Bernie Sanders is not burning with presidential ambition. He doubts that he would consider bidding for the nation’s top job if another prominent progressive was gearing up for a 2016 run that would provide a seriously-focused and seriously competitive populist alternative to politics as usual.
But if the fundamental issues that are of concern to the great mass of Americans—“the collapse of the middle class, growing wealth and income inequality, growth in poverty, global warming”—are not being discussed by the 2016 candidates, Sanders says, “Well, then maybe I have to do it.”
This calculation brings the independent senator from Vermont a step closer to presidential politics than he has ever been before. With a larger social-media following than most members of Congress, a regular presence on left-leaning television and talk radio programs—syndicated radio host Bill Press greeted the Sanders speculation with a Tuesday morning “Go, Bernie, Go!” cheer—and a new “Progressive Voters of America” political action committee, Sanders has many of the elements of an insurgent candidacy in place.
But the senator is still a long way from running.
In interviews over the past several days, Sanders has argued with increasing force that the times demand that there be a progressive contender in 2016.
“Under normal times, it’s fine, if you have a moderate Democrat running, a moderate Republican running,” the senator told his hometown paper, the Burlington Free Press. “These are not normal times. The United States right now is in the middle of a severe crisis and you have to call it what it is.”
So, says Sanders, there must be a progressive alternative to the conservative Republican politics of cruelty and cuts and the centrist Democratic politics of compromise with the conservatives.
“[The] major issues of this country that impact millions of people cannot continue to be swept under the rug,” Sanders told Politico on Monday. “And if nobody else is talking about it, well, then maybe I have to do it. But I do not believe that I am the only person that is capable of doing this.”
The independent senator has high praise for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has recently been talked up by some progressives as a prospective primary challenger to the front-runner for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Unlike Clinton, Warren has a reputation for taking on Wall Street, big banks and corporate CEOs, and Sanders hails the Massachusetts senator as a “real progressive.” But Warren says she is not running.
So what happens if Warren stands down? And what if other liberal and populist presidential prospects, such as Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, fail to gain traction?
Then, says Sanders, he’d consider a run.
That sounds casual. But it isn’t. Sanders has stipulations regarding a candidacy.
Though he is a proud independent, he would not run as a November “spoiler” who might take away just enough votes to throw the presidential election to a right-wing Republican.
And he has little taste for “educational” campaigns that seek to raise issues—either on an independent line or in a Democratic primary dominated by a Clinton juggernaut—but do not seriously compete for power.
If Sanders were to run—and that remains a very big “if”—he says he would do so with a strategy for winning.
That strategy, whether the senator were to mount a presidential bid as an independent or as a Democrat, would not be built around insider ties or connections; Clinton already has much of the party establishment locked down. And it certainly would not rely on raising the most money, explains the sponsor of a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and get big money out of politics.
When we spoke recently about the challenges facing progressive candidates, Sanders said what most politicians will not:
“This small handful of multi-billionaires control the economics of this country. They determine whether jobs stay in the United States or whether they go to China. They determine how much we’re going to BE paying for a gallon of gas. They determine whether we’re going to transform our economic system away from fossil fuel. Economically, they clearly have an enormous amount of power. And, now, especially with Citizens United, these very same people are now investing in politics. That’s what oligarchy is. Oligarchy is when a small number of people control the economic and political life of the country—certainly including the media—and we are rapidly moving toward an oligarchic form of society.”
Sanders actually likes the prospects of taking on the oligarchs, saying: “And I think you can bring people together to say: Look, we may have our disagreements, but we don’t want billionaires deciding who the next governor is going to be, the next senator, the next president of the United States. As someone who believes in that type of grassroots organizing, I think it’s a great opportunity.”
So any presidential run by Sanders would rely on small contributions and grassroots support. But the core of the strategy would be that challenge to oligarchy, with its focus on values and ideas that have been too long dismissed by prominent presidential contenders and the media that covers them.
In effect, say Sanders, he would run only if he thought that he could fill the great void in the American political discourse, and in so doing inspire voters to reject old orthodoxies in favor of a new populist politics that would have as its core theme economic justice.
When we spoke about what is missing from American politics, Sanders told me that the president America needs would begin the discussion, as Franklin Roosevelt did, by calling out the plutocrats and their political and media minions.
Imagine, explains Sanders, if Americans had a president who said to them: “I am going to stand with you. And I am going to take these guys on. And I understand that they’re going to be throwing thirty-second ads at me every minute. They’re going to do everything they can to undermine my agenda. But I believe that if we stand together, we can defeat them.”
The senator explained the concept that would, necessarily, underpin a presidential bid:
“If you had a President who said: ‘Nobody in America is going to make less than $12 or $14 an hour,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President who said: ‘You know what, everybody in this country is going to get free primary health care within a year,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘Every kid in this country is going to go to college regardless of their income,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, ‘I stand here today and guarantee you that we are not going to cut a nickel in Social Security; in fact we’re going to improve the Social Security program,’ what do you think that would do? If you had a president who said, ‘Global warming is the great planetary crisis of our time, I’m going to create millions jobs as we transform our energy system. I know the oil companies don’t like it. I know the coal companies don’t like it. But that is what this planet needs: we’re going to lead the world in that direction. We’re going to transform the energy system across this planet—and create millions of jobs while we do that.’ If you had a President say that, what kind of excitement would you generate from young people all over this world?”
