaphone. "Yankee, Go Home," chanted a half dozen people. The last speaker then thanked the militia for their help in ensuring that the rally proceeded in an orderly way.
Correction:Thanks to Dr. Ross Worthington, who alerted me to a mistake in my recent weblog looking at how the idea of single-payer healthcare was catching on among businessmen and members of the medical profession. I should have wrote that "sixty-four percent of Massachusetts doctors recently endorsed a national single-payer system," rather than sixty-four percent of doctors nationally. Click here to read the full article.
My March 2 weblog, "Let's End the Duopoly," laying out proposals for democratic reforms of our electoral system generated a number of valuable reader letters. Click here to read the weblog and see below to read five good letters.
Wade Dygert, Coopersburg, PA
Katrina vanden Heuvel's "Let's End the Two-Party Duopoly" is right on the money. Electoral reform, meaning proportional representation and instant runoff voting, is the most critical issue in American politics today. Liberals should stop wasting their time demonizing Nader, and channel that energy into pushing for electoral reform. And The Nation should be leading the way.
Instead of writing cover stories telling Nader not to run, I would want to review Steven Hill's "Fixing Elections." Not only does it point out the flaws in America's electoral system, it also provides solutions. A good online resource is www.fairvote.org, the website for the Center for Voting and Democracy, in which Steven Hill is involved, by the way.
PLEASE write about proportional representation in your magazine...most people are unaware of the options we have in how we turn votes into seats, and The Nation is the perfect place to educate people on the matter.
Thank you for your time.
Paul Klinkman, Providence, RI
Congratulations on your "duopoly" editorial. I wish that you had mentioned Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Cambridge City Council has had Proportional Representation for 63 years running. I observe that a permanently corruption-resistant city council has been a boon to Cambridge's homeowners. Cambridge has a top rating of AAA from Moody's Investor Service and outrageous property values. In similar cities with no protection from machine politics, even in cities with great colleges, homeowners often have crushing city mortgages hanging over the value of their homes which any judge can order them or their children to pay off.
I'm sorry to appeal to people's individual financial interests, but some conservatives can see nothing else. Either we stop the crooks from owning City Hall or we get cleaned out time after time, people. This same truth applies equally to our state legislatures and to Congress.
Proportional Representation disappeared from two dozen American cities because it allowed black people to become city council members, and it also allowed people who didn't hate communists enough to become city council members. Was this ever a sane reason to spit on and ignore a successful crime-fighting tool?
For generations, small groups of citizens have struggled to rid their cities, states and nation of all candidate corruption and all machine politics permanently. Proportional representation has been a successful set of government-changing experiments which our forefathers fought to implement. I'm ashamed that so many of us ignore the learning that our ancestors won with their vision and perseverance. Did some forgotton Galileo really lose this fight and die with our knowledge? Can we name any other type of learning in all of history that has been so forgotten and yet so needed?
Sean Hill, Vancouver, Canada
In response to Katrina vanden Heuvel's recent article "Let's End the Two-Party Duopoly": I couldn't agree more that electoral reform needs to have a more prominent place on the US political platter. But Ms. vanden Heuvel's comment that "Nader's perceived role as a spoiler is likely to attract far more attention than the valuable issues he raises" is outright myth propagation. Comments like these highlight an endemic lack of belief in the validity of merit and democracy towards determining political leadership and direction.
Electoral reform begins when each of us decides to show more confidence and less apathy towards the multitude of outcomes made possible by a self-determined electorate.
In Canada, we recognize that it's not really about whether we or our political opponents win. What matters is whether the country wins, and it's the pressure generated by a range of choices which keeps our leaders in line.
Running an election strategy as "anybody but Bush" is a with us or against us proposition. The Dems are looking for the sure win but instead they're betting the bank on the next roll. You might luck out. But you're more likely to end up with some wishy-washy, opportunistic, fly-by-night who turns things upside-down and has the electorate calling for a Bush return in 2008.
Now is the time to be expanding and encouraging choices, all choices. Neither Nader, nor anybody else, right or left should be discouraged from offering themselves for the future of their country.
If we're all really that cynical then we don't deserve a better world.
Keith Schilhab, Rollinsville CO
Re Katrina vanden Heuvel's piece on Ending the Two Party Duopoly: I read this article with much interest, as it has become increasingly clear over the last 20 years or so that our "representative" government no longer lives up to its name. Instant runoff voting, proportional representation, fusion voting are all terrific ideas and deserve a hard look.
