Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
RE-ELECT THE PRESIDENT. “The threat is clear: we can’t afford a Romney/Ryan victory.” In this week’s editorial, “Re-Elect the President,” published alongside a progressive forum on President Obama, we argue that Obama’s re-election is a necessary step in fighting for progressive change in 2012 and beyond. The forum brings together a range of journalists, activists and intellectuals to debate what a second Obama administration might look like—and how progressive movements will be, and have always been, crucial to election outcomes and policymaking. “Our progressive history is a history of getting our hope fix from movements, not just from individuals,” writes Deepak Bhargava, in the introduction. Francis Fox Piven and Lorraine C. Minnite stress that without both movement politics and electoral politics, neither can be effective. And Ai-Jen Poo makes the case that now more than ever people are ready to engage in a broad-based movement for economic justice.
DEBATE DEBACLE. On Wednesday night President Obama and Governor Romney stood together on stage in the first of three nationally televised debates. And the two candidates gave voters plenty to mull over. Romney promised, if elected, to fire Big Bird and moderator Jim Leher—perhaps one of only a handful of honest statements uttered by the former Bain Capital CEO. John Nichols explains that Romney, “whose debate performance was not encumbered by facts,” spent most of the evening capitalizing on a post-truth era of politics. Bryce Covert writes on the glaring failure (or in Romney’s case, a successful dodge) by the candidates to bring up those issues important to female voters. “Given all the unfettered candidate talking points and potpourri of disconnected issues,” writes Covert, “you’d think someone would have uttered the word ‘women.’” Also missing from the debate was any tangible discussion on how to tackle the problems of poverty and the environment in America; check out the questions the candidates should have answered, gathered by Greg Kaufmann and Mark Hertsgaard.
I also want to thank the over 600 readers who watched the debate live online with The Nation. If you missed this lively discussion, visit a replay of that chat here, and stay tuned as we continue to bring live conversations with Nation journalists throughout election season and beyond.
VOTING RIGHTS WATCH. With less than five weeks until election day we’re continuing to monitor GOP efforts to suppress voting rights across the country. Brentin Mock and Ari Berman report on a big victory in Pennsylvania when a judge put a temporary hold on the state’s voter ID law until after the election. Also, be sure to read Lee Fang’s piece on efforts to harass and confuse voters at the polls in New Mexico, where Republicans are instructing poll watchers to ask for photo ID and to falsely tell Spanish speakers that interpreters are not available. For more on the Republican-led voter suppression efforts and their impact, watch Berman’s appearance on Tavis Smiley’s show this week.
UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. This afternoon I’ll be at the New York Film Festival on a panel with Oliver Stone to discuss his new ten-part mini-series, Untold History of the United States. We’ll watch the first three chapters which focus on World War II and the events leading up to it. Following the screening, Stone and I will be joined by historian Douglas Brinkley and Nation contributor Jonathan Schell. For more information, visit the New York Film Festival website.
In the spirit of Howard Zinn’s classic People’s History and The Nation’s own nearly 150-year history of highlighting the dissenters, rebels and truth-telling voices that have laid the foundations for the rights and freedoms we now take for granted, comes Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States.
By focusing on under-appreciated episodes which have been airbrushed out of standard history texts, this ambitious ten-part documentary series tells the behind-the-scenes stories that have shaped our country and the world as we know it today.
Narrated by filmmaker Stone, the new one-hour series in ten parts will feature critical events that at the time went largely under-reported—and are still far from common knowledge among Americans currently. Stone and co-author Peter Kuznick, a professor of History and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, have combed through the national archives of the United States, Soviet Union, England, Germany and Japan in search of photos, film and papers of events and historical figures both famous and unknown.
Topics range from President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan to the origins and reasons for the cold war with the Soviet Union, and the fierce struggle between war and peace in America’s national security complex. New information about the Eisenhower and Kennedy administration; the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan Wars; America’s role in the world since the fall of Communism; and largely unknown aspects of the war on terrorism will be featured.
Stone, who worked on this project for four years, sees his efforts as a corrective to the historical status quo: “This is the side of history we didn’t learn in school. Upsetting to some, but profound for those who think for themselves, from the outset I’ve looked at this project as a legacy to my children and a way to understand the times I’ve lived though. I hope it can contribute to a more global, broader insight into our history.”
