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News and Features
Nine hundred days to go, and Democratic presidential hopefuls are jockeying for position.
Will Al Gore become the Dimpled President?
Joseph Heller would have had a field day with the hearings of the US
Commission on Civil Rights in Tallahassee last week.
The Supreme Court, in the final week of June, handed down three decisions, each of which seems to endorse a valuable social principle.
In the first, involving the right of legal immigrants who have pleaded guilty to crimes in the past to a judicial review of deportation proceedings, the Court upheld the principle that no matter who you are, you are entitled to your day in court.
In the second case, the High Court affirmed the right of writers and artists to share in the wealth made possible by the new media. The case was brought by a group of freelancers who objected to the inclusion of their work in electronic databases without permission or remuneration; the group was led by Jonathan Tasini, the president of the National Writers Union and a man with an admirable mission.
In the third case, the Supreme Court made it more possible for Congress to provide correctives to the influence of money in politics by upholding Watergate-era limits on how much political parties can spend in coordination with candidates for federal office. Had the Court eliminated the restrictions, it would have legitimized the parties as cash-laundering machines for donors.
Left to be determined, in all three cases, are the appropriate remedies for the ills the rulings addressed, and the difficulty of fashioning these should not be underestimated. But it is heartening to see the Court acting in its proper role as the guardian of both the individual and society.
Thomas Jefferson was not anticipating a summer holiday when he told Lafayette that "the boisterous sea of liberty indeed is never without a wave." In Philadelphia, where Jefferson and his countrymen created a monumental wave back in 1776, a new generation of patriots will meet from June 29 to July 1 to turn a tide of anger over the denial of democracy in Florida into a national movement for electoral reform.
The national Pro-Democracy Convention, organized by the Institute for Policy Studies, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Nation Institute and others, comes at a moment of more activism on voting rights and electoral reform than at any time since the 1960s. From energetic voter-registration drives in Florida, where young people gathered in mid-June to kick off Democracy Summer, to a renewed push for instant-runoff voting in Vermont, to a move in Congress to make real the promise of the Voting Rights Act, there's a sense that from the disappointment that was Florida there may come a movement capable of assuring that, in the words of Representative Cynthia McKinney, "We will not allow a repeat of Florida 2000."
Essential to this movement is the recognition that Florida was only part of the story. Across the United States more than 2 million presidential votes went uncounted last November. Election officials actually discarded more ballots in Illinois than in Florida--3.9 percent compared with 2.9 percent. Added to this are concerns about aging voting equipment, restrictive registration laws, failed implementation of the federal motor-voter law and bans on voting by former prisoners that continue to deny millions of citizens--especially people of color and the poor--full access to the franchise.
With Democrats now in control of the Senate, there's a chance to crystallize the energy of this new movement by passing the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act. Written by Chris Dodd, Senate Rules Committee chairman, and John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, the bill addresses basic issues of access and equal opportunity and sets universal standards for voting machines. It has the support of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the National Council of La Raza, the National Organization for Women, the National Federation of the Blind and at least 172 Congress members. Citizens will have a chance to voice their support at hearings across the country this summer.
Meanwhile, the House is preparing for a post-July 4 showdown on the related issue of campaign finance reform. House majority whip Tom DeLay has vowed to defeat the reform effort, modest as it is, but supporters hope momentum created by Senate passage of a similar measure and by a Supreme Court decision upholding restrictions on party contributions to candidates will overwhelm defenders of what Senator Russ Feingold calls "a system of legalized bribery."
Electoral reforms are never easily won--just ask a suffragist, or, for that matter, the Civil Rights Commission members who were excoriated for exposing the "injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency" that disfranchised minority voters in Florida. No single law will cure what ails our democracy. But now is the time to take the first steps. American democracy was devalued last year, and it will require a wave of liberty to begin to set things right.
With each new look at the November election in Florida, the argument of the Bush Five on the Supreme Court--that manual recounts would lead to the unequal treatment of voters--appears more ludicrous. The election itself was a statewide orgy of unequal treatment. In a draft report, the US Commission on Civil Rights, which investigated election irregularities in the Sunshine State, depicts a voting system rife with bias. "African American voting districts were disproportionately hindered by antiquated and error-prone equipment like the punch card ballot system," the commission notes. Which means more black and low-income voters--who tend to vote Democratic--had their ballots invalidated. The commission confirms what The Nation and other publications have found: The sloppy and inconsistent use of error-laden purge lists prevented eligible voters from casting ballots. "The purge system," the commission observes, "disproportionately impacted African American voters who are placed on purge lists more often and more likely to be there erroneously." In some counties voters of Hispanic or Haitian origin were not provided ballots in their native language--despite federal laws that require it.
