Paul Ryan’s CPAC speech yesterday was almost comically offensive even before it became clear that it was based on a lie.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the speech itself, in which Ryan denounced the left for offering people “a full stomach—and an empty soul.” Discussing the moral squalor of free school lunch programs, Ryan retold a story he heard from Eloise Anderson, a former single mother on assistance who became a hero to the right by calling for the abolishment of welfare (she’s now a member of Scott Walker’s cabinet). It was about a boy Anderson had ostensibly met who didn’t want a free government lunch. “He wanted his own lunch—one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids’,” said Ryan. “He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him.”
Ryan’s words would have been nasty even if the underlying story were true. Do parents whose kids get subsidized school lunches not care for them? Does Ryan really think their souls are empty? Last night, however, The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler reported that the anecdote Ryan used was actually ripped out of context from the bestselling book An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny. The book is about the friendship between author Laura Schroff and Maurice Mazyck, whom Schroff met when he was begging on the street. At one point, she made him school lunches every day and left them with her doorman to pick up on the way to school. In a heartbreaking passage, Mazyck asked her to put them in a brown paper bag like the ones all the other kids had.
Anderson’s communication’s director now admits that she never actually spoke to Mazyck, though she appropriated his story when she testified last year at a congressional hearing chaired by Ryan. As it happens, Schroff and Mazyck have partnered with an organization called No Kid Hungry that, among other things, works to connect poor children to free school meals. “[A] simple inquiry would have determined that the person telling the story actually is an advocate for the federal programs that Ryan now claims leaves people with ‘a full stomach and an empty soul,’” writes Kessler, describing it as a story “too good to check.”
That in itself is telling, since even in it’s apocryphal version, it’s not that good of a story. After all, it’s not as if liberals think that free school lunches are better than homemade ones. The argument for free school lunches are that they are better than no lunch at all. The implication of Ryan’s “full stomach…empty soul” line is that he disagrees. He just knows better than to say so outright, and so he needs to hide behind an imaginary poor child.
Read Next: “The Battle Hymn of the War on Poverty”, by Sasha Abramsky
The hard-right audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was expected to give Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and not exactly the Tea Party’s friend, a cool reception on Thursday. After all, in 2013 Christie wasn’t even invited to CPAC, and he’s earned a reputation as the establishment’s candidate, not the ally of the insurgent conservatives who fill CPAC’s ranks. Besides, outside in the hall his critics were evident, including John Bloom, a right-wing activist from Newport News, Virginia, holding a sign that read: “Walkout protest of Gov. Traffic Jam,” and who called Christie a “big-government Republican.” And, only that morning, The Washington Post ran a poll saying that 30 percent of Republican voters and 35 percent of conservatives wouldn’t consider voting for him.
But, confounding expectations, Christie entered the hall—to address a gathering of perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 people, by Christie Watch’s rough count—to rousing applause, whoops and hollers and a lengthy standing ovation.
Other presidential contenders who spoke today, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, were welcomed warmly, but it did appear that the beleaguered New Jersey governor was the star of the show. Perhaps it was because, as some attendees explained to Christie Watch, they thought Christie is being treated unfairly by Democrats and by the media. Or perhaps they identified with Christie’s bullying, tough-guy image, as others said. But whatever it was, Christie bathed in the applause, and he launched into a spirited account of his past efforts in New Jersey to confront unions, slash public pensions and take on teachers and other public employees.
But his core message, clearly aimed at skeptical conservatives who’d rather go with their hearts and back Cruz or Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who speaks on Friday, is that he can win a general election—and, by implication, they can’t:
We don’t get to govern if we don’t win. And they [the Democrats] do. Let’s come out of this conference resolved to win elections again.
By contrast, Senator Cruz, speaking earlier, urged CPAC attendees to support people who, like him, are fiercely loyal to hard-right policies and politics. In 1996, 2008 and 2012, said Cruz, the Republican party ran people who “don’t stand for anything,” and he joked: “All of us remember President Dole, President McCain and President Romney.”
In the hallways and in the exhibition hall, a Christie Watch reporter spoke to dozens of conference participants and, to the reporter’s surprise, quite a few were either enthusiastic or supportive of Christie. “We need a strong candidate who can go up against Hillary,” said Mary Reilly, a speech therapist from Virginia. “Christie might not be everything on every issue, but we need someone who can win. If he makes it through this current trouble, I think he’ll be the candidate.” Similarly, Dick Stabile, 73, a retired pharmacist from Pennsylvania who called himself “a Tea Party guy,” said:
I like Christie because he fights back. Romney was called a lot of names, and he never said squat. Christie would punch back. He’s a guy who doesn’t put up with stuff. He understands that the way the left goes after you is to destroy you personally, that he closed bridges. But he is one of the few who will counterattack. Romney had rich-man’s disease. His mother told him all the time, if someone hit him, “Let it go. We’re better than them.” Christie’s mother was a New Jersey Italian, and if Christie came back bloody from school, she’d say, “Good.”
Helen Davis, a retired air force officer from Virginia who’s planning to join a Tea Party group, said she likes what the country’s Republican governors are doing, especially Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who’s eviscerated the public-employee unions. (Walker, involved in a bitter re-election fight, isn’t appearing at CPAC.) On Christie, she said: “For me, what I heard is he made tough decisions in New Jersey, decisions that weren’t popular.” Asked why Christie got the reception that he did, she added: “They appreciate that he says what he thinks.”
