Thursday, September 27, 2012

Voter Repression II: 2012

The attempt to prevent voter fraud is in itself the only voter fraud taking place."  (Sarah Silverman, the G rated

 The amount of voter fraud that could be prevented by photo IDs is "a jaw-dropping forty-four one-millionth of 
         one percent." (Stephen Colbert)

For those of you who have read my previous blog, much of this one may evoke a sense of "deja vu all over again," to quote my favorite catcher/philosopher. It will become increasingly clear that that today's right-wing Republicans (Are there any other kind these days?) have actually learned something from history, and that they want to condemn the rest of us to relive it.

In the years immediately following the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, most states adopted some version of it, if only to "take the heat off" or to buy time in which to figure out how to circumvent it.  In an unusual flash of prescience, the authors of the act were "pretty sure that certain states would not take kindly to the new rules," and gave the Department of Justice authority to review voting procedures (preclearance) in nine specified states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia), and to block laws that "deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language language group." For good measure, Congress also established a four person Election Assistance Commission to "advise" states whose voting laws contravened any provision of the law. At the time, nearly all of these states were represented by racist Democrats who had opposed both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thanks to one of the most massive partisan realignments in in the nation's history, they are now governed mostly by racist Republicans. What is it the French say? Something like the more things change the more they stay the same.    

 By the onset of the 21st century, a "new breed" of right-wingers had finally gotten their act together, so to speak. During the presidential debacle of 2000, Florida Republicans demonstrated that they had acquired sufficient mastery of the tools of voter suppression to deny their state's electoral votes to Gore, with the eager cooperation of their fellow ideologues on the U.S. Supreme Court. Their loss to Obama eight years later was a temporary setback, but they recovered quickly enough to capture the House of Representatives and to deny Senate Democrats the "super- majority" necessary to enact most of their agenda. Moreover, there is something about Obama that drives them even more crazy than usual. It is hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, unless calling him a Muslim and questioning the legitimacy of his birthright to citizenship is really "code" for something more base and sinister. For whatever reason, denying him reelection in 2012 has become their idee fixe, and "purging" the electorate one of their main weapon of choice. In its broadest terms, their strategy involved a witches brew of gutting existing voter rights laws, while reviving many of the "tried and true" scams for disenfranchising voters most likely to lean Democratic, and least equipped to defend their right to vote: racial minorities, the elderly, college students, the handicapped, the unemployed, the homeless, and those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder in general.  

The first Voter ID law was enacted in Indiana in in 2008, with the potential to disenfranchise 3.2 million voters. During the 2008 primaries in the Hoosier State, a group of retired nuns were prohibited from voting because they lacked proper photo IDs. By 2011, Georgia, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin had passed similar laws. In South Carolina alone, as many as 180,000 citizens could be denied the right to vote, most of them elderly, students, poor, and minorities. In Tennessee, a 96 year old black woman was turned away because she could not produce a valid marriage license. She later told MSNBC that the experience was worse than during the Jim Crow era. five states--Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, and West Virginia--have reduced the time period in which early voting can take place. (In 2008, fully 30% of Americans voted early, either in person or by absentee ballot. In Florida,the number among blacks was 54% and in Georgia 35%.) Republican strategists in South Carolina have openly acknowledged that suppressing black voters was "why we need Voter ID laws," while another proponent of such restrictions has asserted that allowing welfare recipients to vote is akin to "handing out burglar tools to criminals" and encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn't helping the poor "is about helping the poor to help themselves to other people's money." Many other Republican-controlled states have made it more difficult even to register by adding new requirements for individuals, and more onerous regulations on non-profit organizations conducting registration drives. In some instances, right-wing poll "watchers" have even resorted to personal confrontation in order to prevent the elderly or persons with disabilities from participating. There have even been instances of elderly people, especially women, have been so traumatized by overzealous    
challengers that they required assistance in getting home and/or vowed never to try to vote again. During the recent recall election in my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, some overly zealous (and probably paranoid) "poll watchers" even resorted to "dumpster diving" in order to examine utility bills and other forms of identification used by "suspicious" voters.

The situation in Florida was especially blatant. A Democratic-controlled legislature had passed a "no-fault early voting" law in which any registered voter could request an absentee ballot and either mail it in or submit it in person before 6:00 p.m. the Monday before the election. As a result, early voting increased from 607,416 to 1,717,256 between 2004 and 2008. Absentee voting during the week before the election increased from 10% to 29.7%. After the Republican landslide of 2010 gave them complete control of both legislative houses, they quickly dismantled the the entire voting apparatus. Early voting was severely curtailed, County election boards were prohibited from mailing absentee ballots or paying return postage on them, eliminated the requirement that poll workers had to redirect confused voters to their proper polling place, and shut down early voting three days before the election. Most of those who had voted early under the 2004 law were either elderly, women, or had low incomes. the great majority resided in the states two metropolitan counties: Miami-Dade or Broward. The League of Women Voters had to suspend voter registration drives because the new law required "complicated, onerous filings" and mandated that completed registrations had to be turned in less than 48 hours. In a recent letter to the Florida secretary of state, the DOJ ordered him to stop "scrubbing" the rolls in a search for "non-citizens," citing possible violations of Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act. In Kansas and Alabama, first time voters must produce proof of citizenship.  Michigan is debating a law that would reduce Florida's window to 24 hours, while Maine, which led the nation in voter turnout in 2010, has repealed a 38 year old law permitting registration at the polls on election day. Between 2004 and 2008, there was a 5,000,000 increase in the number of registered voters nationwide;since then there has been an almost identical decrease.    