There were other inequities. When Secretary of State Katherine Harris ordered a recount, eighteen of Florida's sixty-seven counties didn't recount the votes; they merely checked the math from the original count. In two counties, elections officers shut off the mechanisms on the voting machines that identified errors on ballots and allowed the voter a second chance. Other counties kept these devices on.
According to the commission, "widespread disenfranchisement and denial of voting rights" occurred, but "it is impossible to determine the extent of disenfranchisement or to provide an adequate remedy to the persons whose voices were silenced...by a pattern and practice of injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency." And Jeb Bush, Harris and other state officials were to blame--not for having "conspired to produce the disenfranchisement of voters" but for having ignored the needs of voters. The draft, which Jeb Bush denounced as unfair, notes that it would be appropriate for the Justice Department to investigate whether Florida state and county officials violated the Voting Rights Act. Jeb Bush's office squealed bias and grumbled about the timing of the draft's release.
As the commission's report and various media investigations show, thousands of Florida voters were the victims of widespread institutional neglect. That neglect may not have been designed as a campaign strategy, but it worked as well as if it had been. Republicans, after all, have long believed that their candidates fare better in races with low turnout. There is no question that Bush's twisted path to the White House was paved by voting-system problems unaddressed by his brother and Harris--and that he got the presidency because of the unequal treatment of Florida citizens.
The leftists organizing in Vermont since the 1970s prepared the ground for James Jeffords's jump, and he never would have done it without them. In the 1970s and 1980s Democrats howled with fury when Vermont's Progressive Party said that no matter what the short-term consequences, the important political task was to build a radical, third-force movement in the state.
In 1988 this progressive coalition backed Bernard Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, in a run for Vermont's single Congressional seat. Democratic liberals raised the "wrecker" charge, saying the Sanders intervention would cost the Democrats votes and put in a Republican. It did. Then, two years later, Sanders ran again against the incumbent Republican and won. Creative destruction worked.
Without decades of work by radicals, nourishing the propriety of independent politics in Vermont, would Jeffords ever have jumped the Republican ship and handed control of the Senate back to the Democrats? I don't think so.
A couple of weeks ago someone sent me an article by Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz, published in an obscure journal called Dissent. Since Gitlin's prime political function for years has been to fortify respectable opinion about the impropriety of independent thinking, I knew what to expect, particularly since he was in harness with Wilentz, a truly hysterical proprietarian.
Sure enough, it was an attack on those who voted for Ralph Nader, tumid with a full-inventory parade of every cliché from the past forty years about the folly of radical hopes. Want a taste?
Numbers aside, there is a deeper force at work, behind the delusion that the masses hanker for radical change that Gore would not give them--a purist approach to politics. This all-or-nothing approach, allergic to democratic contest and compromise, is rooted equally in American self-righteousness and traditional left-wing utopianism. It is as if by venting one's anger, one were free to remake the world by willing it so...
Yup, this pompous cant translates into the single, finger-wagging admonition, "You should have voted for Al Gore," the latest variant on Gitlin's one-note career sermon about voting for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. (What is it about these Humphrey lovers? Vermonter Marty Jezer, another sermonizer about main-chance political propriety, recently lashed out at CBS in his column in the Brattleboro Reformer for what he denounced as excessively hostile and prejudicial interviewing of baby-killer Bob Kerrey! The lust to be respectably "fair," whether to HHH or Kerrey, leads to some astonishingly ridiculous postures.)
In Vermont the Republican Party is pretty much dead. Jeffords should sign up right now as a member of the Progressive Party, with whose political positions he has some things in common. Of course Jeffords, at least in his latest incarnation, is truly an independent, whereas Sanders is effectively a Democrat.
Now let's see how much fortitude the Democrats on the Hill have in contesting Bush and Cheney. They no longer have the alibi of the Republicans' controlling the White House and both chambers. Footnote: The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wishes it to be on record that she takes exception to the description of Dissent as "obscure." I suggest a poll of the American people.
More on the Gandoo Man
In a recent column I described how the Chicago police have declined the request of a gay Pakistani poet to hit his supposed assailant, Salman Aftab, with a hate-crimes charge. Ifti Nasim claims Aftab called him a faggot bottom and lunged at him with a knife. For some of Chicago's gays it's become a very big issue. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network prompted the ACLU's Pamela Sumner to write a three-page letter to State's Attorney Dick Devine detailing why she felt he should pursue hate-crimes charges in Nasim's case. Devine has refused to do so.
The cops and Devine are quite right. It turns out that the initial quarrel between Nasim and Aftab wasn't about the former's sexual orientation but about an article he'd written. Aftab never attacked Nasim with a knife (though Nasim insists he'd gone to the kitchen to get one). And Nasim put up Aftab's bail money, though he still wants him hit with a hate-crimes charge for calling him an insulting sexual term. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network supports this position, which only goes to show how dementedly wrongheaded progressives are on the hate-crimes issue.
