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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Silent Coup: Spooks on Campus

CounterPunch Print Edition Exclusive!

Silent Coup

In the past 4 years 22 universities across the U.S. have quietly taken the CIA’s dollars and agreed to become spy-factories for student spooks. David Price breaks the story, identifies the campuses, details secret faculty protests and charts the strategy for resistance

Spooks on Campus

– and a New Orleans connexion outside Senator Landrieu’s office

David Price has a major scoop in our latest subscriber-only newsletter. He describes how, across the past five years, without a word of public debate, let alone concern the CIA, has successfully implanted spy schools on 22 university campuses across the country, many of them labeled “Intelligence Community Centers of Academic Excellence” – ICCAE, pronounced “Icky”.

It began in 2004,” Price reports, when “a $250,000 grant was awarded to Trinity Washington University by the Intelligence Community for the establishment of a pilot ‘Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence’ program. Trinity was in many ways an ideal campus for a pilot program. For a vulnerable, tuition-driven struggling financial institution in the D.C. area the promise of desperately needed funds and a regionally assured potential student base, linked with or seeking connections to the DC intelligence world, made the program financially attractive.”

Price’s timing is impeccable. Last Monday, the day we were preparing to send his story to press, came news that a group of Fox News’ free-lance buggers - the same who set up ACORN – had been arrested, trying for phone sabotage in Senator Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office. Three of the team were caught inside Landrieu’s office. A fourth was arrested as he sat in a car a few blocks away with what the police described as “a listening device that could pick up transmissions." Another anonymous official told MSNBC that the man in the car was Stan Dai.

Dai is a veteran of Trinity Washington University’s spook school,. funded by the “Intelligence Community”. In 2008, Dai served as associate director of ICCAE at Trinity Washington.

How many wannabe Howard Hunts and G. Gordon Liddys are being turned out by the spook schools? As Price writes, “Even amid the extreme militarization prevailing in America today, the public silence surrounding this quiet installation and spread of programs like ICCAE is extraordinary. In the last four years ICCAE has gone further in bringing government intelligence organizations openly to multiple American university campuses than any previous intelligence initiative since World War Two. Yet the program spreads with little public notice, media coverage, or coordinated multi-campus resistance.”

Did any tenured faculty member at the 22 campuses now hosting spook-schools publicly raise the alarm? Twenty years ago there would have been furious demonstrations. Not now. Faculty, most notably at the University of Washington, did write anguished, even angry memos. Price quotes them. But as he writes,

“it’s far from clear that these private critiques had any measurable effect, precisely because they remained private...

"Tenured professors on ICCAE campuses, or on campuses contemplating ICCAE programs, need to use their tenure and speak out, on the record, in public... the split between the public and private reactions to ICCAE has helped usher the CIA silently back onto American university campuses. The intelligence community thrives on silence.”

Price can be reached at dprice@stmartin.edu.

Our newsletter features Price’s full, exclusive story. Also in this same newsletter Peter Lee reports on the sequel to Zbigniev Brzezinski’s supremely cynical plan back in the late 1970s to fund the largest CIA operation in its history to back fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden and local opium barons in Afghanistan to overthrow the leftist regime in Kabul, supported by the Soviet Union.

The sequel has involved catastrophe for Afghanistan. It’s also led to Afghanistan becoming the world’s prime opium exporter (90 per cent of world supply) – a large portion of which is spreading addiction and death across Iran, Russia and the central Asian republics. At the urging of Richard Holbrooke, civilian supremo of Obama’s Af-Pak operations, the US has now formally abandoned the goal of opium eradication in Afghanistan, happy to have Iran and Russia expend huge sums in battling what one Russian bitterly describes as a “new opium war”.

Leaks Imperil Nuclear Industry; Vermont Yankee Among Troubled

Leaks Imperil Nuclear Industry; Vermont Yankee Among Troubled

by Beth Daley

VERNON, Vt. - The nuclear industry, once an environmental pariah, is recasting itself as green as it attempts to extend the life of many power plants and build new ones. But a leak of radioactive water at Vermont Yankee, along with similar incidents at more than 20 other US nuclear plants in recent years, has kindled doubts about the reliability, durability, and maintenance of the nation's aging nuclear installations.

[A portion of a cooling tower at the  Vermont Yankee reactor collapsed Wednesday, August 22, 2007. A broken  52” pipe was photographed spewing water into the ground, in the latest  embarrassment for Yankee owner Entergy Corporation, the nation’s  second-largest nuclear utility.]A portion of a cooling tower at the Vermont Yankee reactor collapsed Wednesday, August 22, 2007. A broken 52” pipe was photographed spewing water into the ground, in the latest embarrassment for Yankee owner Entergy Corporation, the nation’s second-largest nuclear utility.
Vermont health officials say the leak, while deeply worrisome, is not a threat to drinking water supplies or the Connecticut River, which flows beside the 38-year-old plant, nor is it endangering public health. But the controversy is threatening to derail the nuclear plant's bid, now at a critical juncture, for state approvals to extend its operating life by 20 years when its license expires in two years. Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors, Vermont Yankee's owners, and state officials are tracing the source of the radioactivity and searching for other leaks in the labyrinth of below-surface pipes on the plants' property about 10 miles from the Massachusetts border.

The timing couldn't be worse for the nuclear industry, coming as it attempts a broad rebirth as a green energy source in the battle against global warming; the reactors do not emit greenhouse gases that cause the atmosphere to warm.

Memories of the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are receding and many in the public are taking a second look at nuclear. President Obama last week endorsed a new generation of nuclear power in his State of the Union address, and for the first time in decades, more than 20 new plants have been proposed.

But the leaks have the potential to slow, if not stop, the bandwagon. Crucial voices are calling for caution. "I am appalled by the safety procedures not only at Vermont Yankee, but at other nuclear facilities across the country who have failed to inspect thousands of miles of buried pipes at their facilities,'' US Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, said last week. Earlier this month, Markey asked the US Government Accountability Office to investigate the integrity, safety, inspections, and maintenance of buried pipes at nuclear plants.

Critics say the problems with buried pipes are evidence the plants are too old and poorly maintained to continue to safely operate as many - including plants in Seabrook, N.H., and Plymouth - seek extensions of their original 40-year operating licenses. Nuclear advocates, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, say that while the leaks of a radioactive form of water containing tritium are serious, those that have contaminated groundwater have not exceeded regulatory limits or harmed the structural integrity, operation, or safety of the plants.

"No leak of tritium has ever had a negative impact on the health and safety of the public,'' said Tom Kauffman, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a prominent industry group. In 2006, the industry took it upon itself to search more aggressively for problems with buried piping and tritium leaks.

"These are the most highly regulated, highly monitored industrialized [power plants] in the nation,'' Kauffman said. He said the nation's 104 nuclear plants are some of the greenest sources of energy in the country. "It is very important to keep these plants working.''

Indeed, Vermont Yankee provides roughly one-third of the Green Mountain State's electricity and, to the delight of many business owners and residents, it is inexpensive. That low cost - and the 650 jobs the plant provides - has won it longstanding political support in the state. Still, antinuclear sentiment, always an undercurrent in this liberal state because of the dangers of radioactive releases and waste, accelerated after the plant received NRC permission to increase its power output by 20 percent in 2006.

The next year, a cooling tower partially collapsed, and in 2008, another tower sprung a leak. The plant's safety was not compromised, but the events stoked public concerns about the adequacy of plant maintenance. More than 200 people, evoking the 1970s grass-roots efforts against the construction of nuclear plants in New England, took part in some portions of a 127-mile march from Brattleboro to the state capital, Montpelier, earlier this month.