Beginning in 2011, 34 states have introduced photo  ID laws, all of them, save one, in states with Republican controlled legislatures.(In a circumstance that defies coincidence, most of them are almost identically worded, almost as if they were copied from a template provided, say, by the American Legislative Exchange Council. Or maybe hundreds of Republicans legislators in dozens of states all across the country communicate by ESP,or all hit upon nearly the exact same ideas and wording independently.)Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin have already adopted such laws, although the U.S. Department of Justice has temporarily blocked implementation in South Carolina, and Wisconsin. Twelve other states, with the same partisan profiles, have introduced "proof of citizenship" requirements.Acquiring photo IDs can be an extremely difficult and expensive proposition, especially for those with few resources and means of transportation. Most of these laws require either a Social Security card, a notarized birth certificate, or naturalization papers. According to the Brennan center for Justice at New York University, some 21 million voters (11% of the population) do not currently have photo IDs of any kind, most of them poor, elderly, or non-white.Among African Americans the figure is 25%, and among Latinos more than 16%.  What makes this drive particularly punitive and absurd is the fact that, in the
opinion of the Brennan Center, it is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."  Most cases, it concluded, "can be traced to causes far more logical than
voter fraud," including clerical or typographical errors, mismatched entries, or simple mistakes on either end. Moreover, as political science and law professor Richard L. Hasen has concluded, registering or voting under a false name "is an exceedingly dumb way to try to steal an election." The penalties far outweigh the potential benefits--stiff fines and imprisonment for U.S. citizens; deportation for resident aliens. A survey in Ohio in 2002 and 2004 revealed that there were only 4 cases of voter fraud out of 9 million votes cast. In Wisconsin in 2004, only 7 votes out of 3 million found to be illegal, all of them by convicted felons who did not realize that they had been disenfranchised.      

Easily the most comprehensive and authoritative investigation about the subject is the Brennan Center for Justice's "The Truth About Voter Fraud." The Center is housed in the New York University School of Law and is a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. It is "part think tank, part public interest law firm, part advocacy group." Its Voting Rights and Elections Project "works to expand the franchise, to make it as simple as possible for every eligible American to vote, and to ensure that every vote is accurately recorded and counted." In its intensive examinations, it has found that "many of the claims of voter fraud amount to a great deal of smoke without much fire." Such unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, it asserts, divert attention from real problems that need real solutions and and are often used to justify policies that do not solve the alleged wrongs, but could well disenfranchise legitimate voters. It defines voter fraud as an instance in which individuals cast ballots despite knowing that they are ineligible to vote in an attempt to defraud the election system. Voter fraud, it says, are "often conflated , intentionally or unintentionally, with other forms of electoral misconduct." It also distracts attention from the real election issues that can be far better addressed, for example, by resource allocation, poll worker education, or implementation of longstanding statutory mandates." Over the past several years, the Center has developed a methodology for reviewing allegations of voter fraud. It reserves some of its harshest criticism for "imprecise and inflated claims of "voter fraud" that have led to the call for in-person photo IDs because they are effective only in preventing individuals from impersonating other voters at the polls--an occurrence more rare than getting struck by lightening." The report quotes Royal Masset, the former political director for the Texas Republican Party: "Among Republicans it is "an article of religious faith that voter fraud is causing us to lose elections..Although Masset says that he disagrees with that,he does believe that "requiring phot IDS could cause enough of a drop off in legitimate Democratic voting to add 3% to the Republican vote."

The report painstakingly examines how alleged cases of voter fraud most often result from clerical or typographical errors in poll books or registration lists, bad "matching," of registration lists to other documents,  "jumping to conclusions" from death or criminal records, unusual addresses, or returned mail, and voter mistakes.   One increasingly popular tactic among vote suppressors is "caging," in which they send out a mass mailing, gather up those undelivered because the person no longer lives at that address, and use them to purge the voter rolls. It then intensively examines specific types of alleged "voter fraud": double voting, dead voters, fraudulent addresses, persons with felony convictions, non-citizens, registration fraud, vote-buying, and fraud by election officials. Especially bizarre are the extremely rare occasions when people allegedly registered and voted their dogs. The remainder of the report deals with selected case studies of alleged voter fraud in Missouri, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Anyone seriously interested in discovering the truth about voter fraud can find no better source.           

