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Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

The ‘Next Citizens United’ May Fuel a Popular Uprising

Second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling

Demonstrators marking the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’sCitizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, January 20, 2012. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

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.

Pity poor Shaun McCutcheon.

McCutcheon is the Alabama businessman suing the Federal Election Commission for abridging his First Amendment right to free speech—that is, if we define free speech as McCutcheon’s right to donate upward of $123,200 in a single election cycle. He claims eliminating federal limits on an individual’s aggregate campaign contributions is “about practicing democracy and being free.” To underscore his love of freedom, McCutcheon wrote checks to 15 Republican candidates in the symbolic sum of $1,776.

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The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission any day now. Given the Roberts court’s track record, the biggest campaign-finance decision since Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is likely to blow another gigantic hole in the fabric of our democracy.

Such a ruling will fuel popular outrage and increase pressure for fundamental reforms such as disclosure and public financing. Already, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) have introduced a constitutional amendment allowing campaign spending limits. This would finally supercede the Supreme Court’s infamous 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which equated money with speechand effectively turned our elections into auctions.

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.

Rep. Keith Ellison—on His Faith, His Family & Our Future

Representative Keith Ellison

Representative Keith Ellison and other members of Congress rally outside the US Capitol against cuts to social insurance programs on October 3, 2013. (Photo by George Zornick)

“There must be something in the water in Minnesota,” writes Keith Ellison (D-MN) in his new memoir My Country, ’Tis of Thee, “because historically, despite its seemingly homogeneous population, the state has produced some of our more radical political thinkers, and its people have put their prejudices aside to vote for them.” Granted, Ellison was born and raised in Detroit, but the four-term congressman from Minnesota’s Fifth District is boldly following in the footsteps of Humphrey, McCarthy, Mondale and Wellstone.

“Paul Wellstone was my model”; he writes, “my exemplar of an effective politician.” Wellstone “answered to the people and did so with honesty and conviction, and people appreciated that.” Within the context of the do-nothing 113th Congress, Ellison’s reasonability seems downright revolutionary. “When you’re a leader,” Ellison writes, “you cannot ignore parts of your constituency, even if you know they’re not going to vote for you.” There are Republicans in Minneapolis, too—a lesson that countless members of congress have forgotten vis-a-vis their own hometown opposition.

Perhaps most representative of Ellison’s efforts (and of Congressional intractability) is the bipartisan Preserving Homeownership Act of 2012, which Ellison co-introduced with Representatives Gary Peters (D-MI) and John Campbell (R-CA). The bill, which includes a principal-reduction program and which the Republican majority has precluded from passing, is a “win-win proposition that resulted from a moderate Democrat, a progressive Democrat, and a Republican working together to help home owners. When members of Congress talk informally about the things happening in our individual districts, we find that we share many common issues.” Nevertheless, the bill remains a victim of “politics [trumping] common sense,” a non-starter (or half-starter) in a legislature focused on maintaining acrimony across the aisle.

Ellison is a believer in activism, and he believes that so-called “regular folks” can influence their legislators. With Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Ellison is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a position he ran for “to connect working Americans with members of Congress who want to partner with them.” Not only is Ellison eager to work with Republicans, he’s also intent on increasing citizen participation in government (If you stay disgruntled yet sit idle on the sidelines, he believes, then you’re just a complainer.) And participation is crucial. He sees himself (and Congress) as part of a vast ecosystem comprising activists, movements, politicians, and voters. “What’s the matter with Congress?” he asks. “Nothing that wide-awake and active Americans can’t fix.”

On foreign policy, Ellison decries unilateral action and condemns US behavior after 9/11. Iraq was a “colossal failure,” and in Afghanistan, “We allowed ourselves to lose track of the goal.” Ellison knows that our current strategy is failing, both militarily and culturally. He’s disappointed by the coldness of the reception he received on a 2011 trip to Pakistan, and he compares it sadly to the warm welcome he experienced there just two years earlier. Pakistanis rightly ask Ellison if he “thought that we should be able to come into their country and make war,” and he bitterly notes, “We’re supposed to be allies.”

Ellison sees American aid as one of the most powerful tactics we can use against terrorism, decrying the fact that our foreign-aid budget is one-twentieth that of the military’s. “Surely,” he asks, “we can find value in doing some preventive maintenance?”

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Ellison, of course, was the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, and he admits that his faith plays a role in his politics. Not surprisingly, his opponents (and some colleagues) have gone bananas over his religion. His GOP opponent in 2006 taunted Ellison as “Keith Muhammad, Keith X, Keith Hakim” (all at the same press conference); his campaign was compared to a “Japanese American being elected to the US Congress five years after Pearl Harbor”; and in 2012, a “Democrat–Tea Party candidate” ran an ad asking Minneapolis voters, “Do you really want someone representing you who swears his oath on a Quran, a book that undermines our Constitution and says you should be killed?”

But notably, he waits until Chapter 16 of ’Tis of Thee to really delve into religion and to address such nonsense, and he underlines the fact that he is a congressman who is Muslim, not a Muslim congressman. Indeed, the story of Ellison’s life and family (agnostic father, Roman Catholic mother, Christian preacher brother, etc.) reveals a polyglot definition of “American”—a Republican fascination/obsession—as well as the absurdity of even having such a definition in the first place. Addressing the “whole gaggle of operators who have made a lucrative cottage industry around stirring up fear and hatred toward Muslims, Ellison responds plainly: “It is un-American to single out or persecute any American because of his or her faith. I am a congressman who is Muslim. I am also black. I also happen to be from Detroit. I also happen to be a father of four.”