To be sure—besides the activist who tried to organize a walkout against Christie, to little effect—the New Jersey governor had his strong critics and outright opponents in the crowd. Sylvia Strauss, from Bergen County, New Jersey, who said she’s with the Tea Party, said: “I despise Christie. He’s a phony. He’s part of the establishment. I don’t like the way he hangs around with Democrats, trying to show he’s with all the people.” Kristian Kramford, from Kernersville, North Carolina, said: “I’m not a Chris Christie fan. He’s not conservative enough for me.” And Carmen Villani, from Chantilly, Virginia, said, “I’m not sure he’s embracing conservative principles.” Villani is backing Cruz, at least for now. But he added: “Christie was obviously a popular speaker today, judging by the fact that the hall was full and by the applause he got.”
In any case, Christie did indeed get a stirring reception, and if a couple of dozen interviews means anything, there’s a reservoir of support for him among at least half or more of the attendees at a hard-core conservative conference.
However, with strong Wall Street support, the backing of the Republican party’s deep-pocketed contributors, and a national base as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie is certainly one of the party’s establishment representatives. Cruz, on the other hand, appeals strongly to the party’s insurgent wing, and in his speech at CPAC Cruz struck a remarkably populist tone, with lines that wouldn’t be out of place at a Bill de Blasio rally. In between his rants about Obamacare, calls to repeal Dodd-Frank, and balance the federal budget, Cruz said that under Obama, “Wall Street prospers, and Main Street suffers.” And, he said, “We need to eliminate corporate welfare and crony capitalism.” For good measure, he added that members of Congress who leave office should be slapped with a “lifetime ban on lobbying.”
Not something Republicans are likely to hear from Chris Christie anytime soon.
Meanwhile, John Rhodes, 52, a financial consultant from Germantown, North Carolina, and a fan of Ted Cruz, complained to Christie Watch that Cruz would have a hard time winning because the left-leaning, mainstream media would bring him down. Paradoxically, though, he believes that the media is going after Christie because they perceive him as the most credible opponent of the Democratic candidate in 2016. “The media thinks he’s a threat, and they want to knock him out. They perceive him as the threat to Clinton.”
The most important inequality-related news of the week was the release of a new IMF report that found that lower inequality is correlated with faster growth. This marked an amazing reversal. The IMF made itself notorious over the years through its strong support of anti-equality economic policies such as austerity budgets and radically weakened labor laws—all in the name of economic growth and development.
But this week, the organization finally admitted that such policies aren’t associated with growth, after all. Indeed, according to their study, “redistribution appears generally benign in terms of its impact on growth” (emphasis theirs). Oops!
The IMF is hardly alone in taking this position. Unsurprisingly, conservative economists and pundits continue to insist that high levels of inequality are necessary for economic growth—you don’t want things so equal that those sainted “job creators” go Galt on you, do you? But a growing number of economists are coming to believe the opposite.
Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, for example, argue that inequality has slowed growth. Late last year, Jared Bernstein wrote this excellent report about the impact of inequality on growth. The report zeroes in on three theories about the relationship between growth and inequality that are particularly promising.
First, there are the demand-side theories. These theories are based on differences in marginal propensity to consume among different income groups. We know that low-income consumers are more likely to spend every last dollar, while high-income consumers tend to save. The idea is that, in a high-inequality economy, there’s less spending, and hence less growth, because the non-rich have lower incomes and thus less money to spend. In this paper, economists Heather Boushey and Adam Hersh cite research supporting this theory.
Second, there are political economy theories. According to this model, high levels of inequality cause the political process to “become increasingly solicitous of the preferences of the wealthy.” These preferences include what Bernstein refers to as “anti-Keynesianism and pro-austerity fiscal policies resulting in slack labor markets and output gaps”—in other words, macroeconomic policies associated with slow growth. Research by political scientists such as Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens, which shows that Congress tends to be extremely responsive to the preferences of wealthy constituents and far less so to everyone else, lends support to this interpretation.
Finally, there are inequality and credit busts. This theory holds that growing inequality causes low- and middle-wage incomes to stagnate. To keep from losing ground, many low- and middle-wage earners rely on credit and go into debt. At the same time, high-income households have more money and seek more investment opportunities. Both these developments—rising debt, and the increasing demand for investment opportunities—lead to risky financial innovations and a growing financial sector. Instability in financial markets results, and there are crashes and a “credit bubble-and-bust” cycle. This IMF paper by Michael Kumhof and Romain Rancière and this working paper by economists Barry Z. Cynamon and Steven M. Fazzari explore this theory.
Now, back to that new IMF paper I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The study, which examines a number of countries over many years, doesn’t control for variables like private debt or political representation, so it’s hard to say which of the theories best fit the data. The most you could say is that the data is not inconsistent with the demand story.
The more important question concerning this research is how the IMF will use it. In recent years, the IMF has undertaken some welcome progressive reforms. Unfortunately, however, it’s still blinkered by a neoliberal ideology that advocates slashing taxes for the rich while balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and the middle class.
But now it’s released its own highly publicized research showing that equality is associated with faster growth. The implication is clear: new IMF development policies should recommend redistribution and investments in public goods like health, education and infrastructure. Similar policies are working in Bolivia, to name one country that’s had great success reducing inequality and growing the economy through redistribution. What is the IMF waiting for?
Read Next: Kathleen Geier on how inequality kills
There’s been a lot of talk about trigger warnings lately, now that the practice of giving essentially a heads-up on potentially triggering content has leaped from feminist blogs and online spaces to college classrooms. The New Republic reports that the University of California, Santa Barbara “passed a resolution urging officials to institute mandatory trigger warnings on class syllabi.” Oberlin similarly has an official document on triggers that advises faculty to remove material from the classroom that could potentially trigger students and to make triggering content optional.