However, in the case of politics it seems obvious to me that money is indeed the root of all electoral evils (as Ms. vanden Heuvel writes: "Big money politics give disproportionate influence to the wealthy, and blocks the candidacies of those without access to money...") Admittedly, reducing the cost of getting elected in this country will not be an easy one, and I do not have all the answers here. However, we can all agree that it is ideas and not the size of one's wallet that should count in elections.
With that in mind then I would propose either strictly re-regulating the current networks to provide free and equal time to all "qualified" candidates. Or, banning all campaign/party advertising from national TV/Radio and establishing government owned and financed radio/TV stations whose only purpose is to run equal and free political adverts. All commercial advertising in either case would be made illegal. In addition, strict money limits would be placed on a party's or campaigns fund raising. Four of five million dollars perhaps.
Yes, this idea is not complete and there are difficulties. What does it mean to be qualified? How do we re-define political speech within the context of the first amendment?
However, the stakes are far too high not to take up this question. The public is supposed to own the airwaves. They no longer serve us, and the FCC seems more like a prostitute with one customer: the broadcasters. Political speech is NOT free when the guy with the fattest wallet can dominate the conversation. Our politics has degenerated horribly within the last 20 years. I am much afraid that if something is not done, no matter how draconian it might appear at onset, then in another few years this country will be unrecognizable.
Tracy Winter, aol.com
Good piece by Katrina Vanden Huevel. I would add to her "Toolkit" for repairing our democracy not just publicly-financed election campaigns, and a few more PBS stations, but also the banning of partisan campaign commercials from the airwaves in lieu of more inclusive and comprehensive debates, thus effectively removing the biggest (and dirtiest) money concern from the electoral process, and allowing it to become more affordale for new parties. Despite the predictable-but-innaccurate howls of protest over "free speech" that will surely ensue from the media giants, it is entirely possible within the original parameters of the media's charge to provide "Public Service" in return for the incredibly powerful use of OUR airwaves since the advent of TV. Frequent and extensive debates on the issues should satisfy anyone with a first amendment ax to grind. Why should the despicable Media Moguls who have already trashed responsible journalism, be allowed to go on enriching themselves at the expense of our Democracy?
As a recent Washington Post business article reported (an article that should have been on the Post's front page!), manufacturers are quietly embracing the concept of universal healthcare. While the major papers have been virtually MIA on this issue, Kirstin Downey, a Post staff writer, admirably called attention to how rising costs are roiling the debate over healthcare reform. Sen. Kerry and leading Democrats should pay close attention to this trend. It could be a very helpful issue in a close election.
Downey reports that employers saw their healthcare costs rise 12 percent last year, on the heels of a 16 percent increase in 2002. Such dramatic increases have damaged manufacturing in America, prompted labor strikes, and encouraged corporations to ship jobs overseas.
Back in 1994, Jack Smith, a former CEO of General Motors, went on record as "personally favor[ing] the Canadian system." Smith, an anomaly ten years ago, today looks like the weatherman who knew which way the wind was blowing. The volume and intensity of anguished, bitter public complaints by business executives about the costs and burdens of health care has grown to major proportions.
In one of the more exciting if little-noticed developments for progressives, a coalition is beginning to emerge that includes not just CEOs but also America's doctors and unionized workers. Executives from the Big Three automakers, upset over insanely high healthcare costs, recently sent the Canadian government a letter urging Canada to keep its single-payer system so GM, DaimlerChrysler and Ford could hold operating expenses down.
And why not? After all, in 2003, GM spent $4.5 billion on health care for its US-based employees and retirees, at a cost of $1,200 per car, according to a GM spokesman. "If we cannot get our arms around this [healthcare] issue as a nation, our manufacturing base and many of our other businesses are in danger," warned Ford's Vice Chairman Allan Gilmour.
The nation's supermarket chains, for their part, facing stiff competition from non-union rivals including Wal-Mart, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, have a healthcare crisis on their hands. In 1999, Giant and Safeway paid $112 million in medical costs for employees in the Washington, DC region; by 2003, they were spending $180 million on healthcare subsidies. These rising costs, and the chains' efforts to slash workers' subsidies, recently prompted 70,000 California grocery workers to go on strike. Desperately looking for ways to stay competitive, the supermarket chains could find their salvation in a single-payer system. (Workers too would benefit tremendously, receiving guaranteed access to healthcare at affordable prices regardless of their employment status.)