Is this the guy you want protecting your Constitution? I think so. Ellison is optimistic—”hopelessly” optimistic—about the future of America, and his own story is worth examining to see why. “Our democracy is not something to be taken for granted. You have to fight for it. You have to commit yourself to working for it—for the long haul.”

Read Next: John Nichols interviews Bernie Sanders.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Resisting The Beatles’ Invasion, ‘The PR Man’s Finest Hour’

The Imagine mosaic in the Strawberry Fields section of New York's Central Park

The Imagine mosaic in the Strawberry Fields section of New York's Central Park (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

If we are told to remember the Beatles’ arrival in the United States fifty years ago last month as an “invasion,” it is as one that was unopposed. The 73 million people who watched Paul McCartney count the band into “All My Loving” on February 9, 1964 shattered all records, representing nearly two-fifths of the US population at the time, despite the fact that only 17 percent of American homes even had televisions in them. We surrendered without resistance, it often seems—a view evident in one Amazon review of a collection of the late Bill Eppridge’s photographs from the Beatles’ first week in the US. “Those six days did change the world,” the commenter writes, “by simply unifying us all with faces of sheer happiness.”

But at least one person wasn’t smiling. In an essay published in the March 3, 1964 issue of The Nation, “No Soul in Beatlesville,” a young Simon & Schuster editor named Alan Rinzler objected to the furor over the Liverpool lads’ music and—correctly, if somewhat myopically—attributed Beatlemania to a massive, premeditated PR campaign. The quivering throngs of teen-aged girls, he believed, said much more about the susceptibility of Americans to fashionable trends than it did about the talent or novelty of the group itself.

Rinzler began his essay by favorably comparing the Beatles with the folk music that then dominated American airwaves—“the citybilly's academically perfect imitation of a sound created from an experience different from his own.” Of performers like the string-band revival New Lost City Ramblers, Rinzler wrote: “Their musical tradition goes back no farther than some very careful listening to old Library of Congress tapes and Folkways recordings.”

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The Beatles, he continued, were only marginally more authentic, more a throwback to the 1950s than a harbinger of any significant musical progress to come:

Another group which must have spent a great deal of time lately paying close attention to old records and making faces in the mirror are the Beatles, four young men from the mainstream of working-class Liverpool, with skin-tight, blue gray suits (velvet lapels), mops of long brown hair, and an electrical system guaranteed to numb the senses of even the most reluctant attendant. Their recent invasion of the United States was the PR man's finest hour (reportedly, thirteen publicity firms worked on the debut). For weeks the national press, radio and TV, and the slick magazines had instructed novitiates on what to expect and how to react. Beatle records blasted the air waves, promoted by disk jockeys eager to claim a "first discovery" (actually Beatle records were in this country ten months ago, but no one played them until the press agents got to work). Wigs, buttons, locks of hair, wallpaper, the hour of their arrival in New York, the exact location of their daily activities, all contributed to a triumphant exploitation of the affluent teen-ager. By the time the Beatles actually appeared on the stage at Carnegie Hall, there wasn't a person in the house who didn't know exactly what to do: flip, wig-out, flake, swan, fall, get zonked—or at least try.

The Beatles themselves were impressive in their detachment. They came to America "for the money." They attribute their success "to our press agent." They looked down at their screaming, undulating audience with what appeared to be considerable amusement, and no small understanding of what their slightest twitch or toss of head could produce. John Lennon, the leader of the group, seemed particularly contemptuous, mocking the audience several times during the evening, and openly ridiculing a young girl in the first row who tried to claw her way convulsively to the stage. Paul McCartney bobbed his head sweetly, his composure broken only when—horror of horrors—his guitar came unplugged. (There was a terrible moment of silence. One expected him to run down altogether, and dissolve into a pool of quivering static.) George Harrison tuned his guitar continually, and seemed preoccupied with someone or something at stage right. Ringo Starr, the drummer, seemed the only authentic wild man of the group, totally engrossed in his own private cacophony. For the rest, it was just another one-night stand.

Musically, the Beatles are an anachronism. They come pure and unadulterated from the early 1950s, the simple, halcyon days of rock 'n roll: Bill Haley and his Comets, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, the Eberle [sic] Brothers, the Ted Steele Bandstand. The Beatle sound is primitive rock 'n roll—straight four-four rhythm, undistinguishable melody, basic three-chord guitar progressions electrically amplified to a plaster-crumbling, glass-shattering pitch. It's loud, fast and furious, totally uninfluenced by some of the more sophisticated elements in American music that have brightened our pop scene in recent years. One can only assume that Ray Charles, gospel, rhythm and blues, country and western, and other purer folk sound has yet to cross the Atlantic. The English always have been a bit behind us—witness Oliver, a good old-fashioned American musical comedy, or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and other realistic films in the 1930s' style. Often they do improve upon our models; the Beatles, with their American accents, their savagely delivered musical cliches, their tight pants, hair cuts and wild gyrations, are more entertaining and intelligent than anything we produced ten years ago.