Probably the most vicious and diabolical of all these conspiracies calls itself "True the Vote", and, as a New York Times editorial of September 23 charged, are reviving "Jim Crow tactics at the ballot box." Actually True the Vote is the grotesque spawn of the Tea Party movement. Its "modus operandi" is to descend upon a largely   
 minority precinct and comb its registration records for the even most miniscule misspelling or address error. It uses this information to challenge voters at the polls and, knowing that almost everyone of these challenges will be found baseless. Their real purpose is to cause arguments and delays at the polls that will frustrate those waiting in line and thereby reduce turnout. Almost as insidious is their disingenuous pretext that they are merely combating voter fraud. Although voter fraud involving false identity is, as we have seen, all but nonexistent, the challenge to each voter takes up valuable time, calls into question the legitimacy of the registration and voting process, and discourages people whose voting time period is seriously constrained due to work or class schedules, childcare limitations, or physical disabilities. In one Ohio precinct in 2008, delaying tactics forced the polls to remain open  until 4:00 a.m. The real goal, as the Times flatly charges, is to reduce the the political participation of "minorities, the poor, students, older Americans and other groups that tend to vote Democratic."

In a Times article of September 17, Stephanie Saul reveals exactly how this subterfuge works. True the Vote originated with a Tea Party spinoff in Texas called the King Street Patriots, aided by Americans for Prosperity, a phony "apolitical" organization funded by the nefarious Koch brothers, whose real mission is to elect conservative Republicans at every level of government. Together, they developed computer software that enables them to check voter registration lists against driver's license and property tax records. These kind of database matches are notoriously unreliable because names and addresses are often slightly different in the various databases, but that is precisely the point. Any miniscule discrepancy can be used as a ruse to challenge the identity of a potential voter. In 2009 and 2010, for instance, this "deadly duo" zeroed in on a Houston Congressional district represented by Sheila Jackson Lee, a black Democrat. After scrutinizing the records for five months, True the Vote generated a list of 500 names of voters whose legitimacy they could challenge. Election officials put these 500 people on "suspense," so that they had to produce additional proof of residence, even though most of "the accused" had only been guilty of changing addresses since the previous election. Nevertheless, True the Vote dispatched dozens of white "poll watchers" to district precincts, thereby consciously creating friction between election officials and black voters. On the day of the recall election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the group used inaccurate lists to to delay student voting at Lawrence University in Appleton with highly intrusive identity checks. Three "poll watchers," at least one of whom was clearly from True the Vote, were so disruptive that election officials gave them two warnings, but the ploy was effective because many students gave up waiting in line.

True the Vote is currently active in at least 30 states and has openly bragged that its tactic was to make the experience of voting like "driving and seeing the police following you." The group is also deeply involved in the voter ID scam. As a recent report by Common Cause alleged, their activities "present a clear and present danger to the fair administration of elections and to the fundamental freedom to vote." Despite the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit intimidation and interference in the act of voting, but the penalties are relatively innocuous and enforcement sporadic at best. All four seats on the Election Assistance Commission created in 1965 to enforce the law are currently vacant!
In an attempt to counter this onslaught,, the Department of Justice, the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, and the NAACP have all made serious efforts to protect the right to vote from these nefarious attacks. The ACLU has launched a nationwide voter education campaign called LET ME VOTE that will target states with recent voting law changes and high levels of voter confusion. It will coordinate with local, state, and national allies, to put accessible, accurate information on registration and voting--in both English and Spanish--into the hands of affected voters.It will get the word out to the communications media and the general public, with opeds, public service announcements, advertising and social media. On its website <> Let Me Vote will feature personal stories of people affected by these laws, information about restrictive voting efforts throughout the country, and advocacy tools to fight this concerted attempt by right-wing Republicans to deprive targeted groups of citizens from exercising their most precious, and potentially effective, right.         

The brutality of voter suppression was best captured by Charles Pierce in
The purpose of those laws in not to make voting merely inconvenient. It is also to make the voters whom the laws target nervous about moving through the various (government) steps required to comply.The solution to the problem of the braver voters who navigate the new landscape is either to knock them off the rolls through techniques like voter "caging," which we all became familiar with in Florida in 2000, or simply to get in their faces at the polls and intimidate them directly.  


Monday, September 17, 2012

Voter Repression: An Old American Pastime

Our society will always remain an unstable and explosive compound
as long as political power is vested in the masses and economic
power in the classes. Either the plutocracy will buy up the   
democracy or the democracy will vote away the plutocracy

The real issue at stake in the current wave of voter suppression was thus cogently captured by by distinguished economist Irving Fisher on the eve of the country's Second Gilded Age--more popularly known as the "Jazz Age," the "Era of Wonderful Nonsense," or the "Roaring Twenties." During that decade, "the classes" were clearly in the driver's seat and they drove the economy into total collapse. Beginning in the mid-1930s through the 1960s, it seemed that "the masses" were really making headway, but over the last thirty years, "the classes" have steadily regained control. On the eve of one of the most crucial elections in history, there is a clear and present danger that the plutocracy will achieve the goal set forth by John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court" "The people who own the country ought to run it." Maybe for good and all!