Whether Sanders runs or not, the prospect of such a speak-truth-to-power presidency is an appealing one. And the senator from Vermont is right: Americans do not just deserve such an option. In these times, they need a serious progressive alternative the ugly politics of austerity -- and the empty politics of compromise.
John Nichols discusses another candidate of progressives’ dreams: Elizabeth Warren.
Nia Timmons was stressed.
A mother of three, she works full-time as an assistant teacher at a pre-K program in Camden, New Jersey where she earns $12 per hour. By the second week of November, she still hadn’t received her family’s food stamp (SNAP) benefits and she didn’t know why. She thought it might be due to the SNAP cut on November 1 that hit 48 million people, including 22 million children, but she couldn’t get any answers from the Camden Board of Social Services.
“I’ve not heard from anyone there, and I can’t reach anyone either,” said Timmons.
She told me her story in a coffee shop in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building last week. She had traveled to Capitol Hill along with four of her “Witnesses to Hunger sisters” from Camden, Philadelphia and Boston to speak with Members of Congress about the impact their policy decisions are having on people who live in poverty. Witnesses to Hunger is a project of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at the Drexel University School of Public Health. Participants are mothers and caregivers of young children who use photography and testimonials to document their experiences and advocate for change at the local, state, and federal levels. There are more than eighty Witnesses in various cities on the East Coast.
Timmons and Anisa Davis—also from Camden—shared their experiences with staffers for their representatives, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Democratic Congressman Robert Andrews. The other Witnesses met with legislative aides for their respective Senators and Representatives too. They also stopped by the offices of Republicans on the Farm Bill conference committee, including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas and Florida Congressman Steve Southerland. All of the Witnesses met directly with Democratic Congressmen Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, and with Kellie Adesina, legislative director for Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge.
I was invited to sit in on the meeting with Adesina.
Quanda Burrell, a mother of two from Boston, told her story of being just one semester shy of her teacher’s assistant degree when she was informed that her Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance would run out in two weeks. Her caseworker said she needed to drop out of school and enter a “career readiness program” in order to continue to receive assistance. The Witnesses say these programs often lead to no jobs, or dead-end jobs, and are frequently run by for-profit companies.
Burrell felt she was forced to choose between feeding her family in the immediate term or staying in school so she could attain a stable income in the very near future. She dropped out. But the extension of TANF assistance turned out to be just for two months, and so her only current income is a small stipend she receives for work for Thrive in Five, which promotes early childhood education in Boston. She can’t afford to re-enroll in school and now her rent is due.
“It affects you mentally, emotionally, physically—it drains you,” said Burrell. “You have to hide it from your children. You gotta pretend like you’re not struggling with this, but you really are. You don’t want your kids to feel that stress. But it does trickle down.”
Philadelphia Witness Emily Edwards works part-time as a home healthcare aide earning $9 per hour. Like many Witnesses, she checks in frequently with her neighbors about how they are getting along. She said that in West Philadelphia she is constantly asked two questions: “Why were there SNAP cuts on November 1? And why didn’t anyone tell us?”
“Instead of a notification, what they get is this answering machine, once they call to check on their benefits, that says ‘due to government cuts you might not receive the same benefits,’” said Edwards, who is 29 and has a 5-year-old son.
She suggested that if Members of Congress had “pictures” to go with the numbers and statistics that usually dominate budget discussions, maybe that would help broaden some minds about what programs like SNAP mean to people.
“Give them a face with that number, and make it feel real,” Edwards told Adesina.
Adesina said that some Members who voted for cuts might be affected by stories of veterans or elderly people on SNAP, but not necessarily by stories about children.
“With children they’re not as moved,” said Adesina.
“Unbelievable,” said Boston Witness Juell Frazier, incredulous. “Unbelievable!”
A mother of two daughters, ages 4 and 8, Frazier was also forced to drop out of college in order to continue receiving TANF cash assistance. She had made the Dean’s List at Springfield College and only had two semesters remaining to obtain her Bachelors Degree in Human Services.
After the meeting with Adesina, we returned to the coffee shop and Edwards told me more about how she and her son are faring. She started her job two weeks ago and knows that she will soon face what is known as “the cliff effect”: when an increase in income triggers a sudden loss of federal assistance, leaving a person economically worse off just as they are trying to get ahead.
Edwards has been through this before, and said that when she shares her first pay stub with her caseworker she will lose her TANF cash assistance and child care assistance, and her food stamps will be cut by “more than half.”
“If I can’t afford to pay someone to watch my child, then I can’t go to work,” said Edwards. “I’ll end up losing work, and go back to having to depend on this system that’s not really helping me get ahead in life, it’s helping me stay stagnated, and it starts to become a cycle.”
Edwards shared her experiences with Representatives Fattah and McGovern.
“They just don’t give us enough time once we get that job to make the transition,” she told them.
Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, pointed to research showing that families who have a modest increase in income, and therefore lose their SNAP benefits, are more likely to experience hunger than are families who remain on SNAP.
“Just when the families are doing what they’re supposed to do, and want to do—right here we’ve got a teacher and a home health aide—they get cut off at the knees,” said Chilton. “And that’s over and above the SNAP cuts on November 1 and whatever else might happen with SNAP next.”
The conversation then turned to just that—what might happen with SNAP next.
You could feel the tension in the room about the prospect of more—and deeper—cuts, and what that would mean for the Witnesses’ families and their communities. They are already feeling the effects of the November 1 SNAP cut, which reduced the average individual benefit from $1.50 per meal to $1.40 per meal. It adds up to a reduction of $29 per month in food assistance for a family of three.
Already, the Witnesses say they are all purchasing fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. Frazier struggles to buy the higher-priced, gluten-free foods that her 4-year-old daughter needs due to food allergies. Edwards—who cut sugars out of her son’s diet when he was diagnosed with ADHD—now has to purchase more affordable processed foods and worries about how that will affect her son’s progress. And Davis—who is out of work and about to have reconstructive foot surgery—is already relying on food banks and friends more than ever before.
Now the House and Senate are negotiating over further proposed SNAP cuts of $40 billion and $4 billion, respectively. McGovern pointed out that the November 1 cuts will total $5 billion over the next year, and $11 billion through 2016.
“There should be no more cuts. My line in the sand is that we pass a Farm Bill that does not make hunger worse in this country,” said Representative McGovern. “We might have to swallow a lot of stuff we don’t like to get a good [SNAP outcome]. But do no harm is a big accomplishment here.”
He told the Witnesses that they could be “the wind at our backs, the hurricane at our backs” during these negotiations, and that over the next few months people need to be speaking out loudly and clearly for “no more cuts in SNAP.” He also said there should be protests in front of the offices of House Republicans who voted for $40 billion in SNAP cuts even though their constituents currently need food assistance.
When the Witnesses wrapped up their final meeting it was after 6 pm. They had started the day in the early morning hours to travel to Capitol Hill, and they now had to hurry to catch a train home. They felt a sense of accomplishment.
“I think our presence was powerful today because they got to hear our stories firsthand,” said Davis. “That’s what [Camden Witnesses] was basically about—ten women with ten cameras—taking pictures about anything that needs to be improved.”
“Anything we want to see a change in,” said Timmons.
The women and men of Witnesses to Hunger will surely continue to advocate for themselves, their families, each other and their communities. But if they are to succeed in their efforts, they will just as surely need millions of people to join them—people who are currently silent, or quiet, or taking action only when it’s convenient, like by clicking a mouse.
We will only turn the tide when we value the well being of Nia, Anisa, Emily, Quanda and Juell as much as we value our own—and we’re willing to fight for it, and make that fight visible.
You can learn more about Witnesses to Hunger by attending their fifth-anniversary celebration here.
A Walmart in Ohio held a food drive for its own employees, inadvertently admitting the company doesn’t pay its workers enough for them to afford food.
Unlike some of my commentariat peers, I do not have a particularly interesting John F. Kennedy assassination story to relate as the fiftieth anniversary approaches. I was in seventh grade at the time and experienced the immediate aftermath on TV, like so many others, and watched Jack Ruby slay Oswald live as it happened.
A few years later, in high school, I became an early “JFK conspiracy buff,” then outgrew it, although I’ve always enjoyed following the rise and fall of various theories. I’ve never met a Kennedy but I did have one remarkable second-hand experience involving John F. Kennedy, Jr.
You may recall his short-lived magazine George—an attempt at drawing more youngish people to politics and social issues via a glossy magazine with plenty of celebs and pizzazz. It died pretty much when he did, in that plane crash. But in one issue he accepted for publication—which I found surprising—an excerpt from my new book, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, on the notorious 1950 Senate contest in California between Representative Richard M. Nixon and Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas. Surprising, because his father played a minor but disreputable role in that race, which I outlined in the excerpt. Here’s the gist of it.
One summer day in 1950 a young congressman, who needed no introduction or invitation, visited the Capitol Hill office of another young representative in Washington, DC. Like Richard Nixon of California, John F. Kennedy had come to Congress three and a half years earlier and had served on the Education and Labor Committee. Their offices were not far apart in the back of the House Office Building, an area known as the attic, and they maintained cordial relations.
Each recognized that the other was a hot prospect in his party. Though both were ex-Navy men (the sinking of Kennedy’s PT boat in 1943 had occurred not far from where Nixon was stationed in the South Pacific), the two had little of substance in common socially or culturally. Nixon both envied and resented Kennedy’s wealth and connections.
Politically, however, they were not continents apart. They agreed, for example, on the threat of communism. Kennedy had voted to continue funding the House Un-American Activities Committee and favored the latest version of the Mundt-Nixon internal-security bill. Like Nixon, he strongly hinted that Truman’s policy of vacillation had led to “losing” China and inviting Communist advances in Korea. He favored aid to Franco’s Spain and vast increases in the Pentagon budget.