But the Beatles remain derivative, a deliberate imitation of an American genre. They are surely not singing in a musical tradition which evolved spontaneously from their own lives or from a "natural" habit of expression. This is probably why the reaction at Carnegie Hall was not a real response to a real stimulus. There weren't too many soul people there that night either on the stage or in the audience. The full house was made up largely of upper-middle-class young ladies, stylishly dressed, carefully made up, brought into town by private cars or suburban buses for their night to howl, to let go, scream, bump, twist and clutch themselves ecstatically out there in the floodlights for everyone to see; and with the full blessings of all Authority: indulgent parents, profiteering businessmen, gleeful national media, even the police. Later they can all go home and grow up like their mommies, but this was their chance to attempt a very safe and very private kind of rapture.

Most did what was expected of them and went home disappointed. Disappointed because nothing really passed from the stage to the audience that night, nor from one member of the audience to another. There was mayhem and clapping of hands, but no sense of a shared experience, none of the exultation felt at a spontaneous gathering of good folk musicians, or, more important, at a civil rights rally where freedom songs are sung. The spectacle of all those anguished young girls at Carnegie Hall, trying to follow "I Want To Hold Your Hand," seems awfully vapid compared to the young men and women who sing "I Woke Up This Mornin' With My Mind" (. . . Stayed on Freedom). The Beatles themselves are lively and not without charm. Perhaps their greatest virtue is their sense of humor and self-caricature. But Beatlemania as a phenomenon is manna for dull minds.

* * *

In an e-mail, Rinzler—who just a few years later “discovered” Toni Morrison and edited her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970)—writes that he has “spent the last fifty years apologizing for that snooty review.”

There's nothing in it about the Beatles that I agree with now, except my appreciation of their humor. The songs they performed that night at Carnegie Hall were all quite excellent but not only couldn't I actually hear them over the crowd of screaming weeping girls, but at 26, I was a soul-brother, rhythm and blues purist and didn't become a big fan until 1965 with the release of the superb album Rubber Soul, followed shortly by the equally terrific Revolver in 1966.

Meanwhile, my day job was at Simon and Schuster, where I was involved with the publication of Yoko Ono's avant-garde book Grapefruit and John Lennon's A Spaniard in the Works, though neither of them actually knew the other at that time.

Then, in 1968, my musical and publishing interests led me to become one of the pioneering staff members of Rolling Stone Magazine. I opened the first New York office then moved to San Francisco, where I was the Associate Publisher and Vice-President, as well as President of the books division Straight Arrow.

In that capacity I published several books on the Beatles and was a huge fan, a major promulgator of editorial work on their personal and professional lives. Later, when Lennon was assassinated, I was at Bantam Books, and was responsible for publishing the memorial book Strawberry Fields Forever.

Nevertheless that old Nation review comes back to bite me every once in a while. Even my own adult children can't believe I wrote it, but forgive me. Hope you will, too.

* * *

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.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The European Right—From (Jean-Marie) Le Pen to (Marine) Le Pen—and the Rise of the French Far Right

Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine Le Pen

Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine Le Pen (Reuters/Daniel Joubert)

Next week’s issue of The Nation will feature a report by Stanford Professor Cécile Alduy about the alarming rise of Marine Le Pen and the French far right. In recent years, Le Pen has skillfully, if disingenuously, attempted to scrub her National Front party of the most odious manifestations of the anti-Semitism, racism and outright xenophobia in which her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, specialized during his forty-year leadership of the party. At the same time, Alduy writes, the French mainstream—mistakenly scapegoating immigrants for the country’s economic malaise—has moved further to the right. Whatever the results of local elections slated for later this month and European Parliament elections in May, there is a serious risk that the toxic ideology of the National Front will become further enshrined and legitimized as a driving force in the public conversation—not only in France, but across Europe as a whole.

Although Le Pen “has managed to put a modern gloss on an old political brand,” Alduy writes, the underlying philosophy of the National Front remains almost exactly the same as it was under Jean-Marie Le Pen. It is perhaps useful, then, to re-examine the behavior of the wolf before it donned sheep’s clothing—and for such a mission there is no better guide than Daniel Singer, The Nation’s longtime European correspondent before his death in 2000. His numerous dispatches on Le Pen père—“the man whose name is synonymous with the recent revival of overt racism in French politics and society,” Singer wrote in 1985—show how mutable and dangerous remains the threat emanating from what Singer, in a recurring assortment of related metaphors, called France’s plague, poison and disease.

In “The Resistible Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen” (September 7, 1985), Singer wrote of Le Pen:

Smiling, smartly dressed, he now seems—particularly on television, where he is on his best behavior—a frank and reasonable fellow saying aloud “what everybody really believes,” telling people “what they already know,” a man who merely echoes the basic precept of that great American Ronald Reagan: namely, that communism is the root of all evil. A red-faced, rather fat man who warns the “silent majority” against muggers, drug addicts, gays and crypto-pinkos, Le Pen might be described as a sort of French Spiro Agnew preaching law and order, except that he is not of Greek or any other foreign extraction. That is an important difference, because the man and the movement he leads, the National Front, trumpet the slogan “Frenchmen First” and spread the fairy tale that everything would be fine in the streets and hospitals, in the schools and even the factories were it not for the foreign hordes invading France, particularly those crossing the Mediterranean. France would be just marvelous without Marxists, Arabs and other aliens.…

The entry of avowed racists into the French Parliament is not in itself the worst prospect. As the old saying goes, you don’t bring the temperature down by breaking the thermometer…. More worrisome is the underlying ideological shift to the right, the radical metamorphosis of the substance and form of political debate, of which this plague is only a symptom.