I’ll be appearing on a panel about the series with Stone in New York City on Saturday, October 6. The series premieres on Showtime at 8 pm on Monday, November 12.
With Karl Rove’s efforts to oust the president ramping up but still looking likely to come up short, some will be tempted to declare that fears of a dark-money election era were overblown. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be more wrong. While Obama looks likely to survive (at the cost of his own concessions to big-money politics), dark-money elections are unfolding all around us, and undisclosed contributions could decide to what extent he actually gets to govern.
Just look at California. Republicans are still strong favorites to hold the House. But the US Chamber of Commerce isn’t taking any chances. As National Journal reported, the Chamber dropped $3.3 million for TV ads backing nine GOP House candidates in the state; most of that cash is just for ads airing between September 28 and October 7. Democrats have described the chance for seven California pick-ups as central to their hopes for the House. If an Obama sweep puts that dream in reach, the Chamber’s big spending could be what tears it away. (On Thursday, it announced another blitz, on behalf of six Republicans in New York state; it’s also supporting a couple conservative Democrats.)
Indeed, dark money from Super PACs and trade associations always posed the greatest threat in state and local races, where voters—and reporters—pay the least attention. That makes them a ripe target for secret donors, whose outsized ad-war firepower could determine who controls both houses of Congress. That’s a prospect that should scare big-D and small-d democrats alike.
The Chamber’s role in buying our elections makes it especially galling to watch it name-checked by candidates as an authoritative source. But even in true-blue Massachusetts, the Chamber gets invoked by GOP candidates as an earnest number-cruncher and independent source on whose policies are good for growth (same goes for its little brother, the National Federation of Independent Business, which Romney cited twice in Wednesday’s debate). When voters hear “Chamber of Commerce,” says Public Citizen President Robert Weissman, many imagine “their local Chamber of Commerce, providing information about restaurants and hotels and representing local community businesses. Or, many people think it’s part of the government, like the Department of Commerce.” The US Chamber, Weissman observes, acts as “the trade association for the country’s largest multinational corporations,” but “trades on general public misunderstanding of what it is.”
“The Chamber’s voice on this is not really representative of a broad array of businesses across the country,” says David Levine, the co-founder and CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council. Levine is one of a new wave of organizations of common sense business leaders. “What we’re seeing,” he says, “is a tremendous growth in main street business organizations, in small business organizations, in sustainable business organizations…recognizing that there is a different way of doing business that can bring greater value to the economy and to their community.” Levine says the Chamber’s support for “an all-out rampage against government and all regulations and rules” is costing it business support. Unfortunately, it’s still got heavy hitters in its corner.
“One particularly important function of the Chamber,” says Weissman, “is as a funnel for corporate dark money.” He adds that about forty-five companies “provide the vast bulk of the Chamber’s funding”—but we don’t know who they are. As Lee Fang wrote in The Nation, Aetna reported $100,000 in Chamber dues in 2010, but accidentally revealed a $4 million Chamber contribution on a regulatory filing in 2011.
Of course, the big money brigades have eyes on many prizes—and many conduits to seize them. On Monday, The Washington Post reported on the cool almost-million the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity plans to spend to flip both houses of the Arkansas state legislature, the last two Democratic chambers in the old Confederacy. For a sense of the stakes, just consider Jane Mayer’s 2011 New Yorker portrait of multimillionaire Art Pope’s successful spending to paint the North Carolina legislature red—just in time for congressional redistricting.
Big-money politics reinforces itself. Secret spending advantages politicians who go to Washington to fight for secret spenders. The president’s failure to reform campaign finance over the past four years leaves him more likely to be saddled with an obstructionist Congress over the next four. Democrats have at least been better than their counterparts. Several dozen House and Senate Democrats have sponsored some or all of the myriad bills to overturn Citizens United or require disclosure. The president himself has come around to the recognition that a constitutional amendment could be necessary—a reality now reflected in his party’s platform.
