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Moyers and Bacevich: The Myth and Dangers of ‘American Exceptionalism’

Andrew Bacevich

Political Scientist Andrew Bacevich with Bill Moyers (YouTube)

The new crisis in Iraq has brought out of the woodwork (in some cases, gutter) some of top officials and pundits who helped lead us to war, and long occupation, in the country, but it also has brought back to television some of the top critics and thoughtful analysts of our tragic blunder.

Case in point this past weekend: Jonathan Landay of McClatchy on CNN and Andrew Bacevich for the full half-hour with Bill Moyers (video below). I first met Bacevich, then known mainly as a former military officer and West Point instructor, a decade ago when he wrote an op-ed questioning the war for The Washington Post. Then I covered the death of his son in Iraq, and his many columns that followed.

Now for a few highlights from the transcript  of the Moyers show, including key discussion of “American exceptionalism”:

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, [Robert Kagan’s] notion of American history, particularly since 1945, is one that we might term an extended liberation narrative where the United States devoted itself, in the wake of World War II, to promoting liberal values, democracy everywhere, fighting against evildoers, and he concludes that this success is being squandered by Barack Obama and those who are unwilling to continue this crusade.

Now, that narrative is only sustainable if you leave a lot of important facts out, or if you distort those facts. So we get no mention of overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. We get no mention of the CIA overthrowing the president of Guatemala. We get virtually no mention of the Vietnam War, which he dismisses as sort of an unfortunate incident of no particular significance. And perhaps most egregiously, he utterly ignores the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he served as a cheerleader for. And which to a very large extent, account for the problem that we’re dealing with today in the greater Middle East.

BILL MOYERS: This week, one of his allies, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Elizabeth wrote a long essay in “The Wall Street Journal.”

AB: Well, I’d say rarely has a major American newspaper published an op-ed that was so thoroughly shameless. Again, what is the cause? What was the catalyst of the instability that racks Iraq today? The simple answer is the one that Cheney and his daughter don’t want to mention: the unnecessary, misguided, and frankly immoral war launched by the United States in 2003. We destabilized Iraq. In many respects, we destabilized the larger region. And misfortune of Barack Obama is that he inherited this catastrophe, created by the previous administration.

Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government in Iraq, you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of eastern Iraq the Iranians would like to claim—fought over for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire….

I think the contrast between what Cheney said in 1994 and what he says 20 years later is actually very illustrative of this point. And that is that what passes for foreign-policy debate today, is just nakedly partisan. Back in 1994, he was in the business of defending George Herbert Walker Bush. Now he’s in the business of defending George W. Bush. But basically attacks Barack Obama, blaming Obama for any difficulties that we’re having. And the point about naked partisanship I think really applies in a somewhat larger stage. When you look at the people who get invited on the Sunday talk shows, or whose op-eds appear in “The New York Times” or in “The Washington Post” or other prominent organs of opinion, they are people who are participating in this partisan debate.

There is very little effort to look beyond the Bush versus Obama, Republican versus Democrat, to try to understand the larger forces in play that have brought us to where we are today. And the understanding of which could then make it possible for us to think somewhat more creatively about policy than simply having an argument about whether we should, you know, attack with drones or attack with manned aircraft.

BM: What are those larger forces at work? Because Robert Kagan says, quote, “world order shows signs of cracking, and perhaps even collapsing.” And that these changes signal a transition into a different world order, which the United States should attempt to lead.

AB: When Kagan uses phrases like world order, he’s describing something that never really existed except in his own imagination. But again, the point is worth reflecting on. Kagan believes, many people in Washington believe, perhaps too many people in the hinterland also believe, that the United States shapes the global order. That there is an order for which we alone are responsible.

Where does this kind of thinking come from? I mean, I think in many respects, what we see here is the contemporary expression of the whole notion of American exceptionalism. That we are chosen. We are called upon, called upon by God, called upon by providence, to somehow transform the world and remake it in our own image. Now, Robert Kagan wouldn’t state it as bluntly as I just did. But that is the kind of thinking that I think makes it very difficult for us to have a genuine and serious foreign policy debate.

BM: So the other side would argue, as they are, that well, look at the beheadings and the murders, the brutality and cruelty that the radical Islamists are inflicting upon their adversaries, and the people of Iraq. Isn’t that an evil to which we are the only ones can respond?

AB: Well, first of all, it is an evil to which we contributed by our folly in invading Iraq back in 2003. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq under the previous order. That’d be the first point. And the second point I think would be: let’s be practical. Let’s be pragmatic. If indeed we are called upon to act, let us frame our actions in ways that actually will yield some positive outcome.

I’m personally not persuaded that further military action in Iraq is actually going to produce an outcome more favorable than the last one. If what we have here on our hands in Iraq, in Syria, elsewhere in the Middle East is a humanitarian catastrophe, then let us become serious about asking ourselves, what is the appropriate response? What can the richest and most powerful country in the world do to alleviate the suffering of innocent people who are caught up in this violence?