Three years later, after the National Front had secured a new level of legitimacy when Le Pen won more than 14 percent of the vote in the 1988 presidential election, Singer wrote “In the Heart of Le Pen Country,” about a visit to Marseille:

Serious trouble does not begin when the men with jackboots or with cloven hoofs opt for fascism. It begins when the tinker and tailor, your neighbor and your cousin, are driven sufficiently mad by circumstances to vote for an admirer of Pinochet, a preacher of apartheid, a man for whom the gas chambers are a mere “detail.” As I looked down from the steps of the station, on departing this outwardly still-warm and attractive town, I could not help feeling that moral pollution is not so easily perceived. All the more reason to probe below the surface, to sound the alarm and, above all, to seek a cure—unless we want to wake up one day, too late, in a fully contaminated city or country.

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* * *

Singer continued to track Le Pen’s rise throughout the 1990s. His dispatches from the time show an increasing concern about Le Pen’s staying power, and even foreshadows the more recent attempts by his youngest daughter, Marine Le Pen, to conceal the party’s underlying fascism by projecting a more smiling, human face:

The Ghosts of Nationalism” (March 23, 1992):

Although unemployment in Western Europe is now roughly three times higher than it was twenty years ago, it has not reached the proportions of the prewar Depression, nor is the fate of its victims comparable. Although discontent is high, workers are not flocking en masse to Le Pen and his equivalents. The danger for Western Europe is not an immediate takeover by various National Fronts. The threat lies in the gradual extension of the disease: the spread of racism and the weakening of class solidarity, sapping society’s capacity for resistance should a really catastrophic slump bring back another bout of the deadly epidemic.

Hate in a Warm Climate” (April 20, 1992):

Le Pen has been told that to win votes he must keep his tongue in check, so he’s on his best behavior. He makes no openly racist or anti-Semitic remarks. Yet, listening carefully, you can still judge the man. His reference to Jean-Claude Gaudin as “the bearded woman”—a not so gentle hint about the incumbent’s alleged homosexuality—gives an idea of his moral tone. The contempt he puts into the words “of every race and religion,” describing demonstrators he saw in London, is also revealing. So is his scorn for those who stir up unpleasant memories of World War II: “They only want to talk about Pétain and Touvier” (a wartime torturer, hidden for years by the clergy and only recently arrested). “Whatever the subject, it reminds them of Hitler and Vichy.”

Liberté, Egalité, Racisme” (October 21, 1996):

In its new posture the National Front is increasingly reminiscent of the prewar fascist movements. Equally worrying is the fact that the phenomenon is not simply French. From Antwerp to Vienna, passing through northern and southern Italy, in the absence of rational prospects, all sorts of forces of unreason are gaining ground. Naturally, the situation should not be overdramatized. The economic crisis is not yet deep enough for a Le Pen to be voted into power in any Western European country. But the poison is spreading. It will not be halted by pandering to prejudices, making compromises, sticking to an increasingly conservative consensus. It won’t be stopped by decree, either. The counteroffensive will require relentless daily battles on the political, social and cultural fronts. If the respectable right is more to blame as the carrier of the disease, the main responsibility, nevertheless, belongs to the left: The rise of Le Pen will not be really resisted until the people, offered the prospect of a radically different society, start struggling for genuine solutions instead of seeking scapegoats. This French lesson, now read throughout Europe, does not lose its validity on crossing the ocean.

Supping with the French Devil” (April 20, 1998):

Much having been written here about the resistible rise of Le Pen, we can sum up the spread of the disease in shorthand. When François Mitterrand was elected president in 1981 the front was insignificant. Deprived of office, the right invented the myth that growing unemployment was due to immigrant labor, forgetting that however low it would stoop, Le Pen could get lower still. Thus he acquired his stock in trade, imposing a phony debate on the nation. But he was able to consolidate his position only because the left failed to offer a radical alternative. With France experiencing a vague consensus on economic policy combined with rising social misery, Le Pen could appear to be the only outsider, gaining support notably among workers and the unemployed. His queer mixture of Reaganomics at home and opposition to globalization is incoherent, so whenever the social movement is active (as in the 1995 winter of discontent) the front is cast aside. But it recovers, feeding on the economic failure of the other protagonists.

Thus the fate of the National Front is really in the hands of the left. If it listens to the international financial establishment, opting for a deflationary policy and the dismantling of the welfare state, it will encourage the spread of the disease, which no changing of the electoral thermometer will cure. Only if it tackles unemployment head-on, radically reshaping French society, will the left be able to contain a cancerous growth that is already serious, although not yet fatal. The responsibility is historical because…the corpses of the past are still unburied. Pace Hegel and Marx, history may repeat itself not as farce but as tragicomedy.

* * *

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.

Why This Woman Should Be Ohio’s Next Secretary of State

Democratic State Senator Nina Turner

Democratic State Senator Nina Turner (AP/Tony Dejak)

On Tuesday, Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State John Husted moved to restrict early-voting hours in the Buckeye State, eliminating early voting on Sundays and weekday nights. The goal, according to Husted, is “to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat and to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity in the voting process no matter which method they choose.”