Both congressmen felt that organized labor had grown too powerful. Earlier that year, upon receiving an honorary degree at Notre Dame, Kennedy had warned of the “ever-expanding power of the federal government” and “putting all major problems” into the all-absorbing hands of the great Leviathan the state. Each man craved higher office, but Nixon’s ambition burned even brighter than Kennedy’s, if that was possible.
Like Nixon, Kennedy had ambivalent feelings about Joseph McCarthy. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, the former ambassador to Great Britain, had placed him in a difficult position by striking up a close relationship with the Roman Catholic senator from Wisconsin. Always more conservative than his son, Joe Kennedy had turned rabidly anti-Communist, donating money to McCarthy for his investigations and introducing the senator to such friends as Francis Cardinal Spellman. Shortly after the California primary, McCarthy flew to Cape Cod for a weekend at the Kennedy compound. Jack Kennedy knew McCarthy well; his sister Pat even dated him. Jack liked Joe personally but distrusted him politically.
On his visit to Nixon’s office, Kennedy presented his colleague with a personal check from his father for $1,000. It was for Nixon’s campaign to defeat Kennedy’s fellow Democratic congressmember Helen Gahagan Douglas of Los Angeles (a former stage and film actress, now strong liberal activist and pioneering woman in Congress), in a closely watched US Senate contest in California. Nixon and Douglas had recently easily won their June primaries out there and the race was then considered a toss-up.
A former movie executive, Joseph Kennedy was no stranger to California politics, and despised the brand of liberal activism embraced by Hollywood actors and writers. He had no use for Helen Douglas and a great deal of admiration for Richard Nixon. “Dick, I know you’re in for a pretty rough campaign,” Kennedy observed, “and my father wanted to help out.” But what did the young Kennedy think? “I obviously can’t endorse you,” he explained, “but it isn’t going to break my heart if you can turn the Senate’s loss [that is, Helen Douglas] into Hollywood’s gain.”
Describing the visit to friend and aide Pat Hillings, Nixon exclaimed, “Isn’t this something?” Of course, in that era, many men in Congress simply had a problem dealing with, even accepting, any female colleague, especially a crusading liberal like Helen Douglas. The far-left Democrat, Representative Vito Marcantonio, also backed Nixon over Douglas.
It is uncertain whether this gift marked the elder Kennedy’s only contribution to the Nixon cause. Nixon aide Bill Arnold deposited the thousand-dollar check into the campaign account, but neither it nor any further Joseph P. Kennedy donation would be listed in financial records of the campaign. These records show, however—as I discovered in researching my book—that another of Joe’s sons, Robert F. Kennedy, then attending law school at the University of Virginia, contributed an unspecified sum.
Decades later, in his memoirs, longtime Massachusetts congressman Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill claimed that Joe Kennedy once told him that he had contributed $150,000 to Nixon’s campaign in 1950, “because he believed she [Douglas] was a Communist.” In the same conversation, Kennedy reportedly said he donated nearly the same amount not much earlier to George Smathers’ crusade to defeat Claude Pepper in a notorious Florida race for the Senate.
Speaking to a group of students at Harvard three days after the election that autumn, Congressman Kennedy remarked that he was “personally very happy” that Nixon had defeated Helen Douglas. He reportedly explained that Douglas was “not the sort of person I like working with on committees,” but he did not make clear whether this was because of her manner, her politics, or her gender. On November 14, Kennedy wrote his friend Paul Fay, “I was glad to…see Nixon win by a big vote,” and he predicted that the winner would go far in national GOP politics, for he was “an outstanding guy.”
In 1956, on a visit to California—and looking ahead to a presidential race—Senator John F. Kennedy admitted to Paul Ziffren, now one of the state’s Democratic leaders, that he had supported Nixon in the 1950 race. He apparently wanted to “come clean” and “clear the decks,” according to Ziffren’s wife, Mickey.
Then, in 1960, Helen Douglas went to Wisconsin to campaign in the presidential primary on behalf of Hubert Humphrey (who had stumped for her in 1950). He was facing John F. Kennedy. That fall, Kennedy’s opponent was Richard Nixon, and Douglas felt compelled to endorse the Democrat. Kennedy again admitted that he had supported Nixon against Douglas, calling it “the biggest damnfool mistake I ever made.”
Greg Mitchell’s Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady was recently published in a new print edition and for the first time as an ebook. His other books on great American campaigns include ebooks on the 2008 and 2012 campaigns for president and The Campaign of the Century (Upton Sinclair’s epic race in 1934).
Senator Elizabeth Warren added her name to the growing list of legislators who want to expand—not cut—Social Security benefits during a Monday afternoon speech on the Senate floor.
Warren began by outlining the increasing financial strain faced by elderly Americans, and built towards a call for expanded benefits:
Among working families on the verge of retirement, about a third have no retirement savings of any kind, and another third have total savings that are less than their annual income. Many seniors have seen their housing wealth shrink as well. According to AARP, in 2012, one out of every seven older homeowners was paying down a mortgage that was higher than the value of their house.