Change is daunting, but urgent. As I’ve often argued, we have to repeal Citizens United—a move backed by scores of state and local resolutions. But in the meantime, disclosure could do a great deal of good, especially in the case of the Chamber. “The brand name corporations do not want to be associated with partisan politicking,” says Weissman, “and if their contributions were disclosed, then consumers and the public generally could hold them accountable. That is a prospect that terrorizes them.”
The good news is, the public is already on the right side. On a Thursday call, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg shared polling (conducted for pro-reform groups) of voters in fifty-four endangered GOP congressional districts. By a two to one margin, voters wanted Super PAC power limited. Eight out of ten believe that this money is designed to win favors from politicians. As for the conservative claim that unlimited contributions are a form of free speech, Greenberg said, “there just is no support for that concept” in the poll. But he said that in these voters’ view, “neither party is addressing this. The Democrats have no advantage on this.” That’s a warning—and an opportunity, if Democrats heed it.
For more on the flood of corporate money into electoral politics, check out Lee Fang on the Koch brothers’ ground game.
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.
A little more than twenty years ago, Anita Hill sat before a panel of fourteen US senators, all male, who aggressively questioned her claim that she had been sexually harassed by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. As the nation watched the hearings, riveted and repulsed, one Washington state senator couldn’t help but ask herself: “Who’s saying what I would say if I was there?”
The answer? No one—there were only two women in the Senate at the time and neither was on the Judiciary Committee. And so, in 1992, Patty Murray, the self-proclaimed “mom in tennis shoes,” laced up and ran for US Senate. The Anita Hill effect spawned the “Year of the Woman,” when nineteen women won seats in the House, and four women, including Murray, won in the Senate.
Two decades later, a slew of Republican attacks on women, women’s health and women’s economic futures might just turn 2012 into another “Year of the Woman.” To understand why, it’s worth recapping this year’s parade of anti-women horrors.
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.
VOTING & THE FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY. This week’s cover story highlights Voting Rights Watch 2012, a collaboration between The Nation and Colorlines.com. Lead reporter Brentin Mock investigates how a Florida group is exploiting confusing information surrounding voting rights for ex-felons in his piece, “Has Florida Created a Trap at the Polls for Ex-Felons”? The problem is widespread—Mock reports that “there are thousands of people unaware of their right to vote because of the state’s negligence in reaching them, and an untold number more receiving conflicting information from the county about their voter eligibility.” Be sure to catch Mock on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry today to hear more on Voting Rights Watch. And take a moment to visit our Take Action blog to find out what you can do to work to enfranchise former felons.
THE 1% COURT. With the Supreme Court starting its fall session on Monday, we’ll be continuing to talk about The Nation’s special issue on “The 1 Percent Court” as we head into the election. I was honored to narrate a documentary just released by Alliance for Justice (AFJ) called Unequal Justice: The Relentless Rise of the 1% Court that explores how the Court frequently serves the interests of the 1 percent. On Wednesday, I’ll be participating in a discussion at NYU School of Law hosted by AFJ—we’ll get the conversation going by watching clips from the film. Visit AFJ’s website to register for that event and to find out how to host a free screening of this special documentary.
THE NATION & HBO’S TREME. If you’re watching the new season of David Simon’s “Treme” like I am, you’ve noticed the character L.P. Everett, a reporter investigating a story that might sound familiar. This season follows the work of real-life investigative reporter A.C. Thompson, who revealed how vigilante shootings and police violence flourished in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Thompson’s coverage in The Nation sparked a federal civil rights investigation and resulted in the conviction of three police officers in connection with the death of Henry Glover, a 31-year-old New Orleans man. We’ll be following the L.P. Everett storyline and hope the character continues to reflect the tenacity of Thompson’s great work—a two-year investigation supported by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute that began with precious little evidence to go on. Read A.C. Thompson’s pieces from 2008, “Katrina’s Hidden Race War” and “Body of Evidence,” and go to a video about the story here.
NFL REFEREES. Union labor was front and center this week as the NFL faced pressure to end the referee lockout after the debacle following the touchdown call on Monday night football. After a deal was reached to end the lockout, Nation sports editor Dave Zirin noted the significance of a “high-def, prime-time lesson” on the importance of skilled, unionized labor. “People who care about stable jobs with benefits and reversing the tide of inequality in the United States should seize this moment,” writes Zirin. For more, watch Zirin on Democracy Now! as he explains how the NFL referee dispute highlights the problem of class in the US.