Never mind that Ohio voters already had opportunities to vote easily, and that the 270 potential voter-fraud cases in the 2012 election that Husted passed on to prosecutors represented “less than five one-thousandths of 1 percent of the 5.6 million ballots cast in Ohio in the 2012 election,” according to the Northeast Ohio Media Group and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. That’s right—less than 0.005 percent.

Husted’s decision puts the kibosh on “Souls to the Polls,” a program that for decades has brought African-American voters directly from church to early-polling sites. It’s easy to see the implications of Husted’s decree: Zachary Roth of MSNBC writes, “There’s little doubt that cuts to early voting target blacks disproportionately. In 2008, black voters were 56 percent of all weekend voters in Cuyahoga County, Ohio’s largest, even though they made up just 28 percent of the county’s population.”

Meanwhile, on the more, er, democratic (you can choose whether you think “democratic” ought to be capitalized) end of Ohio’s political spectrum, State Senator Nina Turner, a Democratic candidate for Husted’s job, hosted an eminently reasonable Twitter chat about voting rights and about prospects for getting more diverse candidates elected to political office. (For a transcript, search #AskNinaTurner on Twitter.) Turner has been endorsed by Emily’s List, which co-hosted the chat.

Turner takes issue with Husted’s claim that the restricted hours will bring an equal opportunity to cast a ballot for voters in all eighty-eight counties in Ohio. “I truly believe that fairness and equality does not mean uniformity, it means understanding the diversity of the electorate,” she said, noting that the population of Ohio’s largest county (Cuyahoga) is ninety-five times greater than that of the state’s smallest (Vinton). The same rules will have different effects in different communities, and a one-size-fits-all policy—homogenization rather than accommodation—doesn’t make sense when we’re trying to diversify both the electorate and the government it elects.

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Turner is a wonderful exemplar of the diversity that American citizens ought to be voting into state (and national) offices. “We have to start by electing more women who are leading intersectional lives so they bring that voice to the table in office,” she said today. “But just having those voices in the room isn’t enough.… we must elect voices who will speak up and give perspective. What good is being in the room if you do nothing with the opportunity to make real lasting change[?].… We must also work to mentor, uplift & support their (women of color) talents. So many dynamic women of color just need a nudge of support.”

And voter-ID laws and restrictions on early-voting could have a chilling effect on those voices. “Any decision [to] take away Sunday voting disproportionately harms certain demographics of voters, especially elderly & minorities,” Turner said. She points out that the electorate comprises 53 percent women and 47 percent men, so voting restrictions will, in fact, have a larger impact on women than on men—not a happy development when getting more women into government needs to be a priority. What’s more, Turner says, “[A]bout 90 percent of women change their names when married, & many change their names back if they get divorced,” making voter-ID issues much thornier for women than they are for men.

You can support Emily’s List here, and you can follow and support Senator Turner’s campaign here.

 

Read Next: Bhaskar Sunkara on Chokwe Lumumba.

Want a Feisty Way to Fight Foreclosures?

A home under threat of foreclosure

A home under threat of foreclosure (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The difference between a sweet victory and a dubious one is often a matter of perspective. Take the housing market which, we’re told, is recovering, albeit slowly and in fits and starts. This represents a trend, an upward-heading line on a chart, and a victory of sorts for the economy. But is it really a victory for the people?

The “housing market” that’s represented by that upward-heading line still comprises millions of underwater mortgage-holders (between 6 and 16 million, depending on who you ask), many of whom are now locked into a David-versus-Goliath battle against creditors that are trying to foreclose and evict them. On this level—where “housing” becomes “houses,” where rates of foreclosure become, for victimized families, “foreclosures”—an overall victory for the market doesn’t mean a whole lot. A trend, that is, has trouble enumerating the individual data points and stories that make it up. To make this dubious victory for the housing market a sweet victory for homeowners, the Home Defenders League, using an innovative concept called Local Principal Reduction, is fighting to write happy endings to some of those stories.

Local Principal Reduction provides a local solution for underwater homeowners facing foreclosure. The CARES program (Community Action to Restore Equity and Stability), developed by Professor Bob Hockett at Cornell Law School, empowers a municipality to work with private investors to acquire the worst private-label securities (PLS) mortgages in town. These are the notorious loans (often predatory) that have been sliced and diced and securitized into investment vehicles by Wall Street, and they are not backed by the federal government via Fannie, Freddie, or Ginnie Mae. Private-label securities are owned by investment trusts, not banks, and as such are not eligible for federal assistance programs. And because the original mortgages have been cut into so many pieces, it’s difficult—and sometimes impossible—to determine who has the authority to refinance them. In other words, underwater homeowners have no one to ask for a life preserver.

But under CARES, a city acquires these underwater mortgages, with the help of San Francisco–based Mortgage Resolution Partners, a law firm with the financial and legal expertise necessary to advise the municipalities and arrange for the private capital that’s necessary to buy the loans. After acquiring the loans, the city then works to refinance these mortgages at current market value, thereby offering a financial life raft—and four walls and a roof—to homeowners facing foreclosure.

But here’s the best part: If creditors refuse to sell, then the city can use the power of eminent domain to seize the properties and refinance them anyway. This saves neighborhoods and prevents the blight and decreasing property values that naturally accompany abandoned homes and empty neighborhoods.

