The fragile and faltering state of American democracy.
The New York Times used an incendiary phrase to describe the beheading of another American reporter in Syria. It was, the newspaper said, an “apparent murder.” The Times simply repeats the assertion of President Obama, who denounced the event as “the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist.” Perhaps it was. But popular American outrage at the barbaric killing and political voices demanding forceful retaliation reveal profound national hypocrisy.
If killing an individual American the jihadists identify as an enemy is murder, then how should we describe the American drone attacks that single out Islamic leaders for execution? For that matter, how do we differentiate the clandestine raids staged by US Special Forces in foreign lands when those soldiers in black capture and kill human targets secretly selected by American intelligence?
The American definition of “murder” in the midst of war now seems to depend upon the technical methodology for the homicide, not the deliberate intentions of the killers. Beheading is barbaric. High-tech bombing picking off individual “bad guys” is okay. In fact, US leaders claim to be conscientiously selective, though the innocent bystanders killed by drones are dismissed as “collateral damage.”
The distinctions between us and them may satisfy American public opinion—but killing is killing. Either way, “bad guys” end up dead. The Islamic State forces seem to recognize the bloody irony. Indeed, they have taunted the American goliath with the comparison. The masked executioner who killed Stephen Sotloff by cutting off his head delivered his video message in English: “Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
Knives or bombs, either way the people are dead. The Islamist relish for gore is disgusting, of course, but it actually captures the profound contradiction that confronts the awesome military power of the United States. If Americans can clear their heads of American innocence, they might realize that our overwhelming advantages in armed force and technological wizardry has led our country into a trap. We are vulnerable because our presumption of unconquerable superiority leads us deeper and deeper into unwinnable military conflicts. Our adversaries in the Middle East and elsewhere seem to understand this.
Here is the fallacy of Goliath’s power. The singular technological might of US forces remains beyond question but has now been trumped by low-tech adversaries fighting Goliath with deadly persistence. When the Cold War ended two decades ago, American warriors claimed an obligation to police the world in defense of peace and democracy. If it chose, the United States could bomb the bejesus out of any troublemaker anywhere in the world. Usually, the threat alone was sufficient to avoid real conflict.
US military planners even encouraged the notion that we Americans could fight casualty-free wars by simply overwhelming smaller adversaries with relentless bombing campaigns. Remember the one that subdued Serbia in the late 1990s? Remember the “shock and awe” strategy that made for short, quick victory in Iraq? Or the easy conquest of the Taliban in Afghanistan? The armchair warriors are now demanding more of the same in Syria, Iraq or wherever (to his credit, President Obama is trying to tamp down political thirsts for yet another war in the Middle East).
But underdog nations and rogue armies have figured out a guerrilla strategy that uses small-gauge resistance in explosive ways—absorbing lots of losses itself (suicide bombers) but frustrating Goliath with effective, bloody surprises (roadside bombs that kill or maim our uniformed troops). The biggest surprise of all was the tragedy of 9/11—a profound shock that sowed deep fright in American culture and fueled rearmament as the US response. The enemy was dubbed “terrorism.” All available means were employed to crush it, wherever it might lurk.
America’s effectiveness was crippled from the start by this misperception. Portraying our enemies as a bunch of bearded freaks and fanatics driven by insane religious dogma effectively masked the geopolitical realities driving resistance and disorder. People have various reasons to take shots at the superpower and some are indeed crazed. But the United States is not an innocent in the world. One of the motives for resisting our power is a longing for self-determination, upholding nation and faith, culture and independence, seeking their own definitions of what matters most in life. Goliath rejects some of these longings and attempts to impose control over them. That is an important part of what feeds the conflict.
Goliath has all the best weapons. But this is what jihadists have figured out: the enemy does not have to win the war. They just have to keep bleeding Goliath one way or another till the superpower grows weary and wants out. To accomplish this, they keep baiting proud and powerful Goliath—creating upsets and horrors that persuade the superpower to wade still deeper into the big muddy. That was the futile script the United States pursued in Vietnam. It is the new battle cry we are hearing now from the armchair hawks.
Let’s bomb the Syrians until they cry uncle. If that doesn’t work, send in the soldiers in black and mercenaries working for killer corporations. If that doesn’t do it, then send thousands of the troops in uniform, more drones, more missiles, more armored personnel vehicles filled with young Americans who will provide fresh targets for the roadside bombs and suicide bombers.
This is the political question now bearing down on the US military.
Will its leaders have the courage to resist the pressure for big interventions? Will the political leaders resist the war hawks and avoid another bloody disaster? One can hope this round will be different, and I do hope that governing elites will resist the usual reflexes of go-to-war Goliath. The orthodox American policy is that if challenged, the United States must go to war to prove itself, to show the world it is still Superman and willing to shed blood and treasure to defend that franchise.
That seems so obviously wrong, we might think the nation is sure to resist a repeat of old tragedies. But there is one more powerful reason why the failed status quo of American power may endure. If the leaders of the country back off and accept a more rational and modest view of our world power, an ugly question will surface for resentful discussion. If those previous military adventures were mistaken, driven by hubris and wrong understandings, then why did all those young soldiers die? What purpose did their sacrifices have? Why were so many innocent others killed or maimed? This is the question American leaders cannot bring themselves to face.
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I know this sounds absurd—it is absurd—but for some odd reason Labor Day reminds me of my mother. She was a school teacher, and I think she would have a good laugh to learn that so-called “education reformers” are accusing school teachers of being too powerful and protected. My father, who was himself a long-time member of our local school board, would probably snort at the ignorance of highly educated experts.
Together, they could set the record straight on education from the facts of their own lives. They fell in love when they were young and optimistic and talented. This was the 1920s when women had just won the right to vote, and both were newly graduated from four-year colleges—the very first in my mother’s family. My father completed graduate work in chemistry and was hired as a researcher by a Philadelphia manufacturer where he later invented useful products.
They faced one obstacle in their promising lives. My mother had to sign a teaching contract with a local school district in western Pennsylvania that would prohibit her from getting married. This crude violation of a young woman’s civil rights was commonly enforced around the country. Years later, I learned that my wife’s mother had to do the same thing to get a teaching job in Iowa. Recently, I reread the steamy love letters my parents wrote to one another during that school year of frustrated desire. I blushed for them.