Then earlier this month, Vermont Yankee's owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., told state and federal regulators it had discovered elevated levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, in a 30-foot-deep monitoring well on the property as part of the voluntary industry effort to look for leaks. Two weeks later, Entergy said it found much higher levels of tritium - along with Cobalt-60, another radioactive isotope - in a 40-foot-long trench that houses pipes. It is unclear whether the two areas of contamination are related.

Tritium, while found in nature in small amounts, is produced as a byproduct in nuclear power plants. The US Environmental Protection Agency says tritiated water increases the risk of cancer if someone drinks it, but the radiation is low-level and leaves the body quickly. The agency has set a drinking water standard for tritium of 20,000 picocuries - a measure of radioactivity - per liter.

The test well, which is not used for drinking water, has registered increasingly higher levels of tritium in recent weeks - topping out at 29,000 picocuries per liter. The trench had levels in the millions of picocuries per liter. Vermont Yankee is drilling seven more wells to see how widespread the problem is.

"Obviously we are taking this very seriously,'' said plant spokesman Rob Williams, as he guided a reporter through a maze of security fencing to view one of the monitoring wells near the Connecticut River. He stressed that the company was doing everything it could to figure out the extent of the problem and its source. The plant told regulators about the elevated levels as soon as they were found, even though they were below levels required to be reported, he said.

Across the country, tritium leaks have not prevented re-licensing of the nation's nuclear plants by the NRC, which has extended the operating life of 59 reactors and is considering or expected to consider 37 other applications in the next seven years.

In December, the agency issued a report noting that an evaluation of buried piping showed that corrosion, where leaks can spring from, tends to occur in small areas where anti-corrosion coating is damaged. The agency concluded that its oversight of the issue is adequate, but spokesman Neil Sheehan said in an e-mail that the NRC is "a learning agency'' and would continue to review any new information and change policies as needed to ensure safety.

The leaks at Vermont Yankee have caused a credibility problem for the plant's owner. State officials have charged that Entergy officials misled them on a number of occasions by denying the plant had buried piping that could carry radioactive material. Last week, Governor Jim Douglas, a longtime supporter of the plant, asked legislators to delay a vote needed for the plant's re-licensing. He also called for a state board to stop considering Entergy's request to spin off Vermont Yankee into a subsidiary with its other nuclear plants, a move that the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a consumer and environmental non-profit, says could limit the parent company's financial liability when the plant shuts down.

"What has happened at Vermont Yankee is a breach of trust that cannot be tolerated,'' Douglas said in a statement last week. Until questions are answered, he said, "decisions about the long-term future of the plant should not be made.''

Entergy, in a statement, said that it was disappointed by Douglas's decision but is conducting an investigation "to get to the bottom of how and why the company provided conflicting information to state officials.''

The Brattleboro-based New England Coalition, longtime critics of nuclear energy, said the buried-pipe problem at Vermont Yankee underscores a far larger one for the nation - its nuclear plants are old.

"It is the canary in the coal mine,'' said coalition codirector Clay Turnbull.

Quid Pro What? The Supreme Court Has to Recognize Bribery Before It Can Stop It

Quid Pro What? The Supreme Court Has to Recognize Bribery Before It Can Stop It

by Mitch Rofsky

In 1979, I testified before the House Administration Committee on campaign finance reform. Representative Jerry Lewis (R-CA), today Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee, interrupted my testimony:

"Mr. Rofsky, do you have evidence of bribery relative to any of the members of this committee?"

I was only 28 years old, so I did not have the presence to respond as I would today: "Sir, I think you are all evidence of bribery."

Well, one man's bribery is another's free speech. At least, that's the conclusion from the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that corporate political endorsements are "free speech" and protected by the First Amendment.

Space does not permit detailing all of this decision's flaws. Treating corporations as "legal persons", is fraught with problems as corporations don't vote (or inevitably die for that matter) and don't deserve any number of protections that are provided individuals

Moreover, if corporations had pure First Amendment rights, then commercial speech would be equally protected. Alcohol, tobacco, perhaps, prescription drugs, and, some would say, marijuana should be legal - the cost of making them illegal is too high. But these products should not be permitted to be advertised (with the possible exception of ingredients). The makers of beer, vodka, cigarettes, and related products should not be permitted to make their brands "cool". But that would tamper with corporate free speech rights - if they have them.

Crucial to the majority decision was Justice Kennedy's noting that bribery remains illegal. He distinguished "independent" corporate political endorsements from direct corporate contributions which remain illegal, at least for the time being.

But, of course, these "independent" endorsements are a form of campaign contributions. So, the justices have joined conservative political commentators: "Campaign contributions are almost always not bribery," Fred Barnes once asserted on CSPAN.

Can Washington really be this naive?

The Court has joined prosecutors who must enforce the strictest possible definition of bribery: the "quid pro quo," where a specific act is exchanged for some benefit, usually money.. With this definition, politicians can act offended that anyone would even think that they could be "bribed" (as, on the MacNeil-Leher News Hour, Utah Senator Robert Bennett once huffed about throwing out any favor seeker who would be so dim as to offer him cash in his office. Good for you, Senator.).

Yet, the public's common sense that millions of dollars in political donations aren't exchanged for nothing is correct.

Look up bribery in the dictionary and you will find a very different definition than the prosecutorial one. Merriam-Webster defines a bribe as: "1. money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust." That's right, the key term is "influence." And campaign contributors have plenty of it.

It is also amazing that the same conservatives who believe that corporations are at the top of the organizational evolutionary pyramid, the most intelligent way to organize an economy yet developed, can then conclude that these same corporations give away hundreds of millions of dollars every two years and receive nothing in return!

If there is rarely a "quid-pro-quo", how is influence exhibited? How do legislators think about maintaining contributor support? Presumably, corporate representatives are not huddled with officeholders in the backrooms of DC pleasure palaces. Even Fred Barnes would consider that a story. So how does the game work?

As political scientists define "politics," it is the response to the demands of the public. All men may be created equal, but not all those with "demands" are treated equally. Voters are more equal than non-voters and contributors are more equal than voters. So, politicians are in the position of recognizing their demands first.

But to remain officeholders, most politicians have to respond to conflicting demands (we'll ignore gerrymandering for now). The basic principle of resolving these demands is not to give major contributors everything they want and everyone else nothing. That is not viewed as an effective strategy. Rather, your typical officeholder tries to give something to everyone. Or at least to every donor.

In other words, there is a little calculator constantly running in a politician's brain: "What do I have to do to give this contributor enough to keep the dollars flowing?" No one assumes that you have to give a corporation 5 out of 5 votes. Perhaps 4 of 5 will do it. Most likely, for an incumbent, 3 of 5 will. Maybe even 2 of 5. (It is Washington lore that various leaders have actually held legislation over from one Congress to the next just to keep the contributions coming in-but I guess the D.C. press considers this, like compassionate conservatism, to be an urban legend.)

If special interests have enough legislators who vote with them 40%, 50%, or 60% of the time, they will win a lot of votes-votes that they would not necessarily have won without their contributions.

Over-focusing on votes can also distract from the myriad opportunities that a politician has to whore (oh, excuse me, I meant "advocate") for a major contributor. As we saw in the Abramoff scandal, a mere mention in the Congressional Record may be worth selling. And, it is much easier to stop legislation than it is to enact it. Putting a "hold" on a bill or nominee or skipping certain committee meetings may be all that's required. As the Clinton Lincoln Bedroom "auction" demonstrated, there are always opportunities (and incentives) to be creative.

One former liberal Senator made it clear that he would front for two industries that were powerful in his state: the savings & loan and defense industries. A Washington journalist might say that these are prominent industries that employ lots of people in his state. Wouldn't he support them even if there were no contributions?