The city of Richmond, California, is at the forefront of the LPR campaign. Bill Falik, an adjunct professor at Berkeley Law, explains: “Richmond has tremendous legal authority to condemn underwater mortgages.… It doesn’t matter if this is a highway project. Foreclosures and underwater properties reduce property taxes and reduce neighboring homes’ value. That’s called blight, and eminent domain is the authority for cities like Richmond to correct blight.” It’s a local solution to a national problem, a sweet victory bearing real results for real people, and more than an abstract line on a graph or a hollow-sounding discussion of “recovery.”

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Predictably, the plan has its opponents—namely, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), the industry trade group that represents the thirty or so trusts that own some 5 million PLS mortgages. SIFMA is dead-set against CARES, and it has spent millions to stop it, unleashing its entire arsenal: lawsuits, threatened lawsuits, recall campaigns, radio spots and direct mail. Because of the threatened litigation, CARES is stalled in Richmond, and the city is looking for other municipalities that it can partner with to protect itself. When fighting Wall Street, there’s strength in numbers.

More insidiously, SIFMA has also threatened to raise the price of credit and to categorically deny loans to residents of cities that opt into an LPR program. Denying credit to otherwise credit-worthy people based solely on their city of residence looks suspiciously like illegal redlining. Moreover, since many of the worst PLS mortgages are for houses in predominantly African-American and Latino communities (groups that were targeted by predatory lenders in the first place), this kind of action by SIFMA smacks of discrimination as well.

So what can you do? Kevin Whelan of the Home Defenders League gives three ways to help.

1. Visit fightingforeclosures.org and donate to (or join) the Home Defenders League campaign.

2. Start a campaign or a petition in your community to assist underwater homeowners. E-mail info@homedefendersleague.org for more details.

3. Contact your Representative in Congress and ask him or her to urge HUD and the FHA to comply with antidiscrimination laws that “forbid denying credit to qualified borrowers and ban discrimination based on factors like race and national origin.” Squash SIFMA’s anti-CARES threats.

Read Next: Alexis Goldstein: “Wall Street Group Aggressively Lobbied a Federal Agency to Thwart Eminent Domain Plans”

Stop the Democrats’ Surrender to a Blue Slip

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama (AP)

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.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an archaic Senate policy is being used by a shameless Republican minority to obstruct the will of the president—and the people he was elected to represent.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I was referring to the filibuster, which has been the Republicans’ most effective and least democratic method of thwarting the will of the majority.

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But no, this is another, more obscure and arguably more ridiculous procedural weapon called a “blue slip.” First instituted in 1917, the blue slip process has allowed individual senators to effectively veto a nominee for a circuit court judgeship who hails from their own state. This privilege has been used sparingly by some Judiciary Committee chairmen and more regularly by others. But in recent months, it has been taken to the extreme.

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.

High Time for a Robin Hood Tax

Members of National Nurses United demonstrate in support of the Robin Hood Tax

Members of National Nurses United demonstrate in support of the Robin Hood Tax (Courtesy of National Nurses United)

It’s 2024, and a group of four European bankers appears on a talk show to assess the impact of a financial transaction tax (FTT) enacted by eleven European Union nations in 2014. On the host’s right, representatives from France, Spain, and Germany tout the benefits of this “miracle tax”: money to fight extreme poverty, adapt to climate change, combat HIV/AIDS. And on the left, representing the UK (which currently opposes the tax), is a stodgy Brit, undoubtedly miffed that his country has missed out on the Continent’s decade of progress.

The star-studded, three-minute video, directed by David Yates (the Harry Potter series), features Javier Cámara (Talk to Her), Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead), Heike Makatsch (Love, Actually), Bill Nighy (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and Clémence Poésy (Love, Actually). Nighy, who plays the frustrated Londoner, offers a succinct commentary: “This tiny tax that could do so much good is on the verge of becoming a reality. France, Germany and nine other European countries are about to introduce it. It would be deeply regrettable if the rest of the world were caught on the wrong side of history.”

At a news conference in Paris on February 19, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande reiterated their support for the tax, announcing that they’d like to see the tax implemented before European Parliament elections in late May.

It’s refreshing to see European governments take steps to benefit the many at the (eminently reasonable) expense of the few. “Will the tax be borne by ordinary citizens?” Algirdas Semeta, European Commissioner for Taxation, asked rhetorically in The Guardian last year. “We have taken every measure to ensure that it isn’t. This is a tax on the financial sector, and 85% of liable transactions are purely between financial institutions. Day-to-day financial activities of citizens and businesses are outside its scope. Even if the financial sector passed on some costs to clients, the outcome would not be disproportionate.”

Also known as a “Robin Hood Tax,” a properly implemented FTT can benefit the economy from top to bottom. At the top of the financial food chain, the per-transaction fee offers a necessary check on speculation of the trade-for-the-sake-of-trading variety (“There’s considerable evidence suggesting that too much trading is going on,” writes The New York Times’s Paul Krugman). And an instrument that puts the brakes on rampant speculation and hyperactive trading—by raising the price of such behavior, in this case—is a good thing. In a 1936 analysis of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes noted that “the sins of the London Stock Exchange [were] less than those of Wall Street” in part because “the high brokerage charges and the heavy transfer tax payable to the Exchequer” made financial transactions more expensive in London than in New York. “It is usually agreed,” Keynes wrote drolly, “that casinos should, in the public interest, be inaccessible and expensive.”