Actually, the efforts of "the classes"  to subvert or eliminate the political power of "the masses" even antedate the formation of the Republic itself.  Each of the thirteen colonies restricted suffrage to white, male, property holders, 
and usually required ownership of more property to vote for members of the upper house of the legislature. The "white" and "male" part prevailed until well into the twentieth century, and it required protracted and hard-fought  struggles by the property-less, women, non-whites, and others to eliminate. Before the Constitution prohibited "religious tests" for voting, most colonies forbade voting by Catholics, Quakers, Jews, and other non-Protestants, even after becoming "states." The same revolutionaries who condemned "no taxation without representation" saw no contradiction in maintaining property qualifications for voting. Voting in federal elections under the new Constitution was limited to those whom each individual state permitted to vote in elections for the least populous house of the state legislature. The right to vote is still the prerogative of individual states, except for the 15th Amendment (race, color, or previous condition of servitude), the 19th (sex), the 24th (no poll tax), the 26th (age),
and state laws that the federal courts rule unconstitutional. 

The poll tax, which lasted in some southern states until the 1960s, was a "double whammy," since it was a form of property qualifications as well as racial discrimination. Prior to the ratification of the 26th  amendment, the age limit for voting ranged from 16 to 25 among the several states. Women could vote in several, mostly western, states as early as the 1870s. Vesting the determination of voting rights in the individual states was one of the many compromises struck by "the founders" in order to achieve ratification. As we shall see later, that provision allowed several southern states to deny the voting rights of African Americans, long after the enactment of the 15th amendment. It also allowed states to deny the franchise to other racial minorities, especially Asians Native Americans. It was not until the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that all Native, Asian, and African Americans achieved full voting rights everywhere in the United States. 

The fight to secure voting rights, even for white males with little or no property, took place in each individual state during the first half of the nineteenth century. Many newly admitted states prohibited property qualifications for white males. In Wisconsin, for example, the right to vote was extended even to immigrants who had lived in the state for one year and filed their Declaration Of Intention to become citizens. Tens of thousands of white male immigrants continued to vote for the rest of their lives without ever changing their citizenship status. That provision in the state constitution was finally nullified by constitutional amendment in 1907. Meanwhile,of course, women, blacks, and Indians were denied the same right for decades. Although African Americans were guaranteed voting rights in the 1848 constitution, the privilege was subject to referendum by white male voters (including resident aliens), who defeated it in 1857 and 1865. On petition by black Milwaukeeans in the latter year, the state supreme court ruled that they had been granted suffrage in 1848. Challenges to blacks voting continued into the 1960s, however. As late as 1912, a referendum on woman suffrage in Wisconsin, failed by more than two to one (all white males, of course, but at least they had to be citizens by now). Incredibly enough, Wisconsin barely edged out Illinois to become the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920. Most southern states retained property qualifications, even for white males, until Reconstruction, and the "Redeemers," who regained power after 1877 did their best to reinstate them both by poll taxes that disenfranchised large numbers of "poor whites," as well as almost all blacks by World War I.

In one of the most bitter ironies in the nation's history (and one of the biggest coups for the "classes" who wanted to retain the status quo in voting rights), the adoption by Congress of what became the 15th Amendment, proved to be a pyrrhic victory at  best, for both women and African Americans. Woman suffrage was first proposed at the Seneca Falls, New York convention of 1848. Although most of the delegates were men, the small male contingent included Frederick Douglass, who made a strong appeal for extending the franchise to both women and African Americans. By the time that Congress debated the issue in 1869, Douglass, other black leaders, and their "Radical Republican" allies had concluded that their cause would not succeed if it were tied to the less popular issue of female suffrage. Douglass himself sealed the fate of woman suffrage by proclaiming that "The Hour Belongs to the Negro." Several prominent women, especially in the South, acquiesced in that judgment, and eventually formed the American Woman Suffrage Association, which concentrated on achieving victory on a state by state basis (remember the states still have the final say in voting requirements, except for the instances noted earlier). Others, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and the National Woman Suffrage Association, refused to support the 15th amendment unless it included woman suffrage. In a classic case of "politics makes strange bedfellows," some even allied with Southern racists by arguing that female votes could negate those of black males.They continued to advocate for the adoption of a woman suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but did not achieve final victory until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Even then, the amendment only achieved the necessary number of states when a Tennessee legislator, who personally opposed women voting, switched his support, allegedly because he had promised his mother on her death bed that he would do so. As already noted, several western states had already approved statewide universal suffrage, supposedly in order to attract female settlers. It didn't take Southern racists long to undermine black suffrage,as we shall see below.


At the risk of resorting to the use of "irony" toO often, I cannot resist recounting how the time-tested strategy of playing women and African Americans off against one another backfired during the debate over what became the Equal Rights Act of 1964. In a last-ditch attempt to defeat the measure, one of Congress's most rabid racist/sexists--Howard W.Smith of Virginia, chair of the House Rules Committee--included women's rights in the mix, only to see sweeping rights for both blacks and women achieve passage. It is well beyond even "delicious  irony" to credit Smith with being the unwilling "godfather" or "mid-wife" of the Equal Rights Law of 1964.