Then explain this: Why would this Senator devote himself to the elimination of the government board that examined defense contracts for excess profits? This has little to do with the employees of these companies and much more to do with bonuses to management and returns to shareholders.

Or explain this: if money is meaningless or if business merely supports those who share their philosophical predisposition, then why do major industries give to both candidates in a race? What can they be buying other than "influence?"

As long as we're talking crime, the flip side of today's campaign fund-raising culture is extortion--the use of one's position or powers to obtain property, funds, or patronage. Republican efforts like the K Street Project seem to meet this definition as Republican officeholders told Washington lobbyists that they would not be welcome in their offices unless they hired their friends (patronage) and received their donations (funds). And, thanks to the Supreme Court for giving the politicians another way to intimidate potential contributors.

So, don't use the terms "bribery" or "extortion" if you consider them too gauche, but spare us the defenses of Washington DC business as usual on First Amendment grounds. No group of "insiders" can be that naive. And what should we think of this group of justices when Merriam Webster knows what's going on and the Supreme Court doesn't?

Mitch Rofsky is President of the Better World Club, the nation's only eco-friendly auto and travel club, and a Director of New Voice of Business. He is a former attorney for Ralph Nader and Public Citizen's Congress Watch. Contact him at mrofsky@betterworldclub.com

The State of the Union Is Comatose

The State of the Union Is Comatose

by Frank Rich

HANDS down, the State of the Union's big moment was Barack Obama's direct hit on the delicate sensibilities of the Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. The president was right to blast the 5-to-4 decision giving corporate interests an even greater stranglehold over a government they already regard as a partially owned onshore subsidiary. How satisfying it was to watch him provoke Alito into a "You lie!" snit. Here was a fight we could believe in.

There was more to admire in Obama's performance as well. He did not retreat into the bite-size initiatives - V-chips, school uniforms - embraced by an emasculated Bill Clinton after his midterm pummeling of 1994. The president's big original goals - health care, economic recovery, financial reform - remained nominally intact, as did his sense of humor. In a rhetorical touch William Safire would have relished, Obama had the wit to rush the ritualistic "our union is strong" so it would not prompt the usual jingoistic ovation.

Good thing, too, since our union is not strong. It is paralyzed. Many Americans were more eagerly anticipating Steve Jobs's address in San Francisco on Wednesday morning than the president's that night because they have far more confidence in Apple than Washington to produce concrete change. One year into Obama's term we still don't know whether he has what it takes to get American governance functioning again. But we do know that no speech can do the job. The president must act. Only body blows to the legislative branch can move the country forward.

The historian Alan Brinkley has observed that we will soon enter the fourth decade in which Congress - and therefore government as a whole - has failed to deal with any major national problem, from infrastructure to education. The gridlock isn't only a function of polarized politics and special interests. There's also been a gaping leadership deficit.

In Obama's speech, he kept circling back to a Senate where both parties are dysfunctional. The obstructionist Republicans, he observed, will say no to every single bill "just because they can." But no less culpable are the Democrats, who maintain "the largest majority in decades" even after losing Teddy Kennedy's seat - and yet would rather "run for the hills" than accomplish anything.

What does strong Senate leadership look like? That would be L.B.J. in the pre-Kennedy era. Operating with the narrowest of majorities and under an opposition president, he was able to transform a sleepy, seniority-hobbled, regionally polarized debating society into an often-progressive legislative factory. As Robert Caro tells the story in his book "Master of the Senate," this Senate leader had determination, "a gift for grand strategy," and a sixth sense for grabbing opportunities for action before they vanished for good. He could recognize "the key that might suddenly unlock votes that had seemed locked forever away" and turn it quickly. The horse trading with recalcitrant senators was often crude and cynical, but the job got done. L.B.J. knew how to reward - and how to punish.

We keep hearing that they just don't make legislative giants like that anymore. In truth, the long drought has led us to forget what they look like and to define senatorial leadership down. L.B.J.'s current successor, Harry Reid, could be found yawning on camera Wednesday night. He might as well have just taken the whole nap. Here was this leader's pronouncement last week on the future of the president and his party's No. 1 priority: "We're not on health care now. We've talked a lot about it in the past." Yes, a lot of talk - a year's worth, in fact - with nothing to show for it.

If Reid can serve as the face of Democratic fecklessness in the Senate, then John McCain epitomizes the unpatriotic opposition. On Wednesday night he could be seen sneering when Obama pointed out that most of the debt vilified by Republicans happened on the watch of a Republican president and Congress that never paid for "two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program." The president's indictment could have been more lacerating. Crunching Congressional Budget Office numbers, David Leonhardt of The Times calculated that of the projected $2 trillion swing into the red between the Clinton surplus and 2012, some 33 percent could be attributed to Bush legislation and another 20 percent to Bush-initiated spending (Iraq, TARP) continued by Obama. Only 7 percent of the deficit could be credited to the Obama stimulus bill and 3 percent to his other initiatives. (The business cycle accounts for the other 37 percent.)

Perhaps McCain was sneering at Obama because of the Beltway's newest unquestioned cliché: one year after a new president takes office he is required to stop blaming his predecessor for the calamities left behind. Who dreamed up that canard - Alito? F.D.R. never followed it. In an October 1936 speech, nearly four years after Hoover, Roosevelt was still railing against the "hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government" he had inherited. He reminded unemployed and destitute radio listeners that there had been "nine crazy years at the ticker" and "nine mad years of mirage" followed by three long years of bread lines and despair. F.D.R. soon won re-election in the greatest landslide the country had seen.

Obama should turn up the heat on both the G.O.P's record of fiscal recklessness and its mad-dog obstructionism. He should stop paying lip service to the fantasy that his Congressional opposition has serious ideas to contribute to the cleanup. Better still, he should publicize exactly what those "ideas" are.

Yes, the Republicans were correct to laugh at one of the president's own gimmicks on Wednesday night: a symbolic and pointless spending "freeze." But their own alternatives are downright hilarious. When the G.O.P. House leadership last year announced its plan to cut federal spending by $75 billion annually, it enumerated specific new cuts of only $5 billion per year. A tax-cut-laden "stimulus plan" endorsed by Jim DeMint, the South Carolina senator and Tea Party hero, "would cost more than $3 trillion - more than triple the cost of Obama's stimulus - over the next decade," in the estimate of Jonathan Chait of The New Republic.

On State of the Union day, the Republican National Committee gathered at its winter meeting at Waikiki Beach to battle over a measure that would deny campaign funds to candidates who didn't pass a Tea Party ideological purity test. Back in Washington, other party thinkers trotted out some more brilliant ideas. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman hailed as the Republicans' new intellectual hope, laid out a lengthy "G.O.P. Road Map for America's Future" on The Wall Street Journal op-ed page that proposed cutting taxes (disproportionately for the wealthy) and privatizing Medicare and Social Security but devoted no bullet point to creating jobs for Americans in urgent need. On the Hill that morning, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota led House colleagues in signing a "Declaration of Health Care Independence" to complement a bill that would let Americans "purchase insurance with their own tax-free money." Gee, why did no else think of that ingenious fix for a health care system that leaves 46.3 million uninsured and whose runaway costs are on track to eat up one-fifth of the American economy?

