Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
The conventional wisdom is that magazines are in decline. Newsweek’s print downfall was mourned as a death in the family (last week’s New Yorker described a gathering of ex-editors as an “Irish Wake”). Facing dwindling circulation, U.S. News and World Report has become more focused on its staple college and hospital rankings rather than on long-form journalism. Rolling Stone and Martha Stewart’s Omnimedia have seen layoffs, while old favorites like Gourmet and Life are long gone.
Last spring, the entrepreneurial and well-funded GOOD laid off virtually all of its editorial and writing staff. When The American Prospect, a haven for intelligent liberalism, was hit by a nearly fatal half-a-million-dollar deficit, The Nation spoke out urging people to help the magazine. The Prospect survived—barely—but journalism nearly lost an informed voice and essential training ground for many of America’s finest progressive journalists.
Given all the depressing news we should raise a glass to the redesign (in print) and relaunch (online) of The New Republic, The Nation’s sister fellow-liberal magazine of opinion for nearly 100 years. In rebooting the magazine, publisher Chris Hughes—co-founder of Facebook and steeped in online organizing—did something surprising: he doubled down on long-form, investigative journalism and political opinion. Hughes bought The New Republic, and could have done as he pleased: stripped it bare, sold it for parts or gone online only. But he invested instead in fact-checking, reporting and—as The New York Times reported—went to great pains to “include The New Republic’s rich history in a magazine designed for the modern media age.”
The Nation has invested in a similar type of journalism—intelligent, cutting-edge, bold writing and reporting that is embedded in our historical DNA—and we’ve embraced the digital age with passion and integrity.
In 2014, The New Republic will turn 100. A year later The Nation will turn 150. In 1948 we almost merged. Like many grand bargains between liberals, this one fell apart. (You’ll find the full story of the merger-that-almost-was in former editor Victor Navasky’s rollicking memoir, A Matter of Opinion.)
We’ve survived, I think, for 150 years by staying truly independent, and by filling our pages with unfiltered takes on politics and culture. As Navasky has noted, journals of opinion like The Nation continue to matter because they are a critical counterforce against the tabloidization, consolidation, dumbing-down and fact-challenged “debate” that dominates our political culture. Intelligent readers increasingly are looking to these magazines to set the standard for serious public discussion and debate. Sticking to that standard has won us dozens of honors, from National Magazine Awards to the George Polk, James Aronson and Sidney Hillman Awards for investigative reporting and social justice journalism. And The Nation has launched the careers of myriad young writers, from Hunter S. Thompson in the early 1960s to Jeremy Scahill today, and driven bold ideas into the national conversation.
Like The New Republic, we believe in covering culture, both high and low—one of our most-read stories this week is a smart piece by a rising cultural critic on what we can learn from the TV shows Girls and Shameless about being broke, down and out. And we feature one of America’s finest sports writers in Dave Zirin and boast the inimitable JoAnn Wypijewski as our sex columnist. It’s a mix that’s good for journalism and good for the public debate. But while The New Republic appears intent on competing with New York magazine, investing in glossy paper and highly designed pages and ramping up its lifestyle coverage, we’re keeping our gritty newsprint—and more radical-edged politics.
The Nation and The New Republic’s political paths have diverged over the years, at times dramatically. The Nation has been a bigger tent when it comes to political views, welcoming radicals, liberals, progressives, anarchists and even a few big-hearted conservatives to our pages over the years. The New Republic has been more centrist, with a neoconservative streak and dark period post-9/11, which it revisited (almost) in a special issue apologizing for the magazine’s editorial march to war in Iraq.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, magazines are surviving—even thriving. The Nation is now available weekly on more than a dozen digital platforms with more than 1.1 million readers. We have more print subscribers today than we did a decade ago, because we firmly believe that the printed word is an essential part of the mix. At Mother Jones, print subscriptions jumped dramatically after they broke the “47 percent” story in September. AtGarden and Gun, one of publishing’s unlikeliest success stories, subscriptions continue to rise on the back of top-flight writing. And as the Times reported, The New Republic, whose circulation dipped to dangerous lows last spring, is slowly making its way back in print.
I was intrigued earlier this month to read that The American Prospect, still struggling to make ends meet, had decided to sublet part of its office to The American Conservative, founded in 2002 by Pat Buchanan. “We can only benefit from sharing ideas,” Maisie Allison, web editor at the Conservative, told the Times.