Nor did it take Southern racists long to emasculate the 15th Amendment itself by poll taxes and other devices. The populist movement of the 1880s and 90s threatened to unite blacks and poor whites in a class-based coalition against the "New South" alliance of planters and industrialists, who regained control in most Southern states after the "Great Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction. The "Redeemers" told blacks that they would protect them against the racism of the "poor whites," and told the latter that, no matter how poor their economic situation, they were WHITE, AND THAT IS THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTED. (How badly off can you be if your only claim to superiority is a deficit of  malanin in your skin.) On economic grounds, blacks and "poor whites were potentially natural allies; on racial grounds, they were natural enemies. In several southern states during the last decades of the 19th century, some Populist whites managed to overcome their ingrained racism by trying to make common cause with blacks, and nearly succeeded in winning control of several state governments. When they lost, they blamed blacks for failing to turn out in sufficient numbers, or for succumbing to the promises of protection urged by the Conservatives. For their part, many of the latter heaved a sigh of relief, coupled with the fear that, the next time, the Populist coalition might really succeed. In the end, both sets of whites blamed blacks and agreed on disenfranchisement, even if that meant, as it did in several states, the purging of large numbers of "poor whites" as well.  This disenfranchisement of blacks and poor white voters occurred during what passed for the "Progressive Era" in most southern states. Many "progressives" were sincerely convinced that "meaningful reform" of any sort was only possible with a "purified" electorate and a "separate but equal" society. Their weapons of choice included the poll tax (planters often paid the tax for their sharecroppers, provided that they vote the "right way.") The same was true of the literacy test, while the "grandfather clause" automatically eliminated all blacks and lots of propertyless whites. My personal favorite is the "eight ballot box system," in which voters had to deposit eight separate ballots into eight separate boxes in the "correct" order, or have their vote invalidated. Of course, white poll watchers helpfully guided "desirable" voters through the maze, while "undesirables" had to fend for themselves. Above all, they resorted to VIOLENCE, as typified by the resurgence of the Ku Klan Klan and similar vigilante groups. Lynching became the ultimate discouragement for would-be black voters.

The majority of Americans outside the Southern states either agreed or looked the other way. Not until blacks began the "Great Migration" to Northern cities did there seem any reason to do otherwise. Black migrants competed for jobs and housing with the "New Immigrants," from southern and eastern Europe and East Asia. Northern businesses imported black strikebreakers replace white workers, who were mostly immigrants and their children. They actually who played a role similar to that of  "poor whites"in the South. Pitting ethnic groups against blacks and other ethnic groups and "hiring the survivors" became commonplace. The only difference was that Northerners told blacks and immigrants to "go as high as you can, but don't come any closer, while Southerners said "come as close as you like, but don't try to go any higher "  Plessy v. Ferguson and "Birth of a Nation" were powerful palliatives for white Northerners.

By the same token, many "good government progressives" in the rest of the country just as sincerely believed that "reform" of any kind depended upon preventing or curtailing the potential political power of the lower social orders in general. These efforts were part and parcel of the drive to enact the highly discriminatory National Origins Quota System of immigration restriction, which remained in effect from the 1920s into the 1960s. There were occasional attempts to impose literacy tests or property qualifications, but they were usually defeated by lawmakers representing ethnic working-class wards, aided by others who rejected the malicious intent behind the proposals. Threatening workers with loss of their jobs unless their employer's candidates were triumphant was more widespread. Much more successful were enacting highly restrictive naturalization, residency, and registration laws. Gerrymandering electoral districts, either by segregating ethnic working class voters in a few districts or disbursing them in small numbers throughout the entire city was also effective, as were limiting voting hours and making polling places difficult to reach. More subtle, but perhaps more popular, were using the "short ballot"  and less frequent elections to eliminate the number of elective offices and patronage jobs available,and replacing patronage positions with appointive and civil service ones. The change from mayor/city council governance with city manager or commission forms was also a frequent tactic. The traditional council was broadly representative of all of the city's various ethnic, class and partisan divisions, while the much smaller number of commissioners were elected city-wide and favored candidates with enough resources and positions of authority to do so. Not surprisingly, politicians with ethnic working constituencies, and others sympathetic to their world-view, vigorously opposed these measures and enjoyed a fair measure of success. The momentum, however, was usually in favor of those who wanted the number-and  diversity of voters kept to a minimum. Not surprisingly, the one overriding outcome was a sharp decline in voter participation and turnout, especially among the ethnic, working-classes.    

There can be little doubt that elections of the time featured more than their share of voting fraud, bribery, and exchange of votes for jobs and other "benefits." Nor that recent immigrants were often "fair game" for corrupt politicians., But many "goo-goos" clearly exaggerated the extent and impact of such evils, and misidentified the major culprits. As Ballard Campbell has stated, "the main weaknesses of state and local government were not bribes and kickbacks, but outmoded  institutions of governance," while Melvin Holli has charged that "the reformers all shared a certain style and and a number of common assumptions about the causes of municipal misgovernment and, in some instances, a conviction about which class was best to rule the city. None of the structural reformers had unqualified faith in the ability of the masses to rule themselves, as did their counterparts, social reformers.".                
 Despite all of these roadblocks,  "the masses" eventually managed to make significant headway against "the classes", thanks largely to the Great Depression, New Deal, widespread unionization, the G.I. Bill, the "Great Migration" of southern blacks to northern cities, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Immigration and Naturalization Acts. But since the 1980s, the momentum has shifted again and "the classes" have regained much of the control that they exercised  during the Gilded Age and the 1920s. One thing is certain: they and their clueless followers are replicating many of the arguments and tactics of their predecessors, as we shall explore during my next blog. So, stay tuned.               

