Friday, December 21, 2012

Hollywood Joins the Subsidy Scam

Up there on the "silver screen" Hollywood productions usually portray themselves as ardent foes of Big Business graft and corruption. In the real world, not so much. There the emphasis in Motion Picture Industry is more often on the "Industry" part. In the second installment of  her "The United States Of Subsidies" series, New York Times reporter Louise Story details the saga of how the once mighty capital of the automotive industry--Pontiac, Michigan--"woos Hollywood, but ends up with a bit part." The studio--a state-of-the-art facility supposedly fit for the making of Hollywood blockbusters--was the brain child of a small group of local investors with grandiose plans. The studio, they reasoned, would attract prestigious film makers, and the movie productions would "create" jobs to pump money into the local economy. It would also transform the much-derided symbol of the Rust Belt into a glamorous, world-class, entertainment capital. Perhaps appropriately, the first movie to be produced in this Midwestern film capital was to be a big-budget Disney production entitled "Oz: the Great and Magnificent."

This transformation had its genesis in August, 2007, just as the automobile industry was on the verge of collapse. Seeking to avoid the apparently inevitable disaster, Governor Jennifer Granholm got together with Michigan-born actor and director Mike Binder,who persuaded her that extending incentives to the movie industry--euphemistically referred to as "film credits--would be Pontiac's salvation. Herself a one-time aspiring movie actress, the governor embraced the project wholeheartedly. Within eight months, according to Story, "the capital of the flailing auto industry became the capital of film tax credits". The legislature, equally desperate to combat the impending doom, agreed to a program that offered film makers a deal in which the state would return nearly one-half of every dollar that Hollywood spent locally. The news was greeted with enthusiasm by several movie moguls. Within a week after the announcement, the director of the state's film office attended a a movie conference in Santa Monica, at witch she was besieged by everyone from "the baby studios to the big guys." As Story wryly observes, Hollywood makes lots of movies about the evils of capitalism, "but it rarely works without incentives, which are paid for by taxpayers." Within two months, 24 movie productions had signed up to film in Michigan, up from two the year before. All told, these productions planned to spend $150 million filming in the state, of which $70 million would be refunded. According to a state-by-state survey by the NYT, $1.5 billion in tax breaks are lavished upon the film industry each year.    

It wasn't long. as Story notes, before Pontiacers were rushing out on their lunch breaks to catch sight of such celebrities as Drew Barrymore, Clint Eastwood (sans chair), and Michael Moore. Movie making was a great escape from the economic disaster that blighted their lives. G.M. and most of its workforce left town, half of downtown Pontiac was boarded up, and landlords accepted rent checks through slots in doors locked for protection. State government was suffering budget shortfalls,while some of the lawmakers who had voted for tax credits were already questioning whether the state could afford such largess. But, just like in the movies, a savior appeared in 2008, in the person of Linden Nelson, a well-connected local entrepreneur with a charismatic personality (God save us from people with charismatic personalities) who had made a considerable fortune out of making removable key chains for valet-parkers and trinkets for AT&T and Harley Davidson. He had recently received a hefty insurance settlement for an "accidental" office fire that destroyed much of his factory. Much like "Professor Howard Hill" of "Music Man" fame, he proposed to save the town by turning an abandoned G. M. plant into a "world class" movie studio "right here in River City,"Ooops, Pontiac.

Nelson conveyed his enthusiasm for the project to Ari Emmanuel, promoter extraordinaire and brother of Rahm, soon to be President Obama's chief of staff and then to be mayor of Chicago. In his best Hollywood patois, Ari
expressed his confidence in the project to the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce: "I'm like, blown away by it....I think this is a no-brainer for the state of Michigan."  He and Nelson, along with John Rikolta, the head of a commercial construction company, and A. Alfred Taubman, a prominent investor who made billions building shopping malls nationwide, teamed up. (Tannenbaum spent 10 months in prison in 2002 over price fixing accusations related to Sotheby's auction house, one of his vast holdings. He still maintains his innocence.)  The four of them founded Mot5own Motion Pictures, LLC in May 2008. They bought the former auto plant from G.M., for virtually nothing," according to Rikolta. How much? Rikolta later boasted that G.M., which had just received a massive federal bailout, "spent more on the carpet than we spent on this building." The four invested between $10 and 12 billion of their own money and proposed to raise another $70 million using borrowed money and incentives from state and federal government. Of these sources, "Michigan appeared to be the largest competitive advantage to the company." In public, the investors touted the plan as an altruistic gesture on behalf of Pontiac. Taubman told the Detroit Free Press that, while he usually went into deals primarily to make money, this was different. "I just want to help create jobs," he announced, "and this can create 36,000 jobs." In February, 2009, Pontiac declared itself to be in financial crisis and appointed an emergency manager, Fred Lieb. He found that the city had overspent its budget by an estimated $7 to 12 million, and was still liable for old incentives it had given to G.M. and other corporations. Even sizable redevelopment tax credits from state and federal governments failed to make up the deficit.  In particular, the city was asked to waive virtually all of the revenue from property taxes. During their deliberations, Lieb asked for job numbers to be written into the contract, but the investors refused. "We started seeing some backpedaling," he told Louise Story, and acknowledged that the meetings featured some "knock-down, drag-out fights." Nelson, et. al. insisted that they did not recall Lieb making that stipulation, and that whatever jobs were created were the responsibility of the film makers renting out the studio. Under pressure from the governor's office, Lieb later claimed that the city had little choice but to accept the deal. In her 2009 state of the state address, she praised the contract as "very exciting," and as "a classic transformation, The phoenix rising from the ashes." (That summer, Nelson suffered another loss from a fire of "undermined origins:, this time to his 23,000 square foot lake shore mansion in Bloomfield Hills.)

Sinking further into the abyss, the legislature agreed to use the state workers' pension funds as collateral for borrowing $18 million in municipal bonds. Needless to say, if the investors failed to repay the loan, the pension fund would be liable. Moreover, neither the state or federal government was aware of the deals each other had made with the investors.  At the studio's groundbreaking ceremony on July 7, 2010, Nelson attempted to justify the incentive package because it would create a large {still unspecified} number of jobs. "It is a very competitive landscape out there," he insisted, "and that some "40 states have some some rebate or another in this industry. It kis an industry that's fought after." Although the Motion Picture Association of America claimed to employ some two million people and support 115,000 businesses, the non-partisan Tax Foundation, which opposes film industry incentives, reported that such claims were based upon, "fanciful estimates of economic activity." As the Pontiac studio opened, it announced that it was receiving $40 million from the state for the filming of "OZ."   Although some Pontiac residents were employed upon making the film, the majority were "from L.A.", according to one local actress. In fact the studio admitted to hiring only 200 people, most of those employed on constructing the studio itself. According to its own records, the studio had created only two local jobs in 2010 and 12 in 2011. While that paltry number made it impossible for the studio to collect the $110 million contingent upon job creation, it did collect on other credits, including $14 million for a "Film and Digital Media Infrastructure Investment Tax Credit." Meanwhile, the city's third emergency manager, who was an avid foe of incentives, announced his opposition to such deals because it was "detrimental" to the city's revenue because "the money is needed for police, fire, and trash pickup." Frustrated in his attempts to collect taxes from a convoluted Disney corporate maze, he acknowledged that while the movie business was glamorous on the outside, "it's not very glamorous for the municipality that wants to collect something." He freely admitted that Pontiac had been "outgunned." 

In November, 2010, however, Michigan elected a right-wing Republican governor named Rick Snyder. He is pretty reprehensible on most issues, but he quickly moved to rein in incentive programs. His budget director announced that "states harm themselves by competing on tax credits." Almost immediately, film makers deserted the state in droves. The Michigan Motion Picture Studio (which Nelson referred to as "Hollywood-land in Pontiac") began to lose out on contracts to states, like North Carolina, which continued to offer incentives. When the date for the studio's bond interest came due in February, 2012, the studio paid only a fraction of the bill due--"$210,000--
leaving the remaining $420,000 to be paid for by the state pension fund. Nelson and cohorts insisted that they would have been willing and able to pay the full freight, if only the state had not changed its tax credit law. Ruefully, the  new head of the state's development agency declared that the pension fund might "end up owning these studios." (can anyone say "white elephant"? The "investors" themselves admitted that they had never considered making the entire interest payment, but that the state had agreed to cover the entire bond. The studio CFO insisted that the investors already stood to lose twice as much as they had originally intended to invest. In August, the studio defaulted on the entire $630,000 interest payment, despite the governor's offer to reinstate some of the tax credits. The investors began to lobby the state legislature to put more money in the tax credit fund, and even formed a political action committee to win public support. They initiated public tours of the studio. "Please don't hesitate to contact your state representative,' Nelson lobbies tourists, "tell them you've been here, you believe in it, so please appropriate enough money so it will work." If the state failed to up the ante, Nelson warned, they would probably have to shut down the studio. The last film  made at the Pontiac studio was "Black Sky," a movie about a town ravaged by a tornado. Whether that was a case of life imitating art, or art imitating life, is a matter of perspective. In either case, Pontiac's love affair with using movie making as a redevelopment strategy is as dead as the studio's deserted sound stages.