Ditto for other corporations. William Rainville, CEO of Kadant Inc., a papermaking manufacturer, recently told the Washington Post that healthcare costs make operating in the US nearly unsustainable. Kadant says it will spend $6,500 on health care in 2004 for each of its American employees. But, the single-payer system in Canada is so inexpensive that Kadant is considering moving all its operations north of the border.
Labor unions, meanwhile, have good reason to support a single-payer system. The average worker saw out-of-pocket healthcare spending climb from $1,890 in 2000 to $2,790 in 2003; a 48 percent jump, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, the percentage of employers that fully subsidized health care for employees' families dropped from 27 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2003.
According to a Harvard Medical School survey, 64 percent of Massachusetts doctors recently endorsed a national single-payer system. Frustrated by the costs and cumbersome paperwork, doctors said they would gladly cut fees if it would eliminate those pesky piles of insurance claims forms.
"Most doctors are fed up with the health care system," explains Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, an author and a leading reformer. "It's not just the paperwork and insurance hassles, but knowing that many of our patients can't afford to fill the prescriptions we write for them. And millions of people who are uninsured avoid care altogether until they're desperately ill."
A single-payer healthcare system will also save jobs, increase profit margins and attack the mushrooming problem of outsourcing jobs to India, China and other nations boasting cheap labor markets. In addition, by enacting a single-payer system, the US will significantly reduce health care administrative costs, saving an estimated $286 billion annually. That's enough to cover over 43 million uninsured Americans, create a real, universal prescription drug benefit, retrain laid-off employees, and strengthen preventative care.
America's conservative critics like to portray Canada's single-payer healthcare as socialistic, inefficient, and second-rate. A vast majority of Canadians, however, give consistently high marks to their single-payer system. Moreover, the Canadians, on average, live two years longer than us. (If that's not an endorsement for single-payer reform, I don't know what is.) If the politicians and media refuse to lead the fight for universal health care, then enlightened CEOs and doctors, perhaps, will.
Why is it that liberals are so afraid to take their own side in an argument?
"Look, labels are so silly in American politics," Senator Kerry replied evasively when asked during the New York debate, "Are you a liberal?" I agree that labels are too simplistic. But why allow the L-word to be defined--and turned into a negative--by thugs at the Republican National Committee who don't know their own history? Isn't it time, after more than twenty years of conservative ascendancy, for liberals to take the offensive, stop biting their tongues and declare forcefully--I'm a liberal and proud of it!
So, next time you're asked, Senator, why not stand firm (you're already tall) and tell Americans, crisply, sharply and with conviction, how liberal values have shaped the greatness of this country. It won't lose you the election. It might just help you win it.
I'm sure you don't need this, but here's a short list of some of the great triumphs of 20th century liberalism--all vigorously opposed by conservatives at the time: Women's suffrage; Social Security; unemployment compensation; the minimum wage; child labor laws; Head Start, food stamps; Medicare; federal housing laws barring discrimination; the Voting Rights Act; the Civil Rights Act; anti-pollution statutes, guaranteed student loan programs and the forty-hour work week.
Senator, these victories made America a more just and open society. These programs embody the civilizing and mainstream values of the past decades and they show how liberals have repeatedly fought for ordinary Americans. A fighting liberal would take on rightwing extremists who are determined to rollback the hard-earned rights and liberties of the 20th century. Why not stand on liberalism's proud heritage? It sure beats running away from a winning legacy.
Senator Edward Kennedy gave two magnificent speeches last week, but only one received the attention it deserved. While his blistering attack on the Bush Administration for manipulating and distorting intelligence to justify attacking Iraq was noted in the Washington Post and other papers, the Senator's fiery progressive manifesto--delivered at a New York conference called Re-Imagining the Welfare State--went virtually unreported.
In the large hall at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City on the afternoon of March 1, Kennedy came out swinging at an Administration that wants to roll back the hard-earned rights and liberties of the 20th century. "One by one," Kennedy boomed, "issue by issue, program by program, the Republican Right has methodically turned away from policies which brought about a century of progress for working Americans. They want to build the 21st century economy on 19th century economic values, as if the last 100 years had not occurred. For them the law of the jungle is the best economic policy for America--not equal opportunity, not fairness, not the American dream. Their ideas will inevitably result in a lesser America, and have already meant a growing gulf between rich and poor."