Here is what smart feminists have said:
Jill Filipovic: “[T]here is the fact that the universe does not treat its members as if they come hand-delivered in a box clearly marked “fragile”. The world can be a desperately ugly place, especially for women. That feminist blogs try to carve out a little section of the world that is a teeny bit safer for their readers is a credit to many of those spaces. Colleges, though, are not intellectual or emotional safe zones. Nor should they be.”
Tressie McMillan Cottom: “[N]o one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.”
Melissa McEwan: “Being triggered does not mean “being upset” or “being offended” or “being angry,” or any other euphemism people who roll their eyes long-sufferingly in the direction of trigger warnings tend to imagine it to mean. Being triggered has a very specific meaning that relates to evoking a physical and/or emotional response to a survived trauma or sustained systemic abuse…. Speaking about trigger warnings as though they exist for the purposes of indulging fragile sensibilities fundamentally misses their purpose: To mitigate harm.”
Roxane Gay (2012): “Intellectually, I understand why trigger warnings are necessary for some people. I understand that painful experiences are all too often threatening to break the skin. Seeing or feeling yourself come apart is terrifying. This is the truth of my trouble with trigger warnings: there is nothing words on the screen can do that has not already been done. A visceral reaction to a trigger is nothing compared to the actual experience that created the trigger. I don’t know how to see beyond this belief to truly get why trigger warnings are necessary. When I see trigger warnings, I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel protected. Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
I tend to come down with Gay—I understand why some people need and want trigger warnings. I imagine, as McEwan points out, that they do mitigate some harm. Editors and moderators of certain spaces—especially feminist ones—know that triggering topics come up often, and that some of their readers have trauma related to these issues. Giving readers a heads-up gives them the choice to opt out.
So where we can help, we should. Trigger warnings and content notices in “accountable spaces” on obvious distressing content like graphic depictions of sexual assault and violence are not difficult to do and can save trauma survivors from pain.
But as someone who has had PTSD, I know that a triggering event can be so individual, so specific, that there is no anticipating it. Last year, a position in yoga class gave me a panic attack because it so closely resembled the position I was in when I had an emergency C-section. Last night—for the first time in over a year—I had a flashback. It took me an over an hour to realize that the trigger was an incessant distant beeping coming from a neighbor’s fire alarm, which sounded like the beeping of my then-two-pound daughter’s heart and oxygen monitors. There is no trigger warning for that. There is no trigger warning for living your life.
Read Next: Jessica Valenti on feminism and the empowerment elite
Cumulative student loan debt in the United States has reached an astonishing $1.2 trillion, and it’s rising quickly. It shot up 20 percent just from the end of 2011 to May 2013, faster than even the growth of revolving credit products like credit cards. On average, the student loan debt held by 25-year-olds has gone up 91 percent in the past decade. The problem is exacerbated by tough economic times—nearly one-third of borrowers who have begun repayment are seriously delinquent.
And, as is true of so many issues, Congress has struggled to do anything substantial to solve the problem. Last summer, after it failed to come up with new student loan lending laws, Congress at the last minute prevented student loan interest rates from doubling, but only for new borrowers—no doubt a good move, but tiny in the face of such a large problem. Democrats also attached a measure to the Affordable Care Act that limits repayments to 10 percent of income and forgives debt after twenty years, which is beneficial but similarly a decidedly small-ball approach to the crisis.
Most higher education analysts agree drastic measures are needed—and to that end, a new coalition launched this week that aims to push forward radical ideas on how to both reduce the current student loan debt burden, but also make college more affordable going forward.
The “Higher Ed Not Debt” campaign is a coalition made up of a wide variety of groups: big unions (ranging from education unions like AFT and NEA, to bigger labor groups like the AFL-CIO, SEIU and AFSCME) to standard progressive organizing outfits (Progress Now, Working America and Jobs With Justice, to name a few) to big think tanks like the Center for American Progress and Demos.
It has four essential goals:
Provide support to borrowers now paying off the $1.2 trillion in student loan debt.
Change state funding and financial aid structures to address both the declining quality and increasing cost of higher education.
Address the role of Wall Street in the increasing financialization of student loan products, as well as the privatization of funding outlets.
Civic engagement and education on what it means to take on student debt, and how to push legislators to find better answers.
Higher Ed Not Debt’s roadmap is pretty broad—maybe dangerously so, unless they really have the funding, manpower, and wherewithal to pull it off. The coalition will produce extensive reporting and research on the higher education crisis and particularly Wall Street’s role, and also—presumably with the help of the aforementioned think tanks—produce concrete policy proposals. It will naturally have a communications strategy to push out the message, alongside a grassroots organizing push in at least five states to recruit citizens to demand action. Finally, the group plans to get involved in elections to push candidates towards its preferred solutions.
The campaign launched Thursday at the Center for American Progress with some big-name speakers: Senator Elizabeth Warren and AFT President Randi Weingarten.
Warren took a broad approach to the crisis, noting one fundamental problem: only the wealthy are able to avoid the student debt crisis. “If you’re not rich in America, college costs more. It costs more because you have to borrow the money, and pay and pay and pay,” she said. “As a matter of federal policy, we’ve penalized those young people by saying ‘You’re going to pay more for your education than people who have the blessing of being born to a family that can pay for it up front.’”
She noted that the federal government profits from this arrangement—based on the loans made between 2007 and 2012, the Treasury will bank $66 billion in profits. Warren pushed several proposals that for now are stuck in the Senate, but that the campaign aims to prop up.