Whatever else Pontiac's debacle might prove, it clearly demonstrates two absolutes. The first is that the once powerful cities of the "steel belt" turned "rust belt" are so desperate that they are willing, even eager, to buy into any redevelopment scheme, no matter how fanciful. The other is that corporations, film or otherwise, hold all the cards. They can make any preposterous claims about creating jobs and revitalizing local economies, but they cannot be pinned down to a legally-binding "quid pro quos" that would obligate them to deliver on their promises  They can walk away at any time, with no financial or legal repercussions. They can cynically pit states and municipalities against one another, reward those who give them the best deal, and abandon the rest. It is not quite as good as a "license to steal," but it comes close enough.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Taxpayers Subsidizing Corporations, How Come?

In a recent two-part series in the New York Times entitled "United States Of Subsidies," reporter Louise Story documents how taxpayers at the federal, state, and local levels are subsiding corporations to the tune of $80 billion a year, and getting nothing of value in return. Her first installment, "The Empty Promise of Tax Incentives," focused on Michigan and the machinations of General Motors, but GM was clearly not the only offender and Michigan towns not the only victim. "In the end," Story concluded,  "the money that towns across America gave General Motors did not matter." For the last several years, as GM was imploding, mayors and governors anxious about about local jobs, "had agreed to G.M.'s demands for cash rewards, free buildings, worker training and lucrative tax breaks." As late as 2007, the company was assuring those officials that these sorts of incentives would "further G.M.'s strong relationship" with them, and be a "win/win situation,' making the company and the municipality virtual "business partners." When G.M. declared bankruptcy in 2009, however, at least 50 properties on their liquidation list were in towns and states that had awarded incentives, adding up to billions in taxpayer dollars, according to a New York Times investigation. Moreover, Ohio had proposed a $56 million deal to save its Moraine plant, while Wisconsin, fighting to save its Janesville (home town of Paul Ryan) factory, offered $153 million. But, Story relates, "their overtures were to no avail," as "G.M.walked away and, and thanks to a federal bailout, is once again profitable." The towns in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, however, "have not been so fortunate, having spent scarce funds in exchange for thousands of jobs that no longer exist."   
Ypsilanti Township, Michigan has already brought suit against G.M. for its extorsionist practices. The township's attorney has charged that you "can't just make these promises and throw them around like they're small change in the drawer." (Of course, they are merely "chump change" in G.M's gigantic stash, but an earth-shaking amount for a locale still reeling from the initial collapse of the auto industry.) Nevertheless, Story insists, manufacturing companies throughout the entire country, "have been doing just that. And the giveaways are adding up to a gigantic bill for taxpayers."  The Times investigation has examined and tallied thousands of such local initiatives and discovered that states, counties, and cities are pledging $80 billion a year in just such "deals" to beneficiaries from virtually every corner of the corporate world, including oil and coal behemoths, high-tech and even entertainment   purveyors, banks, and "big-box" retail chains. Actually, the total cost of these giveaways is far larger because they involve thousands of different "givers," many of whose officials do not know the sum total of their obligations, which are often spread out over several years. Moreover, most communities do not even attempt to track the "bang from their buck," and, even if they did, it is practically impossible to determine whether the jobs are a direct result of the subsidies, or the product of wholly extraneous forces. "How can you even talk about rationalizing," as a frustrated senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research asks, "when you don't even realize what you are doing? " The Times study analyzed more than 150,000 "awards" and created a data base of incentive spending which is accessible on its Web site. It has supplemented that with more than 100 interviews of officials in government and business organizations, as well as corporate executives and consultants. The resulting picture that emerges is one of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs being outsmarted by multinational corporations, and short on the wherewithal to fact-check what companies tell them. A great many of these governmental officials confessed that they came away from corporate "pitch sessions" alarmed by the not-too-subtle threats to move jobs overseas or to another locale if they did not get the subsidies demanded.

Over the years, corporations have increasingly exploited that fear, and have crafted a high-stakes bazaar in which they pit state against state, cities against their suburbs and other cities, and small towns against larger communities in order to extract the most lucrative subsidies. It is a variation on the central theme of right-wing Republicans--divide and conquer. According to the Times,most of these companies have no intention of leaving the country. It is only a diabolical bluff to get a better deal  Incredibly, the kabuki budget negotiations in Washington have totally ignored the issue of whether the extorted subsidies are worth the cost, even though 20 % of state and local funding comes from the federal government. That is not surprising considering that there is a consensus among the leaders of both parties to cut corporate taxes in order to complete internationally. If the scam works in one place, it can work even better on a larger stage.

The Times analysis shows that Texas holds the lead in extorted giveaways with more than $19 billion, while Alaska, West Virginia, and Nebraska surrender the most per capita. In the larger, more populous states, the skim is absorbed without serious damage to the overall budget, but in Oklahoma and West Virginia, they absorb nearly one-third of the budget, with no significant benefit in jobs or tax revenues, The only states relatively immune to this corporate extortion are states with little or no business taxes in the first place, and so no real incentive to seek tax credits. Easily the most incentives go to manufacturing corporations--$25.5 billion a year. Agriculture comes in second, while oil, gas, and mining industries combined siphon off the third largest amount. Somewhat surprisingly, the fourth most goes to the film industry, which will be the subject of my next post. Technology giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, come close behind, as are seen as a major component of "the world to come."  Even giant retailers and hotels, whose business obviously roots them to a specific locale, bargain for subsidies as if they were about to pull up stakes.

Among manufacturers, GM leads the league with at least $1.7 billion over the past five years (in addition to the federal stimulus money that they have already received, supposedly to avoid bankruptcy.) Michigan, which gave GM $779 million in credits in 2009, just a month after it had received $50 billion in federal bailout money and decided to close seven plants in the state. Incredibly, GM can use those credits to offset its tax bill at any time in the next 20 years. According to an official at the state's economic development agency, "you don't know who will take a credit and when." So much for planning! Ford and Chrysler follow close behind in giveaways. (At least Ford ostentatiously refused stimulus money.) All three companies attribute their newly found prosperity strictly to their own initiative. ("We built it," as everyone chanted at the Republican national convention.) Of course, the automobile behemoths attribute the lust for incentives to their desire to "keep companies competitive and "retain or create jobs," Even when these automakers were "forced" to close plants in the last few years, according to GM spokesman James Cain, that doesn't mean that "companies and communities didn't benefit while the plants were open, which was often for generations." Besides, Cain added, GM "received less money per job than foreign automakers operating in the US," whatever that is supposed to prove. Of course, when pressed, corporations always fall back on their all-purpose justification: that their most important--indeed only-- responsibility is to make a handsome profit for their stockholder. If that is true, then, shouldn't all of the officials who so spectacularly failed in that sacred task be held accountable, financially and personally, to their superiors? Don't the subsidies and stimulus money entitle the American taxpayers (including employees, who are also taxpayers--at least when they are allowed to work)-- to a substantial vested interest? I think that this is called, at least in some circles, CAPITALISM!!!!

At least one corporate executive, the CEO of Hallmark, acknowledges that such rip-offs are hurting his home base of Kansas City, MO by diverting funds from public education. "It's really not creating new jobs," adding that the competition for graft has revived the long-dead border war between Kansas and Missouri, After Kansas recruited AMC Entertainment with a $36 million award, the state cut $104  million from its education budget. the company then moved just a few miles across the border from Missouri. Worker saw very little change, except minutes in commuting time and office decor. Just a few months later, Missouri retaliated by luring Applebee's headquarters across the state line. The vice-president of the Downtown Council of Kansas City admitted to Story that "it gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach." Although he confided that it feels like he is talking himself out of a job, he said that "there ought to be a law against what I am doing."    

Nationwide, according to the Times study, billions of dollars are being awarded as state governments face steep deficits. Last year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states collectively cut public services and raised taxes by $156 billion. The "incentives' come in the form of cash grants and loans, sales tax breaks, income tax credits and exemptions, free services, and property tax abatements. The income tax breaks alone add up to $18 billion and sales tax relief an incredible $52 billion, out of the total of $80 billion. Collecting data on property tax abatements is the most difficult task because very few states track the amounts given by cities and counties. In New York, businesses save an estimated $1.1 billion a year in property taxes. The American Insurance Group (AIG) continued to benefit from a $23.8 million abatement from New York City, at the same time it was being bailed out with $180 billion in federal funds.Since 2000, the New York Times itself has received more than $24 million from the city and state.  Shell has been offered a tax credit of $1.6 billion over 25 years from Pennsylvania, which competed with West Virginia and Ohio for an energy production facility. Its "parent" company--Royal Dutch Shell--realized profits of $31 billion in 2011--about $3.5 million per hour--while its CEO made $13.1 million. Pennsylvania predicts that the plant will "create" thousands of long-term jobs, but it did not require them in exchange for the tax credit. Would any corporation make a deal like that with another business without receiving an absolute iron-clad guarantee of its quid pro quo? Caterpillar has received $196 million in local aid since 2007. It has recently been offered $44 million in incentives to build a new plant in Georgia, which is "more business friendly" than its home base of Illinois. Local counties in Georgia have chipped in with free land, $15 million in tax breaks, and $8.2 million in road, water, and sewer repairs. This at a time when Caterpillar recently placed a six-year freeze on wages in several plants and is making record high profits. San Francisco exempted Twitter from some $22 million in payroll taxes at the same time the company received a $300 million investment from a Saudi prince and $800 million from a private consortium. 