At the Thanksgiving break, they abandoned abstinence and broke the school contract. But secretly. On the long holiday, they eloped to West Virginia and got married there. They told no one. My parents, I should add, were no-nonsense conservative Republicans, not given to reckless adventure or inflammatory political statements. I did think of my mother as an assertive proto-feminist. In retirement, both became Democrats because they thought Goldwater was a dangerous crackpot. In 1972, my dad declared early for George McGovern, while Mom held out for Shirley Chisholm.
Keeping the secret of their marriage may have been done to protect her eligibility for many more years as a teacher. It worked. Toward the end of her long life (she died three days short of 100) my mother got a letter each year from Ohio governors, congratulating her on being the oldest living recipient in Ohio’s teacher retirement system.
I tell this intimate story to make a point that the latter-day reformers do not seem to grasp. They have left out the human dimensions of a harsh labor market where women were regularly punished for not being men. School teachers from the beginnings of America’s public schools have been vulnerable to blatant exploitation—lower wages and harsher terms—and they have been exploited. The jobs could be filled by an abundance of educated single young women in need of incomes. Married women might have babies in the middle of the school year—an inconvenience to school administrators—so married women were banned. Similar gender biases affected nursing and other caring occupations, and to some degree still do.
The fundamental power shift for school teachers did not occur until the 1960s, when frustrated teachers rebelled against traditional school systems run top-down by superintendents and principals. As a young reporter in Louisville, Kentucky, I witnessed one of the early skirmishes in 1962.
One day I got a phone call from an organizer for the American Federation of Teachers who blithely announced that AFT intended to shut down the Louisville schools the following week with a citywide strike. I thought he was joking. AFT was based in East Coast big cities and had no more than fifty members among Louisville’s 2,000 teachers. The National Education Association (NEA) dominated most states those days, and it was run by and for the administrators, not rank-and-file teachers.
The AFT’s strike in Louisville was like a thunderclap—teachers did walk off and virtually shut down the system. Teachers were fed up. They were demanding a stronger voice and power in school affairs and school politics. In rural states like Kentucky, the poorest counties were frequently dominated by matriarchal political machines—women superintendents who controlled more jobs in their county than the men in county offices. The NEA got the message and swiftly adjusted. It became a full-fledged labor union like AFT. Instead of fronting for old-style political bosses, both organizations now try to speak for the interests of teachers and to defend them against political intrusions and other abuses.
These are the relevant facts that self-appointed billionaire reformers skip past. By demonizing the teachers unions and denouncing the tenure laws that protect teachers from arbitrary political reprisals, the do-good foundations have unwittingly cast themselves as a malevolent Daddy Warbucks ready to bury their opposition with tons of money.The Gates Foundation and some others do seem to be belatedly backing away from obvious mistakes, but the reform engine still threatens to undermine the common public school in favor of a deeply fractured system of sectarian and secular private sponsors claiming public money.
Impatient hedge-fund billionaires do not attempt to conceal their contempt for the rest of us. They are used to making money—fast—with no excuses for dawdlers. Witness what they have done to large segments of the overall economy. Education does not thrive in those conditions, because there is no standard of perfection in any schoolhouse that can survive brutal suppression of uniformity imposed by clumsy testing. A successful school not only makes room for dissent. It constantly nourishes it.
Of course, I am biased. But I think that was my mother’s teaching style. She taught first grade in an “inner city” neighborhood of Cincinnati where the students were not not poor black kids but white kids from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. They shared many of the same handicaps. Mom developed her own theories on how to teach reading to such children. It inovlved hand-eye coordination and other elements I could not follow. I have no proof that she succeeded, but I have a hunch she drove the principal nuts.
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Never mind the stalemated Congress, demonstrators for immigration reform showed up again at the White House on Monday—Barack Obama’s birthday—to make more speeches and deliver fresh petitions urging the president to take unilateral action on their issue. To the astonishment of veteran activists, Obama has already assured them he intends to do so. According to movement leaders who met with the president at the White House on June 30, a bombshell announcement is planned for right after Labor Day—an executive order that could liberate millions of undocumented workers from the threat of deportation. Republicans are sure to go bat guano.
Of course, Obama could always change his mind and back off his promise, as he has certainly done before with Latinos and allied groups campaigning for immigration reform. But this time the reform leaders sound quite confident of his word. “I’m shocked,” one leader admitted to me. “It seems totally out of character for Obama. But it appears the White House’s resolve has not been totally demolished by the kids on the border crisis. In fact, they seem determined to do what they can on undocumented workers and deportations as a giant ‘screw you’ to the Republicans.”
Political reporters have already written off the Obama presidency and moved on to hyper-speculate about the horse race for 2016. The plot twist on immigration reform could jerk their chain if it succeeds. It might even refresh Obama’s presidential persona if the public reacts favorably to aggressive action. When Obama took a gutsy initiative in 2012 on behalf of immigrant children, it turned out to be quite popular. Like this new move, it also revealed the shrewd politics of the Latino-led immigration reform movement. It turns out that making life difficult for a leader who disappoints and doesn’t keep his word can produce dividends.
“The good news of this story,” the anonymous leader explained, “is that after two or three or four years of confrontations with the White House about deportations, the movement will get a victory. And I think that’s a very big deal.”
With Obama in office, other Democratic constituencies tended to be more deferential and accepting. But Latinos repeatedly confronted Obama at the White House with in-your-face complaints about his failures to follow through. His desire to find common ground with Republicans, they warned, was futile. Republicans had no intention of finding a legislative compromise. The White House pleaded for patience, but the reformers only turned up the heat. Obama expressed his resentment after all he had done for them. They dismissed his efforts as unsatisfactory.
But in the last four or five months, the White House tone softened. At the meeting in late June, the president told immigration reform leaders he had a change of heart. I agree, he said, the Republicans are not going to move on legislation. So Obama said he is now preparing to use his executive authority to immunize more immigrants from deportation. He couldn’t cover 11 million of them, he said, but he would go as far as the law allows.