One such idea is to enact the Buffet Rule, which closes tax loopholes for the wealthy, and use the money to reduce student interest loan rates. Warren is working with Democratic Senators Dick Durbin, Jack Reed, and Kirstin Gillibrand on a bill that would take the savings from the Buffet Rule and allow students currently holding loan debt to refinance down to 3.86 percent—and if enough savings were brought in from the Buffet Rule where all students could do that and there was still money left over, then allow for refinancing at an even lower rate.
“I think about it this way because I think about the choice America makes. Think about this. Right now in order to finance United States government, we take in billions of dollars in profits off student loans, but permit billionaires to have enough loopholes that they pay at tax rates that can be lower than those of their secretaries,” she said. “It’s about values. Where, as a country, do we believe we should make our investments? Follow the money on this. Invest in billionaires or invest in students. Well I want to put my money on students.”
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy picks apart de Blasio’s lukewarm war on charter schools.
President Obama has denounced Russia’s military intervention in Crimea, calling it a “breach of international law.” Russia’s actions deserve criticism but, as a new campaign from RootsAction points out, the United States is hardly beyond reproach. Despite protestations from around the globe, our government routinely violates international law with drone strikes and missile attacks in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Sign RootsAction’s petition calling on President Obama to end the United States’s own violations of international law.
In her column for the Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel calls for a sane, common sense approach to the crisis in Ukraine.
On CNN’s Amanpour this week, vanden Heuvel reiterated her call for diplomacy and for “some sober perspective” from politicians in the Unites States, Russia and Ukraine.
This weekend marks the thirty-seventh annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament at the Brooklyn Marriott, where hundreds of the nation’s speediest and most competitive solvers gather to test their mettle. In past years, we’ve been able to bring back reports from the world of cruciverbalism, but unfortunately we’re both sitting it out this year.
Still, for those with an interest in vanilla (i.e., non-cryptic) crossword puzzles, the ACPT is one of the highlights of the calendar. Run by Will Shortz, it features puzzles by some of the most ingenious and challenging constructors around, and allows ordinary solvers a chance to see how they fare under tournament conditions.
Those conditions are simple but stringent. The competition consists of seven crossword puzzles, ranging in difficulty from a fairly simple Monday or Tuesday level 15x15 (which the top solvers can generally knock out in three minutes) to mind-crunching inventions with gimmicks that can stop even hardened competitors in their tracks. The scoring is based on a combination of speed and accuracy; most of the top finishers get through all seven puzzles without a mistake, but some of the most lightning-fast solvers have been known to make up for an error by getting through subsequent puzzles even more swiftly.
For everyday solvers, ACPT is an opportunity not only to observe the champions in action (the final playoff round of the tournament takes place in full view of an audience, on oversized whiteboards) but to set and meet individual personal goals—breaking into the top 100, for example, or outpacing last year’s performance. For crossword fans, it’s also an occasion for stargazing (within admittedly nerdy parameters). If there is a constructor whose work you’ve admired over the years, or even just once, it’s a pretty safe bet that he or she will be in attendance, and be happy to talk puzzles with you.
Have you attended ACPT? What was your experience? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail.
Under the new mayor and police commissioner, New York City is arresting fewer people overall, but way more panhandlers and peddlers. According to Joseph Goldstein and J. David Goodman in The New York Times:
In the first two months of the year, arrests of peddlers and panhandlers on subways have more than tripled over the same period last year, with the police recording 274 such arrests as of March 2. By this point last year, they had made 90 such arrests.… Police statistics also indicate a noticeable spike in arrests for low-level violations in public housing developments. On New York City Housing Authority property, arrests for felonies are down nearly 5 percent and arrests for misdemeanors are nearly flat. But arrests for violations—a category of infractions that includes drinking beer in public and riding a bike on the sidewalk—has increased by more than 21 percent.
The Times also points out that stop-and-frisk encounters, which decreased dramaticallty in 2013, fell by an incredible amount so far in 2014, from 5,983 year-to-date last year to 353 so far this year. Overall arrests are also down. And the information on subway busts is public only because Commissioner William Bratton decided to be more transparent than his predecessor, Ray Kelly, had been.
Given that stops and arrests are down overall, and that crime is lower so far this year compared to last, what does the uptick in peddler/panhandler arrests mean?
When there’s a pronounced increase in a particular kind of enforcement, sometimes it’s a response to what cops call “conditions”—problems that have been identified in a command (e.g., there’s a slew of complaints about bar patrons getting rowdy on their way home, so the cops establish a presence near the watering holes at closing time). That could be what’s behind these numbers, though subway crime overall was down last year.
On their face, of course, the numbers conjure up memories of Bratton’s first stint as top cop, in the first years of the Giuliani administration, when mass arrests around so-called “quality of life” crimes were explained as reflecting a “broken windows” theory of urban disorder, in which tolerance for minor crimes was thought to create an atmosphere in which more serious offenses were more likely to occur.
Some, of course, look back on that era of policing fondly. Others—namely the people who have protested de Blasio’s decision to bring Bratton back to One Police Plaza—recall the “broken windows” surge in arrests as the start of an era of aggressive, racially targeted policing, eventually encompassing Howard Safir’s street crime unit and evolving into the mass-arrest, stop-and-frisk strategy of the Bloomberg years.
Here’s where a little communication by the mayor would be handy. During the campaign, he made many legitimate criticisms of the Bloomberg NYPD but had little to say about what his own approach to fighting crime would be. The VisionZero effort is an ambitious redirection of some police resources. But what’s the overall approach, and how do record arrests of people asking for change or selling candy (not for any basketball team, but just to do something positive and put money in their pocket, you might say) fit into it?
Read Next: Tom Hayden dismantles the myth of Bill Bratton’s LAPD.