I try to absorb these numbers while awaiting the surging property tax bill on my middle class home in Racine, Wisconsin.

How does this keep happening--and even escalate? Much of it has to do with clout of the companies versus that of local government officials. "They dictate the terms, and we are not really in a position to question their deal terms," says an overwhelmed county commissioner in Texas, who has just been bullied into submission by Apple and Hewlett-Packard. "We don't have the sophistication or the resources to negotiate with a company that has the wherewithal the size of a country," she laments. Even if they would like to do so, local and state officials seldom have the relevant data on how well or ill the corporation kept its pledge in other places and, even if they did, they have no way of knowing the exact role that "incentives" played in the outcome. "I don't know there is a way to know other than talking to the businesses and the businesses telling us that that was a factor in creating jobs," moans the city manager of one California municipality.WOW!!

Those pitiful laments from local officials speak volumes about who really has the power in our "United Corporations of America." 





Thursday, December 6, 2012

My Personal Political Odessey

My personal political odyssey has proceeded along two parallel tracks: 1) My scholarly understanding based upon more than 50 years of researching, teaching, and writing about political history, and 2) My personal, real world experiencing of every presidential election since 1948. I was 11 years old in 1948 and living in a family for whom the Democratic Party was almost as vital a component as the Catholic Church. I vividly recall my "Guppy Gup" (maternal grandfather) listening to President Harry S.Truman on the radio and periodically interjecting "Give 'Em Hell, Harry." I also recollect one of our parish priests coming on to our playground at St. Patrick's School to show us a headline in the Chicago Tribune that read "Dewey Beats Truman," and laughing about it because we all knew by then that HST had somehow beat the odds, despite the defections of Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat Party and Henry Wallace progressives. In a lot of ways, it was the fifth election of FDR, since the majority of Democrats apparently saw HST and his Fair Deal as a continuation of the New Deal. It certified that the New Deal/Fair Deal world had become the status quo, while Dwight D. Eisenhower's two terms signified the acceptance of that reality by mainstream Republicans. ("Ike" had won the nomination from Senator Robert Taft of Ohio who disputed that consensus. In retrospect, Taft and Thurmond, combined, foreshadowed what was to become the Republican Party of the 21st century. (Taft was a "dirty word" in my union-affiliated household, and his defeat for the Republican presidential nomination by Ike in 1952 and 1956 was further proof that the majority of Republicans were what HST ridiculed as "Me too, Republicans.", They criticized the New Deal/Fair Deal, but  promised to do a better job of administrating its "alphabet agencies.") I was a freshman at Loras Academy in 1952 when I suggested to my parents that they should vote for Ike because his military experience was needed to wage the "Cold War" against the Soviet Union. They soon disabused me of such specious reasoning

By the time of the hotly contested election of 1960, I was a graduate student/teaching assistant in history at Georgetown University. It was fantastic to be a history student in the nation's capital and to have the resources of the Library of Congress and the National Archives "at my fingertips." Back home in Dubuque, JFK had been placed on the same pedestal as FDR, the more so because he was Irish and Catholic. The night of the 1960 election, my friends an I stayed up all night watching the election returns on television, because the outcome was not officially decided until noon of the next day. I had to teach a "discussion section" at G.U. at 9:00 a.m., so I went home, showered and changed, sleepwalked through the class--and then went home to sleep. The following Sunday, JFK attended mass at Holy Trinity on the G.U. campus, and I was one of the few fortunate enough to actually get inside the church. On January 20, my friends and I nearly froze to death watching the inaugural parade that was complicated by the residue of one of the greatest blizzards in the city's history. I was also present at the National Mall for the March On Washington and heard Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. On November 22, 1963, I was working on my doctoral dissertation in our apartment, while baby sitting for my gorgeous baby daughter, Jeanne Marie, when I heard the news of the assassination in Dallas. I was teaching at Prince Georges Community College, which was only a few miles from Andrews Air Force Base, where the president's body arrived that night. We tried to view his remains which in state in the Capitol Rotunda, but were discouraged by the eight hour wait in the bitter cold with a 5 month old baby. It was the longest and saddest weekend of my life, and I can still hear the wail of the funeral dirge, as it wended its way across the 14th Street Bridge to Arlington National Cemetery.

Scarcely a year later, I was still living in D.C., working on my dissertation, and teaching at PGCC, when LBJ was elected in a landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964. It was even more of wipe-out where we were, because LBJ won a unanimous vote in several D.C. precincts. I am not sure how much I realized it at the time, but Goldwater carried only six states besides his native Arizona--Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, the same states, save Georgia, that Thurmond had won in 1948. The backlash pattern was starting to form, but we were too euphoric to realize its long term significance. With both houses of Congress firmly in Democratic control, LBJ enacted the mainsprings of his "Great Society": the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the Hart-Celler Immigration and Naturalization Law, Medicare and Medicaid, and the various components of his "War On Poverty."  We were certain that America was finally beginning to live up to its professed principles, and that the momentum was irresistible. Little did we know!! While we were rejoicing, the administration was immersing us ever deeper in the quagmire that was the Vietnam War.

By 1968, I was on the faculty of Eastern Illinois University, and becoming more vocal in the burgeoning anti-war movement. Like most college campuses, we had acrimonious demonstrations, teach-ins, and moratoriums. Pretty tame stuff compared to Madison, Berkeley, and Columbia, but contentious enough. While Nixon battled his way to the Republican nomination, Democratic Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy challenged LBJ's bid for renomination. Like millions of other Democrats and liberals, I was deeply conflicted by the apparent contradiction between LBJ's Great Society achievements and his escalation of the war. Seemingly out of the blue, LBJ resolved a lot of our ambivalence by announcing that he would not run for reelection. The contest for the Democratic presidential nomination resolved into a battle among three of my erstwhile political "heroes": McCarthy, Kennedy, and Vice-President Hubert Horatio Humphrey. I was selected by the Coles County Democratic caucus as a delegate, pledged to Kennedy, to the State D.P Convention in Springfield. Before it could convene, however, RFK was assassinated, just minutes after winning the California primary, in which he had apparently secured enough delegates to receive the nomination at the national convention in Chicago. In one of the most acrimonious and violent conventions in history, HHH secured the nomination, but the damage to the party and the country was horrendous, both short and long run. The normal Democratic vote was seriously diluted by the independent candidacy of Alabama Governor George "Segregation, Now. Segregation Forever" Wallace, who not only captured Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, but also made significant inroads into the white, working-middle-class vote in the Northeast, Midwest, and Border States. All told, Nixon won the electoral vote 301-191-46 and the popular vote by less than 1%. Wallace siphoned off nearly 14 % of the latter, primarily from HHH. (Humphrey closed the gap significantly in the last few weeks. Conventional liberal wisdom still holds that he would have passed Nixon if he had broken earlier with the Johnson Administration over the Vietnam War. Less conventional liberal wisdom opines that Kennedy would have won, based mostly on studies showing that many Wallace voters in the Northeast and Midwest would have voted for Kennedy instead. The 1968 election was the death blow for the Roosevelt Coalition, as both white Southerners and working class whites deserted in droves. It also put the political party system itself on the road to oblivion--or at least irrelevance. In the name of reform, and in a spirit of revenge against "bosses" and "machines," the 1972 convention adopted a radically new nomination system that privileged "grass roots," caucuses and primary elections over conventions. It also empowered millions of racial minorities and women who were previously shut out by the "old boy network,"

It was George McGovern's misfortune to gain the party's presidential nomination in the midst of all this turmoil and transformation. Hailed by none other than Bobby Kennedy as "the  most decent man in the Senate," a decorated World War II hero, a certified New Deal liberal, and the point man for the new "politics of inclusion," McGovern was shunned, both by those who wanted more thoroughgoing "reforms," and those who wanted to turn back the clock. (I remember that actress Shirley McClain, sister of Democratic actor/activist Warren Beatty and one of McGovern's ambassadors to the women's caucus, being booed by the latter when she informed them that the party leaders had given women a guaranteed percentage of seats on the  national committee. They wanted a 50/50 split and they wanted it right now!  On the other end of the political spectrum, many of "the big city Democratic machines" did little or nothing to turn out their normal contingent of voters.The tension within the party between "the politics of identity" and "old-fashioned bread and butter liberalism" was institutionalized in 1972. It is still alive and virulent in 2012. With all of that going for him, Nixon was a virtual cinch to be reelected, but "Tricky Dick" was constitutionally incapable of trusting to chance---let alone to the democratic process. Hence "Watergate" and the myriad "dirty tricks" that eventually led to his impeachment  and subsequent "resignation." The funny thing was that, at least on many "bread and butter" issues, Nixon was almost a reincarnation of the "Me-Too Republicanism" of the Eisenhower years.  The quintessential Anti-Communist and Cold Warrior, he nevertheless made overtures to the Soviet Union and China. If a Democratic president had undertaken such actions, Nixon would have been among the first to accuse him of treason. Then there was his abysmal suppression of civil liberties, a harbinger of horrors to come. (One of my greatest regrets of my professional life is that I was not sufficiently vocal or important enough to make his infamous "enemies list.")

