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The emerging fight over the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, which Senator John McCain has promised to bring up right after George W. Bush's installation as President, has little, if anything, to do with real reform. Rather, this is primarily an intraparty scrap over who will define the early days of Bush's term--Bush and Senate Republican leaders or the maverick McCain with Democrats in tow--and who will determine the new parameters of "bipartisanship." McCain needs sixty votes to stop the traditional filibuster by Republican leaders Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell, and with the turnover in the Senate, the Democratic gain of four seats and the conversion of Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran to the cause, McCain may now have them. But the Republicans may well try, with the witting or unwitting help of a few Democrats, to pass a toad and call it a prince.
The McCain-Feingold bill would do some worthwhile things. It would end the flow of unregulated soft money into national party coffers, codify the Supreme Court's Beck decision pertaining to the use of union dues for political purposes (which organized labor accepts, since it affects only a small number of nonunion members--those who pay dues for certain services and will be allowed to opt out of paying the portion spent on politics) and would possibly include a friendly provision offered by moderate Republicans to restrict how corporations and unions can spend money on political ads aired during the final months of election campaigns. Some Republicans may favor the bill because the Democratic Party is now almost even in the soft-money race. But nothing in it would end the money chase that keeps many good people from running for office; nor would it put a real dent in the process of influence-peddling that defines day-to-day life in Washington. Even at an estimated $457 million in 2000, soft money, the subject of so many New York Times editorials, amounted to only about 16 percent of the roughly $3 billion raised for this year's national auctions--ahem--elections. That's a big jump over the $265 million in soft money raised in 1996 but not much of a change compared with the $2.2 billion raised overall that year.
Feingold is a decent man who courageously called on his own party last summer at its Los Angeles convention to stop unilaterally the outrageous fundraising that goes on at those events. He understands the limits of his bill and is on record firmly supporting full public financing of campaigns, as is now done in Clean Elections states like Maine, Arizona, Vermont and (starting this spring) Massachusetts. McCain, on the other hand, is an excitable right-winger who has ridden the finance issue to unexpected stature. He's a far from reliable ally of reform groups, who are hungry to make some headway against the growing corruption of the electoral process by big money. And there lies the danger.
In order to pass a bill that Bush might sign, McCain has signaled that he may accept, in exchange for a soft-money ban, amendments that would allow an increase, possibly even a tripling, of the limits on hard money an individual may donate. Lots of incumbents--Democrats and Republicans alike--secretly like this devil's bargain, because they think it would make it easier to raise the hard dollars they so desperately need for their campaigns. They also argue, irrelevantly, that inflation has reduced the value of a $1,000 contribution, the limit set in 1974, to $300. The Supreme Court disposed of this argument a year ago, in Nixon v. Shrink, when it upheld even lower limits as a way to prevent electoral corruption, pointedly stating that "the dictates of the First Amendment are not mere functions of the Consumer Price Index."
An increase in the hard-money limits would certainly encourage "buy-partisanship"--the process by which wealthy donors buy one party and get the other free. Fewer than 121,000 people gave $1,000 or more to a winning federal candidate in the 2000 elections, less than 0.05 percent of the population. Tripling the amount they could give would further empower this narrow slice of America, which is disproportionately wealthy, white and male. It could also increase the gap between the business and labor contributions to a whopping billion dollars. Two leading reform groups, Public Campaign and US PIRG, are against any such trade-off, but others, like the business-driven Committee for Economic Development, are for it, with Common Cause somewhere in between. Labor and civil rights groups, their attention focused on Bush's Cabinet nominees, should take heed. The passage of a straightforward soft-money ban would be a good thing--and we'd like to see Congress look seriously at the Clean Election reforms taking root in the states. But this new Congress may try to pass a bad bill, call it reform and hope no one hears the protests.
Mandate or no, George W. Bush is forging ahead with Cabinet appointments, policy forums and talk of a "first 100 days." Bush and his team have assembled a Cabinet faster than any administration since Richard Nixon's, and before Bush takes the oath of office on January 20 they'll have laid the groundwork for passage of an agenda that closely resembles the worst-case scenario painted by Bush critics during the 2000 campaign.
Bush's appointments to the EPA, Interior and Energy look ready to lead a furious offensive against environmental regulation and common sense. His appointments to Labor and Justice promise an assault on choice, civil rights and worker rights. His heralded national security team looks resolutely backward to a cold war that isn't, and seems oblivious to the world as it is. No wonder the Reagan cinematic fantasy--Star Wars, missile defense--is paraded as an early priority.