Bernie Sanders says he is “prepared to run for president of the United States.” That’s not a formal announcement. A lot can change between now and 2016, and the populist senator from Vermont bristles at the whole notion of a permanent campaign. But Sanders has begun talking with savvy progressive political strategists, traveling to unexpected locations such as Alabama and entertaining the process questions that this most issue-focused member of the Senate has traditionally avoided.
In some senses, Sanders is the unlikeliest of prospects: an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate but has never joined the party, a democratic socialist in a country where many politicians fear the label “liberal,” an outspoken critic of the economic, environmental and social status quo who rips “the ruling class” and calls out the Koch brothers by name. Yet, he has served as the mayor of his state’s largest city, beaten a Republican incumbent for the US House, won and held a historically Republican Senate seat and served longer as an independent member of Congress than anyone else. And he says his political instincts tell him America is ready for a “political revolution.”
In his first extended conversation about presidential politics, Sanders discussed with The Nation the economic and environmental concerns that have led him to consider a 2016 run; the difficult question of whether to run as a Democrat or an independent; his frustration with the narrow messaging of prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton; and his sense that political and media elites are missing the signs that America is headed toward a critical juncture where electoral expectations could be exploded.
John Nichols: Are you going to run for president in 2016?
Bernie Sanders: I don’t wake up every morning, as some people here in Washington do and say, “You know, I really have to be president of the United States. I was born to be president of the United States.” What I do wake up every morning feeling is that this country faces more serious problems than at any time since the Great Depression, and there is a horrendous lack of serious political discourse or ideas out there that can address these crises, and that somebody has got to represent the working-class and the middle-class of this country in standing up to the big-money interests who have so much power over the economic and political life of this country. So I am prepared to run for president of the United States. I don’t believe that I am the only person out there who can fight this fight, but I am certainly prepared to look seriously at that race.
When you say you are “prepared to run,” that can be read in two ways. One is to say you have the credentials, the prominence, the following to seek the office. The other is to say that you are making preparations for a run. How do you parse that?
If the question is, am I actively right now organizing and raising money and so forth for a campaign for president, I am not doing that. On the other hand, am I talking to people around the country? Yes, I am. Will I be doing some traveling around the country? Yes, I will be. But I think it’s premature to be talking about (the specifics of) a campaign when we still have a 2014 congressional race in front of us.
I want to push back at some of what you are saying. Political insiders define presidential politics, and they are already hard at work, in both major parties and in the broader sense, to erect barriers to insurgent, dissident, populist campaigns. Don’t progressives who come at the process slowly run the risk of finding that everything has been locked up by the time they get serious about running?
Obviously, if I run, both in terms of the positions that I’ll be advocating, and the process itself, it will have to be a very unconventional campaign. I hear what you are saying, and I think there is truth in what you are saying. But, on the other hand, I think there is profound disgust among the American people for the conventional political process and the never-ending campaigns. If I run, my job is to help bring together the kind of coalition that can win—that can transform politics. We’ve got to bring together trade unionists and working families, our minority communities, environmentalists, young people, the women’s community, the gay community, seniors, veterans, the people who in fact are the vast majority of the American population. We’ve got to create a progressive agenda and rally people around that agenda.
I think we’ve got a message that can resonate, that people want to hear, that people need to hear. Time is very important. But I don’t think it makes sense—or that it is necessary—to start a campaign this early.
If and when you do start a full-fledged campaign, and if you want to run against conventional politics, how far do you go? Do you go to the point of running as an independent? That’s a great challenge to conventional politics, but it is also one where we have seen some honorable, some capable people stumble.
That’s an excellent question, and I haven’t reached a conclusion on that yet. Clearly, there are things to be said on both sides of that important question. Number one: there is today more and more alienation from the Republican and Democratic parties than we have seen in the modern history of this country. In fact, most people now consider themselves to be “independent,” whatever that may mean. And the number of people who identify as Democrats or Republicans is at a historically low point. In that sense, running outside the two-party system can be a positive politically.
On the other hand, given the nature of the political system, given the nature of media in America, it would be much more difficult to get adequate coverage from the mainstream media running outside of the two-party system. It would certainly be very hard if not impossible to get into debates. It would require building an entire political infrastructure outside of the two-party system: to get on the ballot, to do all the things that would be required for a serious campaign.
The question that you asked is extremely important, it requires a whole lot of discussion. It’s one that I have not answered yet.
Unspoken in your answer is the fact that you have a great discomfort with the Democratic Party as it has operated in recent decades.
Yes. It goes without saying. Since I’ve been in Congress, I have been a member of the Democratic caucus as an independent. [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid, especially, has been extremely kind to me and has treated me with enormous respect. I am now chairman of the Veterans Committee. But there is no question that the Democratic Party in general remains far too dependent on big-money interests, that it is not fighting vigorously for working-class families, and that there are some members of the Democratic Party whose views are not terribly different from some of the Republicans. That’s absolutely the case. But the dilemma is that, if you run outside of the Democratic Party, then what you’re doing—and you have to think hard about this—you’re not just running a race for president, you’re really running to build an entire political movement. In doing that, you would be taking votes away from the Democratic candidate and making it easier for some right-wing Republican to get elected—the [Ralph] Nader dilemma
You’re not really saying whether you could run as a Democrat?