To his unfortunate successor, Gerald Ford, Nixon bequeathed the responsibility of orchestrating American withdrawal from Southeast Asia, as well as of that of issuing his predecessor an unconditional pardon that even extended to offenses not yet uncovered. Talk about a "Get Out Of Jail Free Card"!!  Talk about committing "political suicide"!! Ford had virtually zero chance of being elected in his own right, but the Democrats almost managed to snatch defeat from victory. Unable to choose between "identity politics" and "bread and butter liberalism," they nominated somebody "who nobody sent": (See my earlier post on Voter Repression.) Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. (I confess to voting for him on four separate occasions and still respect him as "the greatest former president" in history. As president, however, he was totally out of his element. In retrospect, I wish that I could have voted for his wife, Rosalyn). By 1980, I was sufficiently disillusioned to support an ill- considered attempt by Ted Kennedy to hijack the nomination. I would also like to admit that I voted for McGovern in 1972, and grow more proud of that vote with every election.) In many ways, Ford may have been the last "Eisenhower Republican." The disintegration of the mainstream political party and its concomitant takeover by what passes for the G.O.P today is told in excruciating detail by Geoffrey Kabaservice in Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. From 1952 until 1964, the moderates, led by such luminaries as Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, Jacob Javits, Kenneth Keating, and, believe it or not, George Romney, managed to retain control of the party apparatus and the presidential nomination. Many of them were in the vanguard of the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements. In 1960, Richard Nixon was chosen by the Republican National Convention as a compromise candidate between the two factions. His defeat by JFK was the last straw for the burgeoning right wing of the party, who blamed it on the "Me Too Republicanism" of the moderates and liberals. The 1964 convention was a wild affair, in which Rockefeller was booed vociferously and liberal/moderates were, almost literally " read out of the party". Baseball hero Jackie Robinson, a Rockefeller delegate and living symbol of Republican commitment to Civil Rights, later said that he felt like "a Jew in Hitler's Germany."              .

In 1970, we moved to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, precariously perched between Racine and Kenosha. where I spent the next 33 years "doing history." Maybe it was an "omen" that the day on which we officially moved to Racine---August 20, 1970---was the same day that a handful of anti-Vietnam War protesters blew up the Army Math Research building on the campus of the U.W. Madison.True to its beginning, my 42 years living in Racine and working in Kenosha have been a real roller coaster ride, so far as national and state politics are concerned. From Nixon to Carter to Reagan to Bush I to Clinton to "W" to Obama. On the surface,this orderly-looking juxtaposition of parties seems like a rerun of the Age of Political Equilibrium that characterized (and paralyzed) the national political system during much of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The Republicans held the presidency from 1969 to 1977, from 1981to 1993, and from 2001 to 2009, while the Democrats held it from 1977 to 1981, from 1993-2001, and from 2009-2017. Congressional elections were even more "helter-skelter"; only rarely did the same party control both the executive and legislative branches at the same time. Clearly, however, I was "missing the forest for the trees," because the most important trend of those years is that both parties moved inexorably to the right side of the political spectrum. McGovern in 1972 was, in many ways, the last of the New Deal Democrats, but he was also the first of the New Centrist Democrats who seemingly privileged "the politics of identity" over the"bread and butter" variety that had sustained the dominance of the New Deal Coalition for the previous 40 years. The "reforms" adopted during the 1972 Democratic convention, with McGovern's backing, had seriously undermined the power of the big city machines and labor unions,alienating what became the white, working class "Reagan Democrats." That rift has widened and festered ever since.That same reorientation caused the majority of Southern whites to abandon the party of the "Solid South" in favor of the once-despised party of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Democrat's growing emphasis on equal rights for women and minorities, and the corresponding decline of its class-oriented focus, was matched by the "Southern Strategy" of Nixon and his successors. The "New Democrats" of the 1970s and beyond tended to be "cultural liberals,"rather than economic ones. Their orientation on economic issues became much more that of the middle and upper middle classes. Liberal Democratic support for the Civil Rights Movement, Affirmative Action, and the like were viewed by increasing numbers of white working class voters as occurring at their expense. The former believed that they were being deserted by their erstwhile allies, while the latter felt as if they were being driven out of the Democratic Party. These Reagan Republicans became part of a curious coalition with newly-minted white Southern Republicans, breadwinner conservatives, and Tea Party adherents. The only Democratic leader who might have held the New Deal coalition together had been assassinated on the very evening that he won the California primary and clinched the party's 1968 presidential nomination. No one else has even come close.    

"Since Robert F. Kennedy's campaign in 1968 and George McGovern's run in 1972," according to the Center for American Progress, "progressives have sought to create a multiracial, multiethnic, cross-class coalition--made up of African Americans, Latinos, women, young people, professionals, and economically populist blue-collar whites--supporting an activist government to expand economic opportunities and personal freedoms for all people." (As a "professional" with "economically populist blue-color white" origins, I am sure that I fit in there somewhere, although the "age thing" would seem to disqualify me. I can only say that there are a lot of people in my age bracket who feel as I do, and that most of us aren't going to be around all that much longer anyway.)  In the Center's view, based upon their analysis of the 2012 election returns, "this progressive coalition has clearly emerged, albeit in an early and tenuous stage." Obama is the first Democratic president since FDR to win two terms with more than 50 percent of the total popular vote, but he has done so with "an historically low percentage of the white vote"--only 39 percent, slightly less than Michael Dukakis received in 1988. Obviously the key to future success is to win back a significantly larger portion of the "white vote," while retaining the support of the other elements of this progressive coalition. No problem, right???

Naturally, the demographic trends of the past 40 years almost guarantee a continued increase of every other segment of the putative coalition, but what cheers them obviously alarms a lot of "white voters." hence the Reagan Democrats, breadwinner conservatives, and Tea Partiers. There are, however, grounds for optimism on that score. white working-class support support for Democrats has been higher than the norm in such key "battleground" states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, while white, college-educated support for Democrats has been growing in such emerging battlegrounds as Colorado and Virginia. By way of contrast, the Republican coalition of older, whiter, more rural and evangelical voters is not only shrinking, but also becoming more geographically concentrated and less important in the country's overall political landscape Concurrently, here has been an ideological shift away from the trickle-down, supply side.survival of the fittest, socially rigid "steel chain of ideas" toward a more pragmatic emphasis on problem solving that embraces strong governmental concern for that elusive "middler-class," public "investment" in education and infrastructure, a fairer and more economically productive tax system, and more inclusive social policies. Post-election polling by Democracy Corps shows that Obama enjoyed a 51-42 margin over Romney on the question of who would be the best at "restoring the middle class." By the same token, voters express far more interest in in a post-election deficit plan that invests in jobs and growth, raises taxes on the the wealthy, and protects the middle class and social programs than the tired, old right-wing mantra of top-down economics, dismantling of economic and social programs, and a bloated defense budget.

The Center for American Progress report acknowledges that "the 40 year transition of progressive politics--from Robert Kennedy to President Obama--has not been without difficulties, setbacks and outright failures." It has been overwhelmed by the rise of a resurgent right-wing movement that successfully shifted political discourse and public policy away from the progressivism of the 1930s through the 1960s to the world made by Ayn Rand, Reaganomics, the "neocons," Hayek, Norquist, Friedman, the Koch Brothers, and aggressive militarism. The loss of traditionally Democratic states, especially in the South, the continued antagonism of the majority of white, working-class voters, and the harsh reaction to the centrist Democratic presidencies of Carter, Clinton, and Obama, however, demonstrate how much work is yet to be done. The task is not to gravitate to the right or downplay diversity in order to win back white, working-class voters, but to unite disparate constituencies behind a populist, progressive vision of middle-class economics and social advancement for all peoples that includes a significant portion of the currently disaffected white, working-class. The primary strategic question is how to build on the foundation established in 2012 and to harness it to achieve progressive policy victories. That requires that the members of this coalition continue to pay close attention, stay involved, and press our elected representatives--especially President Obama--to defy the army of K Street lobbyists and billionaire "malefactors of great wealth," who will certainly fight against any and all progressive policies, tooth and nail  Anything less than that will simply not cut it. The "one percent" has been waging class warfare against the rest of us for the best part of four decades. It is time to show them that democracy--effectively organized and sufficiently motivated--can eventually triumph over unbridled greed and rapacious ignorance. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why We Need Public Financing of Political Campaigns

In the semi-euphoric atmosphere generated by President Obama's reelection and the strengthening of Democratic control in the Senate, some observers could not wait to proclaim the defeat of Super PACs and the flood of corporate cash unleashed by Citizens United. One analysis in the New York Times was even headlined "After Flood of Cash, Big Donors Return Home with Lighter Wallets and Few Victories." The article specifically focused on the cases of Harold Simmons, a Texas industrialist who gave $26.9 million to Super PACs backing Romney and Republican Senatorial candidates; Joe Ricketts, the owner of the Chicago Cubs who spent close to $13 million bankrolling a super PAC attacking Obama over federal spending; Bob Perry, a Texas home builder who poured more than $21 million into super PACs active in the presidential race and Senate battles in Florida and Virginia where Democrats narrowly prevailed; a donor network organized by the notorious Koch Brothers that raised $400 million for tax-exempt groups that are not required to disclose their spending: and gambling casino mogul Sheldon Adelson,  who became the largest single donor in political history by contributing $60 million to the campaigns of eight candidates , all of whom lost. They also could have mentioned Wyoming investment broker Foster Friess, who contributed almost $5 million to groups funding Rick Santorum, such as the Red White and Blue Fund, FreedomWorks for America, and Leaders for Families and Joseph Craft, a Tulsa, Oklahoma coal baron, gave $2.1 million to American Crossroads and $500,000 to Restore Our Future. Adelson, who has an estimated net worth of $21.5 billion, contributed his millions to such innocuous-sounding organizations as Winning Our Future and Restore Our Future. He first supported Gingrich and then Romney. He told a Norwegian reporter that "I'm against very wealthy people attempting to influence elections, but as long as it's doable, I'm going to do it."