** "Today's Republicans are very different from those who led their party in earlier years. The Republican Party is now controlled by ideological extremists who reject any meaningful role for government in expanding economic opportunity or preventing the abuses of private economic power. Some of them even openly proclaim that their goal is to 'starve the beast'--cut taxes so low that government will not have the resources to play a meaningful role in the economy. These latter day Social Darwinians clearly believe those who assemble great concentrations of wealth should be unfettered and permitted to dominate the nation's economic life, as much as they did in the late 19th century."
** "Progressives cannot continue to play defense in the battle of ideas. The stakes are too high. Nor can we allow ourselves to be cast as mere defenders of the status quo. We must make the debate between our vision of the future versus theirs. In reality, it is the Republican Right which is wedded to the ideas of the distant past, 19th century ideas which America rejected in the early years of the last century. We should portray them for what they are, Neanderthal merchants of outmoded ideas recycled from long ago."
**"Republicans love to quote President Kennedy on cutting taxes, but as I remind them, the top tax bracket on his Inaugural Day was 91 percent."
** Kennedy also came out in support of greater and wiser use of the trillions of dollars in pension funds---a stance that progressive economists in and out of the labor movement, as well as elected officials like California Treasurer Phil Angelides have pushed. "At least a small portion of the trillions could be invested in public projects for public investment. If just five percent of the nation's pension funds were invested, at competitive rates, directly in job-creating and economy-building activities, more than $300 billion in assets could be made available, in a manner consistent with both the security and growth of the pension funds."
For more, click here and please pass the word about Kennedy's "other" speech. Also click here to read "Iraq and US Leadership" by the senior senator from Massachusetts from the March 29, 2004 issue of The Nation. You can also click here to see a schedule of the many other valuable events being staged at the CUNY Graduate Center this spring.
Bush's 9/11 campaign commercials are reckless and offensive. Depicting firefighters carrying bodies, draped in American flags, out of the World Trade Center rubble, they trivialize the rescue workers' sacrifice, exploit the victims' families and mock the enormity of the national tragedy.
The commercials' tag line, "steady leadership in times of change," recalls just how erratic Bush's leadership has, in fact, been. (A more accurate slogan would be "arrogant leadership in times of recession.") Instead of steady leadership, the "war president" fled on 9/11, retreating into a bunker somewhere in Nebraska.
Initially, the president attacked airline security legislation that ultimately put federal law enforcement officers in every airport. Bush also flip-flopped on homeland security, opposing it at first, supporting it later, and eventually demanding that worker rights in the new agency be shredded.
The reality is that Bush has transformed 9/11 into an all-purpose excuse to enact his radical rightwing agenda. The White House cited 9/11 as a reason to pass a so-called stimulus bill that included $254 million in retroactive tax rebates for Enron, just before the company collapsed. Bush scorned shared sacrifice as he championed tax cuts for the wealthiest. The erosion of civil liberties through the Patriot Act and the increasing criminalizing of dissent--two longterm rightwing goals--have also been justified in the name of 9/11. And the invasion of Iraq itself, another longtime neo-con obsession, was justified, in part with cherry-picked intelligence allegedly linking Saddam to Al-Qaeda
Moreover, by disdaining the international community, Bush's arrogant leadership virtually guaranteed that US taxpayers would foot the bill for reconstructing Iraq while US troops, for the most part, have been forced to go it alone.
Currently, Bush is stonewalling the federal commission responsible not only for investigating the 9/11 attacks but also for recommending steps to prevent future attacks. The President has had time to attend NASCAR races and a rodeo show, but he says he has only one hour to meet with two of the Commission's members. Furthermore, while Bush is spending 10.5 million dollars to air his 9/11 commercials, he is refusing to release records requested by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission's members. (Like President, like Vice President.)
So it's no surprise when one 9/11 widow calls Bush's commercials "a slap in the face of the murders of 3,000 people." Or when Harold Schaitberger, the President of the Firefighters Union, calls the ads "hypocrisy at its worst." Or when New York firefighters by the dozens denounce the president's use of their images in his ads.
One woman recently captured the outrage people feel when she wrote the ,Washington Post: "In the next round of ads, to show concern for Americans in the wake of that tragedy, why not throw in a few images of [Bush] cooperating with the 9/11 commission?"
And why not? Bush's 9/11 commercials, it turns out, feature paid actors as well as stock footage of volunteer firefighters. In other words, the commercials, like their tag line, are, in fact, a big fat fraud.