And my answer to that question is not air strikes. My answer to that question is, well, if indeed we have a moral responsibility to come to the aid of suffering Iraqis and Syrians, then we better start opening up our wallets to be far more generous and forthcoming in providing assistance that people need.

You know, we live in a country where if you want to go bomb somebody, there’s remarkably little discussion about how much it might cost, even though the costs almost inevitably end up being orders of magnitude larger than anybody projected at the outcome. But when you have a discussion about whether or not we can assist people who are suffering, then suddenly we come very, you know, cost-conscious.

* * *

BM: So do we conclude from that that you don’t believe there is anything practical we can do on the ground to separate the warring forces or help the government forces in Iraq prevent this violence? Is the only option murderous genocide and optimum paralysis?

AB: We have been engaged in the Islamic world at least since 1980, in a military project based on the assumption that the adroit use of American hard power can somehow pacify or fix this part of the world. We can now examine more than three decades of this effort.

Let’s look at what US military intervention in Iraq has achieved, in Afghanistan has achieved, in Somalia has achieved, in Lebanon has achieved, in Libya has achieved. I mean, ask ourselves the very simple question: is the region becoming more stable? Is it becoming more democratic? Are we alleviating, reducing the prevalence of anti-Americanism? I mean, if the answer is yes, then let’s keep trying. But if the answer to those questions is no, then maybe it’s time for us to recognize that this larger military project is failing and is not going to succeed simply by trying harder.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, the events that are unfolding in Iraq at this very moment promote a debate within Washington revolving around the question, what should we do about Iraq? But there is a larger and more important question. And the larger and more important question has to do with the region as a whole. And the actual consequences of US military action over the past 30 years.

BM: As you know, Iraq has formally asked the US government to launch air strikes against those Jihadist militants. How do you think that’s going to play out?

AB: Well, I don’t know. My guess would be that this will substantially increase the pressure on the president to do just that. And my question would be if we launch air strikes, and if the air strikes don’t have a decisive effect in turning the tables on the ground, then what? I mean, this is always, I think, a concern when you begin a military operation that you have some reasonable sense of what you’re going to do next if the first gambit doesn’t succeed.

* * *

BM: Many people are saying that Barack Obama is feckless, lacks will, or strength, and that he’s enabling the defeat of our interest in the Middle East by pulling the troops back and by being indifferent to what’s happening there now.

AB: Well, he’s not indifferent. I mean, I’m not here to defend the Obama approach to foreign policy, which I think has been mediocre at best. That said, the president has learned some things. I think the most important thing the president learned from his predecessor is that invading and occupying countries in the Islamic world is a pretty dumb idea. It leads to complications and enormous costs. So we see him reticent about putting so-called boots on the ground. That said, the president certainly has not been reluctant to use force in a variety of ways. Usually on small-scale drone strikes, commando raids, and the like.

Where I would fault the president is that he hasn’t been able to go beyond learning the negative lessons of the Bush era to coming up with a positive approach to the Islamic world. Shortly after he was inaugurated he went to Cairo, gave a famous speech, speech proposed that there was going to be a new beginning, turn the page, a new beginning of US relations with the Islamic world.

Who would not endorse that proposition? I mean, I certainly do. But it has come to nothing. Nobody in the Obama administration, either in the first term or in the present term, as far as I can tell, has been able to figure out how to operationalize this notion of a new relationship between ourselves and the Islamic world. One can give Secretary Kerry credit for trying to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Were we able to broker a peace that created a sovereign, coherent, viable Palestinian state, that actually could be the one thing we could do that would seriously change the tenure of US relations with the people of the Islamic world. But that effort has failed.

* * *

BM: What is it, about how we go to war? We poured blood and treasure into Vietnam and Iraq and wound up with exactly the opposite consequences than we wanted. And we keep repeating, hearing the same arguments and claims that we should do it again.

AB: Well, war itself is evil. But war is an evil that should command our respect. War is something that we should not take lightly, that we should not discuss frivolously. And I think that that’s one of the great failings of our foreign policy establishment. That our foreign policy establishment does not take war seriously. It assumes that the creation of precision guided weapons makes war manageable. Removes from war the element of risk and chance that are always inherent in warfare. So these are people who, quite frankly, most of them don’t know much about war and, therefore, who discuss war in frivolous ways.

BM: And yet, there’s this still almost religious belief in force as the savior.

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AB: Well, I think your use of religious terms is very appropriate here. Because there is a quasi-theological dimension to their thinking related, again, to this notion that we are called. We are chosen. We are the instrument of providence. Summoned to transform the world. And therefore empowered to use force in ways not permitted to any others. I mean, the ultimate travesty of the immediate period after 9/11 was the Bush administration’s embrace of preventive war that became then the rationale for invading Iraq in 2003. But it was a general claim. A general claim that the United States was empowered to use force preventively. Before the threat emerges. Not simply—

BM: Pre-emptory strikes.