UNITED STATES OF ALEC. Last summer The Nation partnered with the Center for Media and Democracy and published a widely read and influential special issue on ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) after obtaining more than 800 secret documents revealing the inner workings of the extremist organization. This weekend “Moyers & Company” presents a report on the role of ALEC which will highlight the work of the The Nation and the Center for Media and Democracy’s “ALEC Exposed” project. Revisit that special issue here to find out more on the priorities of ALEC’s corporate board and billionaire benefactors.
On the eve of Occupy Wall Street’s first anniversary, Congressman Keith Ellison introduced a much-needed common sense bill: HR 6411, the Inclusive Prosperity Act. The bill taxes financial transactions to generate revenue for social needs. Amid our consensus-narrowed, deficit-obsessed political debate, it’s a call to arms, and a breath of fresh air.
As I’ve often argued, a financial transaction tax is deeply pragmatic, broadly popular and sorely needed. At a time when budget slashing is a bipartisan obsession, it offers vital revenue. As we struggle to escape the recession wrought by the 1 percent, it presents a simple solution to discourage speculation. As progressives fight too many defensive battles, the financial transaction tax presents an urgent opportunity to go on offense.
Victory won’t come easy. Sarah Anderson, who directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, notes that “Obama’s communications director was asked about this at a press event during the convention and didn’t get an enthusiastic response. So that was a disappointing moment.”
But the FTT would never have made it thus far without sustained and savvy organizing. Groups like National Nurses United, National People’s Action, and Health GAP have been tenacious in forcing the FTT onto the agenda. Their European counterparts have forged a critical mass of support within the EU. And they’re backed on both sides of the pond by a slew of economists and financial professionals who wield common sense against Chicken Little lobbyists.
“I think people are really touched by how much passion there is around this issue,” says Anderson, “and the fact that they’re drawing such diverse groups together around this tax idea.”
Ellison’s bill would raise up to $350 billion through a small tax on stock, bond, derivative and currency trading.
According to a statement from Ellison’s office, the revenue could go to programs including infrastructure, job creation and global health. Congressman Ellison noted that:
The American public provided hundreds of billions to bailout Wall Street during the global fiscal crisis yet bore the brunt of the crisis with lost jobs and reduced household wealth. This is a phenomenally wealthy nation, yet our tax and regulatory system allowed the financial titans to amass great riches while impoverishing the systems that enable inclusive prosperity.
Ellison has it right: America isn’t broke. And the poor and the middle class aren’t the ones we should be looking to for sacrifice.
While other bills including an FTT have been introduced, Anderson says, “One reason that I see this one as significant is that the bill is in sync with the broader international campaign for financial transaction taxes, in that it specifically mentions climate and global health programs,” among the uses for new revenue. That international movement now faces a key test: Reaching formal agreement from at least nine EU countries on a joint FTT.
While ten nations have expressed support for the concept, Anderson says there’s “a lot of jockeying going on” now regarding whether derivatives will be included, and whether the FTT will be tied to a deal on debt in Spain and Italy. A deal could come as soon as December, or stretch into next year.
Ellison’s bill also comes at a crucial time for US politics. With weeks left until the presidential election, and a “fiscal cliff” showdown following close on its heels, the calls for an austerity-lite “grand bargain” are reaching a fever pitch. Among the latest symptoms of deficit madness: the growing chorus suggesting that Erskine Bowles, deficit panel co-chair and top austerity advocate, is a frontrunner for Treasury Secretary in a second Obama term. Top Democrats—up to and including the president himself—keep talking up their willingness to cut social insurance. As economist Dean Baker wrote recently, with CEOs already gathering to plan a political assault on these programs regardless of who wins the election, “The question is whether this juggernaut can be stopped?… The question is how to make it so that popular sentiment overrides the big bucks of the corporate chieftains.”
In an interview this week with The Huffington Post, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders warned that “unless we stop it,” there will be a deal soon after the election to reduce cost of living increases for Social Security.