Cynics might scoff at strange print bedfellows huddling together for warmth in an economic chill. But I see something different in their collaboration. A mutual and shared commitment to the vital role of the independent journal of opinion in our American democracy.
Besides just progressive magazines, progressive politics in general are resurgent, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes. Will we finally get serious about fixing economic inequality in this country?
Barack Obama campaigns in 2012. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak.)
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 growing progressive coalition that helped elect President Obama has emerged at the end of a failed and exhausted conservative era. The media now chronicle the flailings of Republican leaders slowly awakening to the weaknesses of a stale, pale and predominantly male party in today’s America.
But the central challenge to this progressive coalition is not dispatching the old but rather defining what comes next. Will it be able to address the central challenge facing America at this time and reclaim the American Dream from an extreme and corrosive economic inequality?
In his inaugural address, President Obama spoke powerfully to this rising American electorate—single women, minorities, the young—by summarizing the progressive contribution to building a more perfect union from “Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall.” He reminded all that greater social equality in America has been driven by independent movements, willing to confront the lies and limits of the conventional consensus.
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.
SENECA FALLS TO SELMA TO STONEWALL. “We the people declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” The president’s much-quoted line from his inaugural speech powerfully charts “an arc of history that bends toward justice,” as John Nichols writes this week. Linking these historic moments to today’s struggle for pay equity for women and immigrants’ rights was a meaningful nod to the electorate that gave him victory on November 6. And while symbolic recognition is not a substitute for policy, it still matters, argues Melissa Harris-Perry in her column this week. “Obama positioned Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall as the fulfillment of a nascent promise in Jefferson’s declaration, and thereby recognizes the deeply American narrative embedded in these moments,” writes Harris-Perry.
YES, HE CAN. After a disappointing filibuster reform deal this week in Congress, Obama’s use of executive power has become even more significant going forward. In this week’s issue, we zero in on twenty actions the president should take to push for progressive change. From addressing the economy by creating a National Development Bank to challenging the school-to-prison pipeline—to auditing the Pentagon—the president can, and must, act in his second term to make our country better. “Pressing for reforms through executive action—using both “street heat” and “suite heat”—should be a serious focus of our work in the coming months,” we write. Read more about these twenty actions focusing on the environment, foreign policy, criminal justice, immigration, civil liberties and more. Also, we asked our readers to weigh in—find out what our thoughtful readers would like to see from the president during his second term.
BIG MONEY & POLITICS. As Lee Fang reports, Obama’s first term was shaped by clashes with big-business interests. Take the health reform fight, for example—opponents of reform spent over $323 million in negative advertising and offered $450,000 starting salaries to Democratic Senate staffers willing to join up with lobbying firms. And in the case of some senators, like Nebraska’s Ben Nelson—who eventually became a health industry lobbyist—their efforts paid off. But looking forward, President Obama plans to use his legions of volunteers to push back against special interests. “For Obama’s second term, even with a weaker position given the composition of Congress, he may succeed by returning to his community organizing roots—a recognition that social movements are an essential component in advancing progressive reforms over corporate or partisan opposition.” Find out more from Fang.
CLIMATE CHANGE. “Addressing climate change was—quite remarkably—the most prominent policy vow President Obama made yesterday on the steps of the US Capitol,” wrote George Zornick on Tuesday. But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney gave no comfort to environmentalists when talking about the Keystone XL pipeline this week. Read more from Zornick on the troubling signals from the White House—and how approving the pipeline “would cripple any notion that the White House is actually serious about addressing climate change.” Zornick also writes about a new congressional task force on climate change, which will work to push the Obama administration to take action as well as mobilize public support to enact real change. Find out more on how the task force aims to “break through barricades of denial.”
ELECTION REFORM. We‘ve long been familiar with the GOP’s gerrymandering strategy—as John Nichols reports, even though Democrats won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in House races, the GOP still retains control of the chamber. Now Republicans in statehouses want to divvy up Electoral College votes based on district pluralities in key battleground states like Virginia—which would further rig the system to yield better results for the GOP. After an election with rampant efforts to suppress the votes of people of color, immigrants, women, college students, and the elderly, it’s crucial for the Obama administration and Congress to act and fix our elections. Find out more from Ari Berman on the Voter Empowerment Act and other proposals in Congress—and how they would boost voter participation. Also, take a look at my piece this week on campaign finance reform in New York—the votes are there to clean up our elections, but will Governor Cuomo push to pass legislation? Read that piece here.