The Bush Menu
Poor Jenna Bush's travails with the absurd liquor laws of Texas take me back to my gilded youth at Oxford, when even the appearance of sobriety, at least at Keble, was an object of scandal and reproof from the better element. As it admits elsewhere in this issue, The Nation was a tad unfair relaying the claim that the Bush White House has ordered its chef to prepare genetically modified foods on some state occasions. The source of this claim was a piece by Jennifer Berkshire posted on Alternet. The Nation earnestly commented that "the demonstration smells like a paid political announcement for the agribusiness lobby."
I remember reading Berkshire's Alternet piece as an excellent little satire, and Jennifer confirms that this was indeed the case. Satire is always an uncertain weapon. My father once wrote an update of Swift's "A Modest Proposal," this time about inoculating people with the same sort of lethal strain that wiped out rabbits with myxomatosis. When it appeared in Punch furious letters poured in, denouncing him as an advocate of mass murder. Back in my days at the Village Voice I wrote a parody of conspiracy mongering and awoke to hear it being read out as serious news on WBAI by the late Samori Marksman. Since then I've stayed with the unvarnished truth, which is usually far more incredible than anything a satirist could dream up. For evidence see Marty Jezer's onslaught on CBS, noted above.
An activist think tank is fighting the right at the ballot box--and winning.
It's fitting that the first senator to become an independent in more than thirty years hails from Vermont, the state with the most advanced independent politics in the nation. Vermont gave maverick Republican John McCain a solid victory in the 2000 presidential primary--nearly half those voting were self-described independents, and one in seven said that campaign finance reform was their top concern. The Vermont Progressive Party, which has tenaciously focused on the needs and interests of average people, is firmly entrenched in Burlington, the state's largest city, and its gubernatorial candidate, Anthony Pollina, got 10 percent of the vote last year in a hard-fought three-way race.
Thus, Senator Jim Jeffords's decision was helped enormously by the political space for an independent path that had already been created back home and by the steady pressure from the state's Progressives, which kept the local center of gravity far to the left of the Bush-Gore mainstream. Says Pollina, "Jeffords is a smart politician, and he recognizes that Vermonters are really fed up with politics-as-usual, big-money-driven, major-party politics." Indeed, two-thirds of Vermonters polled said they approved of Jeffords's move, and his approval rating topped President Bush's by almost twenty-five points.
The question of the moment is whether more independents are about to come out of the Senate cloakroom. Conditions for such surprises are favorable and getting more so by the year. Since 1990 we've seen a remarkable proliferation of these free birds. Not only has Vermont's Representative Bernie Sanders become a Congressional institution, independents and third-party candidates have been elected governor in four states--Maine, Alaska, Connecticut and, most spectacularly, in Minnesota. After Ross Perot got nearly 20 million votes in 1992 as an independent, press speculation about the possibility of other maverick candidacies has become a fixture of pre-primary presidential coverage. Recall the fuss over Colin Powell in the fall of 1995 and the hyperventilating over Jesse Ventura, Warren Beatty, Donald Trump et al. in the fall of 1999. There's a market for outside-the-box politics, and demand is rising while supply is tight.
Even with all the barriers imposed by the two-party duopoly--discriminatory access to the ballot, unequal campaign financing, closed debates--public support for Congressional outsiders ticked upward throughout the 1990s. In his indispensable newsletter, Ballot Access News, Richard Winger reports that the vote for non-major party candidates for Congress rose to more than 4 percent of the popular vote in 2000, a level not seen since 1992, when anti-incumbent sentiment last peaked. Before that, you have to go back to 1938, when strong third parties in a few states skewed the total higher, to find such a strong expression of discontent with the duopoly.
Between 1990 and 1998 the proportion of voters registered as independents or third party increased more than 50 percent, while the percentage of registered Democrats and Republicans fell. Voter statements of their political preference--a looser definition than party registration--show the same trend. About 35 percent of the electorate identifies as independent, according to the University of Michigan's National Election Studies. Anecdotal evidence from the implementation of the motor-voter law suggests that a higher proportion of new voters are registering as independents, and the tilt is most pronounced among people under 30.
These are all signs of turbulence in the electorate. The Democratic and Republican parties are not as solid, or dominant, as they seem. Their ties to average voters through local political clubs and chapters have almost disappeared, replaced by manipulative TV ads driven by consultants and expensive market research. Add the weakness of their current leaders--their inability to articulate a clear philosophy or to govern effectively on behalf of anyone but the well-off, their petty feuds, negative attacks and their subservience to special interest campaign contributors--and you can see why there's widespread disenchantment among voters and a yearning for authentically democratic representation and strong, honest leadership. As more politicians see that there is less to be lost and more to be gained from maverick behavior, there will be more eruptions of independents.
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