And just as they need to rely more than ever on pensions, employers are withdrawing from their traditional role in helping provide a secure retirement. Two decades ago, more than a third of all private sector workers—35 percent—had traditional, defined benefit pensions—pensions that guaranteed a certain monthly payment that retirees knew they could depend on. Today, that number has been cut in half—only 18 percent of private sector workers have defined benefit pensions. Employers have replaced guaranteed retirement income with savings plans, like 401(k) plans, that leave the retiree at the mercy of a market that rises and falls, and, sometimes, at the mercy of dangerous investment products. These plans often fall short of what retirees need, and nearly half of all American workers don’t even have access to those limited plans. This leaves more than 44 million workers without any retirement assistance from their employer.
Add all of this up—the dramatic decline in individual savings and the dramatic decline of guaranteed retirement benefits and employer support in return for a lifetime of work—and we’re left with a retirement crisis—a crisis that is as real and as frightening as any policy problem facing the United States today.
I hold deep values, and I look at basic facts. Today, Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus. If we do nothing, Social Security will be safe for the next twenty years and even after that will continue to pay most benefits. With some modest adjustments, we can keep the system solvent for many more years—and could even increase benefits. The tools to help us build a future are available to us now. We don’t start the debate by deciding who gets kicked to the curb. We are Americans.
The context of Warren’s remarks is crucial Social Security benefits are under unique threat, given dramatic and seemingly endless crisis negotiating over the federal budget and a Democratic president is prepared (and some might say eager) to enact Chained-CPI, which would, even under the most generous formula, take $15,615 in cumulative benefits from the average senior who lived to 95.
Warren not only rebuffed that idea in her speech but provided a critical boost to the emerging campaign to expand Social Security. Almost everything Warren has done in recent weeks has been closely watched by 2016 hobbyists (not a trivial constituency among Beltway journalists), and she used that attention to juice the emerging pro-expansion movement. The Washington Post published an editorial Monday morning criticizing the campaign to expand Social Security—as sure a sign as any that it has arrived on the Washington scene—and Warren mentioned the editorial in her remarks and pushed back on the writers for, among other things, putting scare quotes around “retirement crisis.”
While naturally there will be many people left unpersuaded by Warren’s pitch, the point is that she’s thrusting the debate forward and helping to entrench the pro-expansion movement deeper into the political conversation. It was a significant moment.
Zoë Carpenter reports on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign to end ‘too big to fail.’
The Brower Youth Awards annually highlight the top environmental youth leaders from across North America. Award recipients undergo a rigorous application review process and represent the best, most creative, young environmental leaders of today.
Chloe Maxmin, 21, of Nobleboro, Maine, a regular writer for StudentNation and an undergraduate at Harvard University, was one of this year’s Brower Youth Award winners for her long history of environmental activism. Maxmin has a history of starting movements—she founded the first environmental club at her high school and built a student sustainability movement that continues to this day. At Harvard, she’s keeping up the momentum as co-founder and coordinator of Divest Harvard. She researched Harvard’s endowment and past divestment campaigns, and led the first campus vote on fossil fuel divestment in the world. She is also the founder and sole contributor of the online youth environmental network, First Here, Then Everywhere, which she hopes to build into a thriving hub of discussion and support for young environmentalists.
Maxmin sent us her acceptance speech, given in San Francisco on October 18 in which she outlined three new institutional responses to climate change and divestment.
Combating Climate Change
On October 1, another Divest Harvard activist and I sat in the office of Harvard’s President, Drew Faust. It had been over a year since we launched our movement. We had the support of over 3,000 students, over 170 faculty, almost 600 alumni and countless community members.
The frustration in the room was palpable. As I continued to press our arguments, President Faust interrupted me and asked: “Chloe, if you were president, what would you do?”
Two days later, I checked my e-mail and learned that President Faust had released a statement opposing fossil fuel divestment. I wasn’t surprised. It repeated the same arguments that we had been hearing for a year. It reiterated the notion that Harvard is an academic, not a political, actor—which is to say that it somehow stands outside the realm of action.
My aim tonight is not to repeat these discussions. Instead, I want to take seriously President Faust’s question…Chloe, what would you do?
I’d like to suggest the first three principles of a new institutional response to divestment and the climate crisis.
Vaclav Havel, poet, playwright, dissident and former president of Czechoslovakia,was a man whose life combined scholarship, art and politics because he knew that that all derive from the same source: a love of the world. He insisted that we need to reawaken in ourselves what was once known and then forgotten: that the only real hope for us lies in “a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth…”
The farm in Maine where I grew up, the meadows, lake, and trees…these are the roots that have filled me with an inexpressible love for this world, my family, my home, my community, friends, the people I will never know, the people I have yet to know.
Not all of us have grown up in Maine, but we all have places and people that we love.
The climate movement often seems like it’s fighting “against something”—against indifference and political gridlock. But this is a struggle “for everything” that we care about.
This is the first principle of a new response: That our actions as individuals and institutions can be re-founded on love for one another, for all that is alive, and especially for the systems and creatures of this earth who have no voice.
Two years ago, I learned that tar sands could come through Maine and that Exxon owns 76 percent of the pipeline.