And for the 99 percenters, the tax provides a much needed stream of revenue that can be used to combat poverty, climate change, our crumbling national infrastructure and more. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written, “I urge G20 leaders…to introduce a tax on financial transactions to help low-income countries hit by the economic crisis and to protect poor people from climate change.”

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Notably, such a tax is not unheard of in this country: Between 1914 and 1966, the United States levied a 0.04 percent tax on stock trades via a Stock Transfer Tax. While a handful of bills (all sponsored by Democrats) that include some form of an FTT are currently before Congress, the process (and progress) is obviously much farther along in Europe. In January 2013, eleven EU nations—Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain—were authorized to proceed with the introduction of a coordinated FTT. A final agreement between the eleven participating governments is expected on May 6, 2014. It will be a sweet victory for Europe, and the spoils are manifold, not least of which is the estimated €31 billion ($42 billion) that the tax is expected to generate each year.

So can we duplicate the victory here? Can we replace some of the Liar’s Poker ethos that got us into this mess? One idea, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Peter DeFazio’s (D-Oregon) Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax Act, “would target financial trading and complex transactions undertaken by financial and investment firms,” and the Congressional Joint Tax Committee has estimated that a similar proposal would bring in over $350 billion over ten years. Says Harkin, “[T]here is no question that Wall Street can easily bear this modest tax. This Wall Street tax is a simple matter of fairness and fiscal sanity.”

What can people do to promote a Sweet Victory here in America? Sarah Anderson, Global Economy Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, urges citizens to ask their representatives in Congress to co-sponsor the Harkin/DeFazio bill or Rep. Keith Ellison’s (D-Minnesota) Inclusive Prosperity Act. The White House, heretofore unsupportive of FTT proposals, could be spurred to action if it perceived some real momentum building on Capitol Hill. Anderson also encourages people to sign a petition in support of a Robin Hood Tax. The goal is to collect 1 million signatures (There are currently about 640,000 so far), leading to what might be the most popular tax in the history of the world.

Read Next: John Nichols: “Rand Paul Is Wrong: Why the GOP Should Be Moving Backward, Not Forward.

The Comcast/Time Warner Merger Doesn’t Pass the Smell Test

Comcast Center

The Comcast Center in Philadelphia (AP)

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.

One thing is certain about Comcast’s proposed $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable: It doesn’t pass the smell test. Comcast claims that the combination of the number one and number two cable companies will somehow enhance rather than diminish competition and lead to greater consumer satisfaction. Don’t worry, Godzilla will play nice on the playground.

The resulting company would have at least 30 million cable customers, just under 30 percent of the TV market, as well as 38 percent of high-speed Internet customers. It will have virtual monopoly cable control over news and public service programming in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, DC. It will be able to exact price concessions from content providers, forcing some out of business, limiting innovation and variety. With net neutrality rules now under assault, it will be positioned to charge discriminatory rates for high-speed access or to discriminate against Netflix and other companies seeking to stream over its cable. And Comcast will be in position to decide what gets priority access and what viewers across much of the nation won’t see.

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Comcast is just digesting its previous mega-merger, the takeover of NBC Universal that should have been blocked by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That leaves Comcast controlling an empire that includes NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network, Telemundo and other networks.

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: Want to Know What NAFTA Teaches Us About the TPP Fight?

Demonstration against TPP in Tokyo on October 26, 2013

Farmers from Miyagi prefecture raise their fists along with other farmers from across Japan during a rally against Japan participating in rule-making negotiations for the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in Tokyo, October 26, 2011. (Reuters/Yuriko Nakao)

Last Wednesday, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi repeated in no uncertain terms her opposition to granting President Obama authority to seek “fast-track” approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a mammoth “free trade” deal the US has been negotiating in secret since the days of George W. Bush. Fast-tracking the TPP—which Senate majority leader Harry Reid also opposes—would allow the administration to submit the treaty for an up-or-down vote, thus protecting it from any debate or discussion or amendments. Without that authority, the administration would have to take into account the vehement objections of labor unions and other opponents of the treaty, who rightly note that the pact—the text and scope of which have been zealously guarded from public scrutiny—would likely do irreversible harm to American workers and consumers; fast-tracking the TPP would allow its corporate backers and their congressional allies to run roughshod over the treaty’s opponents and avoid a much-needed debate.

If all this sounds familiar, it should: a common nickname for the TPP is “NAFTA on steroids,” and it is worth recalling now how clear it was twenty years ago (to anyone who cared to look) that NAFTA would have precisely the horrific impact on American industry, as well as on the global environment, that it has indeed had. In The Nation, writer after writer warned about NAFTA’s pernicious consequences, in terms that could easily be applied—with perhaps even more force—to the TPP today.

In our March 29, 1993 issue—after NAFTA had been signed by President George H.W. Bush but before Congress approved it—Noam Chomsky wrote in “Notes on NAFTA: ‘The Masters of Mankind’”:

One consequence of the globalization of the economy is the rise of new governing institutions to serve the interests of private transnational economic power. Another is the spread of the Third World social model, with islands of enormous privilege in a sea of misery and despair. A walk through any American city gives human form to the statistics on quality of life, distribution of wealth, poverty and employment…Increasingly, production can be shifted to high-repression, low-wage areas and directed to privileged sectors in the global economy. Large parts of the population thus become superfluous for production and perhaps even as a market, unlike the days when Henry Ford realized that he could not sell cars unless his workers were paid enough to buy cars themselves.