Similarly unproductive were the efforts of the country's largest "trade association" and lobbyist, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to the Center for Responsive Politics the Chamber spent tens of millions of dollars on pro-business, mostly Republican, candidates in 48 Congressional elections and backed the eventual winner in only seven of those contests. Once an 8oo pound gorilla, says a spokesman for Chamber Watch, a union based group critical of the Chamber's political practices, "now they're a 500 pound wounded gorilla." If you find that assessment reassuring, you obviously are not aware of how much mayhem can be inflicted by a 500 pound wounded gorilla. One is almost tempted to become complacent and assume that we have very little to fear in the future from such politically inept puppeteers.

 That, however, would be a mistake of disastrous proportions!!                

Whatever else rapacious right-wing billionaires are (and the possibilities are endless), they are definitely not stupid nor overly scrupulous, when it comes to pursuing their own self-interest--as they perceive it They and their minions will analyze every piece of information possible about the reasons for their defeats and adjust accordingly. They still have most of the country's financial resources and will do whatever is "necessary" to ensure that the "right kind of people" are elected.  They constitute a powerful "third party" (third rail?) in our supposed two party system. Maybe they are really the only political party, pulling the stings of their Republican and Democratic puppets. In any case, the political world inaugurated by Citizens United is till intact and eminently capable of producing much more disastrous outcomes in future elections, as well as the immediate fiscal crisis. Shaken, but obviously not chastened,  the Chamber has already targeted crucial lawmakers, taken out ads and prepared position papers and Internet videos "intended to discourage any debt deal that it believes would deter private investment and free enterprise through higher taxes." Matthew Shay, president of the National Retail Federation, matter-of-factly states that he expects the Chamber "will continue to play an enormously influential role in the debate".        

So what is this "brave new world" created by Citizens United? Essentially, the Court struck down those provisions of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold Act) that prohibited corporations, including non-profits, and unions from spending on "electioneering communications" (read television ads) within 30 days of primaries and 60 days of general elections. Mirabile dictu, the Federal Election Commission reported "a last minute rush of campaign spending with murky origins" from SPs who waited until the last minute to file their reports so as to delay publication of their major donors.  

The decision did not lift the ban on direct contributions from corporations and unions (true to its "Alice in Wonderland" view of things),the Court equated the wealth and power of unions and non-profits with that of for-profit corporations. (As I noted in a previous post, that is the equivalent of equating MLB, NBA, or NFL teams with those of your local high school.) to candidate campaigns or political parties. It did, however, "remove the previous ban on corporations and organizations using their treasury funds for direct advocacy." It did permit them "to expressly endorse or call to vote for or against specific candidates," actions that  had been banned by a plethora of state and federal laws and court decisions. In other words, corporations (and we must not forget unions) could directly engage in partisan politics so long as they did not give money directly to a candidate's campaign committee or to an officially constituted political party organization. This practically mandated the creation of a third genus of political organization, completely "independent" of the two existing forms.. (It is hard to say with certainty which caused which. Did the decision spawn the organizations or did the organizations spawn the decision? It was probably just plain serendipity?) In any case, the decision quickly gave rise to a bewildering "alphabet soup" of new "independent" organizations with wonderfully beneficent names, such as Americans for Prosperity, American crossroads, Hardworking Americans Committee, Patriot Majority, Freedom Works, Club for Growth, the Sam Adams Alliance, the American Majority, Freedom Fund North America, the Franklin Center, and the Arizona Christian Coalition, but dedicated to financing a single candidate or party. It also allowed big donors to "launder" their contributions through foundations whose putative purpose was to promote "social welfare" through education,health care, anti-poverty and drug rehabilitation programs. With mind-numbing rationalization, the Court promised that such organizations would not foster political or financial "corruption," or even the appearance of such nefarious practices. Most of the offending "non-profits" are covered by their 501 (c) (4) tax-exempt status and therefore can keep the names of their donors secret. 

Citizens United was a contentious decision, with five "conservative" judges trumping four "liberal" jurists. The minority opinion,written by Justice John Paul Stevens, presciently detailed seven flaws in the majority opinion.First of all, it asserted that the definition of corruption encompassed far more chicanery than a mere exchange of money for votes (good old fashioned monetary bribes.) It involved mostly the privilege of access to office holders that was impossible to achieve by all but a handful of contributors and lobbyists. Stevens cited a study in which 80% of the public viewed corporate independent expenditures as a means of gaining unfair access. (So much for avoiding even the appearance of corruption.) It also argued that the corporate form bestowed enormous benefits in and of itself: perpetuity, limited liability, access to gigantic amounts of money, no need for internal democracy, no constraining morality or loyalty, and no stated purpose beyond profit=making. He demolished the existence of any such thing as"corporate democracy." Corporate decision-making, especially in the expenditure of funds, was strictly a "top-down" affair. Stockholders and employees have no effective way of preventing corporate money from going to candidates or parties they oppose. According to Public Citizen's Congress Watch, most of these ersatz "independent" organizations were managed by political allies, family members, and employees of the candidates they benefited. Of the 108 Super PACs that had spent more than $100,000 through the middle of October, 65 were active in just one contest. Together, these 65 accounted for 55% of the $375 million spent by SPs in that cohort. Of the 69 SPs devoted solely to Congressional contests, 39 worked on behalf of a single candidate. The Public Citizen report also contains numerous examples of the convoluted machinations that SPs employed to protect the names of their donors, even though their contributions theoretically must be reported. In one case, the candidate was funded by two separate SPs, each of which received nearly all of its funds from the same, identical person. In Pennsylvania, the opponent of an incumbent Congressman was the recipient of $175,145 from the Freedom Fund for America's Future, which, in turn, received 92% of its funding from Fight for the Dream,which got its money from another SP that is allowed to keep its donors secret. The scam was discovered by Public Citizen because its mailbox was registered to the former finance co-chair for one of the candidate's opponents (stupidity or arrogance?) The director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch branded the Court's claims in Citizens United that outside expenditures in elections are not corrupting, while direct contributions are, as "irreconcilable."    

With its wealth and power, corporations and billionaires can actually define legislative priorities and give the impression of widespread support or opposition for an issue that is often contrary to actual public opinion. In other words, it "marginalizes the speech of other individuals and groups". Stevens's dissent also takes serious issue with majority's facile assertion that "there is no such thing as too much free speech," noting that the Court, over the years, has upheld numerous restrictions on absolute free speech, based upon time, place and manner of communication.The dissenting opinion also denied the arguments that such restrictions would allow the government to censor the communications media or prevent state legislatures from enacting their own methods of dealing with electoral corruption. Stevens concluded his opinion with a blanket rejection of the majority decision:
                          At bottom, the Court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the
                          American people, who have recognized a need  to prevent corporations from 
                          undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against 
                          the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days
                          of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense.
                          While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court
                          would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.                           
The only way to combat the world created by Citizens United is to move along two parallel tracks: 1) work to overturn the Court's decision, which would almost certainly require a constitutional amendment, and 2) reinstate effective campaign finance laws that promote a government beholden to all of its people, instead of to billionaires and corporations. Much easier said than done, of course, but the alternative is the end of any semblance of real democracy. So far as overturning Citizens United by constitutional amendment is concerned, Public Citizen's Democracy Is For People campaign has been working with several grass roots organizations to build momentum. This September, Arlington, VA became the 300th locality to pass a resolution to that effect, while the Connecticut legislature presented a letter to Congress, signed by most of its members, backing such an amendment. In October, the New Jersey legislature adopted a similar resolution. On election day, more than 6 million people across the country voted on ballot measures for such an amendment; almost three-fourths of them supported the idea. Colorado and Montana voters supported ballot initiatives by a margin of 3 to 1. They joined 8 other states that had already adopted such resolutions. San Francisco, Chicago, and more than half the towns in Massachusetts also passed ballot initiatives by similar margins. In November, Democracy Is For The People toured several cities in New York urging support for an amendment and giving presentations promoting the state's 2012 Fair Elections Act. Under this law,the state would provide a 6 to1 match for contributions made by small donors. A  similar public financing option is already available in New York City that has enabled a significant number of low-income,middle-class and minority voters to participate in the electoral process. (Although this may have changed some since 2008, I always used to show my students that more than 90 percent of campaign contributions come for less than 5 % of the people. The New York plan motivated large numbers of people to contribute for the first time, helping to give them a sense of ownership and participation. More than two million people nationwide have signed petitions urging the adoption of an amendment to overturn Citizens United. In September, Congressman John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, introduced a Grassroots Democracy Act, co-sponsored by dozens of other members that would inaugurate a three step system for public financing of campaigns. The first part would create a public funding system that would match five dollars for every one contributed by individuals who contribute up to $100 maximum. The money raised would be available to any candidate who refused SP donations. The second would provide for a $50 tax credit for contributions to political campaigns. The third would establish a "people's fund" to ensure that the public financing could compete against  corporate cash. Connecticut Democratic Congressman John Larson has introduced a sweeping public financing system that would allow Representatives to run viable campaigns buttressed by public funds. Representative David Price, Democrat from North Carolina has introduced a bill to provide a 5-1 match for individual contributions of $250 or less for presidential and congressional elections. Public Citizen other progressive groups are urging other members of Congress to introduce similar measures in 2013.