AB: Not simply in self-defense. And we should note that as far as I can tell, President Obama has not repealed that notion. Indeed, has used it himself in order to employ force in lesser ways in various situations.

BM: So is it duplicity or self-delusion?

AB: It depends I think on who we are talking about here. For somebody like Vice President Cheney berating Barack Obama for somehow surrendering American leadership and in the course of doing that simply ignoring the record of the administration in which he served—that’s duplicity. That’s malicious partisanship.

Greg Mitchell’s book, So Wrong for So Long, which covers ten years of media malfeasance, starting with the run-up to the Iraq war, features a preface by Bruce Springsteen. This is his final week at The Nation. His popular personal blog is Pressing Issues.

 

Read Next: Robert Scheer on our government’s soft spot for brutal dictators.

Maybe We Should Listen to Bill Kristol on Iraq

Tom Tomorrow

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Should the Left Stop Complaining About the Iraq War Hawks’ Return to the Media?

Cheney

Dick Cheney (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Jonathan Chait writes about politics like nobody’s business, but when it comes to the Iraq war, which he originally supported but now says was wrong, he can’t quite think straight.

Last week, Chait complained about liberals who want the Iraq war hawks and hucksters to “just shut the hell up.” Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, Paul Bremer, Douglas Feith, John McCain et al. have been all over TV and op-ed pages lately, insisting that Obama left Iraq too early and that we must now salvage the country with our military might, even (especially?) if it means spending sixty more years in Iraq (per Wolfie) and sending in thousands of more “boots on the ground” (Bremer).

Chait disagrees with their arguments, but he says liberals should stop whining about the neo-cons’ neo-access to the media:

What do liberals believe about the current disaster in Iraq? One thing most of us believe is that the United States should stay the hell out. But another thing liberals believe with even greater conviction is that advocates of the last Iraq war should not participate in the current debate. [My italics.]

The Atlantic’s James Fallows argues that Iraq war hawks “might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, writing in the second person, instructs Iraq hawks, “Given your role in building this catastrophe, you should be barred from public comment, since anything you could say is outweighed by the damage you’ve done.”

Chait also throws Rachel Maddow and The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel into the mix, and says, “This meta belief about who should be allowed to argue about Iraq, more than any actual argument about Iraq itself, has become the left’s main way of thinking about the issue.”

Hmmm. The “meta belief” line sounds good, in that Chaitian way he has of lifting himself above the liberal throngs (see Walsh on Chait).

But if you read the essays Chait cites, you’ll see how ridiculous it is to charge that the authors’ objections to the neocons’ media appearances “has become the left’s main way of thinking about the issue.”

That is, intentionally or not, Chait is reducing the left to a bunch of knee-jerkers who can’t rise above making unfair and illogical ad hominem attacks:

Nor is it easy to see what purpose is served by insisting certain people ought to be ignored. The way arguments are supposed to work is that the argument itself, not the identity of the arguer, makes the case. We shouldn’t disregard Dick Cheney’s arguments about Iraq because he’s Dick Cheney.

We should disregard them because, as the textbook definition of “the ad hominem fallacy,” says in response to Chait, ad hominem is sometimes the only fair way to go. Michael Austin writes:

[T]he fact is ad hominem arguments are very often the best and most logical responses to another person’s claims. This is true because most arguers place their own character, expertise, or credibility at issue when they make a claim.

[Chait] falls into a logical trap that I call the Ad Hominem Fallacy. This happens when somebody overcorrects for the ad hominem bias by labeling a legitimate challenge to authority as an ad hominem attack.

Cheney, Austin writes, “relies almost entirely on his claims of experience, expertise and moral character. And it is precisely because he is making these claims that his experience, expertise and moral character must be part of the debate.”

What Chait also seems to miss is how the media worked to promote the invasion of Iraq in the first place. It wasn’t about the niceties of arguments or the accuracy of facts. It was, and is, about emotion.

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Mainstream media outlets may or may not favor the United States’ returning to Iraq, but they lean toward teasing us with that prospect because it’s good copy. It’s exciting. That’s why they eagerly book the has-been hawks. Well, that and the MSM’s corporate-friendly habit of creating “balance” by handing large chunks of news real estate to war-happy Republicans. Giving Kristol, McCain, Cheney et al. national face time is like giving it to climate deniers in order to create “balance” to the vast scientific consensus that global warming is indeed real, man-made, and here.