While President Obama has laudably dedicated the remainder of his term to reversing the alarming inequality that has gripped the country in recent decades, his push for TPP seems to demonstrate an insufficient historical awareness of the consequences of free-trade agreements. As Chomsky predicted, NAFTA has only worsened inequality, transferring unprecedented wealth and power from the working and middle classes to the bank accounts of the 1 percent:

The trade agreements override the rights of workers, consumers, and the future generations who cannot ‘vote’ in the market on environmental issues. They help keep the public ‘in its place.’ These are not necessary features of such agreements, but they are natural consequences of the great successes of the past years in reducing democracy to empty forms, so that the vile maxim of the masters can be pursued without undue interference.

In a special issue devoted to NAFTA, dated June 14, 1993, The Nation wrote in its lead editorial:

NAFTA is no simple exercise in good-neighborliness. It is a watershed in U.S.—and Mexican—economic history. To ratify the treaty is to condemn U.S. workers to more hard times, to confine Mexican workers in an economic ghetto utterly dependent on El Norte, to reduce the power of labor against ownership, to ravage the American industrial landscape and to transform forever the dream of America as a just and prosperous place of hope.

A major investigative report in the same issue, “Big $$$ Lobbying in Washington: Can Mexico and Big Business USA Buy NAFTA?” by Charles Lewis and Margaret Ibrahim of the Center for Public Integrity, explored how corporate lobbyists from both Mexico and the United States had purchased official support for a treaty sure to cause untold pain to large segments of the populations of both countries.

The debate over NAFTA, which will climax this fall when both the Senate and the House vote on the treaty, has yielded the most extensive—and expensive—foreign lobbying campaign on a specific issue ever seen in the capital. Since 1989 the Mexican government and business groups have spent at least $25 million to promote the development and enactment of NAFTA, hiring a phalanx of Washington law firms, lobbyists, public relations companies and consultants…

The Mexican government and Mexican corporate interests have used much of those millions to purchase the expensive services of a potpourri of inside-the-Beltway specialists. Former U.S. government officials, who know how to massage the Washington political system, have been snatched up and placed on Mexico’s payrolls. Indeed, since 1989 Mexican interests have hired thirty-three former U.S. officials who worked for a variety of government entities: Congress, the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and others. Their mission is to influence the political process for what is arguably the most significant trade issue to have faced the American people and their elected representatives in this century.

Why is the passage of NAFTA so important to Mexico? Because its government and corporations expect that a freshet of desperately needed U.S. investment and consumer dollars will flow into their country once the trade barriers between the two nations fall. A few million dollars is a small price to pay for what they hope will be a multibillion-dollar bonanza…

All this intensive lobbying by U.S. and Mexican interests is dedicated to drowning out any contrary or questioning voices in the United States. It is focused like a laser on the Washington power elite and aims to see that a treaty is approved that favors corporate interests.

If anything, the unprecedented secrecy surrounding the TPP negotiations in recent years demonstrates that the “intensive lobbying” by corporate powers behind the scenes is even stronger, and more insidious, this time around.

* * *

In the December 6, 1993 issue of The Nation, just after both houses of Congress approved NAFTA, Jeremy Brecher explored the broader historical context of so-called free-trade agreements in “After NAFTA: Global Village or Global Pillage?

The North American economic integration that NAFTA was intended to facilitate is only one aspect of the rapid and momentous historical transformation from a system of national economies toward an integrated global economy. New information, communication, transportation and manufacturing technologies, combined with tariff reductions, have made it possible to coordinate production, commerce and finance on a world scale.

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Resistance to such a reorganization of wealth and power, Brecher wrote, would have to begin with solidarity among the laboring classes in each country:

The beginnings of a new approach emerged from the anti-NAFTA movement itself. Rather than advocate protectionism—keeping foreign products out—many NAFTA opponents urged policies that would raise environmental, labor and social standards in Mexico, so that those standards would not drag down those in the United States and Canada. This approach implied that people in different countries have common interests in raising the conditions of those at the bottom.…

The struggle against NAFTA has shown that those harmed by the New World Economy need not be passive victims. So many politicians were so unprepared for the strength of the anti-NAFTA movement because it represented an eruption into the political arena of people who have long been demobilized. But to influence their economic destinies effectively, they need a movement that provides an alternative to the Ross Perots and Pat Buchanans. Such a movement must act on the understanding that the unregulated globalization of capital is really a worldwide attack of the haves on the have-nots. And it must bring that understanding to bear on every affected issue, from local layoffs to the world environment.

The positive developments Brecher saw coming out of the anti-NAFTA movement would begin to command mainstream attention with the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle—fifteen years ago this November. The coming debate over the TPP represents an important—and perhaps even more dire—opportunity for those interested in halting and reversing the trends described by Chomsky, Brecher and others. As Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, wrote in The Nation in July 2012:

We face a race against time—much of the TPP text has been agreed on. Will the banksters, Big Pharma, Big Oil, agribusiness, tobacco multinationals and the other usual suspects get away with this massive assault on democracy? Will the public wake up to this threat and fight back, demanding either a fair deal or no deal?

The declarations of opposition to fast-track from Pelosi and Reid represent a crucial, if preliminary, victory. The clock, however, is ticking.

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