It was a heartening breakthrough when Obama dismissed such idiocies repeatedly in his televised meeting with House Republicans on Friday. He mocked G.O.P. legislative snake oil that promises to lower all medical costs and "won't cost anybody anything." He must keep this up - and be equally tough on the slackers in his own party who stall his agenda. And he must be less foggy on the specifics of what that agenda is. Though on Wednesday night he asked Congress to "take another look" at the health care bill, even now it's unclear what he believes that bill's bedrock provisions should be. He also said he wouldn't sign any financial regulatory bill that "does not meet the test of real reform," yet tentatively praised a House bill compromised by a banking lobby that is in bed with Democrats and Republicans alike. The Senate, of course, has yet to produce any financial reform bill.

Americans like Obama far more than they like any Congressional leader. They might even like more of his policies if he spelled them out. But none of that matters if no Democrat fears him enough to do any of his bidding and no Republican believes there's any price to be paid for always saying no.

A year in, we have learned that all the conciliatory rhetoric won't cut it. But a president with a big megaphone and large legislative majorities has more powerful strings to pull, no matter what happened in one special election in Massachusetts. If he can't get a working government, at least he can shake things up in November.

Just look at how a sharp public slap provoked Justice Alito, threw a spotlight on the court's dubious jurisprudence and sparked an embarrassing over-the-top hissy fit on the right. A do-nothing Congress, at a time when ever more Americans are losing their jobs and homes, is an even riper target than the Supreme Court - and far more politically vulnerable. Without strong medicine from Obama, we can be certain of the same result: a heedless Congress will keep doing nothing. If he steps it up, there's at least a shot that his presidency, and maybe even the country, will be pulled back from the brink.

Frank Rich is a regular columnist for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including The Great Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina.

Why Do People Often Vote Against Their Own Interests?

Why Do People Often Vote Against Their Own Interests?

The Republicans' shock victory in the election for the US Senate seat in Massachusetts meant the Democrats lost their supermajority in the Senate. This makes it even harder for the Obama administration to get healthcare reform passed in the US.

[Americans voicing their anger at the healthcare proposals at a  "town hall meeting"]Americans voicing their anger at the healthcare proposals at a "town hall meeting"
Political scientist Dr David Runciman looks at why is there often such deep opposition to reforms that appear to be of obvious benefit to voters.

Last year, in a series of "town-hall meetings" across the country, Americans got the chance to debate President Obama's proposed healthcare reforms.

What happened was an explosion of rage and barely suppressed violence.

Polling evidence suggests that the numbers who think the reforms go too far are nearly matched by those who think they do not go far enough.

But it is striking that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform - the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state - are often the ones it seems designed to help.

In Texas, where barely two-thirds of the population have full health insurance and over a fifth of all children have no cover at all, opposition to the legislation is currently running at 87%.


Instead, to many of those who lose out under the existing system, reform still seems like the ultimate betrayal.

Why are so many American voters enraged by attempts to change a horribly inefficient system that leaves them with premiums they often cannot afford?

Why are they manning the barricades to defend insurance companies that routinely deny claims and cancel policies?

It might be tempting to put the whole thing down to what the historian Richard Hofstadter back in the 1960s called "the paranoid style" of American politics, in which God, guns and race get mixed into a toxic stew of resentment at anything coming out of Washington.

But that would be a mistake.

If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them.

They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best.

There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.

As the saying goes, in politics, when you are explaining, you are losing. And that makes anything as complex or as messy as healthcare reform a very hard sell.

Stories not facts

In his book The Political Brain, psychologist Drew Westen, an exasperated Democrat, tried to show why the Right often wins the argument even when the Left is confident that it has the facts on its side.

He uses the following exchange from the first presidential debate between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000 to illustrate the perils of trying to explain to voters what will make them better off:

Gore: "Under the governor's plan, if you kept the same fee for service that you have now under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18% and 47%, and that is the study of the Congressional plan that he's modelled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries."

Bush: "Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers.

"I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math. It's trying to scare people in the voting booth."

Mr Gore was talking sense and Mr Bush nonsense - but Mr Bush won the debate. With statistics, the voters just hear a patronising policy wonk, and switch off.

For Mr Westen, stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win: "One of the fallacies that politicians often have on the Left is that things are obvious, when they are not obvious.

"Obama's administration made a tremendous mistake by not immediately branding the economic collapse that we had just had as the Republicans' Depression, caused by the Bush administration's ideology of unregulated greed. The result is that now people blame him."

Reverse revolution

Thomas Frank, the author of the best-selling book What's The Matter with Kansas, is an even more exasperated Democrat and he goes further than Mr Westen.

He believes that the voters' preference for emotional engagement over reasonable argument has allowed the Republican Party to blind them to their own real interests.

The Republicans have learnt how to stoke up resentment against the patronising liberal elite, all those do-gooders who assume they know what poor people ought to be thinking.

Right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channelling this popular anger against intellectual snobs. The result is that many of America's poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest.

Thomas Frank says that whatever disadvantaged Americans think they are voting for, they get something quite different:

"You vote to strike a blow against elitism and you receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our life times, workers have been stripped of power, and CEOs are rewarded in a manner that is beyond imagining.

"It's like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy."

As Mr Frank sees it, authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics. The authentic politicians are the ones who sound like they are speaking from the gut, not the cerebral cortex. Of course, they might be faking it, but it is no joke to say that in contemporary politics, if you can fake sincerity, you have got it made.

And the ultimate sin in modern politics is appearing to take the voters for granted.

This is a culture war but it is not simply being driven by differences over abortion, or religion, or patriotism. And it is not simply Red states vs. Blue states any more. It is a war on the entire political culture, on the arrogance of politicians, on their slipperiness and lack of principle, on their endless deal making and compromises.

And when the politicians say to the people protesting: 'But we're doing this for you', that just makes it worse. In fact, that seems to be what makes them angriest of all.

People For the American Way Calls for Constitutional Amendment to Undo Supreme Court Decision

People For the American Way

People For the American Way Calls for Constitutional Amendment to Undo Supreme Court Decision

For Immediate Release: 1/21/2010

Drew Courtney or Josh Glasstetter
People For the American Way



In response to today's Supreme Court ruling, which overturned over one hundred years of established law limiting the impact of corporations on elections, People For the American Way called for a constitutional amendment, in addition to legislative remedies, to restore Congress's ability to regulate corporate influence on elections.

People For the American Way President Michael B. Keegan issued the following statement:

"At its most fundamental level, our Constitution creates a democratic system designed to engage citizens in the act of self-governance. Absolutely central to that system is the ability of ordinary Americans to choose representatives who are responsible only to the rule of law and to our nation's citizens.

"Today's ruling by the Supreme Court strikes at the core of our democracy. The framers could never have imagined, and surely didn't desire, a system in which corporations could pour literally billions of dollars into elections and hold virtually limitless influence over the fate of our elected representatives. Such a system does not promote free speech; it mocks it.

"As Justice Stevens pointed out in his dissent, corporations are not people. They are not citizens. They do not have a right to vote and they can not be given unlimited power to influence elections.

"The Supreme Court's ruling today was deeply flawed. Instead of respecting decades of established precedent, the Court thumbed its nose at the principle of stare decisis and at the considered judgment of our elected representatives. Constitutional amendments are warranted in only the most extreme circumstances. This is one of them.

"People For the American Way has been at the forefront of defense of free speech and the First Amendment for almost 30 years. We continue in that role today. As Justice Stevens said in his dissent, 'The Court's blinkered and aphoristic approach to the First Amendment may well promote corporate power at the cost of the individual and collective self-expression the Amendment was meant to serve.rsquo;

People For the American Way is collecting signatures on a petition calling on Congress to overturn the Supreme Court's ruling. You can sign the petition here.