Post-mortems and recriminations must now give way to action, beginning with a flood of e-mails, telegrams and letters of protest to the Capitol Hill offices not just of Republicans but of wavering Democrats who have the power to brake the Bush bandwagon. This is no time for bipartisan blather. "Those who are with the civil rights agenda must not choose collegiality over civil rights and social justice," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Democratic members of Congress need to know that they cannot expect the core of their party--women, minorities, workers--to turn out on Election Day only to have their interests abandoned the day after, and that those who surrender in this fight will not be forgotten and not be forgiven. We must make it clear that we are not prepared to refight the battles of the last decades on basic human rights. We are not prepared to surrender to another era of race-bait politics, or to send poor women back to the alleys for abortions, or to lay waste our environment in the interest of big oil.
The frontline troops of this movement are already mobilizing. Civil rights groups and others will take to the streets of Washington starting on January 15, Martin Luther King Day, and continuing through the Inauguration; they will raise necessary questions about the legitimacy of Bush's election and press for voting reforms that guarantee more representative results in the future. The AFL-CIO has pledged to oppose archconservative John Ashcroft's nomination for Attorney General, as have People for the American Way and the Black Leadership Forum (see comments on Ashcroft on pages 4 and 5). Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League have joined that challenge while also promising to oppose Health and Human Services Department nominee Tommy Thompson, who presided over a severe curtailment of access to reproductive rights as governor of Wisconsin.
But the real work must go on at the grassroots--starting now and continuing up to and including the 2002 elections. (For more information on protests and ways to get involved, go to Counter-Inaugural Calendar at www.thenation.com). It is only by exerting constant upward pressure that we can explode the myth of bipartisanship and prevent the Bush presidency from rolling over the will of the great majority of Americans.
Congress cannot salute Dr. King's dream and then go on to pass the dream-busting Bush agenda. Beginning with the Bush nominations, every lawmaker on Capitol Hill must be challenged to stand up, as Dr. King did, for justice.
Following Vice President Al Gore's concession, President-elect Bush announced: "I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation. The President of the United States is the President of every single American, of every race and every background." It was an appropriate speech delivered from the Democratic-controlled Texas House chambers. Referring to the Texas House as "a home to bipartisan cooperation," Bush added, "Republicans and Democrats have worked together to do what is right for the people we represent."
But who are George Bush's bipartisan Democrats?
Texas State Representative Paul Sadler, a Democrat, told the New York Times that Bush "didn't invent bipartisanship in Texas." It "kind of developed over the years because of the nature of the system." Nature of the system? What system? Essentially it is the same "system" around which the rest of the Southern Democratic Party developed.
The Southern Democratic Party was the party of slavery. Conservative Democrats were the Confederates during the Civil War. Democrats either were, or cooperated with, the KKK in resisting Reconstruction. Following Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), conservative Democrats practiced Jim Crow--separate and unequal. And after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), conservative Southern Democrats were the prime resisters of desegregation.
After Brown and the civil rights evolution of the 1960s, and the application of Goldwater's 1964 and Nixon's 1968 "Southern strategy," Southern white males especially began to leave the national Democratic Party in significant numbers. Republicans began to appeal to them with a series of racial themes and code words: "conservatism" during the civil rights struggles in 1964, "law and order" after the riots of 1967-68, "antibusing" in 1972, "welfare queen" in 1980, "Willie Horton" in 1988 and "compassionate conservatism" in 2000. Democrats also played this game: Carter's "ethnic purity" misstep in 1976 almost got him into serious trouble with the party's base; Bill Clinton used "Sister Souljah," and Al Gore emphasized crime ("blanket America in blue")--Democratic Southerners all. And all, Republicans and Democrats alike, are from the same system. Clinton redefined the Democratic Party away from the "special interests" of blacks--symbolized by Jesse L. Jackson Sr.--by politically manipulating a rapper. Because of Jackson's tireless pursuit of racial justice, and because he's a strong and highly visible Democrat, Republicans are now attempting to define and identify him as the symbol of the Democratic Party.
Taking a page from ultraconservative Ronald Reagan--who often referred favorably to the liberal FDR--Bush quoted the ideological founder of the Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson. But Jefferson, a Virginian, was also the author of a Kentucky resolution and conservative theory of Southern resistance called "nullification," and his Democratic partner, James Madison, developed the theory of "interposition." Both concepts were forms of Southern resistance--first, resistance to ending slavery, and later to ending Jim Crow segregation. Jefferson also provided the ideological foundation for the concept of "local control"--the stepchild of "states' rights." Bull Connor, Jim Clark, Lester Maddox, Orval Faubus and George Wallace were all the products of this "system" and were Democratic advocates of states' rights, local control and an antifederal ideology of less government, lower taxes and a strong military.