Whatever happens in Iraq, it won’t be an exact repeat of the past. Disgust over the war and the prospect of stepping in again is enormous among the public and is even peeping through in the right-wing media. Fox News’s Megyn Kelly confronted Cheney; Glenn Beck declared, “Liberals, you were right—we shouldn’t have” invaded Iraq. (Still, he shouldn’t get “a cookie,” says Daily Kos.)

But don’t think that the honking of the hawks is harmless. As Daniel Larison writes in The American Conservative, “Unfortunately, the danger as always is that these people will define the terms of the debate and drive it in their direction simply being the loudest and most shameless participants.”

 

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on the folly of helping Iraq’s shattered army

Fifty Years After Freedom Summer, the Voting Rights Act Is Needed More Than Ever

Fifty years ago, Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old anthropology major at Queens College, went down to Mississippi for Freedom Summer. His first stop was Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he and Mickey Schwerner, a 24-year-old graduate student in social work at Columbia University, and James Chaney, a 21-year-old volunteer with the Congress for Racial Equality from Meridian, Mississippi, were sent to investigate a church burning. Schwerner and Chaney had spoken at Mount Zion Methodist Church over Memorial Day, urging local blacks to register to vote.

In 1964, only 6.7 percent of African-Americans were registered in Mississippi and not a single one in Philadelphia’s Neshoba County. The fight for voting rights was the reason Goodman traveled to Mississippi. “He just thought it was unfair that an American citizen of voting age was restrained and stopped from voting,” said his younger brother, David.

On June 21, 1964, the young civil rights activists were arrested by the Neshoba County police and then abducted by the Klan. Their bodies were found forty-four days later in an earthen dam. Goodman and Schwerner, both white, had been shot once. Chaney, who was African-American, had been mutilated beyond recognition. Martin Popper, the attorney for the Goodman family, called it “the first interracial lynching in the history of the United States.”

The murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were the starkest example of the brutality the Freedom Summer volunteers encountered from local whites. Freedom Summer “produced almost as many acts of violence by local whites as it did black voters,” wrote historian David Garrow. Mississippi didn’t change until Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. “A lot of people lost their lives getting that Voting Rights Act into place,” said David Goodman.

The legislation eliminated the literacy tests and poll taxes that for so long prevented blacks from registering to vote in Mississippi and other Southern states, and made sure those states didn’t adopt new voter suppression tactics in the future. The VRA transformed Mississippi and the rest of the country. Today, the Magnolia State has more black elected officials than any other state.

The fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer happens to coincide with the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, where the Supreme Court’s conservative majority invalidated Section 4 of the VRA on June 25, 2013. As a result, states like Mississippi, with the worst history of voting discrimination, no longer have to clear their voting changes with the federal government.

Section 4 provided the formula for covering states that had to submit their voting changes under Section 5 of the VRA (known as “preclearance”). Chief Justice John Roberts struck down Section 4 for two reasons: it was based on outdated data from the 1960s and 1970s, he argued, and violated what he called the “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” among states. Though Roberts conceded “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that,” he stated that the “extraordinary measures” of the VRA were no longer justified.

Think voting discrimination is largely a thing of the past?

Take a look at this map, courtesy of the Brennan Center for Justice:

And this map:

And this map, via the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights:

Some relevant facts Roberts neglected to mention:

Since the 2010 election, twenty-two states have passed new voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center. This includes requiring strict voter ID to cast a ballot, cutting early voting, making it harder to register to vote and rescinding voting rights for non-violent ex-felons. New restrictions will be in place for the first time in fifteen states in the 2014 election. All across the country, we’re seeing the most significant push to restrict voting rights since Reconstruction.

Partisanship is a strong motivating factor for the voting changes—GOP legislatures or governors enacted eighteen of the twenty-two new restrictions.

So is race. According to the Brennan Center: “Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote.”

These disturbing facts suggest that the strong protections of the VRA are still needed. Nearly two-thirds of the states previously covered under Section 5 of the VRA, nine of fifteen, passed new voting restrictions since 2010.

Take another look at the maps above. You’ll see that the South continues to restrict voting rights more aggressively than anywhere else in the country. What has changed in recent years isn’t the South but the fact that states like Kansas and Ohio and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have adopted Southern-bred voter suppression tactics. Just when the VRA should’ve been expanded to cover the surprisingly wide scope of 21st century voting discrimination, the Supreme Court instead gutted the law.

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” Justice Ginsburg wrote in her dissent. The central irony of the decision is that it was pouring when the Supreme Court removed the umbrella designed to protect voters from discrimination.

What happened next was entirely predictable. Within two hours of the decision, Texas implemented a voter ID law judged to be discriminatory by the federal courts. Two months later, North Carolina passed the harshest package of voting restrictions in the country.