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York (AP Photo/Mike Groll).
One of the last results from Election Day 2012 is also one of the sweetest. Running in a district gerrymandered by Republicans, grassroots candidate Cecilia Tkaczyk scored a stunning upset over millionaire Assemblyman George Amedore in a New York State Senate race. Even better, Tkaczyk—and the grassroots army that powered her to victory—did it by making campaign finance reform the signature issue in the race. Tkaczyk’s victory, achieved by a nineteen-vote margin following a recount that ended Friday, is a shot in the arm for progressives. It’s also a test for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who’s counting on progressive votes in 2016.
Tkaczyk faced daunting odds. A poll one month out showed her down by twelve points. She was running with a cash disadvantage, in a GOP-gerrymandered district, with little name recognition and a hard-to-pronounce name. With little left to lose, Tkaczk and the key groups supporting her made the race a referendum on democracy itself. In the mail and at the doors, they let the voters know that a vote for Tkaczk was a vote for publicly financed elections. Her GOP opponent agreed: Amedore began warning of a “Cece tax” that would finance such a system. According to conventional wisdom, that should have been the death of Tkaczyk’s already-underdog campaign. Conventional wisdom was wrong.
As Tkaczyk said in a December op-ed, while a furious recount battle was still underway: “Passing Fair Elections reforms, including the public financing of campaigns, was one of my campaign’s core issues…If I do get sworn in, I’ll know my support for public financing is a central reason I won the job.” A month later, the job is hers.
Tkaczyk’s victory is a testament to the power of grassroots and netroots organizing. It took savvy, tireless work by Working Families Party, Citizen Action of New York, Progressive Congressional Campaign Committee, MoveOn and the new “anti-PAC PAC” Friends of Democracy to make it happen. And it took a righteous cause: getting money out of our elections. In one statewide survey, 79 percent of New Yorkers supported comprehensive campaign finance reform; just 8 percent were against it.
Voters in Tkaczyk’s district heeded that call. But will their governor?
Over the past few months, Andrew Cuomo had the opportunity to help secure Democratic control of the state senate. But he passed, neither endorsing Democrats against Tea Partying opponents, nor lifting a finger when senators who were elected as Democrats moved to erect an alternative majority coalition with the Republicans (a result that’s neither Democratic nor small-"d" democratic).
Now Cuomo faces a new test. The governor has said he supports campaign finance reform. With Tkaczyk’s victory, the votes are there to pass it. But now that clean elections reform is in reach, will Cuomo defy his business-class supporters? After all, Cuomo’s recent high-profile liberal moves on guns and abortion, while welcome and worthy of celebration, don’t threaten the power of the business folks backing him. Campaign finance reform would. And it would pave the way for rent regulation, progressive taxation, living wage laws and other reforms that differ from the “socially progressive, economically conservative” agenda the governor has pushed to date.
As we saw with New York’s new gun laws, Andrew Cuomo knows how to get a bill passed when he really wants to. But tepid statements aside, it’s far from clear that Cuomo actually wants campaign finance reform, or other progressive economic measures to which he’s paid lip service.
If Cuomo joins arms with the Senate Democrats and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (long a champion of this reform) to muscle through clean elections in New York State, he’ll earn a fresh look from skeptical progressives.
Katrina vanden Heuvel last wrote about the NRA’s Fast and Furious scandal and the flow of guns over the border to Mexico.
GUNS, RACE & POLITICS. President Obama announced some of the most sweeping gun control proposals in over two decades this week—George Zornick breaks down the president’s proposals, and what might happen next. But are our media and politics fostering an honest debate on what comprehensive reform will do? As Bryce Covert writes, as we push for gun control legislation, we must remember how reforms might impact those most affected by gun violence—and how the criminalization of certain guns could disproportionately affect people of color. “What may look like a colorblind law on the books can be interpreted and implemented in incredibly racist ways,” writes Covert. And as Mychal Denzel Smith argues, the conversation about guns has focused too much on keeping the weapons out of the hands of certain people—and not on real ways to reduce gun violence. But who are the “bad guys”? Read Smith’s piece, “It’s Not the Bad Guys—It’s the Guns,” here.