It is this legacy of conservative Southern Democrats that created the "bipartisan system" that State Representative Paul Sadler referred to. It is this legacy of conservative Southern Democrats in Congress with which President-elect Bush intends to work. But the President-elect's problem of governing all of the people cannot be satisfied merely by building bridges to essentially conservative Southern Blue Dog, Yellow Dog, New Dog or DLC Dog Democrats. These conservative dogs already support him. His problem will be in reaching out and building bridges to liberals and progressives who feel like they've been treated like dogs, who represent the dogs who have been left out in the cold and put in the doghouse by a bipartisan coalition of conservative Republicans and Democrats. Indeed, this is the bipartisan pack that consistently bites us.
This conservative bipartisan coalition is generally for denying a woman's right to choose, supports charitable choice and violates the Constitution's mandate of church and state separation by attempting to put parochial prayers and the Ten Commandments in public schools. Out of this bipartisan "system" comes the privatization movement--public vouchers for private schools, privatizing all or part of Social Security, privatizing healthcare through medical savings accounts and much more.
It is this conservative bipartisan coalition that allows Ralph Nader to say that we have one corporate party with two different names. If Democrats go down this bipartisan path it will only strengthen Nader and the Greens for 2002 and 2004. The move down that path has already been aided by Democrats: In 1992 a conservative Democrat, Bill Clinton, selected an even more conservative running mate, Al Gore, who in 2000 selected an even more conservative running mate, Joseph Lieberman. By helping to shift the Democratic Party and the country further right, a very conservative George W. Bush could select an ultraconservative Dick Cheney as his running mate--and win.
The heart and soul of this conservative bipartisan coalition is the South, though by no means do all white Southerners regard themselves as part of it. Most Southern Democratic elected officials would be Republicans above the Mason-Dixon line, and Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, for example, could not be elected south of the Mason-Dixon line in either party. She would be seen as too liberal, and her views would be considered traitorous to Southern heritage, traditions and values.
More than half of all African-Americans still live in the former Confederacy, and nationally they voted 92 percent for Gore. Yet the entire body of Democratic leadership in the House and Senate are all white men. While Bush got only 8 percent of the African-American vote, Democrats have no visible elected African-American Congressional leaders who compare to the Republican exceptions of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice or Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.
This system is what President Lyndon Johnson understood on August 6, 1965, when he signed the Voting Rights Act and afterward said privately that national Democrats had probably lost the South for at least a quarter-century. He understood the system that produced Southern politics and the bipartisan white coalition that drove it. His insight has now come home to roost big-time in the 2000 election. Bush won the old Confederacy and the rural states of the West, which have a similar political philosophy--plus Indiana, Ohio and New Hampshire. Gore won the old Union states of the North and Northeast, plus New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington, which are more in harmony with national Democratic policies.
This system of bipartisan cooperation, social and economic conservatism, and individualistic, personalistic and pietistic religion is rooted in a region that imposes the highest number of death penalties and has the highest crime in the country, the poorest schools, the worst healthcare and housing, the greatest environmental degradation and the greatest poverty--and this conservative Southern system sustains it and is increasingly leading and influencing the nation. As State Representative Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat, said, "Even if something is bipartisan, it still often doesn't solve the problems of certain groups of people in Texas. They would be people who don't have health insurance, working families, the vulnerable in our society."
The South, and America, need a progressive bipartisan economic coalition to fight for better jobs and job training, healthcare, affordable housing and a good educational system--for all Americans. However, that is not the agenda of Bush and his Democrats.
A cold snowy start to the new year, the first day of the new millennium. Not the fun one with champagne at the Pyramids and the all-night, round-the-globe pseudoprofundities and the secret letdown when our computers didn't turn into pumpkins at midnight. I mean the real millennium, with the bad news bears basking on their ice floes as the stock market sinks and thousands tremble as The Anxious Consumer ponders whether to spring for the new Chevrolet Astro or live with the old Dodge Caravan a bit longer. On the radio a mom explained that her kids just wanted gift certificates for Christmas so they could take advantage of the post-holiday sales. How old are these kids? 50? This morning, same station, a man from the Cato Institute instructs us to count our blessings: We are all a lot better off than a hundred years ago; after all, Americans are two inches taller now.