I want to hear what progressives have to say about that. The more radical approach would be to run as an independent, and essentially when you’re doing that you’re not just running for president of the United States, you’re running to build a new political movement in America—which presumably would lead to other candidates running outside of the Democratic Party, essentially starting a third party. That idea has been talked about in this country for decades and decades and decades, from Eugene Debs forward—without much success. And I say that as the longest serving independent in the history of the United States Congress. In Vermont, I think we have had more success than in any other state in the country in terms of progressive third-party politics. During my tenure as mayor of Burlington, I defeated Democrats and Republicans and helped start a third-party movement. Today, there is a statewide progressive party which now has three people in the state Senate, out of 30, and a number of representatives in the state Legislature. But that process has taken 30 years. So it is not easy.
If you look back to Nader’s candidacy [in 2000], the hope of Nader was not just that he might be elected president but that he would create a strong third party. Nader was a very strong candidate, very smart, very articulate. But the strong third-party did not emerge. The fact is that is very difficult to do.
You plan to travel, to spend time with activists in the Democratic Party and outside the Democratic Party. Will you look to them for direction?
Yes. The bolder, more radical approach is obviously running outside of the two-party system. Do people believe at this particular point that there is the capability of starting a third-party movement? Or is that an idea that is simply not realistic at this particular moment in history? On the other hand, do people believe that operating in framework of the Democratic Party, getting involved in primaries state-by-state, building organization capability, rallying people, that for the moment at least that this is the better approach? Those are the options that I think progressives around the country are going to have to wrestle with. And that’s certainly something that I will be listening to.
You have always been identified as a democratic socialist. Polling suggests that Americans are not so bothered by the term, but it seems to me that our media has a really hard time with it. Is that a factor in your thinking about a presidential race?
No, that’s not a factor at all. In Vermont, people understand exactly what I mean by the word. They don’t believe that democratic socialism is akin to North Korea communism. They understand that when I talk about democratic socialism, what I’m saying is that I do not want to see the United States significantly dominated by a handful of billionaire families controlling the economic and political life of the country. That I do believe that in a democratic, civilized society, all people are entitled to health care as a right, all people are entitled to quality education as a right, all people are entitled to decent jobs and a decent income, and that we need a government which represents ordinary Americans and not just the wealthy and the powerful.
The people in Vermont know exactly when I mean, which is why I won my last election with 71 percent of the vote and carried some of the most conservative towns in the state. If I ran for president, and articulated a vision that speaks to working people, I am confident that voters in every part of this country would understand that.
The truth is that, very sadly, the corporate media ignores some of the huge accomplishments that have taken place in countries like Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway. These countries, which have a long history of democratic socialist or labor governments, have excellent and universal health care systems, excellent educational systems and they have gone a long way toward eliminating poverty and creating a far more egalitarian society than we have. I think that there are economic and social models out there that we can learn a heck of a lot from, and that’s something I would be talking about.
What you seem to be saying is that, as a presidential candidate, you would try to make the very difficult combination of not just being a personality that people would like, or at least want to vote for, but also educate people about what is possible.
My whole life in politics has been not just with passing legislation or being a good mayor or senator, but to educate people. That is why we have hundreds of thousands of people on my Senate email list, and why I send an email to all Vermonters every other week. It is why I have held hundreds of town meetings in Vermont, in virtually every town in the state.
If you ask me now what one of the major accomplishments of my political life is, it is that I helped double the voter turnout in Burlington, Vermont. I did that because people who had given up on the political process understood that I was fighting for working families, that we were paying attention to low and moderate-income neighborhoods rather than just downtown or the big-money interests. In fact, I went to war with virtually every part of the ruling class in Burlington during my years as mayor. People understood that; they said, “You know what? Bernie is standing with us. We’re going to stand with him.” The result is that large numbers of people who previously had not participated in the political process got involved. And that’s what we have to do for the whole country.
I think one of the great tragedies that we face today politically, above and beyond the simple economic reality of the collapse of the middle-class, more people living in poverty, growing gap between the rich and poor, the high cost of education—all those objective, painful realities in American society—the more significant reality from a political perspective is that most people have given up on the political process. They understand the political deck is stacked against them. They think there is no particular reason for them to come out and vote—and they don’t.
So much of what [media-coverage of] politics is about today is personality politics. It’s gossip: Chris Christie’s weight or Hillary’s latest hairdo. But the real issue is how do you bring tens of millions of working-class and middle-class people together around an agenda that works for them? How do we make politics relevant to their lives? That’s going to involve some very, very radical thinking. At the end of the day, it’s not just going to be decisions from Washington. It really means empowering, in a variety of ways, ordinary people in the political process. To me, when you talk about the need for a political revolution, it is not just single-payer health care, it’s not just aggressive action on climate change, it’s not just creating the millions of jobs that we need, it is literally empowering people to take control over their lives. That’s clearly a lot harder to do than it is to talk about, but that’s what the political revolution is about.
One of the things that I find most disturbing—in fact, beyond comprehension—is that the Democrats now lose by a significant number the votes of white working-class people. How can that be? When you have a Republican Party that wants to destroy Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, ect., ect., why are so many people voting against their own economic interests? It happens because the Democrats have not been strong in making it clear which side they are on, not been strong in taking on Wall Street and corporate America, which is what Roosevelt did in the 1930s.
So, to me, what politics is about is not just coming up with ideas and a legislative program here in Washington—you need to do those things—but it’s about figuring out how you involve people in the political process, how you empower them. It ain’t easy, but that is, in fact, what has to be done. The bad news is that people like the Koch brothers can spend huge sums of money to create groups like the Tea Party. The good news is that, once people understand the right-wing extremist ideology of the Koch brothers, they are not going to go along with their policies. In terms of fundamental economic issues: job creation, a high minimum wage, progressive taxation, affordable college education—the vast majority of people are on our side.
One of the goals that I would have, politically, as a candidate for president of the United States is to reach out to the working-class element of the Tea Party and explain to them exactly who is funding their organization—and explain to them that, on virtually every issue, the Koch brothers and the other funders of the Tea Party are way out of step with what ordinary people want and need.