Citizens in South Portland Maine recently campaigned to block the flow of tar sands through Maine by passing the Waterfront Protection Ordinance. The ordinance failed to pass by 200 votes. The opposition (pro–tar sands interests) were out in full force. But I didn’t anticipate the audaciousness of their effort. While the Protect South Portland coalition put $42,000 into the election, the Maine Energy Marketers Association poured almost $600,000 into stopping the ordinance.
This is exactly why I am involved with the fossil fuel divestment movement. The only way to diminish the hegemony and influence of this industry is to draw a moral line in the sand that rebrands it as anti-social.
This is the second principle of my response: Freedom depends on politics. It is up to us to take back “the political” and re-establish it as it was meant to be: a commitment to freedom through action.
So when President Faust says that Harvard is not a “political actor,” I say: By supporting an industry that corrupts elections and coerces society, are you not being political?
But instead of this politics of silence, we seek the politics of courage.
Our society’s institutions and leaders have been complacent in the face of climate change. We have stood by as our government has failed to act, as the fossil fuel industry has lobbied its way to riches, as the Arctic melts, sea levels rise, fires spread, droughts consume and floods erase.
Divestment says: enough is enough. Take a stand. Recognize that our system is broken, and take a step to fix it.
This is my third principle of a new response: People can summon the courage to work miracles.
When we take the first steps towards a better world, we don’t know what will happen. But we can’t be too scared to find out, and we can never be too scared to fight for what we love.
Hannah Arendt, a great philosopher who knew that politics could never be separated from life, wrote that every time an action disrupts the status quo, it’s a miracle.
People can author such miracles because we have the freedom and courage to establish a reality of our own.
With these three principles—love, politics and courage—I say that we are the miracle workers. And we are the miracles.
To echo the words of, Bruce Springsteen, “It takes a leap of faith to get things going. In your heart, baby, you must trust.”
The break-out success of GasLand and GasLand 2, documentaries by Josh Fox about the dangers of largely unregulated hydraulic fracturing, has prompted the natural gas and drilling industry to adopt an aggressive public relations strategy to combat critics. Last year, at the Warner Theater in Washington, DC, a group of high-profile lobbyists and communications staffers celebrated the development of a pro-fracking movie designed to rebut Fox's documentaries called TruthLand, which premiered in January.
Recently filed tax documents show the link between industry and TruthLand is much stronger than previously reported. The movie was funded with a $1 million grant from a DC-based trade group called America's Natural Gas Alliance, a consortium of fracking firms including Devon Energy, Apache, Noble Energy, Range Resources, XTO Energy, Southwestern Energy and Pioneer Natural Resources, among others.
Notably, the tax form shows the million-dollar grant for the film was given to Chesapeake Energy Corporation, an ANGA member company and prominent fracking corporation. TruthLand has gone to some lengths to conceal its ties to business interests. As Ben Nelson of LittleSis reported, the TruthLand website domain was briefly registered to a Chesapeake's Oklahoma office. Shortly after, TruthLand changed the website address to hide it behind a proxy. Nelson also obtained documents relating to the production of the film, which was led by Republican advertising consultant Fred Davis.
The TruthLand movie has been panned by environmentalists for downplaying the risks of methane leaks and groundwater pollution. But it has been widely distributed thanks to the promotional efforts of several oil companies and Americans for Prosperity, whose founders, David and Charles Koch, are deeply entwined with the fracking industry.
The America's Natural Gas Alliance 990 form also shows the industry has increased spending on media and public relations efforts. Other grants include:
§ $864,673 to Edventures Partners, an education curriculum company that has partnered with ANGA to produce classroom materials that promote the use of natural gas;
§ $25,000 to ASGK Strategies, a political consulting firm founded by White House advisor David Axelrod;
§ $25,000 to Environmental Media Association, "a nonprofit organization dedicated to harnessing the power of the entertainment industry and the media to educate the global public on environmental issues and motivate sustainable lifestyles";
§ $25,000 to Third Way, a centrist Democratic research think tank;
§ $8,500 to America's Promise Alliance, an education nonprofit founded by Colin Powell;
§ $250,000 to IHS Global, a research company that produced a report last year claiming that the fracking industry will support 1.7 million new jobs.
Another interesting discovery from the disclosure relates to how much America's Natural Gas Alliance has contracted with Democratic political consulting firms to build support for their policies. The 990 shows that ANGA paid the Glover Park Group over $2.9 million for "research/advertising" and Dewey Square Group $738,957 for "grassroots communications." Both firms are run by mostly former Clinton administration officials. Though Glover Park Group is well-known as a lobbying firm, the company did not register for its work for ANGA last year.
Michelle Goldberg on why Alec Baldwin is a national embarrassment.
Activists have long criticized Walmart for failing to pay its employees living wages, and instead relying on the state to step in and pay for the healthcare and food of workers. In Canton, Ohio, another Walmart recently demonstrated this kind of corporate welfare by holding a food drive—for its own employees.
“Please donate food items so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner,” reads a sign accompanied by several plastic bins.
Understandably, the food drive has sparked outrage in the area.