Someone asked at that June meeting about the children flooding the border, but Obama ruled out any unilateral policy changes as unrealistic. It would open US borders to the world, he said. That touched off a tense exchange, but the president stood his ground. Reformers fear that in coming weeks a lot of children are going to be flown home to the dangerous circumstances they had fled.
The exact actions that could help millions more of other undocumented migrants are still being developed at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security. The options include granting immunity to parents of the children already exempted from deportation under the DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Obama could, for example, broaden the categories of immigrations afforded this immunity to include people with long-established records of US employment or long-term residency in the country.
Democrats are hoping that Republicans will react to Obama’s daring intervention by doing something stupid, like impeaching or threatening to impeach the president. Otherwise, Dems are fearful of a disaster in this fall’s midterms. If impeachment becomes the issue, that can fire up the Democratic base: not just Latino voters, but also other core constituencies.
This is high-risk politics but, given his declining popularity, Obama has decided to double down. What does he have to lose? It will inflame Obama haters of course, but it may also persuade voters to take another look at the president. In recent months, his administration has taken a series of actions that are not hot political topics, but still speak directly to segments of working people. And Obama’s style has become more flavorful in the process. He is taunting the Republicans in an amused manner, teasing them for their obvious contradictions. One day they accuse him of acting like a monarch, the next day they complain he hasn’t acted strongly enough.
Whether or not Obama wins his political gamble, it seems the Latino dreamers are already winning theirs.
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The War Party in American politics is beating its drum and once again, mobilizing hawkish politicians and policy experts of both parties to wage a high-minded war of words. Hawks are salivating because they see the world’s current turmoil as a chance to rehabilitate themselves and the virtues of US military intervention. Three hot wars are underway and the United States has a client state in each of them. Civil wars in the Ukraine and Iraq plus Israel’s invasion of Gaza give Washington’s armchair generals fresh opportunity to scold President Obama for his reluctance to fight harder. They are not exactly demanding US invasions—not yet anyway—but they want the dovish president and Congress to recognize war as a worthy road to peace.
“In my view, the willingness of the United States to use force and to threaten to use force to defend its interests and the liberal world order has been an essential and unavoidable part of sustaining the world order since the end of World War II,” historian Robert Kagan wrote in The Washington Post. “Perhaps we can move away from the current faux Manichaean struggle between straw men and return to a reasoned discussion of when force is the right tool.”
“Reasoned discussion,” that’s the ticket. By all means, we should have more of it. But please don’t count on it from Professor Kagan. What he neglected to mention in his stately defense of American war-making is that he himself was a leading champion fifteen years ago in stirring up the political hysteria for the US invasion of Iraq. Why isn’t this mentioned by The Washington Post when it publishes Kagan’s monthly column on its op-ed page? Or by The New York Times in its adoring profile of the professor? Why doesn’t the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank that employs Kagan as a senior thinker?
Kagan was the co-founder of the Committee to Liberate Iraq, the neocon front group that heavily promoted pre-emptive aggression and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. You might assume Kagan was reacting to 9/11, but his role as propagandist for war actually preceded the terror attack by three years. Back then, Kagan and William Kristol also co-founded the Committee for a New American Century that was meant to restore American greatness through military power. They attacked the United Nations and warned that “American policy cannot continue to be crippled by misguided insistence on unanimity at the UN Security Council.” To Iraq’s lasting sorrow, George W. Bush took their advice.
Words matter in the doctrinal wars of Washington, not so much as facts but as a way to frame the argument and limit choices for the governing politicians. Both parties do this but Republicans are better at it, perhaps because they are closer to business, marketing and advertising. Academic figures lend authority and an illusion of disinterested expertise. But in Washington circles it is considered bad taste to go back and dredge up old errors to show that Professor X was full of crap or manipulated politicians with blatant falsehoods.
I suspect that is why the neocons are eager to stage a comeback now when they can dump the blame on President Obama. Academic authorities are undermined if people realize these thinkers were personally implicated in the bloody disaster of Iraq. Major media like the Post and Times are aiding their rehabilitation. Kagan was an adviser to Senator McCain when he ran for president in 2008. Kagan also advised Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Recent gossip assumes he is sure to be at State or the National Security Council if she becomes president. Someone should ask her.
Kagan slyly promotes the possibility of a Clinton presidency. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue, it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else,’ he told the Times.
Brookings has other Iraq experts who also get generous media exposure but have the same handicap as Kagan—a past they do not like to mention. Maybe the think tank could create a war registry—something like the registries for child molesters. It would alert the public on which Brookings experts were right about Iraq, which ones were wrong.
A few days after Kagan’s column, Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings also appeared in The Washington Post urging President Obama to send American troops back into Iraq. Maybe 5,000 US soldiers and no more than 10,000, O’Hanlon promised. This would be “a bitter pill” for Obama, he conceded, but “it is what may be needed to keep America safe.” A decade ago, O’Hanlon was a media favorite (though, as I recall, he was against the war before he was for the war).
Ken Pollack was another Brookings cheerleader for war whose comments were frequently used by media. Now he is a lot less bullish but Pollack alo wants to see the US to clean up the mess America left behind. He says he has a plan. He told a recent Brookings forum the plan “would involve both the United States being willing to assist in a wide variety of different ways, military and nonmilitary, but only if there is a political component to it. We’ve got to recognize that military force without that critical political component will at best be useless and at worst could be counterproductive.” At this late stage, his insight sounds like a non sequitur.
Indeed, the facile commentaries of the Brookings thinkers made me think of small boys playing toy soldiers on the living-room rug. They enjoy the game of issuing sweeping strategies to cure the world of problems. They pretend their ideas would succeed if only events and other nations cooperated. Of course, they know this won’t happen. But it’s not their fault.
This is governing is by empty platitudes. No one goes to jail or loses their foundation grant or gets shot at. They continue to think hard and deep without personal consequences. Professor Kagan, likewise, reduces the bloody reality of what he helped to cause in Iraq to a harmless discussion of bland abstractions. Did America err by doing too much or by doing too little? Yes, yes, tell us the answer. He doesn’t have any answer.