Would the Adelsons and Kochs of this world allow any measure providing for public financing of campaigns? Not if they and their bought politicians can do anything to prevent it. They understand full well what a sea change in the electoral system that would unleash, and they will do their damnedest to maintain the status quo--and even to make far more undemocratic. Would the "Tea Partiers" and "breadwinner conservatives" support any measures that, on the surface, seem to exacerbate their two most frightening bete noires: an even more powerful federal government and an increasing national debt? But maybe we can change the categories of the conversation. The one thing on which progressives and their right-wing antagonists seem to share common ground: the absolute necessity to eliminate the blatant,pervasive corruption that currently paralyzes our electoral and legislative systems. If we make the elimination of corruption our common lodestar, we can initiate a perpetual--and painful-- dialog that is bound to be more productive than the appalling gridlock that will, otherwise--just get worse. We can begin by becoming  active and persistent participants in the two fold strategy outlined above. What is written on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial?" Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Why We Need A National Election Law

The current election season has been defiled by the most massive, coordinated, and deceitful assault on the right to vote in our history--and it will continue unless the defenders of real democracy unite to defeat it, once and for all! If this vicious purge succeeds, it will deprive millions of Americans of their most precious right as citizens, especially racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, the unemployed, the handicapped, the homeless, college students, and those on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder in general. Not coincidentally, these are all voters who lean heavily toward the Democratic side of the ledger. Estimates are that the requirement of photo IDs alone could impact as many as 21 million people. This conspiracy is all the more pernicious because its various components are touted as measures designed to prevent "voter fraud," when, in fact, they constitute the most blatant and breath-taking "voter fraud" ever perpetrated, one that dwarfs even the century-long emasculation of the Fifteenth Amendment by the states of the Old Confederacy--because it is nationwide in scope. Although requiring  photo IDs has received the most publicity, I have already discussed a variety of other subterfuges toward that same end in my posts on voter repression of September 17 ans 27. I would also remind readers of the comprehensive report "The Truth About Voter Fraud" compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice of the New York University School of Law, the one that concludes that the chances of average voter encountering voter fraud are roughly the same as being struck by lightning.

The major reason that this assault did not have a paralyzing effect on the 2012 election is that the Department of Justice  issued temporary stays in South Carolina and Wisconsin, Those reprieves are only temporary, however, and efforts to implement those and similar laws in several other states with solid Republican legislatures and governors will continue. In addition, suppression efforts were countered by the tireless work of the League of Women Voters, the A.C.L.U., the N.A.A.C.P., and numerous other progressive organizations to register voters and to get them to the polls on election day. Even so, there were still widespread instances of voter suppression in several key states on November 6. Thousands of Florida voters were forced to stand in line six hours after the polls officially closed.  Congressional races in Florida, Arizona, Ohio and elsewhere were not officially decided until several days later. Voter ID laws in Pennsylvania caused tremendous confusion resulting in long waits, and causing numerous voters with handicaps, jobs, and child care responsibilities to give up and forfeit their votes. Hundreds of voters in Ohio were told that they were not on the registration lists. New Jersey experienced serious difficulties with their email voting system. Incredibly, voters in Colorado and Pennsylvania were outraged to see their computerized votes changed from one candidate to the other right in front of their eyes. Many inner city precincts in my home town of Racine, Wisconsin, where the voter turnout was an amazing 91 percent, ran short of ballots, causing long waits, lots of frustration, and preventing many people from voting.

Of course, not all of these problems were the result of organized voter suppression campaigns. Even those that were so manipulated were exacerbated by the crazy quilt nature of election regulations and procedures in the various states. Many polling places are inconveniently located and ill-suited to the task. Most jurisdictions rely primarily upon volunteers to staff the polling stations;they have often received only minimal training, and are frequently unaware of the intricacies of election laws. Most of them (including my late mother) are honest, sincere, and civic-minded. They are usually of retirement age and hard-pressed to handle challenges or complaints from overly zealous voters or "poll watchers." They work long hours (sometimes as many as 16), with little or no break time. They are the true unsung heroes of the election process.So far as the average American is concerned, it is astounding how little attention or concern is lavished on the process by which we attempt to govern ourselves..

At least as ominous is the fact that the Supreme Court recently announced it intention to hear a challenge from Shelby County, Alabama to Section 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. That provision requires that nine states with particularly nefarious histories of violating the intent of the Fifteenth Amendment by various subterfuges (i.e. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia) clear any proposed changes in their voting requirements or procedures with Department of Justice. If any such laws are found to "deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language group," they can be blocked by the DOJ or a federal court in Washington. This provision has been reaffirmed on four separate occasions, with tremendously bipartisan support. Earlier this year, a federal court struck down Voter ID and Congressional redistricting laws on that basis. But the ultra right-wing majority of the Court has steadily narrowed the standard for enforcing the civil rights provisions in the Religious Freedom Restoration, Americans With Disabilities, and Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Significantly, 7 of the 9 states covered by Section 5 have already enacted Voter ID laws or other statutes to make voting more difficult. these will automatically will   go into effect if the Court invalidates Section 5. The Voting Rights Act also provides for a federal Election Assistance Commission to oversee its implementation, but, as incredible as it may seem, none of its four seats are currently occupied.

Taken together, all of these add up to just one logical conclusion: We desperately need a comprehensive national election law, just like a real grown-up country. We should begin by making election day a national holiday--as least as important as Columbus Day or Presidents Day. Doing so would even allow businesses to have another holiday sale. There is absolutely nothing sacred about the first Tuesday in November,any more than there was about March 4th being inauguration day. The problem with that Tuesday--and every other weekday--is that everyone has something else to do: work, school, travel, watch kids, whatever. Setting aside an entire day on which every eligible voter has only one obligation would certainly eliminate just about every possible excuse for not voting. I have thought about making voting mandatory, as it already is in Australia, but that does seem a little too "Un-American."  It has been argued, also, that non-voting is really a form of voting--a kind of "none of the above."
Many countries already vote on Sunday and--given our gigantic geographical and population size--making it an entire weekend might not be too far-fetched.

Borrowing from the voter suppression movement, we could require that every eligible voter have a photo ID card. Only the purpose would be to "franchise" everybody rather than "disenfranchise"  millions. These would, of course be issued by the federal government to every single person who meets the age and citizenship requirements, which are the only legitimate criteria left. Over the years, I have accumulated a drivers license, a Social Security card and a Medicare card. At one point, long, long ago, I even had a draft card. It would have a certain advantage over a drivers license. You wouldn't need to renew it ever so many years; it only expires when you do.It would even satisfy those who are clamoring for a national ID card in order to prove citizenship or legal alien status, although the purpose would again be inclusive rather than exclusive. The initial start-up process might be cumbersome and time-consuming, but, after that, it would just be a matter of adding each newly minted crop of eighteen year-olds. If you change addresses or polling places, the card will take care of providing the only information relevant to registration. I can only think of one potential problem: if the photo is as bad as the one on my drivers license or my passport, I might have to provide additional documentation.  

The most important reason for inaugurating a national election system is to impose some semblance of order on all of the mind-numbing chaos. Simply put, the "election season" is virtually without beginning or end, while the process itself looks like something out of Rube Goldberg. Here it is just two weeks since the 2012 election, and the pundits and talking heads are already speculating about the candidates for the 2016 contest. (For a tongue-in-cheek account that comes painfully close to reality, please read Lionel Trilling's Dogfight:The 2012 Election in 
Verse.)  This latest battle for the Republican presidential nomination that droned on for almost two entire years was somewhere between a "comedy of errors" and the "theater of the absurd."  Although President Obama had no opposition for the Democratic nomination, he spent most of that time fund raising and stockpiling money for the general election. Of course, that saga would not have occurred if we had "real" political parties with "program and discipline." If the parties picked the candidates, rather than the other way around, we could have actually have compressed the "election season" into a relatively few months, just like grown-up nations do. Of course, we would have missed most of the entertainment provided by the Republican nomination process. Imagine how empty our lives would have been without the hilarious antics provided by Perry,Cain, Bachman, Gingrich, Santorum, and "the Donald." What if Mitt had been forced to decide who he wanted to be, without reference to any of his contenders, and before the general election? It might have forced him to resolve his interminable  "identity crisis"

What would be a reasonable time limit for the "election season" and how could we achieve it? I realize that a great many people (especially five Supreme Court Justices and lots of billionaires and corporations) would object to any effort at setting a time frame as a violation of the First Amendment. (If corporations really were "persons" and money really was a form of speech, they might have a point.) Suppose Congress passed a law allowing no primaries, caucuses, conventions, and no political advertising radio in non-election years? I would like to propose a more stringent time limit---say six months prior to the presidential election. Most other advanced nations are a lot more restrictive than that. Having a series of four or five regional primaries spread over the late spring and summer  months, would provide a framework of focus,continuity and progression. Prospective candidates could no longer "cherry pick" the contests in which to participate, and pundits could no longer pontificate about why the results in one state are more significant than those in another.Candidates could all focus their campaigns in the same region of the country at the same time.