"We must preserve radio as a medium for democracy."
Sen. Russ Feingold, on January 30, 2003, before the Senate Commerce Committee Hearing on Media Concentration and Ownership in Radio
When Clear Channel yanked Howard Stern for violating its new 'zero tolerance' obscenity policy, the network cited as its reason a racial epithet made by one of Stern's listeners. But, Clear Channel's explanation is hogwash.
I agree with the many people who think that Stern is offensive to minorities and women. He's degraded the quality of radio by trafficking in crude sexual references and unseemly racial remarks for as long as he's been in broadcasting. But the issue here isn't indecency; to paraphrase James Carville, it's the First Amendment, stupid.
When Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, critics predicted that a new round of consolidation would sweep America's radio industry. Clear Channel, on cue, grew from 40 stations in the 1990s to 1,225 stations in 2004. Currently, Clear Channel and Viacom control approximately 42 percent of America's radio audience. Clear Channel has stifled diversity, opposed low-power FM, killed off localism in news, music and other forms of entertainment, and occupied the front lines of the conservative culture wars.
Clear Channel's decision to fire Stern signals the latest target in its sights--the Bill of Rights. Its decision is based not on any pious, self-serving qualms about indecency on its stations but on its desire to curry favor with Bush and his Republican Congressional allies.
The implications are alarming. If Clear Channel can yank the commercially-successful Howard Stern, then it has the power to silence any DJ or radio kingpin who refuses to play the network's chosen music, adhere to its appointed standards, or mouth Clear Channel's political line.
Its decision to pull the plug on Stern coincides not with a sudden increase in Stern's offensive behavior but with a rise in Stern's anti-Bush rhetoric. According to Jeff Jarvis of the blog Buzzmachine, Stern "has become an anybody-but-Bush voter," based, in part, on his concerns about the threat of censorship from the FCC. Stern also recently endorsed Al Franken's book on the air.
Is it a coincidence that Stern came out against Bush shortly before his suspension? Or that Clear Channel president John Hogan was due to appear before a House subcommittee investigating indecency over the airwaves, on the heels of Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction"?
What is not under dispute, according to the Center for Public Integrity, is that Clear Channel vice-chairman Thomas Hicks and Hick's law firm have given Bush more than $225,000--and Clear Channel's PAC, executives, and their relatives have given three-quarters of their political donations to the Republican Party.
So, they couldn't have been too happy to hear Stern's recent on-air rant about the president: "Get him out of office. I'm tellin' you, man, he's in dangerous territory [with] a religious agenda and you gotta vote him out--anyone but Bush," Stern railed.
Clear Channel's founder, Lowry Mays, also has close ties to Bush. He was put on the governing board of the University of Texas Instrument Management Company by Bush when he was still governor of Texas. (Hicks won an appointment, too.)
"When these insider dealings were exposed by the Houston Chronicle in 1999," Micah Sifry wrote in his blog about Stern and Clear Channel, "Hicks resigned from the company's board. By then, he had made Bush a rich man when he bought the Texas Rangers from him and his partners in 1998 for $250 million, three times their investment in the team."
Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is sponsoring a bill, the Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act, that will prevent Clear Channel from leveraging cross-ownership in an anti-competitive manner, and once again make the radio dial safe for speech. Now more than ever, this bill needs to pass, because Clear Channel, with a big assist from the GOP, is trampling on the First Amendment. (Click here for info on how you can contact your elected reps in support of S 221.)
When Ralph Nader chided what he called the "liberal intelligentsia" for appealing to him not to run in 2004 as "a contemptuous statement against democracy, against freedom, against more voices and choices for the American people," he added, "You'd never find that type of thing in Canada or Western democracies in Europe."
But Ralph was being disingenuous by not acknowledging that before Americans can take advantage of the heightened democracy enjoyed by those nations, we need a slew of electoral reforms that he may support on his campaign website, but which have gone virtually unmentioned in his media appearances and speeches.
I agree with Nader that America's democratic promise isn't fulfilled and that we live with a downsized politics of excluded alternatives. But, as The Nation noted in our "Open Letter" appealing to him not to run in an election when the overwhelming mass of progressive voters have only one focus--beating Bush--Nader's perceived role as a spoiler is likely to attract far more attention than the valuable issues he raises.