PFAW: Alito's "You Lie" Moment & More: A Response to the State of Union Address

People For the American Way

Alito's "You Lie" Moment & More: A Response to the State of Union Address

In his first State of the Union Address, President Obama did an impressive job of delivering an honest and hopeful assessment of where we are as a nation and where we need to go. Owning up to some of his administration’s failures, he spoke to Americans’ fears and anxieties, but also to our values.

Speaking to our values

President Obama took a strong and much-needed stand against rampant corporate influence in our political system. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s game-changing decision in Citizens United v. FEC, he echoed People For the American Way and our allies in saying that the decision reverses over a century of legal precedent, that it opens the floodgates for unfettered and destructive corporate influence in our democracy -- including the possible influence of foreign corporations and entities -- and that steps must be taken to correct its damage.

At this point in the speech, with most of the chamber on their feet in applause, Justice Samuel Alito shook his head and appeared to mouth the words, “that’s not true.” Although it wasn’t as overtly dramatic as Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You Lie” interruption from earlier in the year, in a way, it was even more stunning because Supreme Court justices in attendance at the State of the Union address typically take great care not to show any visible reaction positive or negative to the President’s speech. As if it wasn’t enough for Justice Alito to be part of radically changing the law to fit his right-wing ideology, apparently the tradition of showing respect to the President was too great a challenge for him as well.

The President also rightly called out congressional Republicans -- particularly those in the Senate -- for their unprecedented obstruction aimed at crippling our government. He specifically went after the GOP for holding up the confirmations of well-qualified public servants which is something People For the American Way has been fighting against all year, especially around nominees like Dawn Johnsen who is long overdue to be confirmed as head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Finally, The President took a firm stand on repealing the military’s discriminatory policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” LGBT equality certainly stands out as one of those areas in which change has been slow to come since President Obama took office. And, to many, the President’s words are less important than the action he has been promising all along. But I was encouraged that the President spoke about ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the frame of one of our most fundamental American values: equal treatment under the law for everyone. Now, it’s up to the President and this Congress to actually end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and to do it this year and it’s up to all of us to hold them accountable.

PFAW’s Government By the People Campaign

Many right-wing media figures and bloggers were quick to agree with Alito’s mouthing of “not true,” and challenge the President on his statements. Of course, as Justice John Paul Stevens and others made clear in their Citizens United dissent, the concerns expressed by the President about foreign influences in American elections were absolutely valid. PFAW’s own Josh Glasstetter has an excellent post on Crooks and Liars’ “Third Branch” blog that deftly refutes the Right’s distortions.

The threat of foreign influence, however, is just one of many problems with this latest Supreme Court ruling and the magnitude of the decision’s impact cannot be overstated. Because of how far the Court’s ruling goes, the only complete solutions can be:

  • a constitutional amendment to ensure Congress has the authority to limit corporate influence in elections; or
  • a reversal by the Supreme Court which would likely require a different ideological makeup of the Court itself.

People For the American Way’s brand new Government By the People Campaign seeks to remedy the impact of the Citizens United decision by doing both of the above, as well as by supporting legislation that will mitigate the damage in the short term. The campaign itself is a people’s movement to amend the U.S. Constitution (securing passage in Congress and the states) accompanied by reinvigorated Court advocacy to elevate Americans’ appreciation of the Supreme Court as an institution and a voting issue and efforts to pass other legislation along the way to mitigate the damage of the decision.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) has introduced several bills as part of a “Save Our Democracy” platform, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) have both introduced bills to address the issue of foreign interference specifically.

We applaud such efforts to help save our system of government from the Supreme Court’s reckless move last week. And we welcome organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum to join our efforts to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the decision.

If you have not done so already, make sure you’re part of our Government By the People Campaign by signing our petition for a constitutional amendment now.

Taking Back Our Government: Jury Duty For All?

Boiling Frogs Post

Taking Back Our Government: Jury Duty For All?

A Manifesto For Real Representative Government

The Electoral College shall be abolished. Article 1, Section 2, Clause 1; Article 1, Section 3, Clause 1 and Article 2, Section 1, Clause 2 shall be amended to provide for random computer selection of all Federal Elective offices from Internal Revenue Service tax rolls of citizens within the appropriate Congressional District, State and Nation respectively according to existing Constitutional requirements. This amendment shall supersede the Fifteenth, Seventeenth and Nineteenth amendments.

Proposed Constitutional Amendment

As I look back over my experiences as a voting citizen since 1972, I have viewed with increasing alarm the growing disconnect between the citizenry and the leaders and representatives we elect. I have watched the increased growth and power of a Political Class disconnected from the needs of the citizenry as well as the alarming increase and importance of money in our electoral system. This corruptive influence of money on elections has further isolated the aforementioned political class by allowing a defacto form of two-tier citizenship. One class of the wealthy and corporate citizens who have real influence on government, another, lower class of regular citizens like you and me who have little or no influence on the actions of our government. Over the course of those decades, I have seen the Congress repeatedly try and either fail to enact significant campaign finance reform or have it’s efforts frustrated by contrary legal decisions that enshrine that unequal influence on our elections. This view was most recently reinforced by the Supreme Court’s activist ruling in their recent decision on Citizens_United_v._Federal_Election_Commission.

Ballot BoxAs a result of these actions, I have been forced to conclude that the pernicious influence of money on politics has become a clear and present danger to the functioning of our Constitutional Democratic Republic. I have further been forced to conclude that the elective system we have currently in place no longer provides for Real Representative Government responsive to the needs of the citizenry at large. I have, therefore, long pondered what changes can be made to restore citizen control of and real representation within that government. With the recent Supreme Court decision throwing out over 100 years of legal precedent, I do not see Public financing of elections as a credible path to reform. It is time to consider radical solutions to this problem. Since the acknowledged intent of the framers was to ensure that representatives to our government would accurately reflect the citizenry at large, what is needed is a mechanism to restore and reinforce that reflection.

My mechanism for reform would abolish all federal elections for legislative and executive offices and replace that mechanism with one based on random computer selection for all current federal elective offices from Internal Revenue tax rolls. All existing Constitutional requirements for office would remain in force. Using myself as an example, as a 56-year-old native-born citizen with no felony convictions from the 2nd Congressional District in New Mexico, I could be selected as the 2nd District Congressman, Senator from New Mexico, Vice President or President. Companion laws would be passed based on existing statutes governing National Guard Service and Jury Duty. The mechanism would work as follows.

As a citizen who files a tax return, my records, along with every other taxpaying citizen, are held by the Internal Revenue Service. Every two years in the case of the House of Representatives, four years in the case of Presidential and Vice-Presidential offices and every six years in the case of Senatorial offices, my name would be put in a pool of likely citizens within my Congressional District, the Nation or my state respectively. If I were chosen for office, I would be allowed a leave-of-absence from my job for my term of office. I would still be paid my regular wage while I served in office and all my expenses incurred doing the government’s business in office would be financed by the government. I would serve one two, four or six year term in office. At the end of my term, I would return to private life and my old job as another selectee would take my place. Since selectees would be chosen from IRS rolls, no political party affiliation would be noted or considered. Indeed, for the first decades of the Republic, political parties did not exist as organized entities. There would be no retirement pay or perks given as officeholders get today nor would there be a need for an actual salary for any of those positions as all officeholders would receive their regular wages while in office. Any employee of a corporation would be required to recuse himself from any legislative or executive action benefiting his employer while in office. A companion statute would be enacted allowing lobbying only by citizens within the selectee’s district or state to ensure the officeholder’s independence and impartiality.