Short of that, Congress could establish a nonpartisan federal elections board to maintain a national registration database, mandate standard voting machines, and establish criteria for counting provisional ballots. As the New York Times recently advocated, a law proposed by Representatives George Miller of California and John Lewis of Georgia "would require a clear early-voting period, removing the issue as a political football in states like Florida and Ohio, and standards for absentee voting." Congress could also provide financial incentives, such as grants to states that make registration easy, allowing same-day registration, early voting, absentee voting "on demand," properly training poll workers, and mandating a sufficient number of easily accessible polling places. Seventeen states already already send electronic registration data from motor vehicle departments to election agencies, while ten allow online registration. What's not to like? Isn't everyone's real goal to provide the best means possible for every eligible voter to exercise his or her most basic right of citizenship, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, physical condition, employment status, and living arrangements?

A national voting system might also have two other unintended, but salubrious, results. It would almost certainly  
increase our voter turnout, which is far and away the worst among all of the advanced democracies.There are a lot of different reasons why the 40% don't vote, ranging from the barriers erected against certain categories of potential voters (who almost always would probably vote Democrat) to a "plague on both your houses"  attitude espoused by the most intelligent and sophisticated among us. Even so, it is certain that the profile of millions of those who don't vote fairly closely resembles that of those who are the are the targets of today's voter suppression campaign.. (To hear the pundits and organizers tell it, though, the vast majority of non-voters are some kind of deep thinkers who weigh every twist and turn in the campaign, and only decide whether or not to vote at all, or for whom to vote. Regular voting is a habit of the reasonably well-established; it is almost always  "learned behavior. Some countries actually fine people who fail to vote. A well-conceived and administered national voting system might go a long way to engaging millions of today's non-voters and giving them the incentive to participate on a regular basis. At the very least, it almost certainly wouldn't have the opposite effect.)

The other beneficial effect would be to eliminate a growing practice that harkens back to the Gilded Age, when workers were threatened with the loss of their jobs if they voted "the wrong way." Prior to Citizens United, according to Populist Progressive columnist Jim Hightower, top executives were barred by federal law from using corporate funds "to instruct, induce, intimidate, or otherwise push workers to support particular candidates." Since that ruling, many bosses "openly conscripting employees to be political troopers for corporate-backed candidates." One CEO, David Siegel of Westgate Resorts, sent a letter to each of his 7,000 employees warning them that voting for Obama would "threaten your job," since he would have "no choice but to reduce the size of this company." Another, Dave Robertson, president of the Koch brothers industrial empire, notified 30,000 workers that they would suffer assorted "ills" if Obama were reelected and enclosed a slate-card of Koch-approved candidates. Thanks to the Roberts Court, what has always been more subtly implied can now be blatantly asserted because corporations are people and the savage wielding of their life-and-control over their employees lives is an exercise of free speech. Remember that the Citizens United decision was based largely on the judgment that it would not lead to any serious form of corruption.   

To establish a viable national election system would almost certainly require reaching a consensus about the relative merits of the popular vote versus the electoral vote. Of course, that would open up a contentious "can of beans., but not only is the electoral vote system clearly undemocratic and skewed in favor of the lesser populated states, it is also a time bomb ticking in the Constitution. It is almost certain to go off someday. By my admittedly unscientific calculation, one vote in Montana (3 electoral votes and a population of about 1 million) is equal to around 963 votes in California 55 electoral votes with a population of about 38 million). If that isn't scary enough, most states operate on a "winner-take-all" basis, meaning that a narrow margin of victory gives that candidate the whole enchilada while the loser gets zip, zero,nada. Many authorities believe that replacing winner-take-all with some kind of proportional distribution, either by percentage of the popular vote or by Congressional district, would significantly lessen the gap between popular and electoral votes. but--absent a federal law or constitutional amendment to that effect--each state would have the right to keep the current system or adopt one of the above mentioned alternatives.  

What we have now is both coasts and the Upper Great Lakes (Democratic) versus the other (mostly Republican) states  In the last few weeks before the 2012 election, various commentators expressed concern that both candidates would receive the identical 269 votes, thus throwing the final decision into the House of Representatives. Of course, it is theoretically possible that the popular vote could someday end in a tie, but the odds of that happening with more than 120 million votes--as opposed to 538--are infinitesimally long. Although the elections of 1800, 1824, and 1876 had to be settled in the House, it hasn't happened since, and we had better hope and pray that it never will again.  For the benefit of those who have not yet memorized the Constitution, each state, regardless of population, is allowed just ONE vote. That would exponentially exacerbate the impact of a system that is already in favor of the less populous states. In Baker v.Carr (1964)  a far different Supreme Court mandated the standard of "one man, one vote," and observed that trees can't vote, only people can. With the current Court, you would be wise to put your money on trees. Citizens United absolutely contradicts Baker, but this Court is  substantially the same group of people who handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush.

In the 46 elections held over the past 184 years, the winning candidate in 11 of them failed to win a clear majority of the popular vote. In 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison), and 2000 (George W. Bush), the electoral vote winner did not even receive the most popular votes.  In the first case, the winner was determined by a commission established by the House of Representatives. In the second, Harrison won the electoral vote even though he lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland. You all know what happened in 2000. Gore won the popular vote and probably the electoral vote as well, but the Supreme Court decided to stop the recount because their candidate was ahead at the time.

Clearly, Citizens United the opening wedge in the most massive and blatant assault ever on democracy itself  According to Charles M Blow in the NYTimes, 24 states will have "unified Republican control," meaning both houses of the legislature and the governor. There can be no doubt that they will try to use that unified control to enact every right-wing nut, tea party obscenity possible. Only a universal nationwide election system can possibly prevent them from turning the future for the next generation and beyond into serfs and indentured servants of the super rich. We progressives need to do all that we can to prevent that--and to counter it with our alternative vision of a future based upon fairness, equal opportunity, and true social security for all    

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Breadwinner Conservatism and Tea Partying

One of the most perplexing questions for progressives is why so many people seem to consistently vote against their own self-interest? As I traveled around town during the never-ending presidential campaign, I saw several Romney-Ryan yard signs in front of homes clearly belonging to families with average to below-average incomes.  The standard answer among progressives (like myself) has been that the plutocracy and their minions have succeeded in using abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, sex education, gun control, prayer in the public schools, and numerous gender-related issues as a smokescreen to cover up their real motives, which are blatantly self-interested, such as shifting the bulk of the tax burden onto the middle and lower classes, deregulation of the economy, voter suppression, and ravishing the environment, to name only the most obvious. While I tend to agree with that argument, as far as it goes, it only speaks to the motivation of the plutocracy and begs the obvious question of why so many persons--especially white working and middle class males--continue to buy into it.

At least part of the answer probably lies in two recent books: 1) All in the Family:The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s by Robert O. Self, an associate professor of history at Brown and author the acclaimed American Babylon and 2) The Tea Party And The Making Of Republican Conservatism by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson,, professors of social policy at Harvard. Together, they present a much more complex and nuanced explanation of the millions who, by progressive lights, consistently vote against their own self interest and provide the plutocracy with much of its mass base. 
For Self, the answer lies in the emergence of what he terms "Breadwinner Conservatism": "the extent to which laissez-faire economics and social authoritarianism have become intertwined in the past thirty years." When the Tea Party emerged, it was overwhelmingly "the old Christian right in a new guise," so people should not have been surprised "when newly elected Republicans who had run for office on budget-cutting turned their attention to curtailing or eliminating access to birth control and abortion."  Although most observers thought that so-called cultural or values conservatives were different from--and even antagonistic toward- -those who focused on shrinking the size and cost of government, "the budget-cutting, anti-welfare state fiscal conservatives found natural allies in the religious right and the pro-family movement."  Ever since the 1980s, he asserts, the defense of the autonomous, idealized nuclear family "was intimately linked to the way they also sought to limit government interference in the private market." That insight helps to explain why progressives "so often fail to rally working-class and middle-class voters behind economic policies that would benefit them," and why "even in our present moment of economic desperation, fights over sexuality and family roles keep recurring."
To focus on a specific example, Self cites a feature in last July's NY Times contrasting the situation of two working mothers at a Michigan day care center entitled "Two Classes, Divided by 'I Do' " The differences in their salaries was not very great, but the married woman lived a comfortable middle-class life, while the single mother struggled to get by on food stamps and other forms of aid. One of the authors, Jason DePerle,, estimates that "changes in marriage patterns--as opposed to changes in individual earnings--may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality." We are, according to DePerle,  "becoming a society of family haves and have-nots, with marriage and its rewards [such as filing joint tax returns] evermore confined to the fortunate classes." To progressives, it is axiomatic that "family values" requires backing policies that would benefit both women, especially the one without an earning spouse. If small government and traditional families are of paramount importance, however, then opposing food stamps, subsidized day care centers, and after-school programs for kids only serve to emphasize the superiority of nuclear families, private charities, and churches.