“The question today is finding the right balance between when to use force and when not to,” Kagan solemnly concluded. “We can safely assume the answer lies somewhere between always and never.” This lame double-talk is not harmless. People died, people are still dying. The best news for the nation is that the people at large don’t believe any of Washington’s cheap talk and want nothing more of its war-making adventures. The public consensus is bipartisan and overwhelming—a firewall against more interventions anywhere.
In these circumstances, maybe the Brookings Institution should organize a truth and reconciliation commission where the architects of the US disaster could come forward to tell the truth, confess their errors and ask to be forgiven. I believe the US government’s poisonous stalemate is likely to continue until something as dramatic occurs. That is, face the truth of our damaged position in the world and change ourselves.
The War Party would object and resist; it seeks the opposite kind of cleansing—wipe away bad memories and pretend nothing happened. Yes, they would say, the US messed up here and there, but America is still the world’s all-powerful good guy. “I feel that we Americans have beaten ourselves up enough,” Michael O’Hanlon insisted. “By the end of 2011, the Iraqis did have a pretty good basis for moving forward. We struggled very hard, put in a lot of money, a lot of American lives, a lot of high-level attention. I believe that the Iraqi political system writ large squandered the opportunity.”
Despite all we did for them.
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For many years, the smug elites of Wall Street have peddled “entitlement reform” as a sly euphemism for cutting Social Security. And Washington’s political elites, including President Obama, bought into the propaganda. Social Security, not to mention Medicare and Medicaid, was driving the nation into ruinous debt if government did not act to curb this venerable New Deal program. Think tanks and editorial writers, political reporters and TV talkers, witlessly embraced the big lie and promoted it as indisputable truth.
Except this self-righteous crusade for fiscal discipline failed to persuade the American people—the wage earners who pay the FICA deductions on every weekly paycheck and expect to get their money back as the retirement benefits promised by law. For many folks, the deal smelled like another Washington swindle. The people had it right, the experts were wrong. This time, the people are going to prevail.
This summer, though virtually ignored by the news media, the Democratic Party in Congress has launched a smart, spirited counter-offensive on behalf of Social Security. In the House and Senate, eight differing measures have been introduced by various Democrats to expand Social Security benefits to correct injustices for women and low-wage workers and to increase FICA payments for the wealthiest wage earners who make more than $400,000 a year. Instead of attacking Social Security, “entitlement reform” now takes on an opposite meaning—improving workplace fairness in this much-loved federal program and insuring its solvency for the next seventy-five years.
This may sound like a minor event, since none of these measures will be enacted anytime soon. But it reflects a major political shift underway in the reigning values of Democrats—a reawakening of the reform spirit that used to be the mainstream party’s identity, and another important way of confronting the society’s scandalous inequalities of income and wealth.
The Democratic president, one observes, is significantly absent and silent. Obama has made fine speeches about inequality, but he actually stood on the wrong side of the Social Security debate. Back in 2010, he made common cause with the anti-entitlement case of billionaire Pete Peterson, who recruited scores of influential policy types by dispensing generous grants. Obama opted for “austerity” economics and actively sought a bipartisan deal on trimming Social Security.
Some progressive voices in Congress, like Senator Bernie Sanders, Representatives Raul Grijalva, Keith Ellison and John Conyers said, No, this is wrong. But a lot of Democrats were silent. They may not have been for cutting Social Security, but they also didn’t oppose it. Back home, however, they encountered fierce resistance from their constituents. Ironically, Pete Peterson’s millions probably helped awaken the people to the threat. The more Peterson’s wealth financed noisy lobbying of the governing elites, the more he mobilized the anger of common folks.
It now appears that reforming Social Security in positive ways has once again become a mainstream idea of the Democratic Party, aligned with the party’s own base and public opinion regardless of party. Roughly half of the House Democratic Caucus has signed as co-sponsors of the strongest and most generous legislation, introduced by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Linda Sanchez of California. Their measure would gradually eliminate the cap on Social Security deductions now at $117,000 incomes. The bill would boost benefits for all Social Security recipients by approximately $70 a month, targeted especially to help low- and middle-income families.
In the Senate, Patty Murray of Washington, a member of Senate leadership, is co-sponsoring with Mark Begich of Alaska the Retirement and Income Security Enhancements (RAISE) bill, which proposes a more modest financing goal—a 2 percent FICA increase for incomes above $400,000, but no change for lesser incomes. Representative John Larsen of Connecticut would bump up benefits modestly for all recipients and guarantee a minimum benefit 25 percent above the poverty level. “No one who paid in the system over a lifetime should come out poor,” Larson explained.
The RAISE bill co-sponsored by Murray and Begich focuses on correcting many longstanding inequities that penalize women because of the changed nature of the workforce. Social Security was originally designed for the era of single-income families, when American companies typically provided generous retirement benefits. Now women are nearly 50 percent of the workforce but are especially vulnerable to hardship in retirement, particularly if divorced or never married.
Under current law, a widow or widower of a dual-income family gets a significantly smaller survivor benefit than a survivor in a single-earner family. Because women earn significantly less than men on average, they retire with significantly less in savings or pensions. Three of every ten women over 65 depend solely on Social Security in their later years.
These long-neglected social realities are at last coming back for honest political debate, and Democrats will doubtless argue many questions among themselves. Groups like Social Society Works, co-chaired by genuine authorities like Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson, have marshalled the facts and ideas that helped inspire the revival. Above all, they steadily refuted the Wall Street scare talk distributed by allegedly objective news media.
The basic distortion is the hysterical claim that the US economy faces a demographic calamity when the Baby Boomers retire. The sky is not falling, and it is not going to fall. The long-term actuarial forecast is that Social Security will absorb a little more than 6 percent of GDP in 2035—6.23 percent—and in 2085 it will amount to 6.17 percent and 6.23 percent in 2090. In other words, it’s a pretty flat line, not an explosion.
Perhaps the most pernicious lie told by Pete Peterson’s anti-entitlement crusade has been his crude effort to pit the young against the old. Peterson’s assorted front groups claim the old folks are robbing from the children by insisting on overly generous benefits. This demonstrates Wall Street’s utter ignorance of American family life. In reality, it is often Grandma’s Social Security check that holds the family together and keeps the grandchildren in hearth and home. Anyone who doubts the importance of these social relationships should consult the voluminous polling on how people feel about Social Security and why they stubbornly support it despite the so-called experts.