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Marketplace versus Commonwealth

Those of you who had the intestinal fortitude to watch the Republican National Convention instead of "Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo," were probably as appalled as I was by the parade of narcissistic, self-absorbed, obtuse  "self-made" men and women parroting "We Made It." They were obviously programmed to ridicule Obama's self-evident observation that nobody achieves anything worthwhile without a lot of help, including services provided by government at all levels. My last book had my name on the cover, but the "acknowledgements" section in the preface ran to four pages. And I still feel guilty that I left out a lot of people who deserved my recognition. Has anybody ever heard of an Olympic athlete, Academy Award winner, or Most Valuable Player who had the chutzpah to proclaim that he or she did it all by himself or herself (even though some of them may really believe so, deep down inside)? Even Congressmen who require their staffers to read Ayn Rand novels generally shrink from such unalloyed hubris when they are running for office. Such grotesque lack of self-awareness harkens back to such 19th century exponents of "Social Darwinism" as Herbert Spencer or William Graham Sumner, who twisted "natural selection" and "survival of the fittest" into rationales for obscene inequalities in wealth and income, as well as brutal exploitation of employees and consumers. Sumner was a Yale professor who began his lectures with the injunction that "this is a world in which it is root or die, in which the longest pole knocks down the most apples." In his matter-of-fact essay "What the Social Classes Owe to Each Another," the answer was a blunt "Nothing."' Not surprisingly, Spencer, Sumner, and their allies were lavishly praised as omniscient gurus by the "Robber Barons" of their day, who also believed fervently in the "Gospel of Wealth" and rejected the "Social Gospel."

It is tempting to conclude that those who spoke at the Republican convention are either callous, ignorant, or malevolent, (which I have been occasionally prone to do, in private,out of frustration or righteous indignation). In my more lucid and professionally constrained moments, however, I realize that they and I are products of two opposing world-views (which the Germans call weltanschuung and the Greeks paideia), which are both deeply embedded in the American culture  and psyche. Theirs is what various scholars have dubbed the "marketplace model", in which society and polity are conceived of as competitive arenas where socioeconomic, ethnocultural, and similar "interest groups" engage in ruthless and ceaseless competition for wealth, power, status, and recognition. Its members view themselves, according to historian Rowland Berthoff,  as "congeries of social atoms." The "public interest" (if they admit of such a thing) is, therefore, nothing more than the sum total of antagonistic private individuals and groups. Those that predominate at any given time and place are,ipso facto, the fittest. How do we know that they are "the fittest?" Well, they are dominant, aren't they? They are, as historian Daniel Rodgers astutely observes, the "formal fictions" putatively traceable to Adam Smith, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill--the autonomous economic man, the autonomous owner of property rights, the autonomous paragon    of virtue. Politicians and government officials, therefore, act only as "brokers." who mediate disputes among warring competitors and distribute benefits according to the relative "clout" of  the contestants. Government, then, exists solely to facilitate the private pursuit of particularistic goals, and to enhance the opportunities available to the "most worthy" (and most generous) competitors. Voters are neither "citizens" nor possessors of "equal rights," but "consumers" of public goods and services, according to their private wants and"buying power."

The polar opposite of the "marketplace model" is what Rodgers calls "the language of social bonds," and what is variously referred to by others as "the public interest," the "general welfare,"  or the "public trust." It is clearly endorsed in the Preamble to the Constitution. According to political scientist Daniel Elezar, this world-view is best understood as the "commonwealth conception" of society and polity and by sociologist Robert Bellah as "the language of community solidarity." Rather than viewing society as a "congeries of social atoms," its adherents perceive it as a seamless web of organic networks in which each individual is unique and integral, but interdependent and united by relationships to ancestors, kin, and progeny. Those in the productive years of their lives instinctively assume a responsibility to care for those too young or too old to contribute to the general welfare, even as they were nurtured as children and expect to be protected as "senior citizens."  Even reduced to its most crass economic terms, it translates into those in their active years being willing to bear the actual cost, however expensive, of educating and training young people, in order that they might be prepared to live and work in the economy of the future. While most other modernized countries regard their young as potential assets, and are willing to pay whatever it costs to prepare them, many well-educated and well-to-do Americans--caught up in the marketplace model of "everyone for himself or herself"--apparently are only willing to afford that opportunity to their own children and to let everyone else fend for themselves. Increasingly, even the children of today's upper middle class can only afford such an education by going into serious debt that will take a decade or more to repay, thus effectively diminishing their ability to establish a viable middle class of their own. It is clearly a vicious, and ultimately self=destructive, circle that will eventually destroy the American Dream and reduce the U.S. to a second or third rate economic power. It is also a modern form of INDENTURED SERVITUDE, which, by the way, comes perilously close to violating the 13th Amendment's prohibition against "involuntary servitude."  A lot depends on how one defines "involuntary," and by who does the defining. By the same token, most other modern societies guarantee their people a safe and secure retirement, if only as an incentive to be productive in the present. In short, you can motivate people fat more by hope, honesty, and fairness than by fear and punishment.