As a student of U.S. history and a card-carrying "bleeding heart liberal," such a view turns the clock back to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when Social Darwinism, the Gospel of Wealth, "rugged individualism," and the Horatio Alger-type "myth of the self-made man,"--what historian Eric Goldman called "the steel chain of ideas"--dominated social attitudes. It amounts to a repeal of the the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Great Society, the Civil Rights and Women's Movements and every other landmark designed to make the U.S. part of the civilized world. But I digress. This is about "them," not "us." Simply rehearsing our view of the world--without seriously trying to understand theirs-won't cut it. This post constitutes my first feeble efforts to understand "where they are coming from."

In fact, according to Self, progressives have been unwittingly complicit in forming the mind set of "breadwinner conservatism" and the Tea Party. The New Deal and its lineal descendants, he posits, were based largely on a premise that he calls "breadwinner liberalism," in which liberals tried to "rehabilitate the male breadwinner, who had been devastated by industrialization, globalization, racial and ethnic discrimination, and, above all, by the Great Depression. They set out to return the male breadwinner to his rightful place as head of the nuclear household, regarding working women and child labor as obstacles to building a powerful labor movement. The manpower crisis of World War II necessitated women to enter the workforce, but that was generally regarded--by most men and a lot of women--as a temporary expedient. Efforts to "put the genie back in the bottle" intensified as soon as men began returning to civilian life. With notable exceptions, according to Michelle Goldberg in The Nation, the economic policies of the New Deal and Fair Deal "were understood to support traditional families, and particularly traditional gender relations." As long as "big-government liberalism worked to uphold the nuclear family, it was supported by a fairly broad social consensus." But then came the 1960s and 1970s,when that consensus was  assaulted from the left by the counterculture, and the civil rights, anti-war, feminist, poverty, and gay rights movements. Nearly all of these, in some way, challenged the centrality of the nuclear family with the single,male "breadwinner." which was already under attack by mechanization and globalization. Most of these new movements fought to carve out a political  political home in the Democratic Party, setting off a prolonged and acrimonious struggle between the old "breadwinner liberalism" and the new "identity politics". The old and the new clashed head-on during the 1968 and 1972 Democratic national conventions--and the party has never fully recovered. Hence the evolution of millions of "George Wallace" and "Reagan Democrats" into Republicans. Having grown up in the 40s and 50s, and coming to political maturity during the 1960s, I realize that I benefited greatly by being white and male, and then had to adjust to a world in which the intrinsic value of those attributes have steadily declined. (Of course, it is still a significant advantage to be white and male in a lot of areas, especially if buttressed by certain socioeconomic attributes.) I like to think, however, that, unlike a lot of my contemporaries, I understand and appreciate the initial impetus given me by my gender and pigmentation, and have consciously worked to adjust to the changing realities.  I will leave it up to my daughters, granddaughters, and female friends and colleagues to judge how well or poorly I have done. I am particularly gratified whenever a female colleague says that "I get it."

I admit to being particularly stymied by the millions of women who have become Breadwinner Conservatives and Tea Partiers. I understand, from my own research and reading, why so many women opposed equal suffrage back in the Progressive Era.I also remember the fierce debate among women over the wisdom of the Equal Rights Amendment. I must admit to having qualms about the possible negative effect that the ERA might have on the vast body of child and female protective legislation that progressives, both female and male, fought to enact over the past century. Maybe I have just been fortunate to have been surrounded all my life by women of a different persuasion. Obviously, though, there are a vast number of women who, for a variety of reasons, are just as committed as men to the patriarchal, nuclear family, and just as convinced that a powerful, activist government poses a threat to that ideal. Although Skocpol and Williamson acknowledge that between 55 and 60 % of Tea Partiers are male, they refused an invitation to write a scholarly article on "Sexism in the Tea Party," because "in our field observations and interviews we saw so many energetic women taking the lead in grassroots Tea Party activities." Significantly, they found, that "although men may be more likely to support the Tea Party, women are dominating the organizing efforts." (This really rang a bell with me because, in my experience in putting together dozens of programs with a variety of community ethnic groups, I quickly learned that while men talked, women e organized and implemented. I also belong to Adventures  In Lifelong Learning in which more than 80 % of the really active members are women.) Many of the men who tell pollsters that they sympathize with or generally support the Tea Party, according to Skocpol and Williamson, "may be doing so from their armchairs in front of Fox News--or just sitting  in the audience with their wives at a Tea Party meeting or event."  They found this to be the case in Arizona, Massachusetts, and Virginia, where women in early middle age were in charge, and in Maine, where "older women were at the helm." Even when men chaired the meeting, women invariably prepared refreshments and were usually in charge of the sign-up sheets and tables where literature, pins, and bumper stickers were proffered. They also usually compile the email lists for local groups and arrange for car pools and speakers. As S&W correctly note, this is nothing new in the annals of American civic democracy, citing especially Christian Right organizations where "as the saying goes, female leaders travel the country to preach that women's place is in the home." Included under the broad Tea Party penumbra are the "Pink Slip Patriots" of Tempe, Arizona, who dress in pink and hand out symbolic "pink slips" to offending politicians, and the "Second Amendment Sisters," who are especially agitated about gun control.

Summarizing their conclusion, S&W argue that the combination of grassroots activists, roving billionaire advocates (the Koch brothers, Coors, Scaife, Olin), and right wing media purveyors (Limbaugh, Hannity, Glenn Beck) "create the Tea Party and give it the ongoing clout to buffet and redirect the Republican Party and influence broader debates in American democracy." The "media mavens" keep the Tea Party people "in a constant state of anger and fear about the direction of the country and the doings of government officials." Most of the 18% of American voters who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters are Republican, white, male, married, suburban, and over 45. The vast majority are middle-aged or older. They tend to be better-off economically and
 better-educated than most Americans, and regular church-goers, most likely evangelical Protestants. Many of them are retired and living at least partly on Social Security and Medicare, despite their antipathy to "entitlements." ("Make the government keep its hands off my Medicare.") Nearly all of them have some college education, even the stay-at-home Moms. The plurality tend to be small business owners, often in fields like construction, remodeling, repair, technology, insurance, or real estate. very few have worked in the public sector, except for the military.Almost none of them have ever belonged to a labor union or know very many people who do. Indeed they blame much of the country's economic problems on union "thugs" and "bosses," especially those in the public sector.  Although they live in every section of the country, the largest contingent live in the South and Southwest, where they have moved since retirement.  Needless to say, they tend to believe in conspiracies of every kind and profess political views that are even farther to the right than mainstream Republicans. While they probably have a much better grasp of the nuts and bolts of the electoral process than most Americans, their grasp of social and economic issues ranges from ignorance to narrow-minded.

It is impossible to know how many Tea Partiers subscribe to "breadwinner conservatism," but I am sure that there must be considerable overlap. They tend to live in patriarchal, nuclear families and are deeply suspicious--even contemptuous---of those who do not. They are very careful not to use derogatory terms in referring to non-whites, at least in public. They generally refer to them in code words, such as "inner city" and "minorities."
(I get a particular kick out of blatantly racist men who are rabid NFL fans, conveniently ignoring the fact that fully three-fourth of the players are African-Americans.) They get most of their news from Fox TV and "talk [yell] radio, or from literature and programs emanating from right-wing organizations. While they are actively hostile toward government in any form, they admire and place great trust in corporate America, regarding it as the champion of free enterprise, competition, and-- incredibly--small business. They harbor a particular animus toward younger people, despite the fact most of them have children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, Many regard government programs that benefit younger people as coming out of their pockets. (Ryan knew what he was doing when he promised those over 55 that their Social Security and Medicare benefits would be exempt from any restructuring or privatizing.)  Maybe it is unfair to single them out in this regard since a certain amount of schadenfrude seems to be endemic to "the American Dream." Many would rather destroy public sector unions, for example, than build their own in the private sector. Many would rather eliminate other people's benefits rather than working with them to gain those benefits for everyone.

In the final analysis, perhaps the emotion that most animates and unites Breadwinner Conservatives and Tea Partiers is FEAR. Truth to tell, we are all afraid to a greater or lesser degree. The only real question is what do we do about it?  Do we blame others at least as vulnerable as we are, and try to curtail what limited power and benefits they have managed to accrue? Or do we try to overcome our biases and work together to create a society in which every American--regardless of skin color,ethnicity,religion, age, gender, or political persuasion--has access to a decent standard of working and living? Our future--very literally--depends upon how we answer that question.