Or ask young adults, the millennial generation that faces bleaker prospects for jobs and incomes, savings and retirement. The leaders of Social Security Works feel their ultimate purpose is protecting Social Security from Wall Street, so it will still be around seventy-five years from now when the millennial generation needs it.
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To put it crudely, the dilemma facing the Democratic party comes down to this: Will Dems decide next time to stand with the working people, or will they stick with their big-money friends in finance and business? Some twenty years ago, Bill Clinton taught Democrats how they can have it both ways. Take Wall Street’s money—gobs of it—while promising to govern on a heart-felt agenda of “Putting People First.”
It worked, sort of, for the party. Not so much for the people. New Democrats prevailed. Old labor-liberals lost their seat at the table. Among left-wing malcontents, Bill Clinton became “slick Willie.”
Now economic adversities have blown away the Clinton legacy, which is rightly blamed for much of what happened to middle-class wage earners. New voices like senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherod Brown are demanding a new new politics—big governing reforms that really do put people first. The old New Dems are stuck with their moderation and obsolete economic doctrine that is utterly irrelevant amid the nation’s depressed circumstances.
Sooner or later I expect politics will change, because the injuries and adversities will not go away in the absence of stronger government interventions. For now, however, the Clintonites are the Democratic Party, having deliberately excluded liberal thinkers and activists from the ranks of government policymakers for two decades. Economic experts recruited by the Obama administration are more likely to have been trained at Goldman Sachs or Citigroup. They do not personally share the public’s anger.
So here is the unspoken subtext for 2016 and beyond: What does the Democratic Party actually believe? Democrats argue among themselves, but try not to provoke fratricidal accusations. The question is sufficiently hot that it is no longer a subterranean discussion. The Washington Post and The New York Times are chewing on it too.
A recent Post article warned Democrats to lay off the “inequality” talk for fear of sounding like “class warfare.” Well, yes, it is. As billionaire Warren Buffett remarked, the class warfare has been underway for some years . “Our side won,” he said.
The president has made several fine speeches on the issue, but the Post says the White House has already decided to drop it. Talk specifics, but keep it cool. Robert Borosage, director of the Campaign for America’s Future, suggests this is a recipe for “passive voice populism.”
The New York Times produced a tougher piece on the Dems’ intramural debate. It described in disturbing detail how closely Hillary has relied on the financial constituency. “As Wall St. Faces Scorn, It Warms to Clinton,” the headline said. She was, after all, a senator from New York. And when she ran for president and lost in 2008, organized labor was enthusiastically on her side.
Still, Hillary Clinton is dangerously out of step with the new zeitgeist. If she already has the 2016 nomination locked up, as her campaign gremlins keep telling us, it’s hard to imagine she would desert the finance-friendly politics that supported her rise to power.
The Hillary question has many corners to it. On one hand, it could achieve the epic breakthrough of electing a woman. On the other hand, it might postpone the restoration of progressive economic polices for another four years.
For that reason and some others, Clinton could run and lose the election. Still, many Dems see her as as the best prepared candidate and the best compromise among contending party factions. Dems do realize the need to hold onto the White House and Supreme Court appointments in order to derail the Roberts Court’s attack-happy right-wingers. Or, who knows, maybe she will decide not to run.
In other words, this dilemma will not be resolved by one election, or maybe several elections, because it is larger than individual candidates and their personal qualities. Nor is it limited to Democrats (witness the nervous breakdown of the Republican Party). We are really looking at the capture of representative democracy deformed by the deadly embrace of capitalism.
Only the people themselves can dig themselves out of this trap. My personal hunch is that Democratic office holders will not find the courage to embrace the future and the reform vision that some of their colleagues are advocating until their party feels threatened by its own constituencies. That is, the Dems need to experience more of the surprise rebellions that took down some old bulls in the GOP. If the people cannot get either major party to lead the way, maybe they will need to create a new party that will.
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The big media talk a lot about stalemate in Congress, but they are missing the real story. While representative democracy is dysfunctional, the Supreme Court has taken over with its own reactionary power grab. In case after case, the court’s right-wing majority is making its own law—expanding the power of corporations and the very wealthy, while making it harder for ordinary citizens to fight back.
Worst of all, the Roberts Court is trying to permanently inhibit the federal government’s ability to help people cope with the country’s vast social and economic disorders.
This is not a theoretical complaint. Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the conservative Republican Court is building a barbed wire fence around the federal government—creating constitutional obstacles to progressive legislation in ways that resemble the Supreme Court’s notorious Lochner decision of 1905. That case held that property rights prevail over people and the common good.
For more than thirty years, the conservative Justices used that twisted precedent to invalidate more than 200 state and federal laws on major social and economic concerns like child labor, the minimum wage, bank regulation and union organizing. New Deal reformers were stymied by Lochner at first, and they only managed to overturn it in 1937 and only then when FDR mobilized a take-no-prisoners campaign to reform the Supreme Court by weakening its unaccountable power.
The Roberts Court has so far produced a slew of precedent-smashing decisions designed to hobble left-liberal reform movements before they can gain political traction. Citizens United opened the floodgates for corporate money; McCutcheon scrapped the dollar limits on fat-cat donors. Roberts gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, implicitly endorsing the GOP’s crude campaign to block racial minorities from voting. The US Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable have won numerous victories, large and small, expanding the rights of their corporate sponsors.
“We are in an era of very aggressive corporate litigation to expand the constitutional prerogatives of business,” Kent Greenfield, Boston College law professor, explained. “We are on the verge of going back to the Lochner era where every new regulation will be subject to numerous constitutional attacks—any regulation of content in commercial speech attacked on First Amendment grounds, anti-discrimination law or healthcare legislation attacked on religious grounds. You’ll see financial legislation challenged on due-process grounds.”
Despite his genteel manner, Justice Roberts is a “smart strategist” who plants provocative phrases in his decisions that he can cite later as false precedents, according to Law Professor Gregory Magarian of Washington University in St. Louis. “Roberts tells a story that sounds like they are not making radical change,” Magarain said. “But they are still making things up, still making up social policy. And the judgments are still pointed toward the past.”