Local jurisdictions previously covered by the law have responded in kind. Reports MSNBC’s Zack Roth:

Georgia lawmakers changed the date of city council elections in Augusta from November to July, a time when black turnout is traditionally far lower—a tactic that goes back to Jim Crow days. In Pasadena, Texas, voters approved a new “at-large” scheme for electing council members that made it much harder for Hispanic candidates to win office. A similar scheme, adopted by a school district in Beaumont, Texas, was blocked by the Justice Department under Section 5, but went into effect this year.

Since the Shelby decision, ten jurisdictions in seven states have enacted potentially discriminatory new voting changes that would’ve been subject to review under Section 5, according to the Leadership Conference.

A good case study is Decatur, Alabama, a city of 55,000 in the northern part of the state. For most of the twentieth century, whites controlled every important position in Decatur, which is 20 percent black. The first black city councilman wasn’t elected until 1988, as a result of a landmark lawsuit under the VRA, when the city shifted from citywide at-large elections to five single-member districts, including one majority-black district, for the city council.

In 2010, Decatur passed a referendum adopting a council-manager form of government, with two at-large districts for the city council and three single-member ones. The catch was that the new plan would eliminate the city’s only majority-black district. In 2011, the city submitted the change for federal approval under Section 5. After DOJ requested more information, Decatur withdrew its submission. The new plan seemed dead. But following the Shelby decision, the new system is set to go into effect. (It’s now being challenged in court by voting rights lawyers in Alabama.) As a result, the city’s lone black councilman, Billy Jackson, may soon be out of a job.

Despite these developments, new legislation to update Section 4 is stalled in Congress. Few Republicans—including the fifty-seven House Republicans who voted for the VRA’s overwhelming reauthorization in 2006 and are still serving—are willing to support it. Eric Cantor, whose backing would have been critical to the bill’s passage, will soon be leaving Congress.

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Cantor was one of three Republicans who traveled with John Lewis and David Goodman on a congressional pilgrimage to Mississippi in March to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer. “He was very moved by the story of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner,” Goodman said. Cantor told Goodman: “This voting issue is not a partisan issue.” It didn’t used to be, but now it is.

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. No hearing is currently scheduled in the House. House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte is said to believe that a remedy for the Supreme Court’s decision is not needed. Past history and present circumstances suggest otherwise.

 

Read Next: Ari Berman on how Eric Cantor's defeat is bad news for the Voting Rights Act

It’s Time for the Department of Education to Dump Sallie Mae

Students Not Customers

A banner at a protest at Cooper Union in New York City on December 8, 2012 (Flickr/Michael Fleshman)

This piece originally appeared at Youngist and is reposted here with permission.

For more than year, the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP)—alongside coalition partners, including the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and the US Student Association—has been calling for the Department of Education to cancel its $100 million annual contract with Sallie Mae. But the department has claimed that no “wholesale” violation occurred that would justify ending the contract.

Last year, only after three hundred students demanded that Secretary Arne Duncan meet with them at the US Student Association’s Legislative Conference in March 2013, SLAP students were given a meeting with senior officials at the Department of Education. In this meeting, Secretary Arne Duncan stated that the Department wouldn’t do business with corporations that broke the law.

But, it’s clear that Sallie Mae broke the law. On May 13, 2014, Sallie Mae reached settlements with the Department of Justice and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to pay $97 million in fines and restitution to student loan borrowers for violating multiple federal laws. With these settlements, federal agencies are fining Sallie Mae for overcharging active-duty service members on interest rates, deceiving borrowers when processing payments, and engaging in discriminatory practices.

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Students are now calling for an immediate end to this contract with new outrageous evidence from federal investigators. The Department of Justice described Sallie Mae’s conduct as “intentional” and “willful”—yet the Department of Education has taken no action. Students are continuing the fight for a debt-free future by urging Secretary Duncan to stop spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars on a company that breaks the law.

Secretary Duncan’s colleagues from other federal agencies have found that Sallie Mae has cheated borrowers. Over 50,000 people have taken action to tell the Department that they’ve had enough! It’s time for students to keep up the pressure on Secretary Duncan to cut the department’s contract with Sallie Mae. This summer, the fight continues as students and borrowers unite to make the Department of Education work for us!

 

Read Next: How women are shaping the labor movement and winning big

My ‘Real’ Family Values

SEIU

SEIU union member Mary McNutt (C) and other state workers protest outside State Capitol, Sacremento, CA 2009 (Reuters/Max Whittaker)

In President Obama’s own words, too many American workplaces resemble scenes from Mad Men. Many employers’ attitudes toward family-friendly reforms seem to stem from the same unenlightened era—that is, at least, until they see the bottom-line results that these reforms can inspire. For a nation that claims to value family, the United States has an abysmal record on family-friendly workplace policies. Without access to maternity and paternity leave, affordable childcare and paid sick leave, working parents have almost no flexibility to balance the needs of their families with the requirements of their jobs. In short, when it comes to family-friendly labor policies, America is, indeed, exceptional—exceptionally backward.