“That Walmart would have the audacity to ask low-wage workers to donate food to other low-wage workers—to me, it is a moral outrage,” Norma Mills, a customer at the store, told the Plain Dealer.
A company spokesman defended the drive, telling the Plain Dealer it is evidence that employees care about each other. And it’s a good thing they care about their fellow workers because Walmart certainly doesn’t care about its employees.
In the wake of the Ohio Walmart food drive story, Strike Debt, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, raised on interesting question on Twitter: “Why not just pay a living wage?”
Stephen Gandel, a senior editor at Fortune, recently penned an op-ed in which he argued Walmart could afford to give its employees a 50 percent raise without negatively affecting shareholders.
I called a couple of really smart economists to get it “peer”-reviewed. Sendhil Mullainathan, who teaches at MIT and received a MacArthur genius grant for his work in behavioral economics a few years ago, said he basically came to a similar conclusion as mine a few years ago. He says companies have more discretion in setting wages then they let on. “Really the question is not whether this is possible but why some companies don’t do it [this way],” says Mullainathan.
Wal-Mart didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Workers have already announced plans for “widespread, massive strikes and protests” on Black Friday at Walmarts this year, but smaller, isolated protests have continued to erupt all across the country even before the holiday shopping season.
Randall Lewis, 24, has been working at a Chicago Walmart for about a year. Lewis participated in last week’s strike that involved three Chicago store locations.
“Sometimes I have to borrow money. Sometimes, if I don’t have money for deodorant, I have to ask my grandmother for some money. Going to the doctor is expensive because I have to go to a clinic, and if I go to the dentist, it’s expensive,” he says.
Lewis expressed disillusionment with Walmart, a company he once saw as a reliable way to make a living.
“They sell you a bill of dreams, telling you you can be promoted, but if you’re not kissing up to the right person, to the right manager, they will walk right past you like you don’t exist.”
He also suspects the company has nefarious motives for reducing employee hours.
“I worked forty hours [a week], and they reduced me to thirty-two hours a week. I think they reduce the hours to avoid paying us health benefits.”
In 2011, Walmart substantially rolled back coverage for part-time workers and significantly raised premiums for many full-time staff, citing “rising costs.” The decision had an immediate, and detrimental, effect on Walmart stores. By largely using part-time staff, the company was unable to keep its shelves stocked, and began to lose customers, so they decided to add more full-time workers for the holiday shopping season this year.
Walmart workers continue to demonstrate extraordinary bravery by striking all across the country, even though the company has demonstrated a habit of retaliating against staff’s attempts at collective organizing.
For his part, Lewis says he is willing to take that risk:
“I was afraid that they might retaliate, but the one thing I’ve learned is, if I don’t stand up for what I believe in, nothing will be done. I’m doing something that could help me and my co-workers get a liveable wage, healthcare, the respect that we deserve.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Walmart was in Cleveland, Ohio.
Nation contributor John Nichols appears on the Ed Show to discuss public support for raising the minimum wage.
November 19 marks what would have been the fiftieth birthday of Len Bias, the University of Maryland’s galactically talented power forward who died at the age of 22 of a heart arrhythmia related to the ingesting of cocaine. His death came two days after being picked second by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft. Never in the history of sports has so much potential been extinguished with such swift cruelty.
Athletes and other cultural figures in the prime of life have died before and since. But the memory of Len Bias still has the power to make grown adults feel numb like it’s happening all over again: a moment where the world as we knew it changed and something we did not even identify as innocence died in an instant.
Understanding the impact of Bias’s death starts by understanding Bias on the court. His abilities were magnetic. Bias was the genetic splicing of Doctor J and Charles Oakley: a high flying, muscle bound, talent who made you feel like you were watching a sneak preview into the game’s future. During his time in the ACC, it was common to refer to Bias as the most physically gifted player in the conference: the second, being that kid from North Carolina, Michael Jordan. Take a moment, watch these highlights and just notice where Les Bias’s head resides, relative to the rim. This was simply something we had not yet seen.
For basketball lovers, his death was the asphyxiation of a limitless potential, and to quote Bethlehem Shoals’ words on Lebron James, “an American Dream that most of us are too bashful to even dream of.” Now that I live fifteen minutes from where Len Bias went to college at UMD and ten minutes from his High School, Northwestern, I have also learned that his death crushed the heart of an entire community. Len Bias was the kid from Landover who never left Prince George’s County, one of the most vital majority African-American regions in the country. PG County is the only municipality in the United States that went from majority white to majority black while rising in per capita income and education. Len Bias was not only going to rep that to the world, he told everyone that he would be bringing them along for the ride.
The shock of Len Bias’s death is the only way to understand how, after one tragic night, he became a one person “shock doctrine”, and inexorably changed the conversation of how the United States dealt with illegal drugs. “The shock doctrine” is Naomi Klein’s theory about how “shocks” like tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes open the door for radical right-wing reforms that people would reject if they were not in a state of mental disarray over the destruction of their lives. Len Bias’s death had a similar effect.
When Bias died, as longtime Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon wrote in 2009, “I never again mocked Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug efforts, not when even a Len Bias could be struck dead.”