This mechanism would, in one stroke, eliminate the corruptive influence of money on politics, restore real citizen representation in government, provide term limits since only one term in office would be allowed, and foster an increased participation in the political process. Officeholder selection would be taken from the hands of political party organizations and opened up to the citizenry at large. Indeed, mechanisms could be built into the selection process to provide a more accurate reflection of ethnic backgrounds so the Congress would actually contain the same ethnic representation as the citizenry itself. I also see this process as a mechanism to open up state and local offices as well. I use the federal offices as a model that could be transposed into state Constitutions with similar mechanisms and results. With a federal model already in place, that example could be amended into the 50 state constitutions. The actual selection process could be overseen by non-partisan organizations such as the League of Women Voters to prevent any attempted chicanery.

This, then, is the essence of my idea. I offer it to this board and the body politic for comment, question and expansion.

# # # #

The Perils of Passivity

I have to laugh – in-between the tears, of course – when I listen to regressives speak of the likes of Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in terms of Stalinesque autocrats or thuggish mafia bosses.

I’m pretty sure that the elites who propagate this nonsense through mouthpieces such as Limbaugh or Beck know just how absurd and contradictory to pesky reality those assertions are. But the regressive hoi polloi – as idiotic and ill-informed a bunch of bots as you’ll find anywhere this side of the Borg – well, they eat this stuff up whole hog.

It’s really astonishing, because I can hardly think of three wimpier or more politically anemic drenched noodles than these Democratic buffoons, along with the rest of their pathetic pity party. And also because America actually has had some pretty tough progressives in its history. Harry Truman would eat Harry Reid for breakfast, and still be hungry again before lunch. Lyndon Johnson could teach Barack Obama a few (thousand) things about how to move a legislative agenda through a balky Congress, and it wouldn’t involve getting his ass kicked by Joe Lieberman, I can tell you that. Franklin Roosevelt would surely be able to school Nancy Pelosi on the finer points of national leadership.

Democrats have been playing the weakness game for nearly a half-century now, ever since Johnson was driven from office in 1968. That has meant very bad things for the country, which has now been all but completely captured by economic oligarchs, via their wholly-owned human levers in both parties.

What is more remarkable is what it has meant for the Democratic Party, which seems incapable of being assertive even when it comes to preserving its own interests. And what it has meant for the Democrats is more or less that they lose elections, except when the default governing party of the GOP screws up so badly that the public has no other choice than to go with the feeble ones for a while. Republicans then get a few years to rehabilitate themselves, during which time they incessantly shred the Dems from the sidelines, and then the cycle begins anew.

This is precisely where we are now. It absolutely defies the imagination that the Republican Party hasn’t been sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering after the crimes of the last decade. But no, remarkably, they are in the midst of an amazing revitalization now, courtesy of their aggressive deceits and the utter capitulation of the party nominally in charge.

There are three things that Democrats absolutely don’t understand about the notion of assertive leadership. First, if you don’t do it, you won’t achieve anything. The American political system, as created by the Founders, is designed to produce utter stasis, the only exception being, well, exceptional moments. Second, no one will follow you, if you don’t lead. Leadership is crucial to substantive achievements, but it also has its own intrinsic rewards. People want to be led, and they want to believe in their leaders. Indeed, they will follow strong leaders, like Ronald Reagan for example, even when they disagree with their politics. On the other hand, if you project fecklessness, they will tend to despise you, sometimes even though they like your ideas.

Finally, if Democrats don’t lead, the aggressive ogres in the opposition who care not the least about the corrosive effects of deceit and destruction on the institutions of democracy will go ahead and define you to the country, and not in a pretty way either. Sound familiar?

This came clear once again this week, as the demons of the regressive right came out trumpeting the most scurrilous of lies and the most inflammatory of rhetoric during a national security threat. Yet again. On a plane headed to Detroit we had another ignorant and insecure kid, indoctrinated with a toxic brew of bad religion and even worse politics (no, no – I don’t mean a Palin supporter), trying to blow up an airliner in the name of some jive deity or another.

Undoubtedly the Obama administration could have handled the national hand-holding circus that follows such events a lot better than they did. He waited too long to say something, and when he did, it took his usual passionless form that could put the audience to sleep at a Rage Against The Machine concert. (Doesn’t this guy ever get pissed off at anything? He makes Mike Dukakis look like a meth-crazed pro wrestler by comparison.) Then there was the minor matter of Janet Napolitano, reminding everyone how, ahem, well the system actually had worked in preventing a terrorist attack. Apparently, unbeknownst to all of us, the government had secretly hired the Dutch passenger a couple seats over who leapt onto Umar Abdulmutallab to put out the flames. Wow! Those TSA spooks are everywhere! But all of this administration verbiage is after the fact, and doesn’t change a thing about what happened. It’s the theater of reassurance. It’s not like Obama would have been saving lives by speaking on the day of the incident, rather than waiting two days longer.

So what happened next? What else would happen in an American political system populated by vicious Republicans and pathetic Democrats? The GOP thugs came out swinging, attacking the Obama administration for being weak on national security. It reminds me precisely of what Bush did. No, I mean what his father did. No, I mean what Reagan did. No, it’s what Nixon did. No wait, wasn’t this McCarthy’s stock trick? Get it? This is not exactly cutting edge, newfangled politics in America, though you’d never know it watching Democrats deal with this stuff.

Anyhow, right like clockwork, out trotted Dick “Dick” Cheney to rally around the American president at the moment that the country was under attack. Well, not quite. Even though I’ve been assured by the former Vice President’s office that he really is a patriot. You know, even though he “had better things to do” than go fight in Nam and all. Sorry. I must have inadvertently slipped into a parallel universe there, where retired vice presidents maintain their dignity. Back in our galaxy, however, this is what the man actually had to say: “As I've watched the events of the last few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think if he has a low key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won't be at war. We are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren’t, it makes us less safe. Why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war? It doesn’t fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn’t fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency – social transformation – the restructuring of American society.”

Nor was he alone. Back on the Cheney Gang, other Republicans and the scary lot in the punditocracy who hold their coats voiced similar indignation. And more. Congressman Pete Hoekstra seemed to think that the very best expression his patriotism could to take would be in the form of a fundraising letter built around the terrorist attack. Can you say ‘noble’? Nah, me neither. But I’ve heard of the concept.

The lunatic right in America (and let’s face it, nowadays what other kind is there?) has been absolutely champing at the bit for a good national security crisis with which to hammer this president as weak on defense, resorting once again to the seemingly inexhaustible campaign theme for them all down the ages. That’s why they leapt on this incident – which of course is not minor, but neither is it anything like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. And that’s why Cheney’s been singing this song for this whole last year. He knew something would happen, and he was laying the groundwork.

But there are just a few things they left out, no doubt absolutely unintentionally:

* They forgot to tell you that while it took Obama an inexcusable three days to make a statement on this event (as if that would change anything, anyhow), it took Cheney’s marionette nearly a full week to say anything about the shoe bomber case, an incident almost identical to this one, except worse because it came just a few months after 9/11. Bush was on vacation (what else is new?), and didn’t even make a statement about Richard Reid – he just mentioned him offhandedly in a press availability that he did six days after the attack.

* Cheney lambasted Obama for treating the latest incident as a legal matter. What he didn’t mention is that the Bush people did exactly the same thing with Reid, and then bragged about the conviction they got in the courts.

* Cheney lied (yeah, really!) both outrageously and ridiculously when he said that Obama is trying to pretend the country is not at war. Obama has been saying that the country is at war since at least when he was a state senator. He said it throughout last year as president – beginning with his inaugural address: “Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred” – and he said it throughout the year prior as a candidate. He typically doesn’t use the ‘war on terror’ construction when he talks about it, but presumably that’s because he realizes it’s an idiotic phrase.