REMEMBERING AARON SWARTZ. We were saddened at the loss of Aaron Swartz last weekend, a tireless activist committed to making information free and accessible to all. “I remember always thinking that he always seemed too sensitive for this world we happen to live in, and I remember him working so mightily, so heroically, to try to bend the world into a place more hospitable to people like him, which also means hospitable to people like us,” writes The Nation’s Rick Perlstein. The New York Times cited Perlstein’s moving tribute in an article on Swartz’s extraordinary work as a data crusader. And on the prosecution of Swartz, Michelle Dean writes how the case was about more than hacking; rather, “it reflected a completely bizarre set of priorities in law enforcement, one which fetishizes the technicalities of the issues over the real justice of them.” Read more from Dean about the larger attack on those who want to “challenge the public to think more deeply and carefully about what justice demands.”
A NEW COLD WAR. “With the full support of a feckless policy elite and an uncritical media establishment, Washington is slipping, if not plunging, into a new cold war with Moscow,” writes Stephen F. Cohen in this week’s issue. “Relations, already deeply chilled by fundamental disputes over missile defense, the Middle East and Russia’s internal politics, have now been further poisoned by two conflicts reminiscent of tit-for-tat policy-making during the previous Cold War.” Russia’s adoption ban, or “Dima’s Law” comes on the tails of the US’s Magnitsky Act, which would essentially put Russian officials on a blacklist without due process. Find out more from Cohen on how this one-dimensional approach from President Obama, Congress and the media could prove disastrous for US-Russian relations.
ROE AT 40. Forty years after Roe v. Wade, we’re still fighting for reproductive justice—in 2011 alone, states passed ninety-two restrictions on abortion rights. “The piecemeal strategy of the anti-choice movement has paid off, and the Republicans’ ascendance at the state level has been a disaster for choice,” we write in this week’s editorial. After taking some hits, though, the movement for abortion rights is pushing back. And, as columnist Katha Pollitt writes, while Americans might be wary of identifying as “pro-choice,” they still believe that abortion is a decision best left to a pregnant woman and her doctor. Is “pro-choice” passe? Read more from Pollitt here. Also, take a look at Peter Rothberg’s blog which highlights the many groups, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL, working to defend Roe forty years later. And visit our Take Action blog to learn about the Hyde Amendment and how it’s the main obstacle to abortion access for low-income women. Find out what you can do to repeal the Hyde Amendment.
ATF officials display seized weapons in Phoenix. Lax laws prevented the agency from effectively targeting the flow guns across the border. (AP Photo/Matt York.)
With days–perhaps hours–to go before President Obama announces recommendations from Vice President Biden’s gun violence task force, battles lines have already been drawn.
Most dramatically, with the heartrending burials of 20 innocent first-graders and six of their heroic educators as a backdrop, NRA top lobbyist Wayne LaPierre issued a belligerent and self-pitying demand for yet more weaponry, and the posting of armed guards at every school in America. But as the nation debates Obama’s proposals—and LaPierre’s—it will be important to reexamine the NRA’s greatest PR victory of the last few years: the greatly overworked, shamefully distorted Fast and Furious scandal.
As Fortune reporter Katherine Eban revealed in an outstanding investigation published last summer, much of what Republicans have claimed about the scandal—including the headline-grabbing assertion that the US government intentionally provided guns to Mexican drug cartels—is false. The real story is of an agency sabotaged by the same pro-gun mania which led to the Newtown tragedy.
The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) opened up the Fast and Furious case to monitor American teenagers, who had been tapped by Mexican drug cartels to help arm the war in Mexico by becoming straw purchasers or front buyers. Our laws permit a teenager with no prior criminal record to pay cash and buy an unlimited number of military assault rifles. Their favorites included AR-15 variants like the Bushmaster .223 rifle used by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Were Lanza in Arizona, he could have walked into nearly any federally licensed firearms dealer, plunked down $10,000 in cash, and left with 20 AK-47s in his hands—as do so many straw purchasers.