You have made it very clear that you have no taste for personality politics. But a part of why you are thinking of running for president has to be a sense that the prospective Democratic candidates are unlikely to do that or to do that effectively.
Is it your sense that Hillary Clinton, the clear front-runner at this point, is unlikely to do that?
Look, I am not here to be attacking Hillary Clinton. I have known Hillary Clinton for a number of years; I knew her when she was First Lady a little bit, got to know her a little bit better when she was in the Senate. I like Hillary; she is very, very intelligent; she focuses on issues. But I think, sad to say, that the Clinton type of politics is not the politics certainly that I’m talking about. We are living in the moment in American history where the problems facing the country, even if you do not include climate change, are more severe than at any time since the Great Depression. And if you throw in climate change, they are more severe.
So the same old same old [Clinton administration Secretary of the Treasury] Robert Rubin type of economics, or centrist politics, or continued dependence on big money, or unfettered free-trade, that is not what this country needs ideologically. That is not the type of policy that we need. And it is certainly not going to be the politics that galvanizes the tens of millions of people today who are thoroughly alienated and disgusted with the status quo. People are hurting, and it is important for leadership now to explain to them why they are hurting and how we can grow the middle class and reverse the economic decline of so many people. And I don’t think that is the politics of Senator Clinton or the Democratic establishment…. People want to hear an alternative set of policies that says to the American people: with all of this technology, with all of this productivity, the truth of the matter is that the average person in this country should be living better than ever before—not significantly worse economically than was the case thirty years ago. That’s what we need. That’s what I want to talk about… I think that the class message, that in this great country, especially with all kinds of new technology and increased productivity, that we can in fact provide a decent standard for all people, I think that resonates in fifty states in America. I think what people are looking for is leadership that is prepared to take on the big money interests (to deliver that message). That’s not what we’re seeing, by and large, from most Democrats.
Are they missing something?
I think so. My experience and my political instinct tells me that a lot of the discussions about 2016 are minimizing the profound disgust that people are having now with the status quo—and they’re desperate for a message that addresses that disgust. If I run, I’m not going to be raising hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. I think I have the capability of raising a lot of money and that’s important, but that at the end of the day is not going to be what’s most important. What’s most important is this idea of a political revolution—rallying the working families of this country around a vision that speaks to their needs. People need to understand that, if we are prepared to stand up to Wall Street and the big-money interests, we can create a nation that works for all Americans, and not just the handful of billionaires.
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), for which Senator Bernie Sanders wrote an introduction.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The April 6 rally in Cherkasy, a city 100 miles southeast of Kiev, turned violent after six men took off their jackets to reveal T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Beat the Kikes” and “Svoboda,” the name of the Ukrainian ultranationalist movement and the Ukrainian word for “freedom."
– Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 12, 2013
While most of the Western media describe the current crisis in Ukraine as a confrontation between authoritarianism and democracy, many of the shock troops who have manned barricades in Kiev and the western city of Lviv these past months represent a dark page in the country’s history and have little interest in either democracy or the liberalism of Western Europe and the United States.
“You’d never know from most of the reporting that far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests and attacks on government buildings,” reports Seumas Milne of the British Guardian. The most prominent of the groups has been the ultra-right-wing Svoboda or “Freedom” Party.
The demand for integration with Western Europe appears to be more a tactic than a strategy: “The participation of Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda in the process of EU [European Union] integration,” admits Svoboda political council member Yury Noyevy, “is a means to break our ties with Russia.”
And lest one think that Svoboda, and parties even further to the right, will strike their tents and disappear, Ukrainian News reported on February 26 that Svoboda party members have temporarily been appointed to the posts of vice prime minister, minister of education, minister of agrarian policy and food supplies, and minister of ecology and natural resources.
Svoboda is hardly a fringe organization. In the 2012 election won by the now deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, the party took 10.45 percent of the vote and over 40 percent in parts of the western Ukraine. While the west voted overwhelmingly for the Fatherland Party’s Yulia Tymoshenko, the more populous east went overwhelmingly for the Party of Regions’ Yanukovych. The latter won the election handily, 48.8 percent to 45.7 percent.
Svoboda—which currently has thirty-six deputies in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament—began life in the mid-1990s as the Social National Party of the Ukraine, but its roots lie in World War II, when Ukrainian nationalists and Nazis found common ground in the ideology of anti-communism and anti-Semitism. In April 1943, Dr. Otto von Wachter, the Nazi commander of Galicia—the name for western Ukraine—turned the First Division of the Ukrainian National Army into the 14 Grenadier Division of the Waffen SS, the so-called “Galicia Division.”
The Waffen SS was the armed wing of the Nazi Party, and while serving alongside the regular army, or Wehrmacht, the party controlled the SS’s thirty-eight-plus divisions. While all Nazi forces took part in massacres and atrocities, the Waffen SS did so with particular efficiency. The postwar Nuremberg trials designated it a “criminal organization.”
Svoboda has always had a soft spot for the Galicia Division, and one of its parliament members, Oleg Pankevich, took part in a ceremony last April honoring the unit. Pankevich joined with a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church near Lviv to celebrate the unit’s seventieth anniversary and rebury some of the division’s dead.
“I was horrified to see photographs…of young Ukrainians wearing the dreaded SS uniform with swastikas clearly visible on their helmets as they carried caskets of members of this Nazi unit, lowered them into the ground, and fired gun salutes in their honor,” World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder wrote in a letter to the Patriarch of the Ukrainian church. He asked Patriarch, Filret, to “prevent any further rehabilitation of Nazism or the SS."