Masses of people were inclined to agree. The problem was that Nancy Reagan’s “anti-drug efforts” involved a shift toward criminalizing the poorest sections of our cities. Instead of speaking about drug addiction as a medical issue, it became a criminal justice issue. Instead of selling drugs being seen as an economic survival imperative of communities left behind by the “Reagan Revolution”, it became seen as an act that demanded a military response with those on street corners seen as enemy combatants. And no one wanted to talk about how the drugs came into the communities in the first place.
It might be hard for people under 25 to even understand our ignorance and fear, but we really thought that there would be graveyards of people, from little kids to star athletes, dying after their first snort of cocaine or their first puff of crack, and there was federally approved school curriculum carrying that very message. In 1988, the US Congress even passed the bi-partisan Anti-Drug Act, known as “The Len Bias Law.” It created more mandatory minimums for drug offenders, expanded police arresting powers, and poured more money into the DARE program at schools. I remember DARE and being told about my duty to turn in my parents if I ever saw them with “illegal drugs.” Fortunately for them, I never caught them because at age 11, with Len Bias’s death on my mind, I think I was ready to do it.
We seem to be waking up from this nightmare, at least rhetorically, but even with more people recognizing that the expansion of the prison system to swallow non-violent drug offenders has created a “New Jim Crow” and even with more states adopting more sane approaches to marijuana, the war on drugs plods along. Today in the DC area that Len Bias called home, black men are eight times more likely than whites to get stopped and arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession. Len Bias’s death was an unspeakable tragedy. What people in power have done with his memory has metastasized that tragedy beyond comprehension.
Liliana Segura asks why non-violent offenders should face life in prison.
One of the byproducts of recent events in the Middle East is the return of Russia to a prominent role across the region. Not that Russia ever left, but it has been a principal goal of successive US administrations to push first the Soviet Union and then Russia back. In the 1950s and 1960s that took the form of a series of political and military alliances, including NATO (which included Turkey) and the Baghdad Pact and CENTO (including variously Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan). More recently, the United States has tried to expand NATO eastward along Russia’s southwest flank, including Ukraine and Georgia. And the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Libya deprived Russia of important partners, in fields as varied as energy and arms sales.
Not so much anymore. Russia has come roaring back. However, although hawks and neoconservatives will make noises about President Obama’s inability to block Russia’s Middle East resurgence, it could be a good thing if it leads to greater US-Russian cooperation in conflicts such as the civil war in Syria, the Iran nuclear standoff, Afghanistan, and the war against Al Qaeda.
The latest news on the Russia–Middle East front is the visit last week of Russia’s foreign minister and defense minister to Egypt. According to AFP:
Russia is offering to sell Egypt modern helicopters and air defense systems in a landmark deal reportedly worth $2 billion that would mark a revival of large-scale military cooperation, a Russian official said Friday.
In the same visit, there were reports that Russia and Egypt spoke about setting up a Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. The Russians say that Saudi Arabia is willing to finance the sale, which would be a stunning shift by Egypt, which has long depended on the United States and the West for its military. But the successive coups against former President Hosni Mubarak and then against President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt’s generals has irked Washington and made Egypt resistant to both American carrots and sticks. The new turn toward Russia recalls the dramatic shift by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the mid-1950s, who turned to Eastern Europe and the USSR for arms when London and Washington sought to isolate him and topple his government.
That follows a brilliant diplomatic maneuver in August, when Russia got Syria’s commitment to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons and then invited the United States to co-sponsor the effort, thwarting Obama’s ill-conceived plan to bomb Syria in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s use of poison gas in the war against Syrian rebels. As a result, Russia—which is Assad’s chief ally, along with Iran—is back at the center of the Syrian issue, pushing for a diplomatic solution. And all of a sudden, the military forces of the Syrian government look formidable, making major gains on the ground since May, when they recaptured a strategic town on the Syria-Lebanon border and began pushing back rebels around Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs. Assad and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone, and a Syrian delegation traveled to Moscow to discuss diplomacy involving the civil war and a planned peace conference in Syria. Russia has also invited the chief representative of the Syrian rebels to Moscow, too.
And Russia is at the center of the talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, including the United States, which are on track later this week to create an interim accord of so-called “confidence-building measures” (CBMs) toward a final agreement in six months or so.
Russia’s increased role can be seen in its efforts to build closer ties to Israel and its efforts to sell weapons to Iraq and the Persian Gulf states, too. Last year, says the BBC, “Baghdad has signed major deals for Russian air defence systems and combat helicopters, beating off European competitors.” And, while plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia haven’t materialized yet, on Sunday King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Putin spoke by phone. The BBC adds that the United Arab Emirates, another Arab oil kleptocracy, is improving its Russia ties:
Over the last two decades there has been an enormous influx of Russian visitors and residents to the UAE and one very senior member of the ruling family has such a close working relationship with President Putin they go shooting together in the Russian woods.
None of this ought to be alarming, but it does mean that Obama ought to redouble efforts to work with Russia on regional problems.
Bob Dreyfuss looks into the disruptive role the French are playing in negotiations with Iran.