An e-mail from the head of the criminal division for the Arizona District US Attorney’s office makes clear that the Fast and Furious prosecutors believed that it was legal for a straw purchaser to buy the guns and then transfer them to others, so long as those people were not legally prohibited from possessing firearms. The Republicans have asserted the opposite—that if the straw purchasers certified in their paperwork that they were the true buyers of the gun, but then transferred it after the purchase, they were lying and should have been prosecuted. But the courts in Arizona have disagreed, and thus, so did the prosecutors. Agents protested these decisions repeatedly, but of course were required to abide by the prosecutors’ legal judgments. The result: a lot of guns wound up in Mexico, and two were found near the Arizona-Mexico border, where an elite US border patrol agent, Brian Terry, was gunned down.
In a sane country, the inquiry into Brian Terry’s death would have examined all the tools that the ATF agents lacked in trying to build a case against the straw purchasers in Fast and Furious. There is no firearms trafficking statute, which would have allowed the ATF to build a swifter case that targeted the straw purchasers and their recruiters as a group. There is no comprehensive database of firearms purchases, which would have given the agents a much-needed real-time look at their suspects’ activities. In fact, the laws are so lax that the buyers didn’t even need to resort to a favored avenue for shady purchases: our totally unregulated gun shows, which require no background checks at all. (A sane country also would not have left the ATF to languish without a permanent head for fully six years—an unacceptable situation that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has rightly called on the president to address with a recess appointment.)
The Republican-led House, acting in lockstep with the NRA, twisted the facts of the ill-fated gun trafficking investigation in Phoenix to complete almost every item on its political To Do list. It used the scandal to bludgeon and destabilize the ATF, the agency charged with enforcing the nation’s gun laws. It diverted attention from the ineffective gun laws that made the ATF’s job in Fast and Furious nearly impossible. And it emerged with a cherished talking point: that the gun laws on the books right now are more than adequate, and it’s only their enforcement that has flaws.
The effort by the NRA and its friends in Congress to stymie any discussion of our permissive guns laws during its Fast and Furious investigation was made plain by the lead sled dog, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), who at multiple hearings openly silenced Democratic members from even asking questions about the strength of the laws or potential legislative solutions.
If the NRA and Republican congressmen really cared about Brian Terry or his tragic death, they would have probed the actual causes underlying it, instead of proliferating a lot of phony conspiracy theories so wild, they almost left Stephen Colbert at a loss for words.
Since the shooting, other media outlets have now written about how the ATF is fundamentally hobbled in its mission. On December 26, the New York Times reported on the warnings of advocates and law enforcement officials that “the agency’s ability to thwart gun violence is hamstrung by legislative restrictions and by loopholes in federal gun laws...” Of course, hamstringing the ATF has always been a prime goal of the NRA's. What has always seemed breathtakingly hypocritical about Issa's pursuit of the ATF in Fast and Furious, is the pretense that the Bureau actually had some other way to stop all those guns, but failed to do it.
That's simply untrue. Nothing makes this clearer than two different reports from the Justice Department’s Inspector General. In November of 2010, the IG issued a report (see page 51) saying that the ATF failed in its efforts to stop gun traffickers because it has pursued the little straw purchasers, while ignoring the larger cartels recruiting them. So the ATF did a course correction and started targeting the big guys. This time around, Congress (and the DOJ IG) blasted ATF for not pursuing the little guys (the straw buyers) more aggressively.
With the restrictions and laws as they are today, there is actually no way for the ATF to succeed. Issa and the NRA love to pretend otherwise, so they can persist in the fiction that the laws are more than adquate. Sadly, the ATF, which is truly a broken agency, has been all too happy to play along. Most recently, ATF quietly withdrew its policy of targeting the cartels (which was a response to the first 2010 IG report). In a little-noticed memo issued late last year, ATF Assistant Director Ronald B. Turk informed agents that, “All policies and guidance set forth in that document are hereby rescinded.” That amounts to a quiet acknowledgement that there is no way, under current law, to stop the epidemic of gun trafficking which is at the root of the problem.
Simply put, Fast and Furious would never have happened if we banned the sale of military assault rifles and cop-killing handguns, the weapons of choice for the drug cartels. It would not have happened if we made it illegal to transfer firearms to third parties, plain and simple.
Early on in the investigation, the few reality-based ideas came from Representative Elijah Cummings, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s ranking Democrat. Cummings held a hearing on the state of the gun laws and issued a report with recommendations including the enactment of a federal firearms trafficking statute. But the 36-month Republican-led investigation into Fast and Furious yielded not a single suggestion for strengthening the laws or empowering the ATF. Instead, it was a blueprint for reducing what passes as gun enforcement to rubble. As we’re tragically reminded over and over, that comes at a tragic price.