Anxious Democrats applauded Roberts when he upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare, but many realized after-the-fact that Roberts rejected the Commerce Clause of the Constitution as the standard basis for justifying federal interventions on social and economic problems. This means the Supreme Court now has a five-vote majority in favor of shrinking federal authority. In effect, the Roberts Court was mimicking the narrow logic of the Lochner court 100 year before. The words and reasoning are there, just waiting for the right case to apply them.
Magarian sees a reactionary perspective motivating Roberts and his brethren. The Justices are trying to thwart a future of renewed activism and social rebellion, Magarian suspects, because they were rattled by political unrest they saw in their youth.
“The Court believes that corporate power is virtuous,” Magarian explained. “They are empowering corporations to help maintain a kind of political stability. The First Amendment in the view of the Roberts Court is not about people at the political margins. I think the Roberts Court wants to empower large, stable, wealthy and powerful institutions like the corporation so as to help maintain political and social order. These guys don’t want any social upheaval. They are like interesting echoes of the sixties.”
In the absence of aggressive political resistance, there is nothing to prevent this right-wing power grab from succeeding. But corporations are vulnerable in numerous ways that timid Democrats have not exploited. To stop the Roberts Court, the other side must get serious and begin to attack corporate power and air grievances that the public fully shares.
The corporation, after all, is not a “person” who possesses “inalienable rights.” The corporation is a legal artifice created by the government and given special protections and privileges. When the Supreme Court treats corporations as though they are living, breathing creatures who have constitutional rights just like human beings, they are embracing the fundamental contradiction in the nature of the corporation. Sometimes, they want to be people. Other times, they want to be treated better than people—that is, legally shielded from the consequences of their actions.
Companies and their owners want to have it both ways. The Roberts Court is helping them do so. The Hobby Lobby case now before the Supreme Court illustrates this contradiction. On one hand, the company’s conservative owners claim their religious rights under the First Amendment are violated when the federal government insists they include birth control coverage in their healthcare plans. If Roberts buys that argument, any employer can dream up religious values that exempt it for almost any regulatory law they choose.
On the other hand, the Hobby Lobby owners are not about to surrender their own “limited liability” protection from lawsuits against the company or criminal liability for the company’s violations of law or its failure to pay its debts. You can’t sue the shareholders for wrongful actions by their company. That is a cornerstone of American capitalism. It is also a principal source of corporate irresponsibility.
What we need now is a ferocious counterattack against these corporate owners—a campaign that demands they surrender these special privileges the government has given them. Why protect shareholders from blame when they claim the same constitutional rights—free speech, freedom of religion—that people possess? Human beings are held responsible for their debts, they go to prison for their crimes. Perhaps the owners of corporations should be made to take responsibility for theirs.
A similar contradiction is embedded in the Roberts Court decisions that have effectively destroyed the laws on campaign finance. The billionaires and their mammoth companies, banks and investment houses have been granted unlimited power to influence elections or, as we might say, buy the candidates. The Supreme Court has unilaterally unhinged the standard meaning of elections. Elections are no longer collective decisions among citizens choosing their governors. They have become bidding wars among fat cats and powerful economic interests, choosing representatives for the rest of us and thereby choosing our laws.
“We don’t let people stand up and shout in town meetings and drown out everyone else,” Greenfield observed. “When we come to elections where we make collective decisions, an equality norm comes into play, especially when the money comes from corporations. Corporations are creatures of the state; their purpose is not to affect the state and change. A reasonable thing to say to corporations is we are not going to let you skew the political process that created you.”
Magarian expands the point. “The limited liability corporation,” he observed, “owes its form and existence to a particular act of government, then the corporation turns around and says, ‘We are going to use our advantages and leverage them to influence the political process.’ Given the advantages corporations gain from government largesse and protections, the society should not have to suffer the loss of its influence. We want to sever their corporate influence from the decisions we the people make about economic questions.”
“In the long view,” Greenfield said, “we are in this bind because of the nature of corporations, not the nature of constitutional law. Over the last generation, the rise of shareholder primacy has meant that managers manage the company to maximize the share price. Willing to serve Wall Street, the corporation has really become the tool for the 1 percent. We need to rethink the nature of corporations. Rather than be a servant of a tiny sliver of the American people, the corporation should have a much more robust public obligation and should be managed in a more pluralistic way.”
Meanwhile, angry citizens do not need to wait on reform. They should get out their pitchforks and spread the message to those corporate lawyers who are corrupting democracy and to those cloistered right-wing justices who have such great solicitude for the privileged minority.
If you’re wondering why some US politicians are so hot for war in the Ukraine, think “merchants of death.” At the height of the antiwar movement, that was nasty label some of us applied to Lockheed Martin, Boeing and other major manufacturers of high-tech war-fighting equipment—planes, tanks, missiles, whatever does the job. When the drums of war are sounding in some distant land, these the weapons makers naturally smell sales opportunities.
Trouble in Ukraine has aroused the same ambitions and hawkish politicians have picked up the ball and are running with it. They are demanding that the US government send military stuff to Kiev to hold off threatening Russians (our favorite bad guys). The hawks are portraying President Obama as a wimp who’s insufficiently bellicose. But the president is so far playing a cool hand. He has been getting us out of two wars. He’s pretty sure the people don’t want another one.
In fact, neutral historians may someday conclude that it was the United States who stirred up the trouble in the Ukraine, inadvertently if not intentionally, and that US arms makers played an important supporting role. When the Cold War ended in 1991, these companies saw a promising new market opening for their stuff—the newly liberated Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. Let’s expand NATO! The manufacturers lobbied policy makers in Washington and courted governments of post-Soviet nations as potential customers.
Bill Clinton decided to do it, cheered on by the arms merchants. Why is nobody talking about that? Because It might sound unpatriotic. And the media love bang-bang, even if the cause is stupid.
But expanding NATO to the east—even right up to Russian borders—was the provocative decision that led eventually to the current tensions and troubles. The Clinton administration determined that the United States must reach out and embrace the nations of Eastern Europe by offering them membership in the defense alliance originally created to hold off Soviet aggression. Expanding NATO, it was said, would guarantee the Communists could never reclaim their old dominance.