Instead of demonizing Nader though, progressives and indeed all Democrats should fight for reforms that open up our electoral system. One place to start would be to demand that the Democratic presidential candidate--and the party's platform--support electoral reforms that reflect an understanding that the party that can capture the hearts and minds of political newcomers can build a voting majority.
For the first time in nearly a century more than a quarter of US voters are not registered as either Republicans or Democrats. We need an electoral system that accommodates and indeed celebrates our country's diverse views. It's no accident that Howard Dean drew his strongest support among young people. Like Dennis Kucinich, he embraced instant runoff voting and stressed the importance of reforms that allow the range of voices and choices found in democracies with more modern voting systems.
Both Dean and Kucinich, like Nader, know that our two major parties have effectively colluded to dramatically narrow voter options. But there's nothing in American political culture that mandates the present system. It's an artifact of self-protection by the two party duopoly that at this point is particularly damaging to Democrats.
So here's my list of some ideas on how to reconstruct American democracywith links to groups working on their behalf:
1. Proportional Representation. The most obvious difference between electoral politics in the United States and Europe is our plurality, winner-take-all electoral system. Giving all representation to the candidate with the most votes by definition shuts the door on political minorities. Nearly all European legislatures have forms of proportional representation--called "full representation" by reformers here--where 51 percent of the vote wins a majority of seats, but not all seats. Winning 10 percent of the vote wins 10 percent of seats, and in some nations, like Germany and Belgium, candidates and parties can win with far less support.
Indeed new parties form in European democracies in roughly comparable numbers as they do in the United States; the difference is that with "full representation," more than half of these parties ultimately win seats and a chance to bring new voters and issues into politics even as the leading parties typically function as stable pillars of coalition governments. Arguments about how difficult it is to govern under proportional representation--as in Italy--collapse under the weight of sensible policies coming from countries like Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Reflecting Americans' limited understanding of the political systems of other nations, it's unlikely that the Democrats will embrace full proportional representation yet--although they do have the wisdom to use it to elect delegates to their presidential convention. But if they turn to Illinois' experience with its more modest system of cumulative voting in three-seat districts (essentially three adjoining legislative districts that are combined into one), they will see they have nothing to fear and much to gain.
Illinois used cumulative voting from 1870 to 1980, and there's increasing bipartisan support in the state to restore it. Three-seat districts with full representation lower the share of voter support necessary to earn a seat to roughly 25 percent. That change alone would open up nearly every area in the country to healthy two-party competition, give third parties a better chance and address the goals of redistricting reformers. (It's worth noting that restoring cumulative voting in Illinois has support from a range of political figures, including the two most recent Republican governors and African-American Democratic figures like the Secretary of State Jesse White and Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.)
Amarillo, Texas shows what cumulative voting can do for fair representation in the US: after having had an all-white school board for two decades, it adopted cumulative voting in 1999 and now has a school board which looks much more like its voter base with four white members, two Latinas and an African American.
2. Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Most presidential democracies have runoff elections in which the top two candidates face off if no candidate wins a majority. This allows voters more luxury in supporting any candidate they like in the first round with little fear that doing so will assist in electing their least favorite candidate.
Ireland has an even better system: instant runoff voting (IRV). IRV simulates a full runoff election in a single round of voting through the simple device of allowing citizens to vote both for their favorite candidate as well as for the candidate they would support if their favorite fails to advance to the runoff. The result is a winning candidate able to build a true majority coalition.
And when given the chance, American voters seem to like IRV; this month Berkeley voters supported IRV for city elections by a margin of 72 percent to 28 percent; a recent telephone survey in Illinois found that a majority of voters-- including strong Democrats by a margin of two-to-one--supported IRV for presidential elections; in 2002, it was adopted in San Francisco for city elections; 53 of 56 town meetings in Vermont supported resolutions calling for IRV for gubernatorial elections, and in 2001 the Utah Republican Party adopted instant runoff voting for elections that take place at its state conventions.
Given their understandably angry reaction to Nader's candidacy, Democrats should consider a reform that would accommodate such a candidacy in the future. Instant runoff voting could be adopted for presidential elections in any state by a mere statute. Public backers in recent years have included the leaders of the state senates of Maine and New Mexico, two states where Democrats control the state government. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson-- one of Nader's fiercest critics--should take the lead in supporting a reform that is a win-win solution to the "spoiler" controversy.
3. Fusion. One American answer to the question that in most other systems is answered more straightforwardly by proportional representation, namely, how can you give representative weight to minority electoral sentiment, is fusion voting.