There is a better way than austerity. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Ellison and Congressman Raul Grijalva, has offered a “Budget for All”: tax the top 2 percent, cut unneeded defense programs, and preserve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The FTT is a great place to start.
For more on the Republican austerity threat, check out Nation coverage of the Senate candidate proposing to "do away" with Medicare and Medicaid.
THE 1 percent COURT. As we enter an election season that could determine the direction of the Supreme Court for the next generation, this week’s special issue, “The 1 Percent Court,” examines the Court’s transformation into a highly politicized institution where the 1 percent keeps winning and the 99 percent keeps losing. As outlined by Nan Aron, progressives need to take a more aggressive approach to combat corporate dominance of the courts. Jamie Raskin and I sat down with Bill Moyers—who is a contributor to the issue—to discuss the Court and what its big business interests mean for the future of our democracy. Also, be sure to read my WashingtonPost.com column from this week, in which I discuss the history of an extremist conservative legal movement that has moved the Court to the right over the past forty years.
VOTING RIGHTS WATCH 2012. In this week’s Voting Rights Watch blog, a collaboration with Colorlines.com, Aura Bogado and community reporter Meta Mendel-Reyes reveal that one of five black Kentuckians can’t cast a ballot—and that’s not even because of voter ID laws. Read their piece to find out more on how a grassroots group is working to overturn voter suppression laws in the state. Also in Voting Rights Watch, Bogado and community journalist Maegan E. Ortiz highlight ways in which voting rights activists are working with their communities to fight voter suppression in innovative ways in “Wanna Protect Your Vote? There’s an App for That.” And there may be hope in Pennsylvania this week, as Ari Berman reports that the PA Supreme Court has shifted the burden of proof to the state on Voter ID laws—making the case less about constitutionality of laws and more about whether or not voters are disenfranchised. Be sure to watch Ari Berman on “Melissa Harris-Perry” today at 11am on MSNBC as he breaks down what the court rulings mean for voter suppression in PA.
MITT & THE 47 percent. When it comes to 47 percent of Americans, Mitt Romney doesn’t feel the need to “worry about those people.” Ilyse Hogue sees Romney’s statements as a “window into a cynical and meanspirited worldview that would guide this candidate’s policies and priorities were he to win in November.” And Leslie Savan asks if he even wants to become president. Read her piece to find out why Romney may be “psychologically satisfied” with simply snagging the Republican nomination.
ONE YEAR OF OCCUPY. It’s the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and despite what many are saying, the movement is alive and thriving. Watch The Nation’s anniversary video of Occupiers at Zuccotti Park as they reflect on the effects of the movement over the course of the year and what’s next for Occupy.
BROOKLYN BOOK FESTIVAL. We’ve been happy to be a sponsor and programming partner of the Brooklyn Book Festival since its inception in 2005. Join us this Sunday, September 23 for the festival. I’ll be on a panel at 10 am at the Brooklyn Historical Society along with columnist Eric Alterman talking about the 2012 election. Other speakers include Victor Navasky discussing the art of magazine-making; Chris Hayes on his new book, Twilight of the Elites;and many others from the Nation community! Be sure to stop by The Nation’s table at the festival—we’ll be at Booth 30.
PROGRAMMING NOTE. This morning I’ll be sitting down with Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry on her MSNBC show. Tune is as we discuss, among other topics, Romney’s tax returns, voting rights and Elizabeth Warren’s Senate race.
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.
While the election is dominated by talk of the economy and Mitt Romney’s latest foreign policy blunder, don’t lose sight of one important fact: Perhaps nothing will have a bigger impact on the United States’ future than the Supreme Court. And with four justices above the age of 70, the next president of the United States could have enormous power to shape the court for generations to come. Age is not, as Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner has suggested, just a number.
In a government paralyzed by partisan gridlock on the most important matters of the day, the Supreme Court has become what Bill Moyers calls “The Decider.” A majority of the justices has taken a far right turn in its decisions.