The decision would also sell a lot of fighter planes. Starting with Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the countries were delighted to be free of the old Warsaw Pact and eager to replace clunky old Soviet jet fighters with high-tech American versions—awesomely superior and also much more expensive. No problem, Washington would lend the money and guarantee the loans.
To sell this deal, the arms makers created the US Committee to Expand NATO. Its president was Bruce Jackson, director of strategic planning for Lockheed. Between 1996 and 1998 alone the six biggest military contractors spent $51 million lobbying Congress and public opinion, according to The New York Times, while helping ethnic groups of Eastern European descent organize supporters.
Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, an opponent, called it “a Marshall Plan for defense contractors who are chomping at the bit to sell weapons and make profits.” A congressional aide confided to New York Times reporter Katharine Seelye that the arms manufacturers were so intent on NATO expansion that “we’ll probably be giving land-locked Hungary a new navy.”
Starting with Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, six nations from the old Soviet system have joined NATO, though not Ukraine. As allies, they are welcome to shop in the Western weapons market. Poland wanted forty-eight of Lockheed’s F-16s fighter planes and five Hercules military transports. Romania wanted jet fighters to replace its tired old Russian MIGs. Bulgaria’s defense minister said he was studying the probable purchase of F-16s. And so on.
American companies now practically “own” the international market in big-ticket armaments. According to Congressional Research Service reports, the US sales abroad were $66 billion in 2011, more than three-fourths of all global trade. Russia finished second with $4.8 billion. Those totals exaggerate the imbalance because the United States had an especially good year in 2011. There was a very large purchase from Saudi Arabia—$33 billion for 84 F-15s and upgrades to seventy other planes.
Which brings us back to Ukraine. That troubled country actually manufactures some weapons itself and sells them to other countries, including India, Thailand and China. But as news stories have made clear, the Ukraine itself an unstable mess, its army small and feeble, its government corrupt and inept.
Nevertheless, twenty-one Republican senators—the usual crowd led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham—are hammering the Obama administration to get tough with Putin. Their rhetoric evokes nostalgia for “good old days” when the Cold War was in bloom.
“We need to inflict more direct consequences on Russia,” declared Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, “prior to Vladimir Putin taking additional steps that will be very difficult to undo…. What we’re saying is that Russia is winning.”
Note that the senators do not actually propose to send American troops into the Ukraine, though the United States has deployed fighter planes to Poland and US ships to the Black Sea. The bill they introduced would send $100 million in direct military aid, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Plus, their legislation would designate Ukraine as a “major non-NATO ally,” which would give a green light to arms sales.
But isn’t Ukraine already broke? No matter, we will lend them the money. People who remember such moments from the distant past know where this tough talk leads. When the rhetoric fails to intimidate the bad guys, the United States defends its reputation by raising the stakes—deeper and deeper into the big muddy.
The real tragedy of Ukraine is that American policy leaders, from Bush I and Clinton to Bush II and Obama, seem to have forgotten the true history of big wars across the twentieth century. After World War I, the victors chose to punish the vanquished Germans, imposing harsh and impossible penalties that sowed a bitter desire for revenge and that led ultimately to World War II.
After that war, however, the great powers led by the United States did the opposite. Instead of vengeance, they chose to rebuild the devastated nations of Japan and Germany and help restore them to strength and pride.
This time, American leaders reverted to the old pattern—throwing more pain and indignities in Russia’s path. Imposing the ideas of Washington and Harvard, US governing elites allowed the plundering oligarchs to strip public asset. US economic policy squeezed the country tight while the Russian people endured an epic depression that triumphant Americans barely noticed. That was a dumb thing to do. It was also dangerous, as our history has taught.
Now comes Vladimir Putin seeking revenge—or at least restored national pride. He said his country was demeaned and humiliated, deliberately taunted by the encircling NATO alliance. You don’t have to like him to recognize he is right about that.
Edward Snowden is portrayed as a traitor, a fugitive criminal and maybe even a Russian spy, but when he showed up in Washington, he was greeted by numerous standing ovations. Despite government efforts to demonize him, Snowden looks a lot like the boy next door, maybe more idealistic than most but modestly understated when he talks about his sensational role as a world-class truth-teller. The boyish smile says, Aw, shucks, I’m not anything special. If the feds decide to prosecute this plain-spoken young citizen, they will find it very difficult to convince Americans he is an enemy of the people.
At the National Press Club luncheon where Snowden made his surprise appearance, he was embraced as a national hero. He talked for fifteen or twenty minutes, even took a few questions. The applause was thunderous, the drama so enthralling I failed to take any notes. The Ridenhour awards event is an annual ceremony in Washington honoring public servants and activists, documentary film makers, authors or investigative reporters for their courageous accomplishments.
Snowden and Laura Poitras, the film maker who has collaborated with him, received the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling. The award is named for the late Ron Ridenhour, another brave truth teller who exposed the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war. The annual luncheon, sponsored by the Nation Institute and the Ferlel Foundation, is always a warm-spirited tribal gathering for the left-liberal and progressive activists who labor for the public interest in the nation’s capital.
Of course, neither Snowden nor Poitras was actually in DC. They appeared, live and in color, on a big screen on the wall of the banquet hall, linked by the marvels of modern communications. Snowden was presumably in Russia, no one said where Poitras was. The transmission was a little jumpy, so their words were often out of sync with the pictures, which added dramatic tension. James Bamford, the authoritative author of three investigative books on the surveillance agency, introduced Snowden–an influential endorsement in Washington circles. The press ignored the event, or maybe they were not informed in advance. Snowden and Poitras have had a lot of experience dodging the cyber-nets cast by government spies and spooks.
Perhaps the most striking thing Snowden said was that when he decided to make public the treasure trove of National Security Agency documents he expected to spend the rest of his life in prison. He decided nevertheless it was “the right thing to do.” Poitras recalled the first time she heard from Snowden was an anonymous e-mail query in early 2013. As an investigative film maker, she was used to dealing with sources who dared not reveal themselves. As discussions progressed about what Snowden wanted to disclose, she was astonished by the scope of what he knew and even more astonished that he intended to go public.