Take paid sick days. As I’ve written previously, more than 40 million Americans, mostly low-income workers, lack access to paid sick leave. No matter how ill they are, they must clock in—and they could lose their jobs if they stay home to care for a sick child or aging parent. Meanwhile, childcare remains prohibitively expensive, and the United States has yet to enact universal pre-K, all of which leave even middle-class working parents with few affordable options for their little ones.

Paid sick days are overwhelmingly popular across ideological lines. Ninety-six percent of Democrats, 87 percent of independents and 73 percent of Republicans support the policy. Moreover, this popularity is supported by the data. Five years after the 2004 implementation of California’s Paid Family Leave program, for example, employers reported a neutral or positive affect on employee productivity, profitability and turnover. New Jersey’s program saved businesses money by improving employee retention, decreasing turnover and boosting productivity. Also, it’s simply common sense. The chief lobbyist against the paid sick leave bill in San Francisco told Businessweek that, among various workplace reforms, paid sick leave offers “the best public policy for the least cost. Do you want your server coughing over your food?”

Then there’s maternity and paternity leave. Today, around 2 million men stay at home to raise their children. Beyond that, even the masses of men who aren’t primary caregivers are increasingly involved in the details of childrearing. But while men are more hands-on than ever before, they are nevertheless experiencing more conflict between their work and family roles than they did thirty years ago.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, many, but not all, employees are allowed to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for things like illness and the birth of a child, without the risk of losing their jobs. However, up to 40 percent of workers do not meet the law’s strict eligibility requirements. The United States is the only Western country that does not mandate paid maternity leave—and just 14 percent of employers offer paid leave for new fathers. Moreover, while new mothers physically have no choice but to take at least some time off—even at the risk of losing pay or even their jobs—one study found that 86 percent of working fathers would not use paternity leave unless they were paid at least 70 percent of their salaries. The same study revealed that fathers generally take a meager two weeks off from work after the birth of a new child.

Many business groups complain that offering flexibility to their employees will hurt the bottom line, but this is short-sighted. As the data in California and New Jersey show, workplace flexibility makes economic sense, and it allows companies to attract and retain talent. In fact, cities that have implemented paid leave have seen improved worker morale, increased productivity, and small and large business growth.

But businesses can’t act alone. That’s why on June 9, the White House convened a group of fathers, researchers and business leaders—including New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, who missed Opening Day this season to be present for the birth of his son—to discuss the challenges working dads face. The event was a precursor to the White House Working Families Summit on June 23, which is bringing together parents, employers and elected officials to discuss how to make the workplace more fair for working families. While Murphy, who is taking paternity leave, may be the exception to the rule, high-profile fathers like him can help elevate the issue and generate support for smart, sane policies.

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There’s no shortage of ideas. Cities and states across the country—Mayor Bill de Blasio’s New York City, in particular—are enacting laws like paid sick leave and universal pre-K. Several bills are in fact circulating at the federal level, including the FAMILY Act, sponsored by Democrats Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (CT). The bill would provide partial income for up to twelve weeks of leave for new parents and to care for a sick family member or a worker’s own medical condition. And research from Demos shows that President Obama could help 8 million workers—70 percent of whom are women—by issuing an executive order to raise the minimum wage for employees working for federal contractors. It’s a good start, but it’s still a long way from where we need to go.

While Republicans traffic in the self-righteous language of family values, they have, without a hint of irony, long opposed pro-family policies like paid maternity leave and affordable childcare. And as long as workplace flexibility is seen as a women’s issue, it will continue to be easy for them to obstruct progress. But now, as more fathers—including those, like MLB’s Daniel Murphy, engaged in those most American of pursuits—struggle to balance the competing demands of work and family, the political winds may shift in favor of humane, commonsense workplace flexibility laws for all Americans. That’s how we can really translate “family values” into valuing families.

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Stephen Cohen: On Violence in Ukraine

Protest in Ukraine

About a hundred Ukrainian protesters hurled eggs and paint at the Russian Embassy in Kiev on June 14. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

On The John Batchelor Show, Russian historian and Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen discussed two recent and unsettling events in Ukraine: a spontaneous gas pipeline explosion in central Ukraine and a Ukrainian-led civilian assault on the Russian embassy. Because the explosion, argues Cohen, would benefit neither the Russian government nor the Kiev government, Cohen predicted that “extreme ultranationalists” are responsible. “Assuming it wasn’t an accident,” Cohen says, “I would have to say it was one of these groups.” Later in the show, Cohen critiqued the mob attack on the Russian embassy, where cars where overturned, windows smashed and the Russian flag torn in two. Asserting that all embassies are entitled to full safety and sanctuary, Cohen voiced extreme disappointment that neither the Kiev government nor any other Western states had issued a strong disapproval of this attack.
Alana de Hinojosa

Will Rick Perry’s Comedy Show Be Renewed for Another Season?