This extremism has a history. In 1971, Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and soon to be a Supreme Court justice, wrote a memo at the request of the US Chamber of Commerce, urging it to push for an activist, pro-business court that would rubber-stamp its agenda. Powell’s memo laid the groundwork for a right-wing rise in all areas of public life, including law firms, think tanks, campus organizations and media outlets. The 1987 failed Supreme Court nomination of right-wing ideologue Robert Bork was, in hindsight, only a setback in the movement to push the court toward the right. Extremists including Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito would eventually be confirmed.
Today marks the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the movement that forced inequality back onto the front page. As if on cue, the Census Bureau reported last week that 2011 spelled big income gains for the top 5 percent, declines for the middle and stagnation at the bottom. Unlike the federal deficit, inequality actually is a moral failing and a national crisis. So what do we do about it? One possible answer comes from across the pond.
This month, in a speech at his country’s stock exchange, British Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband embraced a big new idea: predistribution.
The term was coined here in the US, by political scientist Jacob Hacker (you may know him as the man who came up with the public option). In a 2011 paper, Hacker noted that our discussions of government responses to inequality often begin and end with redistribution—taxing the rich to provide benefits for the rest. But Hacker argued that’s only half the equation (maybe less). He urged his fellow progressives to pay more attention to predistribution: “the way in which the market distributes its rewards in the first place.” That includes regulations that protect consumers and empower workers. “The regulation of markets to limit extremes and give the middle class more voice is hardly easy—witness the fight over financial reform in the United States,” wrote Hacker. “But it is both more popular and more effective than after-the-fact mopping up.”
Miliband agrees. In his September 6 speech, he argued that the recent years of crash and austerity have discredited key economic assumptions: the primacy of low inflation, the efficacy of trickle down, and the immutability of the economic rules of the road. After noting the terrible human cost and counterproductivity of austerity, Miliband called for a new agenda: “We need to care about predistribution as well as redistribution.… We cannot allow ourselves to be stuck with permanently being a low-wage economy.” After trying in the past “to make work pay better by spending more on transfer benefits,” said Miliband, future government needs to “also make work pay better by making work itself pay.”
In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Miliband (a former Nation intern) expanded on these ideas. Following the old Labour Party’s Thatcher-era losses, said Miliband, “New Labour accepted a “consensus around regulation” that “turned out to be really problematic”; on globalization, it became “too easy and accepting…. It’s just not true that all the top CEOs will leave the country unless we pay them whatever they demand.”
Miliband also traced his predistribution focus to the political and economic limits on how high overall taxes can go (he says “50 percent”).
But Miliband’s call for more predistribution dovetails with the left’s warnings about relying entirely on tax-and-spend, to the exclusion of regulations and protections. While conservatives fret over excessive taxation, liberals and radicals have argued that social spending alone is a poor substitute for economic democracy. Critiquing what he calls mere “pity-charity liberalism,” Nation contributor and Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal last year framed the question this way:
Do we more aggressively set up the rules to favor some outcomes over others, or do we emphasize making markets “free”…and then deal with bad outcomes after the fact? Do we want unions and regulations to create workplaces designed for human dignity, or do we let the dice roll as they may and compensate people after the fact through transfers?
Indeed, there’s no good reason for government to just sit back, let one-percenters beat up employees and customers, and then try to mitigate the harm with redistribution (Harold Meyerson’s cover story in the current American Prospect offers a damning reminder of the effects of a legal system that makes union-busting a good bargain). As Sam Pizzigati reported in The Nation, the financial crisis turned many Britons away from the view that obscene but well-taxed wealth is harmless. And innovative organizing has helped turned the UK towards greater predistribution. Among the approaches: pushing local employers—public and private—to narrow the pay ratio between the top and the bottom within their workforce. Tactics include a recognition symbol for display by supportive companies, and a series of citizens’ delegations to confront others. These activists, wrote Pizzigati, “don’t consider ‘tax and spend’ any sort of social engineering outrage. They simply consider it inadequate to the task of creating the just and sustainable society our future demands.”
Much of the British story is all too familiar. Failed austerity, political resistance to taxes and a left-of-center party that spent much of the 1990s proving its willingness to get out of the market’s way. An upsurge in grassroots activism against inequality. And an awful human toll.
“We want a market economy,” says Miliband, “not a market society.” That’s true on both sides of the pond.