Any society that fails to live up this social compact, whatever its economic or political ideology and organization, is doomed to continual strife and ultimate disintegration. According to economist Richard T. Ely, one of the seminal thinkers of "the Wisconsin Idea,"society, economy, and polity are "organisms, of which individuals, families, groups...form parts." Especially in our modern, urban, post-industrial, ethnoculturally diverse   environment, these "numberless parts are in an infinite variety of manner interdependent. Infinite interrelations! Infinite interdependencies!" In such a frequently bewildering maze, government, at all levels is, at the very least, A "necessary evil." It is the only institution that provides (or at least could or should) universal access to everyone, regardless of their station in life. Before the Supreme Court conjured up Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United and similar assaults on logic and history, the "one man(one woman), one vote" formula of Baker v. Carr (1964) prevailed and must again. government is also the only institution that can compel people to acquiesce in what the majority judges to be in "the general welfare" or "the public interest," even if an influential minority perceive it to be a violation of their particularistic self-interest.  Without "a fair and judicious" use of government's coercive power, some people would never agree to support anything from which they themselves did not derive an immediate and personal benefit, regardless of how much their fellow citizens needed or desired it.

Closely akin to the commonwealth concept are what the architects of "The Wisconsin Idea" called "social investment." and "the new individualism." The former is the belief that society as a whole needed to invest tax money and cooperative effort in such endeavors as education, fire and police protection, mass transit, environmental protection, and care of those unable to care for themselves. Properly designed and administered, taxes should really be "the price of civilization" rather than "the result of earnest efforts to get others to pay them." Mass incarceration is far more expensive than mass education. The "new individualism" is the conviction that all people "deserved the the right of opportunity and benefited by it, that it was the duty of the state to preserve to them opportunities; that the state was a necessary good and not a necessary evil; that the great institution of private property was good; but that if any particular part of it did not exist for the public good, it should be made to do so."  

The solution to almost every problem in our society and polity depends, to a great extent, if one sees the world as a marketplace or a commonwealth.



Monday, September 3, 2012

Progressive History Professor

The following was the first blog that I attempted to post on September 3. Due to my inexperience (incompetence?) it was not posted properly. So I am attempting to post it today, September 22. Apparently, some people have already received it, for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom. Anyway, here is my inaugural blog.

My name is John Buenker and I am a retired history professor who has been on the faculty of three different public universities for more than 40 years. I have spent most of my adult life reading, researching, and teaching U.S. history. Like most of my friends and colleagues, I am appalled at the colossal ignorance and deliberate distortion of that history by extreme right-wing politicians, "think tanks," and "foundations." Like the characters in George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, they constantly rewrite history to suit their selfish purposes and to legitimize their own wealth and power. One of the most blatant examples of their sophistry occurred in Wisconsin during the campaign, unfortunately unsuccessful, to recall Governor Scott Walker, when a "think tank"calling itself the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute issued a "Report" making the astoundingly absurd claim that the very Progressives who instituted recall in the first place would have opposed its use against Walker and several of his henchmen.In reality, the WPRI is a tax-sheltered ultra-conservative Republican propaganda mill financed by such behemoths as the Northwester Mutual Foundation, the Charlotte and Walter Kohler Charitable Trust, the Wausau Paper Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Lubar Family Foundation, and the Roe Foundation. Its chairman is Charles Lightbourn, the former senior vice-president of the Wisconsin Energy Corporation, a longtime associate of Tommy Thompson, and chairman of "Bush for President-Wisconsin" in both 2000 and 2004. Its board of directors include the president of Bank Mutual, the former CEO of the Wausau Paper Corporation, the president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association, and the CEO of Northwestern Mutual. One of its "notable commentators is Charley Sykes, Milwaukee's bush league Rush Limbaugh.             