Is the tide finally shifting on gun control? George Zornick argues that new proposals have moved the debate left.
OBAMA’S CABINET. President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense this week drew fire from his former Republicans in Congress. And as a conservative Republican, he’s certainly not an ideal candidate for progressives either, as Phyllis Bennis notes this week. But Obama’s pick signals his break with the Bush administration and could alter the trajectory of the president’s military policy. Could Hagel’s appointment actually help the anti-war left? Read more from Bennis here. Perhaps the more controversial cabinet pick should be Obama’s choice for Treasury Secretary—after choosing Jack Lew this week, progressives have reason for concern. As John Nichols writes, Lew is “the steady defender of deregulation” and “hails from the same inner circle as Geithner and Lawrence Summers.” Read more from Nichols on twelve questions Senate Democrats should ask Jack Lew.
OWNING THE FUTURE. Guest-edited by Antonino D’Ambrosio, and inspired by his film Let Fury Have the Hour, this week’s issue of The Nationincludes a forum that explores how creative responses can transform our world—and be the antidote to the consumerism and cynicism that define our culture. “Ultimately, creative response insists that each of us maintain the courage of our convictions to meet the extraordinary challenges that confront our world,” he writes. “It’s this spirit that answers the question, ‘Who owns the future?’” From musicians like Billy Bragg and DJ Spooky to writers and poets like Hari Kunzru and Staceyann Chin, read more from this remarkable group.
AVOIDING A CLIMATE-CHANGE APOCALYPSE. According to scientists, 2012 was the hottest year on record and the second-worst year ever on the government’s Climate Extremes Index. In my online column for The Washington Post this week, I highlight the catastrophic effects of climate change—with extreme weather like droughts, storms, and heat waves, it’s time to act. The Nation’s environment correspondent, Mark Hertsgaard, calls on the Obama administration to open a national debate on climate change, as he promised after his reelection—and to veto the Keystone XL pipeline. Find out more about the kind of executive actions the Obama administration could take, especially if the climate-change deniers in Congress continue to thwart efforts to pass meaningful legislation. Change might be slow, as Bill McKibben writes this week, but there is also hope in grassroots movements. Read more from McKibben here, and find out what you can do to help.
WELCOME: RICK PERLSTEIN, AURA BOGADO, MICHELLE DEAN. The Nation is pleased to welcome three new bloggers. Award-winning author and former columnist for The New Republic and Rolling Stone, Rick Perlstein will provide analysis on current events and political developments, engaging with the debates of the day through the lens of history. “I’m especially interested in educating folks on the left about the organic continuities in right-wing thought and action,” says Perlstein. “Too often we act as if the forces we’re fighting came about only the day before yesterday.”
Joining Perlstein as new bloggers are Michelle Dean and Aura Bogado. Dean, who has written for The New Yorker’s Page Turner blog, Slate, Salon and other publications, will cover pop culture, arts and books, signaling The Nation’s growing commitment to its online pop culture coverage. Dean’s first post reminds us that the blockbuster movie musical Les Misérables owes its birth to a debate over public arts funding. Aura Bogado, a writer for Voting Rights Watch, our reporting partnership with Colorlines, will build on the project’s success by highlighting issues central to Native rights, immigration and the fight for racial justice. Bogado’s first post illuminates the Idle No More movement making major waves in Canada but facing an almost complete media blackout in the US.
As news of yet another school shooting breaks, this time in California, the White House and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are already moving to crack down on gun violence. Speaking on MSNBC's The Ed Show, Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel said if congress won't take action, Barack Obama should enact the Joe Biden's anti-gun-violence program through executive order. With NRA approval ratings sinking, now is the time to start improving gun control.
Nation blogger Rick Perlstein recently finished a two-part post on how the NRA went from supporting to opposing gun control, with original research on Ronald Reagan's role in the transformation.
In the Citizens United era, with billionaires and big business out to buy our elections wholesale, defending our democracy will take every weapon in our arsenal. Fortunately, a local elected official has just come up with a new one.