Labor supporters just celebrated a major victory in Wisconsin. Check out John Nichols’s coverage here.
At this week’s convention, we’ll be reminded that elections matter—and they do. But electoral victories, though necessary, are never sufficient. Uprooting inequality and restoring prosperity will require much more. Last week, we got an important reminder of the importance of grassroots organizing. It came from the president of the United States.
During an “Ask Me Anything” session with readers of the website Reddit, President Obama lent his personal support to the effort to amend the Constitution to reverse the Supreme Court’s devastating Citizens United decision.
“Over the longer term,” said the president, “I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight [on] the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”
(Other campaign officials had previously expressed support.)
These are welcome words. First, because (as I’ve argued here and elsewhere), we can’t become a more perfect union as long as our elections remain playthings for self-interested corporations. As Public Citizen puts it so well: Democracy is For People. (And as Lee Fang reports in the current issue, if you think post–Citizens United Super PACs are bad for our democracy, trade associations are even worse.)
Obama’s words send a strong signal where we need to go. But they’re equally important for what they say about how we get there.
In becoming the nation’s top constitutional amendment endorser, Obama reminded us that he remains our first community organizer president. From the beginning, some of the smartest minds in the movement to overturn Citizens United movement have seen the amendment process as an organizing instrument, not just a legal lever.
Obama’s support for an amendment puts him on the right side, with over a hundred municipalities who’ve moved to amend, and against the plutocrats who want to buy our elections. It sharpens the contrast between a president committed to “We the people” and a challenger convinced that “corporations are people.”
And it’s heartening to see the president’s personal step forward on the issue echoed in his party’s new platform, which backs “campaign finance reform, by constitutional amendment if necessary.”
But Obama’s statement also raises the question, Given that the president gets how social movements make change happen, why does he only sometimes act like it?
Obama’s 2008 campaign paid repeated tribute to the power of citizens acting in concert against injustice. Indeed, he led an effort that captured the feel of a true social movement in a way few presidential campaigns do. And he won.
It was easy to believe, in the heady days that followed, that we would see a new kind of president embrace a new kind of presidency: one that nourished and encouraged robust citizenship, that mastered effective inside/outside symbiosis and marshaled a grassroots army against business as usual.
Instead, Organizing for America was shuttered as we knew it, shunted instead into the Democratic National Committee. Righteous anger at Wall Street was triangulated by the president and his chosen Treasury secretary, rather than being embraced as a force for change. And the transformational promises of candidate Obama gave way to the transactional politics of Chief of Staff Emanuel.
As the Washington Post’s Peter Wallsten observed in a masterful piece in June, Obama’s relationship with progressive activists has “moved from great expectations to tense confrontations to pragmatic coexistence as the next election approaches.” Wallsten profiled how immigrant rights and LGBT groups—with tactics and stances derided by know-better insiders—forced Obama to go farther and faster than he’d claimed was possible.
Too often, Obama refused to confront obstructionist forces intent on making him a one-term president. And instead of marshaling people to overcome the lobbyists and forces of corporate power determined to dilute and gut his signature reforms, he let his staff hem in his ambitions, and his base. Now he’s paying the price, and so are we: an under-stimulated economy, a narrowed sense of hope.
And yet, as convention season reminds us, a Romney/Ryan victory would spell full-spectrum disaster.
An Obama victory in November would bring few guarantees. We all know now what should have been clear then: no person makes change alone. Formidable obstacles stand in the way of progress. Without grassroots pressure and organizing, corporate power over both parties will suffocate possibilities every time.
But a second term presents an opportunity for change, and a revealing choice for the president: succumb to business as usual, or embrace the audacity of a bolder politics?
Movement pressure has already moved the president—both on policy and on vision. Witness his barn-burning December speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, setting forth how “the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded.”
Was Obama’s first-term approach inevitable? Or will a second-term Obama govern as not just a horse-trader in chief, but as someone who understands the power and necessity of movements and organizing?
“One of my fundamental beliefs from my days as a community organizer,” Obama said in 2008, “is that real change comes from the bottom up.”
Hope—not rosy optimism but the belief that hard work and commitment makes change—springs eternal.