* Somehow, as well, the folks who want you to believe that Obama is afraid to really fight a war also want you not to notice that he just announced his second major escalation of the – what would you call it? – the thingy in Afghanistan that involves lots of soldiers and weapons and blood and people dying. This little bit of attempted legerdemain is not exactly shocking anymore, is it? The day that cognitive dissonance goes out of fashion is the day there are no more conservatives.

* Another thing Cheney probably doesn’t want you to know is that some of the folks who probably plotted the attack in Yemen were actually released from Guantánamo by ... oops, the Bush administration. Yeah, Bushco sent some of them to Saudi Arabia to participate in an “art therapy rehabilitation program”. You think I’m making that up, don’t you?

* I’m also pretty sure that Cheney won’t be mentioning who set up the anti-terrorist national security system that failed so miserably to put the pieces together on Abdulmutallab last week. Remind me again, which administration was in office for most of the last decade? Which one reshuffled the bureaucratic architecture to make the system work properly after the 9/11 debacle?

* Of course, perhaps that wasn’t the problem. Maybe the thing was that the system works fine, as long as someone is in charge. There actually is a nominee to lead TSA who has been readily approved by two Senate committees, but has had his nomination process stopped dead by that radical left-wing friend of Muslim terrorists, Jim DeMint, of South Carolina. Funny, you don’t hear a lot about that from Cheney and his clones. So why is this critical nomination being held up? DeMint is waiting for a promise that TSA workers won’t be allowed to unionize. And, really, that makes sense, if you think about it. Gotta keep our priorities straight, folks! Can’t have the worker bees earning a respectable wage now, can we?

* The last thing that probably isn’t going to get a lot of mention is the fact that the worst foreign terrorist attack in history was sustained on the watch of – wait for it now – a certain team known as the Bush-Cheney administration. Not only that, but in fact the only such attack of major proportions was during their presidency. And not only that, but there is a huge raft of evidence – including the testimony of their own top terrorism and intelligence people – that they didn’t give a crap about it while the warning bells were ringing at 120 decibels.

Whew. Can I stop now?

The point of all this is that the radical right’s arguments about national security this week are entirely absurd, and that’s on a good day. Most of the rest of the time they are completely contradictory and utterly hypocritical.

But this kind of thing goes on all the time. Obama is labeled a big spender for trying to use Keynesian tactics to rescue the economy from the disaster bequeathed us by a regressive goon who doubled the size of the national debt in just eight years. Democrats are called socialists for adding 35 million instant coerced customers to private insurance rolls, rather than creating a public healthcare plan, like just about every other developed country in the world. Obama is supposedly weak on national defense, according to the folks who ran two wars against third world countries right out of the tenth century, and succeeded in getting nowhere almost a decade later, while the US military is spent and the national treasury depleted.

It’s unreal. But worst of all, this stuff actually gets traction. Loads of it. Tens of millions of Americans swallow it whole, and many more are added to the ranks every day.

These are the wages of wimpiness. These are the perils of passivity.

This should never have happened, and a year ago it would have seemed almost inconceivable to anyone (except those actually familiar with the Democratic Party of the last generation or two). Even so, it is absolutely astonishing that these punks don’t realize the imperative of throwing punches, of naming enemies, of framing a narrative. All the more so because this is not a case of politics for politics’ sake. I couldn’t care less about the Democratic Party, other than wishing that most of them rot in Hell. However, they are the ‘opposition’ to the full-on nightmare scenario, and we’re semi-stuck with them as the would-be voice of sanity.

My god, though, if you can’t trash George W. Bush after this last decade, if you can’t demonize Wall Street bankers who learned greed by stealing marbles from other kids in kindergarten, if you can’t remind voters of what cowards Cheney and the chickenhawk chorus actually are – when the hell can you do it?

Democrats are inept, the public knows it, and that will be a major part of their undoing in the next two election cycles.

But the other part of what will get them is that they’ll absolutely let anyone say anything about them, and just take it.

Just in case the Dems are wondering if they’re in trouble or not, there’s an old political adage that says, “Your know you’re toast when your party gives a nice benefit to seniors but you let the other side define that as murderous government death panels”.

Well, okay. It’s not an old adage. In fact, it’s not an adage at all.

But at this rate, it will be soon.

How Progressives Can Start Winning Again By Renaming Their Opponents and Reframing The Debate

What's In A Name? Everything.
How Progressives Can Start Winning Again By Renaming Their Opponents and Reframing The Debate
by David Michael Green

Progressives are losing the war for America. At every level nationally - and, via disastrous foreign policies, across much of the world as well - we are in retreat. The country lurches further to the right every day, and every election cycle, because we on the left sorely lack ideas, the outlets to express them, quality candidates, compelling leaders, conviction, message and strategy.

But more than anything, progressives are getting creamed where it counts the most, and where small successes at little cost produce the largest dividends. We are losing the battle of framing. When it comes to the portrayal of issues, the contestants fighting those issues, the moral choices at stake, and the consequences of those choices, we are being severely outgunned on every front.

There are so many ways in which this is true that the magnitude of our drubbing is quite staggering. On at least four levels of political discourse we are losing badly before the fight even begins, because of our inattention to the overriding importance of framing.

At the most basic of these levels, the right has claimed a litany of successes across a wide range of specific issues, in large part just by reframing the debate. For example, by construing Iraq as an urgent threat to American security and a front in the 'war on terrorism' (itself a major frame), they handily won the domestic political struggle leading to war. (Though, of course, it would appear that the Iraqi insurgents didn't get the message. "If only", the White House must be thinking, "they could somehow be made to watch more Fox...") The right is now doing precisely the same thing with Social Security. If they can frame the system as 'in crisis', they have a far better chance of fooling the public into supporting its dismantling and privatization.

We are also losing the framing war, secondly, at the campaign level. In 2004, to choose only the most prominent and proximate example, the Rove Machine miraculously redefined a disaster of a president as some sort of steadfast war hero, and his real-life war hero opponent as a flip-flopping Milquetoast who could never be trusted with the reins of national security. A breathtakingly remarkable double departure from reality, this campaign strategy was as stunningly successful as it was brazen. That John Kerry was complicit in the process should hardly make us feel better. Indeed, it only further underscores the extent to which we are battered and hemorrhaging in the framing war. It is so bad that we have all too frequently now become 'participant-enemies', contributing to our own defeat.

Third, progressives are losing the framing contest at the long-term, grand strategic level as well, as the right has stage-managed another miraculous accomplishment by successfully portraying their broad movement as a people's populism, hiding its true purpose of engorging the gluttonous economic elite it actually serves. However invidious this 'achievement' (and it is extremely so), one still has to admire its sheer audacity, and its success to date. Imagine being handed the responsibility of convincing America that up is really down and down is up, and the magnitude of this project begins to come into focus. Finally, we come to the highest level of framing accomplishment achieved by the right, and the most powerful. So successful have they been in their deep propaganda efforts, they have reframed the very categories employed in the discussion and consideration of political questions, as well as the labels and the meanings of those labels, used in such discourse. If, for example, they can cause negative images and sentiments to be associated with the very word 'liberal', they have won half the battle before it ever begins. And this, regrettably, is precisely what has transpired.

Consider the trajectory of the words and categories 'liberal' and 'conservative' over the past three decades. At the beginning of this period, liberal was far less the dirty word than it is today, and conservative far more so. Perhaps it was my age then, or the particular crowd with which I ran, but it seems to me that for many at that time, 'conservative' meant Nixon and lies and war and greed and uptight attitudes toward life's pleasures. Meanwhile, ideas like helping the poor, and the government functioning as a successful proprietor of solutions to societal problems, were broadly accepted as conventional wisdom.