The "Report,' grandiosely titled "THE History of Recall in Wisconsin,"  was researched and written by a WPRI "fellow" named Christian Schneider, a "resident history buff," with no formal training or experience in historical research, who spent "days digging in the archives. If his "end notes" are accurate,he occupied most of his time reading such blatantly anti-La Follette, anti-progressive newspapers as the Milwaukee Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal. His only scholarly source is the feature article in the 1911-1912 Wisconsin Blue Book, entitled "Progressivism Triumphant: The 1911 Wisconsin Legislature, but the author shows no sign of even having read it, let alone understand the meaning of Wisconsin progressivism that it elucidates. One of its most incredible distortions is to portray Progressives and organized labor, then and now, as "special interests," when the term, as coined by :La Follette and his colleagues, obviously meant corporations, the politicians whom they bribe, and the Progressive Era's functional equivalents of the WPRI. This is a trick that right-wing Republicans and Democrats invented in 1912 and 1914, and which their descendants have used consistently down to the present day. In his final attempt to turn history upside down and inside out, Schneider warns that recall and similar devices to make government more responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens "will become the tool of special interests--whose influence Bob La Follette spent his entire career trying to reduce." (That is not quite analogous to taking the Lord's name in vain, but about as close you can get in this state.) He even has the chutzpah to invert one of La Follette's cardinal maxims:"the supreme issue involving all others is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many." Despite Schneider's "Alice in Wonderland" attempt to cast today's progressives as "the powerful few" and Walker and the WPRI as the champions of "the many," anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of real history knows that the exact reverse was true then and still is today. As someone who has spent nearly 15 years reading and analyzing thousands upon thousands of La Follette's correspondence, speeches, and writings, I guarantee it. But don't take my word for it. The real history of the Progressive Era in Wisconsin is one of the most documented chapters in the chronicles of any state, so read some of it for yourself You can't know what actually happened by reading a slipshod article that would not even be accepted as a term paper in History 101, written by a "resident history buff" whose "days digging in the archives paid off." (A question for the staff of the WHS library: what is this piece of junk history doing in the collections of what purports to be <and actually is> the finest collection of American history this side of the Library of Congress?)                          

To "give the devil his due," Schneider is correct about one historical reality. Not all progressives of 1911-1914 or 1926 were enthusiastic about recall. It was never really high on their agenda. Many progressives sided with those who feared that allowing the recall of judges would pave the way for a purge of anti-labor judges by their rival Social Democrats and their allies in the Wisconsin State Federation of Labor and the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council. The progressive Republicans cooperated with those groups on myriad pieces of legislation, but did not want to enhance the power of the SDP. Almost all Socialists and labor leaders were broadly "progressive, but not all progressives were socialists. In fact, Charles McCarthy, in The Wisconsin Idea boldly asserts that "the way to beat the socialists is to beat them to it." The recall of anti-labor judges was the major issue of concern among many progressive Republicans.

Did this distortion of history by opponents of recall play a major role in its defeat? There is obviously no way to say with any certainty. It provided at least some voters with a rationale for rejecting a progressive device while still feeling that they were honoring Wisconsin's progressive tradition. It was certainly a devilishly clever scheme, not quite on the same level of sophistication as the schemes described in 1984 or Animal Farm, but with much of the same malicious intent. One thing is certain: to control the present, it is absolutely necessary to manipulate much of the past.

Speaking of controlling the present, I can't resist saying something about the complicity of "the media" in acquiescing in the trashing of the past. (I hate the use of the word "media" by itself. It explains nothing unless you combine it in the phrase "communications media.") If you look at a Progressive Era Wisconsin Blue Book, or its functional equivalent in other states, you will find, first of all, that there were hundreds of newspapers being published in each state. Most larger cities had more than one. Secondly, they were openly and proudly partisan, listing themselves, as Democrat, Republican, Independent, or even Socialist or Progressive. Many were even published in German, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish, Czech, or Italian, to name but the most prevalent. When you read a paper, you knew exactly what you were getting. To get a balanced view, you had to read at least two. Sometimes, it was hard to believe that they were writing about the same issue or event. Many politicians or factions even bought newspapers which they could use to get out their message or explanation of issues and events. Nobody ever thought that they were getting unbiased versions of anything. Flash forward to the recent past. First of all, the number of newspapers has been drastically reduced, largely because more and more people relied on radio, television, the internet, or any number of electronic marvels. Equally as important, those still extant almost all claimed to be independent, objective, and comprehensive in their coverage. (Imagine, for example, what someone from that era would make of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.)  Many of these newspapers also own radio or television stations and have web sites, giving them a virtual monopoly on information. But that's OK, right, because they are all objective and independent?  They proudly proclaim themselves as politically independent or neutral. (Lets not even discuss the New York Post or Fox News, which are of another genre, or maybe even another planet.) Although critics may charge that they are too "liberal" or "conservative," most communications media are really "neutered."   Most of them bend over backwards to present "both sides of the story," even if there isn't a viable other side. Most journalists, especially those in the "print media," are reasonably intelligent and well educated. They know that creationism is not a viable alternative to evolution, that "trickle-down economics" is ridiculous, that the math in Ryan's budget does not add up, that there is global warming and that we humans contribute mightily to it, that women can't avoid getting pregnant during "forceable rape" because their bodies won't permit it, that Obama was born in the United States and is not a Muslim or a socialist, that "reality shows" aren't "real," that "people with guns" are way more lethal than those without.and that "the Donald" is full of whatever substance you care to verbalize. And yet, to choose but the most egregious recent example, politicians and pundits focus on questions like whether Todd Akin should withdraw from the campaign instead of on the mind-blowing absurdity and ignorance of his ideas.          

In case some of you haven't guessed it already, the purpose of my blog will be to place the issues of the day in their historical context and to provide at least some historical perspective. It is also to provide me with an outlet so that I do not upset my wife with my frustrations.