Some 800,000 Jews were murdered in Ukraine during the German occupation, many of them by Ukrainian auxiliaries and units like the Galicia Division.
Three months after the April ceremony, Ukrainians re-enacted the battle of Brody between the Galicia Division and Soviet troops, where the German XIII Army Corps was trying to hold off the Russians commanded by Marshall Ivan Konev. In general, going up against Konev meant a quick trip to Valhalla. In six days of fighting the Galicians lost two-thirds of their division and the XIII Corps was sent reeling back to Poland. The Galicia Division survivors were shipped off to fight anti-Nazi partisans in Yugoslavia. In 1945, remnants of the unit surrendered to the Americans in Italy, and in 1947 many of them were allowed to emigrate to Britain and Canada.
The US press has downplayed the role of Svoboda, and even more far-right groups like Right Sector and Common Cause, but Britain’s Channel 4 News reports that such quasi-fascist groups “played a leading role” in organizing the demonstrations and keeping them going.
In the intercepted phone call between US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, the two were, as Russian expert Stephen Cohen put it to Democracy Now, “plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine.”
At one point in the call, Nuland endorsed “Yat” as the head of a new government, referring to Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland Party, who indeed is now acting prime minister. But she went on to say that Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok should be kept “on the outside.”
Her plan to sideline Tyahnybok as a post-coup player, however, may be wishful thinking, given the importance of the party in the demonstrations.
Tyahnybok is an anti-Semite who says “organized Jewry” controls the Ukraine’s media and government, and is planning “genocide” against Christians. He has turned Svoboda into the fourth-largest party in the country, and, this past December, US Senator John McCain shared a platform and an embrace with Tyahnybok at a rally in Kiev.
Svoboda has links with other ultra-right parties in Europe through the Alliance of European National Movements. Founded in 2009 in Budapest, the alliance includes Svoboda, Hungary’s violently racist Jobbik, the British National Party, Italy’s Tricolor Flame, Sweden’s National Democrats and Belgium’s National Front. The party also has close ties to France’s xenophobic National Front. The Front’s anti-Semitic former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was honored at Svoboda’s 2004 congress.
Svoboda would stop immigration and reserve civil service jobs for “ethnic Ukrainians.” It would end abortion and gun control, “ban the Communist Ideology” and list religious affiliation and ethnicity on identity documents. It claims as its mentor the Nazi-collaborator Stepan Bandera, whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army massacred Jews and Poles during World War II. The party’s demand that all official business be conducted in Ukrainian was recently endorsed by the parliament, disenfranchising thirty percent of the country’s population that speaks Russian. Russian speakers are generally concentrated in the Ukraine’s east and south, and particularly in the Crimean Peninsula.
The US and the EU have hailed the resignation of President Yanukovych and the triumph of “people power” over the elected government—Ambassador Pyatt called it “a day for the history books”—but what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Before the deployment of Russian troops this past week, anti-coup, pro-Russian crowds massed in the streets in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, and seized government buildings. While there was little support for the ousted president—who most Ukrainians believe is corrupt—there was deep anger at the de-recognition of the Russian language and contempt for what many said were “fascists” in Kiev and Lviv.
Until 1954, Crimea was always part of Russia until, for administrative and bureaucratic reasons, it was made part of Ukraine. At the time, Ukraine was one of fifteen Soviet republics.
Ukraine is in deep economic trouble, and for the past year the government has been casting about for a way out. Bailout negotiations were opened with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, but the loan would have required onerous austerity measures that, according to Citibank analyst Ivan Tchakarov, would “most probably mean a recession in 2014.”
It was at this juncture that Yanukovych abandoned talks with the EU and opened negotiations with the Russians. That turnaround was the spark for last November’s demonstrations.
But as Ben Aris, editor of Business News Europe, says, “Under the terms of the EU offer of last year—which virtually nobody in the Western media has seriously examined—the EU was offering $160 million per year for the next five years, while just the bond payments to the IMF were greater than that.”
Russia, on the other hand, “offered $15 billion in cash and immediately paid $3 billion.… Had Yanukovych accepted the EU deal, the country would have collapsed,” says Aris.
The current situation is dangerous precisely because it touches a Russian security nerve. The Soviet Union lost some twenty-five to twenty-seven million people in World War II, and Russians to this day are touchy about their borders. They also know who inflicted those casualties, and those who celebrate a Waffen SS division are not likely to be well thought of in the south or the east of Ukraine.
Border security is hardly ancient history for the Kremlin. As Russian expert Cohen points out, “Since the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the US-led West has been on a steady march toward post-Soviet Russia, beginning with the expansion of NATO…all the way to the Russian border.”
NATO now includes Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and former Soviet-led Warsaw Pact members Albania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s comment that the IMF-EU package for Ukraine would have been “a major boost for Euro-Atlantic security” suggests that NATO had set its sights on bringing Ukraine into the military alliance.
The massive demonstrations over the past three months reflected widespread outrage at the corruption of the Yanukovych regime, but they have also unleashed a dark side of Ukraine’s politics. That dark side was on display at last year’s rally in Cherkasy. Victor Smal, a lawyer and human rights activist, said he told “the men in the T-shirts they were promoting hatred. They beat me to the ground until I lost consciousness.”
Svoboda and its allies do not make up a majority of the demonstrators, but as Cohen points out, “Five percent of a population that’s tough, resolute, ruthless, armed and well funded, and knows what it wants, can make history.”
It is not the kind of history most would like to repeat.
Read Next: John Feffer and Foreign Policy in Focus on the clash of partnerships in Ukraine.