But Snowden made the point that his decision was neither frivolous nor reckless. His alarm at what NSA was doing to spy on Americans was widely shared among NSA technicians, he said. Rank-and-file workers saw the same abuses and were as upset as he was. NSA spies on more Americans than it spies on any other peoples, he said. But NSA insiders also knew that internal complaints were worse than useless. When internal whistleblowers had tried to follow procedure and file formal objections, they were stiffed or punished. If they went public, top officials insisted they were lying or delusional or whatever.
Snowden the citizen concluded that if he was going to act, he would have to supply the documents that confirm his shocking accusations. Otherwise, the system would simply brush off his truth-telling and likely punish him as the villain. So Snowden produced a veritable truckload of evidence. Whatever criminal offenses might be lodged against him, Snowden observed that James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, had lied under oath to the US Senate and nothing has happened to him. The president has not fired Clapper or even reprimanded him. Snowden made this point twice. Is NSA above the law? The more Obama protects these guys, the more their dirt will become his dirt.
Meanwhile, Snowden’s manner is the opposite of rancor. He went on at length in defense of NSA people he had worked with, praised them as patriotic Americans proud of their work. He also addressed his family and apologized for the pain and anguish his actions may have caused them. His father was in the audience, evidently proud to see his son honored in the nation’s capital.
The Justice’s dissent in the Michigan college admissions case was courageous, as the attorney general said, because she dared to identify an enduring remnant of “white supremacy” still clinging to American democracy. Of course, the Justice did not use that odious phrase. She would have been accused of sensationalizing the issue. But her Republican colleagues in the majority on the Supreme Court must have felt the sting of her accusation.
The Michigan case, Sonia Sotomayor explained, is simply the latest example of an old and familiar abuse of the Constitution. The white majority used its power to change the rules in the middle of the game and deprive racial minorities of a fair shot at acquiring their just political rights.
“While our Constitution does not guarantee minority groups victory in the political process,” she wrote, “it does guarantee them meaningful and equal access to the process. It guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals.”
Chief Justice Roberts harrumphed in reply. Justice Scalia ridiculed her reasoning. Yet I have a hunch Sotomayor’s dissent will be read and taught in classrooms long after the names Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy have faded from historical memory.
At issue was the state-wide referendum at which Michigan voters amended their state constitution to forbid consideration of “race-sensitive issues” in the admission policies at Michigan’s public universities. Black enrollment predictably plummeted afterwards. The majority rules, people declared. In this case, the Supreme Court agreed. Sotomayor reminded them of the long, brutal history of American apartheid when the Supreme Court was compelled, again and again, to set aside “majority rules” in order to secure the constitutional rights of minorities.
At first, she said, states acted with an open contempt for the Fifteenth Amendment, adopted after the Civil War to grant liberated slaves the rights of citizens. “Certain states shut racial minorities out of the political process altogether by withholding the right to vote,” Sotomayor recalled. “This Court intervened to preserve that right. The majority tried again, replacing outright bans on voting with literacy tests, good character requirements, poll taxes and gerrymandering.”
Fraud, intimidation and violence were standard tactics that continued in the twentieth century. Texas adopted a law in 1923 that prevented racial minorities from voting in party primaries. When the Supreme Court declared that law unconstitutional, Texas passed another law that gave the parties the right to decide who was eligible to vote (the Democratic party said only white Democrats). Oklahoma required a literacy test but exempted anyone who whose grandfathers had been eligible to vote before 1866 (naturally, no African-Americans needed apply). Other states built legal barriers to prevent blacks from winning election to local offices—sometimes abolishing the offices or having the governor, not voters, appoint the office holders. School desegregation spawned new tactics of resistance (abolishing public schools in Virginia or an entire county in Alabama).
This pattern of extreme responses became established across the South. Each time racial minorities achieved a foothold in the political process, state governments would change the rules and nullify their accomplishment. It was a bitter contest, often fought out in the intimacy of small towns. Black people would organize and push for change, often backed up by the NAACP other civil rights organizations. If they finally won something, the white electorate and legislature would intervene. Majority rules, ha-ha-ha.
Sotomayor’s incendiary accusation is that Michigan’s fight over race and college admissions policy resembles the same crude political combat, only this time the Supreme Court has come down on the other side.
The debate, she pointed out, was not about affirmative action, which is easily demonized as racial quotas. The question was whether the majority can disable the “equal protection” political rights of the minority by cementing the prohibition in the state constitution. Repeal campaigns are extraordinarily expensive and effectively beyond the capacity of minority communities. They can sometimes win by organizing normal political actions, like citizen lobbying or electing new office holders. In fact, Michigan went through those battles in a series of electoral contests. Minority voters and university allies successfully defended the race-sensitive admission policies. But then the opposition trumped them with a high-powered campaign to ratify the constitutional amendment. Majority rules.
A Michigan citizen can lobby university regents or organize pressures on the governor and legislature in favor of other admission factors—recruiting good athletes with poor grades or favoring the children of alumni, for example. But they cannot propose race and racial diversity as valuable elements in education. That prohibition might sound fair to lots of white people. It will sound familiar to lots of non-white people.
Sotomayor described the consequences for people: “A white graduate of a public Michigan university who wishes to pass his historical privilege on to his children may freely lobby the board of that university in favor of an expanded legacy policy, whereas a black Michigander who was denied the opportunity to attend that very university cannot lobby the board in favor of a policy that might give his children a chance that he never had and they might never have absent that policy.”
Beyond the legal reasoning, Sotomayor offered a poignant expression of why race matters. “Race matters,” she said, “because of the long history of racial minorities being denied access to the political process…because of persistent racial inequality in the society.… Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching other tense up as he passes.… Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown and then is pressed, no, where are you really from.… Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce the most crippling thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’”
The Roberts Court wants to ignore all that. In fact, talking so much about race may do more harm than good, the Chief Justice said. Time to move on—the voters have spoken.
One wonders how conservative Republicans will feel about “majority rules” in a generation or two white people are no longer the majority of American citizens. I suspect they may change their minds.
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