Fusion lifts prohibitions against more than one party nominating a candidate. That simple change permits people to vote their values without wasting their votes or supporting "spoilers." The positive experience of the Working Families Party in New York in recent years shows that you can build a viable minority party this way, even in the otherwise inhospitable electoral environment of the US.
Fusion also has the weight of long American experience behind it. Before the early 20th century, it was a frequent tool of emerging parties before major parties started banning it, and it has been particularly prominent in New York's electoral history. Fusion also has helped progressives focus on the challenge of building majorities in a winner-take-all system.
4.Democracy Toolkit: Then there are a slew of reforms that would increase voter engagement in the system, improve responsiveness of the major parties to the full electorate, and offer good complements to full representation, instant runoff voting and fusion.
*Public funding of elections, either through general revenues, individual tax credits or special scrip. Big money politics give disproportionate influence to the wealthy, and blocks the candidacies of those without access to money.
* Election day registration. A third of American adults are not registered and, even if caught up in the excitement of an election in its final days, are denied a chance to vote. Reforms in voter registration are all the more possible in the wake of technological innovation and recent movement to statewide voter registration databases.
*Election day as a holiday. The highest voter participation in the United States is in Puerto Rico, which makes election day a holiday (as incidentally, does The Nation's collective bargaining agreement). In addition to giving frenzied working people time to get to the polling booth, this contributes to a civic awareness of the importance of elections.
*Consolidation of election calendars. Because the United States spreads voting throughout the year, the impact of one's vote in any one election is weakened, and important primary and local elections often draw single-digit turnout as a consequence.
*Tying FCC licensing to more public affairs programming. A real public channel or two would dramatically increase electoral awareness.
* A Constitutional amendment enshrining the right to vote, as Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. has publicly proposed. The lack of a right to vote in the Constitution allows states to disenfranchise more than four million citizens convicted of felonies and to fail to establish and maintain voting systems that ensure everyone who wants to vote will be able to cast a vote that counts.
Admittedly, these are just a beginning. It's worth remembering that in recent years two out of five state legislative races haven't even been contested, and that the number of marginal congressional seats is at an all-time low. The Electoral College results in most voter mobilization being focused on the fifteen or so battleground states, not the the nation as a whole.
As so many citizens understand, America needs a democracy reconstruction project. I just wish Nader would use his pulpit and street cred as a legendary public interest advocate to fight for these measures rather than launching a candidacy that might help reelect the most reactionary government in our lifetime.
As President George W. Bush prepares to launch his first broadcast ads of the political season next week, it is clear that his well-groomed and well-rewarded donor network is doing their job. Relying on a pyramid scheme of Pioneers (those who raise $100,000 for the campaign) and Rangers (those who raise $200,000), Bush has amassed an astounding $143 million in less than a year, finance reports out last week revealed.
But showing appreciation for all the favors and rewards from the Bush Administration by raising a mere 200 grand is chickenfeed for some of these wealthy captains of industry. Rumors in January first reported by the Washington Post hinted at another category of donors--those who are able to haul in $500,000. And as I wrote on January 25 , ("Oligarchs for Bush"), Public Campaign Action Fund started a contest (http://www.pcactionfund.org/contest) to name this new category of bundlers for Bush. As a judge for the contest, I helped narrow the 1,191 entries down to five finalists (Cash Cowboys, Robber Barons, Weapons of Mass Corruption, Profiteers and The Funding Fathers) and now it's up to the public to pick their favorite.
The voting is open now, and will remain open until February 29, though if there is a lot of interest, the voting may remain open a little longer.
It's only fitting that as we are inundated with Bush's TV ads, we are also reminded who paid for them.
You never know who you'll meet in the "green room."
Recently,while waiting to be grilled by Chris Matthews on MSNBC I ran into the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who had just come from Harvard University where he delivered a speech marking the Rainbow Coalition's 20th anniversary. The Reverend was about to join Pat Buchanan and Jerry Brown on a "Hardball" segment that should have been billed "The Contenders." (Jackson ran for President in '84 and '88; Brown in '76 and '92 and Buchanan in '92, '96 and 2000.)
I'm posting a transcript of their conversation--with Matthews's inevitable Saturday Night Live-styleinterventions--because it was one of the better TV moments I've seen in these last months. And the transpartisan bonding, particularly between Brown and Buchanan, is worth noting.