On New Year's Day, a stern young black man missing his front teeth preaches on the subway: "Mr. Black Man! Mr. White Man! What is the meaning of Eternity? Repent! Repent!" He stalks the aisle, dressed all in black and carrying a blood-red Bible, like a mad priest in an opera, while passengers stare stonily into the headlines: I'm Sacking Satan, declares ex-Jet Marc Gastineau in the New York Post, once again evading jail for beating his wife, who like him has gone into Christian therapy ("'I contributed to a lot of the violence,' said the slight, 5-foot-5 woman"). In the passageway between stations, a tiny man of unguessable age wearing a filthy Ralph Lauren American Flag sweater plays a violin as if it were an unfamiliar object he had found in the trash; a young black man sings Beatles songs expertly and with unflagging good cheer. The Christmas-caroling street minister with the fantastic baritone voice is gone, but the Chinese musician is still seated on the L train platform, bending in total concentration over his pipa, an elegant longnecked stringed instrument that emits at the touch of his bow a thin wail, like a dying cat.
My father turns 81 in his hospital bed. After three brain surgeries, who knows what he understands? Flowers arrive that he does not look at; cards are read that he does not listen to. Friends arrive with "get well" offerings--a sleep mask, earplugs, pictures of their children--and leave quickly, stricken. Newly arrived from England, a Kazakh friend complains, "They won't move him to the other bed, although I keep asking!" It seems that bed is the lucky one, the one where the patients get better. A staggering amount of medical help and equipment swirls around my father; it is as though experts have been summoned from all over the world--a doctor from Korea, nurses from the Philippines and Ireland, aides from Jamaica and Guyana and India and Central America--all for the express purpose of tending a few limp, pale Americans. And yet the simplest realities--that my father has eaten essentially nothing for almost two weeks--seem to evoke no sense of urgency, to fall into the spaces between specialists and between changing shifts.
In Man's Fate, the Russian Communist Katov prepares himself to be thrown alive into a furnace after the Shanghai rebellion he helped organize is betrayed by Stalin. He says to himself, "Let's suppose I died in a fire." What style, I thought as a teenager, what cool. Today I think: Well, it would be scary and painful, but at least it would be quick. And by dying in 1927, Katov got to keep his political dignity: He didn't have to persuade himself that voting for a protest candidate was a radical act or inveigh against "global capitalism," or "corporate capitalism," as if there were some other kind--national capitalism? mom-and-pop capitalism?--that could be brought out of the closet of history, and donned like a comfy old suit.
I had planned a very different column--upbeat and energetic, with exhortations to do more and a list of clever resolutions. I e-mailed my whole address book asking for suggestions for feminist activism. I don't know what I was hoping for--seize the TV stations? Dangle John Ashcroft off a skyscraper till he promises to spend the rest of his life cleaning abortion clinic toilets? Raise a lesbian militia to fight the Taliban? What came in was nothing like that. Write letters, the activists said, make phone calls, raise money, bother your politicians, volunteer. Challenge the sexism of daily life, the writers wrote: racist and sexist remarks, panels with no women, all-male magazine forums and debates. Link issue A with issue B, the academics urged.
Fine, but according to Newsweek, there are now 1 million slaves in America, mostly women and girls--cleaning houses, making clothes, servicing men sexually to pay off traffickers and pimps. Ask yourself what kind of man would fuck a slave, some Chinese or Albanian or Thai teenager in a plywood cubicle with a mattress on the floor. Do you think he cares if you write a letter to your congressman? Maybe he is your congressman.
The world spins only forward, says Prior Walter in Angels in America. But which way is that? Most members of my study group think intellectuals and activists have no special role to play in history. They only perch atop its shifting tectonic plates, ready to jump on the backs of the workers at the first sign of autonomous action. "The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing," quotes the Last Marxist at least once per meeting, which goes on all day and ends with a wonderful meal. Last time, we invited the Race Traitors--Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, Beth Henson--and accused them of daring to think they could spark a movement with a magazine and a book. Wow, said Noel, you guys are really depressed. Yes, I said, usually it takes us all day to feel this irrelevant, and it isn't even lunchtime yet.
I go home in the snow, I e-mail the President to save the Alaskan wilderness, proving yet again that I have no dignity and do not read my own columns. At bedtime we read aloud from Mona in the Promised Land, by my daughter's favorite contemporary American writer, Gish Jen.
"If there's a depression, will we have enough money?" Sophie asks as we turn out the light. "Don't worry about it," I say. "Everything will be fine. We can always sing in the subway."
If the absence of soldiers seizing cable networks is the ultimate standard of meaningful democratic empowerment, we're not doing half bad.
Bush v. Gore is a fitting start to the next four deranged years.
Bill Clinton is moving to install Terry McAuliffe as the head of the DNC, a cynical move in this day of pay-to-play politics.
Bush v. Gore may have superficially resolved a short-run political crisis, but it has triggered a deep intellectual crisis.
We shall see very little of the charmingly simian George W. Bush—the military—Cheney, Powell et al.--will be calling the tune, and the whole nation will be on constant alert.
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