To say that those latter notions are now ancient history for most Americans today is to be overly generous to the status of contemporary liberalism. The ultimate goal of skillful framing is to marginalize hostile concepts completely, optimally to the point of being forgotten and then actually inconceivable, and the right is now well down that path in the United States. Of course, this was precisely the core genius of Orwell in 1984, and why he was at such pains to portray in his totalitarian dystopia the government's efforts at reinventing language for the purpose of rendering certain ideas quite literally unthinkable.

Perhaps, then, the most profound - and subtle, and therefore little remarked upon - legacy of the Reagan years was to reverse those liberal notions embedded in 20th century conventional wisdom, turning Americans against their own government (notwithstanding the logical absurdity of such a notion in a democracy) and promoting the grandeur of what can only be described as greed. By the time we get to the era of Clinton and the Bushes, the poor and working class have fallen entirely out of sight, and politicians begin catering in their rhetoric only to the middle class. Meanwhile, being labeled 'liberal' becomes a political kiss of death, only slightly more attractive than 'pedophile' or 'terrorist' (just ask Mike Dukakis, who lost an election on almost entirely on the basis of this one-word albatross). Though the liberal-as-pejorative theme was less prominent in the most recent election than it has been previously, John Kerry lost the contest more than anything because he allowed Karl Rove to frame it, and him.

In all these ways we are, in short, losing the battle for America's heart and soul, often before we've even begun to engage it. What is to be done? The obvious answer is that progressives will never win as long as we continue to play on the right's home field, according to rules devised by them. We must start doing what they have done so successfully these last decades, and reframe everything in sight in the most advantageous way possible. To give but one example of a winning approach at the level of issues, some smart folks have now begun to refer to Bush's 'tax relief' program (wrong term - we lose) as the 'child tax' (right term - we win), to convey the notion that it shifts today's tax burden to tomorrow's taxpayers.

But we must go deeper and also reframe names, categories, and their associations. 'Liberal' is probably too tainted a term to resurrect for a generation, and so we should proudly describe ourselves as progressives, and insist that others, especially in the media, do the same. In doing so, we should learn the lesson mastered by the right: insistent repetition ultimately works. In fact, it can sometimes work so well that even your opponents will wind up using your language against themselves. As George Lakoff notes, liberals have done precisely that, falling into the trap of talking about the 'death tax' (wrong term - we lose) instead of the 'estate tax' (right term - we win).

So we must adopt the label 'progressives', but more importantly, what do we call our good friends on the right? Calling them 'conservatives' is a loser for at least two reasons. One is that the term has relatively positive connotations with a good deal of the American public today, so we again wind-up playing on their turf. For that matter we could call them 'saints' instead, but of course it would help them, not us. Moreover, it would obviously not be true, which brings us to the second reason cease using the term 'conservative'. That moniker dignifies the contemporary right and disguises its true agenda. Among other things, conservative used to mean - and, importantly, still evokes - ideas like fiscal responsibility, pragmatic realism in foreign policy, and patriotism. Those we continue to call conservatives today possess none of those qualities. They are little more than kleptocrats and ideological fanatics who (in the case of the president, quite literally) dress-up like patriots in order to pillage the American public and degrade the public sphere. Thus, just the simple act of calling these folk conservatives foolishly cedes to them legitimacy and trust among those whom we seek to persuade in political debates.

But what are the alternatives? "Tories"? Probably too European. "Reactionaries"? Absolutely, but too ideological for Americans. "Dirty Rotten Bastards"? Accurate, to be sure, but perhaps a bit off-putting. How about "Evildoers"? Um, nah - but thanks just the same. One label which many of us have no doubt found tempting to apply over the last four years is 'fascist'. It is, of course, a bad choice, even though perhaps justified in a literal sense: nearly every one of the multiple elements in the formal, textbook definition for the term is actually quite uncomfortably manifest in our current political environment. Just the same, this is not Germany in the thirties, and we would look hysterical - and therefore not only not attractive, but all the more unattractive - trying to fly that flag.

What is needed is a term which meets several criteria in order to be most effective. It should, first, represent just the right stretch from the current conventional wisdom that comprises our unfortunate but unavoidable starting place. Far enough to do damage, that is, but not so far as to be immediately dismissed on its face for lacking credibility (e.g., 'fascist'). We also need a term which conveys powerfully the distinction between us and them. And we want a term which offers a thematic lodestar that can orient and encapsulate the full series of individual policy differences that separate us. Finally, and especially, we need a label with an inherently pejorative connotation - one which involuntarily and subconsciously creates negatives images and feelings within those who hear or read it.

Given these criteria, and that we do and should describe ourselves as progressives, I propose that one of the easiest and smartest single moves we can make toward winning the political war in which we are engaged is to start calling our opponents 'regressives' instead of conservatives. 'Regressive', as in: "We don't want to regress back to consigning our elderly to a life of poverty." Or, as in: "We oppose returning to back-alley abortions." Or: "We believe in moving the civil rights agenda forward, not backward." Or, "The regressive right is taking us back to a polarization of wealth not seen since the Gilded Age." And so on.

This term meets all the criteria just described. It makes powerfully clear the distinction between the us and them. It takes policy disputes over reproductive rights, civil liberties, Social Security, taxes, foreign policy and most everything else, and it fits these into a simple thematic framework which unites these otherwise disparate ideas. And, it does so in a fashion which is intrinsically and, (to us good guys) favorably, judgmental: We're forward thinking. They want to return to the bad old days.

While labeling our opponents 'regressives' may appear at first glance to fail the first criterion - that of spanning a carefully calibrated distance from existing cognitive categories - it really doesn't, especially if its long-term use is initially preceded by bridging compound terms such as 'regressive Republicans' or 'the regressive right'. In any case, we should not lose sight of how quickly such terminology can go from being new and foreign to so conventional that people no longer even notice it when in use. The right - er, that is, regressives - know this, and they've demonstrated it repeatedly with phrases like 'death tax' and 'partial-birth abortion'.

Changing how the public labels categories changes the associations those labels invoke in people's minds, which in turn changes their affective attitudes toward what is being described. Too many American unconsciously think 'wasteful', 'wimpy', 'criminal-coddling', 'anti-religious', 'baby-killing', 'tree-hugging' wackos when they see or hear the word 'liberal'. Progressives saddled with that kind of baggage start out eleven points down in a ten point game. No wonder we keep losing.

But we can use these same principles against the right. And we can do it even more effectively, because - unlike them - we don't have to lie. Best of all, if we do this vigilantly and set the stage properly, when the regressives' policies come a cropper, the public will have a comprehensive, orienting, cognitive framework on which to locate these individual failures, and further reinforce accreting negative perceptions. In other words, this macro reframing at the level of basic categories also benefits us by establishing a structure upon which further criticisms will mount, rather than scatter individually. The importance of this can be seen most clearly in the case of Election 2004, wherein the Bush campaign promulgated a brilliantly crafted (though completely false), integrated, thematic foundation which told a coherent story, and the Kerry campaign utterly lacked one. Kerry had far more material to work with in this fight, but he never offered an axial core to wrap it around, and thus he could never sell it to voters and get it to stick. He could, however, lose, and he did.

Not only can we use these framing principles, we must. This is the most crucial and consequential front in the ideological war American is experiencing, and should be experiencing even more. The left has so much to do in order to start winning this war again, not least of which is regaining the courage and consistency of our convictions (itself, simultaneously, also one of the most powerfully attractive image frames, as Bush demonstrated last year).

But the smartest, easiest and most fruitful step we can take today is to label ourselves the progressives we in fact are, and our adversaries the regressives we know them to be.

David Green (pscdmg@hofstra.edu) is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.