Rick Perry

Republican presidential candidate, Texas Governor Rick Perry, steps off his campaign bus as he visits the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, Monday, August 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Back in 2012, Texas Governor Rick Perry provided political junkies with the equivalent of a nonstop laff-athon, punctuating his campaign with bumbles, clunkers, oops!es, and other classic gaffes. Well, get your popcorn ready. He’s back.

It’s hard to dismiss out of hand the governor of one of America’s biggest states, especially when that state is Texas, the very anchor of the Republican party’s presidential coalition. And Perry, with his corn-pone style and self-deprecating humor, is hard to pin down ideologically: Is he part of the Tea Party–aligned, anti-establishment movement that may or may not topple Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran tomorrow? Well, no, not quite. Is he part of the GOP’s Chamber of Commerce–loving, Wall Street–backed business wing that took advantage of Eric Cantor’s defeat to elevate another center-right, pro-business Republican in his place in the House of Representatives? Not exactly. Theoretically, at least, Perry might be considered capable of appealing to both sides in the Republican civil war. Unfortunately for Perry and for the GOP, however, Perry is a goofball who isn’t likely to get much traction.

Still, with new, “hip” intellectual glasses perched on his nose, Perry is making news. Perhaps it’s because Perry’s sheer goofiness makes him a good story, and perhaps it’s because the Republican field for 2016 has no clear front-runner, but consider Perry’s headline-making week and it’s clear that the Texas governor is on a roll, at least in the media. In Time: “Rick Perry Getting Ready for a 2016 Presidential Campaign.” In The Daily Beast: “Rick Perry, Humbled by His ‘Oops,’ May Be Ready This Time.” In Commentary: “Erasing the ‘Oops’: Perry Mulls a 2016 Bid.” And The Washington Post: “Rick Perry Says He’ll Be ‘Better Prepared’ to Run in 2016.”

Let’s be clear: Perry has no national political base, no apparent network for fundraising, no clear ties to any major GOP faction—except for his weirdly close relationship with Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana—and no evident plan to run for president. But he says he’s ready. During his comments at a Christian Science Monitor–sponsored breakfast last week in Washington, the event that generated all the Perry-is-ready headlines, he said:

Preparation is the single most important lesson that I learned out of that process [in 2012], and over the last 18 months, I have focused on being substantially better prepared.

But being ready doesn’t mean being gaffe-free, at least if you’re Perry. The week before, speaking in San Francisco at the Commonwealth Club of California, soon after the Ted Cruz–dominated Texas Republican party officially lent its support to “reparative therapy” for gays, Perry blundered head-first into an issue he’s stumbled around for many years, namely, homosexuality:

Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that.… I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way.

Oops! At the Monitor breakfast, Perry allowed as how he had “stepped right in it” with those remarks. Instead of saying “oops,” he said:

“I got asked about an issue, and instead of saying, ‘You know what, we need to be a really respectful and tolerant country, and get back to talking about, whether you’re gay or straight you need to be having a job, and those are the focuses I want to be involved with,’ instead of getting—which I did, I readily admit, I stepped right in it.”

Still, appearing on CNN’s Crossfire, Perry didn’t take back his remarks, standing by them but noting that he wished he’d focused instead on Texas’ economic record. But Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, took the opportunity to say that he strongly disagrees with Perry, and Perry’s remark was ridiculed by Jon Stewart and by Funny or Die, among countless others.

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InThe New York Times magazine, Perry was given an apparently serious treatment (“In person, Perry is commanding and confident and hardly comes off as a YouTube buffoon”), but in the end he still came across as, well, quirky—especially for someone the The Daily Caller describes as a “nondenominational Christian who was baptized at an evangelical megachurch in Austin”:

“I’m more Jewish than you think I am. I read the part of the Bible that said the Jews are God’s chosen people.”

And some of the piece made Perry appear just plain comical in his sheer earnestness:

He is clearly in a self-improvement phase—doing things like attending the World Economic Forum in Davos and meeting with conservative economists and foreign-policy experts like John Taylor and George Shultz at Hoover. “All of that makes me a better person,” Perry said.

Aside from all that, Perry has views that will attract Republican support: he denies climate change (“scientists have manipulated data to kee the money rolling in”), hates Obamacare (“a criminal act”), doesn’t want immigrants, despises government regulations (“a moratorium on all regulations”) and wants to abolish lots of government agencies. (If he runs again, this time it will be even more than three, taxing his memory cells even further.)

 

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Will Mary Landrieu Engage the ‘War on Women’ in the Louisiana Senate Race?

Mary Landrieu

Senator Mary Landrieu, D-LA, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, File)

There isn’t much to see driving south on Evangeline Throughway through Lafayette, Louisiana, besides a few dilapidated houses and, at the intersection with 10th Street, a bright red billboard. A photo of Senator Mary Landrieu in a red jacket, her blond hair swept across her forehead, fills its right side. “100% pro-abortion voting record,” the billboard reads, and directs passerby to a website titled “Too Extreme for Louisiana.”