Last week, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli brought suit in Delaware’s Chancery Court to force the tech company Qualcomm to provide information about its political donations. Qualcomm, like about half of all US corporations, is based (on paper) in Delaware. DiNapoli is the sole trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, a public employee pension fund holding $378 million in Qualcomm stock. So he’s been seeking information from the companies the fund invests in about their political spending. Over the past two years, the fund has pushed twenty-seven pro-disclosure shareholder resolutions, leading to settlements with ten companies. Qualcomm proved more stubborn.
“In the case of Qualcomm,” says DiNapoli, “we had a company that was particularly resistant to our entreaties for disclosure as a shareholder. They don’t score well relative to other companies with regard to this issue. So we thought about trying a new tactic, and that is using the privileges we have under Delaware law” to trigger “a mechanism that shareholders can use if they have concerns about how a company is spending their money.” He adds that while his lawsuit “may be a novel strategy, in the aftermath of Citizens United, there’s heightened concern about where this money is going.”
What DiNapoli is seeking is eminently reasonable for any shareholder to expect—especially one charged with safeguarding the retirement of over a million workers and retirees. “When you can’t get access to this information voluntarily,” says DiNapoli, “it certainly seems to me to be a logical extension of what is provided for under a ‘books and records action’ ” within Delaware law. Others agree: Former SEC Chair Harvey Pitt, who served under President George W. Bush, told The New York Times, “I don’t want to predict where the Delaware court will come out, but where you have a very large shareholder and something directly related to corporate governance, it seems to me a pretty compelling circumstance…”
The lawsuit against Qualcomm is also supported by the logic of the Citizens United decision itself. Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in that case, which opened the dark money floodgates, expressed confidence that corporations would disclose much of that spending. But as DiNapoli notes, “we’ve not seen that to be the case with many corporations.”
Any publicly traded company making political contributions, says DiNapoli, should be able to answer shareholders asking, “How is that enhancing the value of the money that we have invested with you?” But, “many corporations really aren’t prepared to adequately answer that question.” DiNapoli points out that recent research suggests that political spending is negatively correlated with business success, and cites the consumer and media backlash that Target faced after news broke that it had contributed to a PAC backing an anti-gay gubernatorial candidate. “A company that’s not willing to engage in disclosure,” says DiNapoli, “does raise a lot of flags in my mind.”
While progressive shareholder activism has been on the rise for years, DiNapoli says this shareholder lawsuit appears to be the first of its kind. If successful, it could inspire others to follow suit. Delaware (as Jonathan Chait noted in his classic indictment of the state) is no paragon of progressive corporate regulation. But its law offered it an opening, and DiNapoli has wisely taken it. I hope many others will, as well.
For America’s pro-democracy movement, the comptroller’s move comes at a moment of urgency and opportunity. Big money failed to decide the presidential election, but played a key role in maintaining the obstructionist GOP House Majority. Over 350 towns and cities have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Free Speech for People and Avaaz have launched a petition on the White House website calling for President Obama to “use the State of the Union to call for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics.” On January 19—pegged to Martin Luther King Day, Citizens United’s third birthday, and President Obama’s second inauguration—activists in sixty cities will hold a Money-Out/Voters-In Day, demanding a pro-democracy amendment, public funding for public elections, and expanded voter rights.
Disclosure alone won’t solve the problem. We need robust public financing of our elections. But disclosure campaigns help to mitigate the damage, and to fuel momentum for the broader reform we so desperately need.
What can Democrats do to fight climate change now rather than later? Katrina vanden Heuvel calls on Barack Obama to seize the moment after Superstorm Sandy.
A roller coaster from a Seaside Heights, New Jersey, amusement park that fell in the ocean during Hurricane Sandy. (AP Photo/Mike Groll.)
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.
As you may have noticed, the end of the year was all about the end of the world. Mayan doomsday prophesies. Rogue planets on a collision course with Earth. Fear-mongering about an artificial “fiscal cliff.” House Republicans doing, well, what they usually do.
Fortunately, for now, life as we know it continues. And scary as all of this sounds, the real horror show, the true existential threat, is yet another crisis of our own making: the catastrophic effects of climate change.
There’s no need to read Revelations or catch a Michael Bay-Jerry Bruckheimer matinee to understand what it will look like. Just Google image search “Hurricane Sandy and Staten Island,” and you’ll get the general idea.
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.