Landrieu’s campaign is one of the closest and most closely watched contests of the midterm elections, as it could decide which party controls the Senate. Louisiana has no primaries, so Landrieu is in a four-way scrum to avoid a runoff. Her main competition is Bill Cassidy, a Republican congressman and doctor. Conventional wisdom says that Obamacare and energy are the key issues for voters in Louisiana, where Barack Obama is deeply unpopular and petrochemical interests have a stranglehold on state politics.

There’s little daylight between Landrieu and Cassidy in their stance on energy and business—so little that many of the industry groups known for supporting establishment Republicans are betting on Landrieu and the weight she pulls as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The politics around Obamacare are shifting in Landrieu’s favor, too. Just last week the state’s Republican senator David Vitter passed on an opportunity to hit for Cassidy—whom he supports—when he said he might be open to expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.

In this heavily Catholic state, women’s health could prove a more meaningful point of divergence between the candidates. Cassidy is deeply conservative when it comes to abortion; he opposes it even in cases of rape and incest. On Sunday, members of his staff attended an annual breakfast in Baton Rouge sponsored by Right to Life, the group responsible for the anti-Landrieu billboard in Lafayette as well as several others in Shreveport and on the interstate that runs through Southern Louisiana. The Susan B. Anthony List plans to spend more than $1 million against Landrieu on a ground campaign and its own ads, which describe Landrieu’s vote for the Affordable Care Act as a vote for “taxpayer-funded abortion.”

Access to abortion has become increasingly restricted in Louisiana, as it has in other midterm battlegrounds like North Carolina. In early June, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal stood in front of a Baptist church in the city of Monroe and signed a bill that could shutter most of the state’s abortion clinics, in an echo of provisions passed in Texas, Mississippi and Alabama in recent years. The law, which requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, emerged in a legislative session that failed to advance several measures intended to support women’s health and economic security, including the Medicaid expansion, a minimum-wage increase and an equal pay act.

Democrats in other swing states are highlighting these kinds of attacks on women as an illustration of the GOP’s extremism, but so far Landrieu has not made gender an issue in her campaign. In North Carolina, Kay Hagan is targeting female voters in her race against Tom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House whose accomplishments include the infamous “motorcycle abortion bill.” Colorado senator Mark Udall has a new ad out highlighting his opponent’s anti-choice record. In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes hammered Mitch McConnell for being “on the wrong side of every woman’s issue out there.” In turn, the Democrats’ bid to keep the Senate is getting a boost from liberal women’s groups like Planned Parenthood Action Fund and EMILY’s LIST, who are putting millions behind female candidates, Hagan in particular.

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The political landscape is very different for Landrieu. “In other circumstances, she could make inroads with conservative women who care about women’s issues. But if she can be construed as part of establishment that is pro-choice, that trumps everything,” said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

Cross credits Louisiana’s sharp rightward turn in the last decade not only to anti-Obama sentiment but also to the GOP’s leveraging of religion to flip voters in the heavily Catholic south- and central-western parishes known as French Acadiana, formerly a blue stronghold.

“The Republican Party picked that lock by appealing to voters on the basis of abortion,” said Cross. “Catholics [in Louisiana] are now voting in majorities for Republicans, which is something they had never done before.” That switch was evident in the 2008 presidential election, in which 70 percent of Louisiana Catholics voted for John McCain.

In this context, it makes sense that Landrieu would try to avoid a conversation about abortion. She describes her own stance as centrist; she supported a late-term abortion ban, but otherwise has defended abortion rights on the principle of separation of church and state. It was on that basis that she called the new restrictions signed by Jindal “very troubling,” arguing that “the last place the government needs to be is in the church, in the doctor’s office or in the bedroom.”

Still, given that Democrats see women as being key to the control of the Senate, it’s notable that Landrieu isn’t yet aggressively courting female voters via her record on less controversial issues like equal pay legislation, which she has pushed for. So far she’s chosen instead to paint herself strictly as a gender-neutral champion of the oil and gas industry, and the black sheep of the Democratic Party. As a result, she is not drawing on the support of the liberal groups playing heavily in other states. She is the only female Democratic incumbent in the Senate who has not been endorsed by EMILY’s list. Planned Parenthood Action is also not supporting her campaign at this point, though a spokesperson said the group is “keeping an eye” on the race.

Meanwhile, conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity are trying to speak to Louisiana’s women via targeted ads, and Cassidy has indicated that he’ll put abortion front and center. One recent poll showed Landrieu losing ground among white female Democrats. As the race picks up, it will be interesting to see whether Landrieu engages in a fiercer fight for this constituency.

 

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