Friday, October 29, 2010

Eric Cantor is a Threat to Democracy

On Monday, October 25th, a Louisa County, Virginia, voter and Democrat named Jon Taylor showed up with some members of his family to a local Louisa coffee shop, Solid Grounds, to attend an Eric Cantor campaign event (see event invite below). Eric Cantor is his congressional representative (VA-07) and he and some friends of his had RSVPed for the event.

They wanted to talk with their congressional representative about his campaign and about his policies. They ordered their coffee and sat down. The police came in once and asked Mr. Taylor to move his car, which was adorned with campaign material of Cantor's Democratic opponent Rick Waugh, from a metered public parking spot. Mr. Taylor produced his receipt. The officers left and returned later, and a combination of the police, the coffee shop owner, and Cantor's advance man asked him to leave. Jon Taylor ended up out on the street being roughly slammed against a car and then to the ground by three policeman as they arrested him and charged him with trespassing, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. The officers charged some of the other Dems there similarly.

 There are a few different versions of what happened. There's Jon's account, on the blog Blue Virginia. There's an eyewitness account, also on Blue Virginia, by Lewalta Haney. There's coverage on MSNBC's The Ed Show. There's a sad excuse for a story about it in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. The Daily Kos features a bit from all of these, including the video Jon Taylor's son took of his father's arrest. Eric Cantor's campaign declared that, "this was a clear attempt [by Taylor] to disrupt the meeting. The voters of Virginia are going to reject this thuggery." When I called Cantor's campaign office--he is also my congressional representative--to voice my discontent about this incident, I was essentially told the same thing by the woman I spoke with.

Now, I'm sure these folks weren't there to give Eric Cantor a Progressive Representative of the Year Award, but this is how the democratic process in a representative democracy works. You decide to run for office, you get some signatures to get on the ballot, you debate your opponents, and you go around and talk to the voters that you're going to represent. You talk to them, you answer their questions, and then they decide who to vote for.

At this point, although I don't agree with it, I am not asking Eric Cantor to change his philosophy of government. I accept we have different views. I am asking him to honor the democratic process that he agreed to be a part of when he decided to run for office. Even though he is morally reprehensible and even though he is owned by corporations, until yesterday I still had faith that he believed in at least a tepid democracy and that he would uphold the democratic process. That he would say, even if they don't agree with me, my constituents are allowed to hear what I have to say about where I stand and they are allowed to ask me questions; I work for them. Even Eric Cantor, I thought, has some small amount of respect for the democratic process.

Eric Cantor is supposed to a leader in our democracy but Eric Cantor is a traitor and a threat to American democracy. Eric Cantor is a coward. Eric Cantor is a tyrant. I weep for any citizen who would hand over their voice in our national legislature to someone who would so denigrate democracy's basic tenets. But most of all, I weep for the democracy that Eric Cantor would see destroyed.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Check out my new education blog!

Hello loyal readers!

This is a quick note to let you know, in case you didn't already, that I have started a separate blog dedicated to education. It's called All Things Education, inspired by the name of the N.P.R. program All Things Considered, which reminds me of the show's theme song, which reminds me of my mother preparing dinner on weekday evenings, which I am doing as I type.

In any case, I have copied and pasted and accurately dated all of my education-related posts from this blog to that blog and have so far posted four new pieces, including An Introduction: "My New Education Blog!," "What I Read About About Waiting for Superman," "On the False Manifesto," and "Follow-Up to 'On the False Manifesto': What about RE:FORM SCHOOL?"

Please read and if you think it's worthwhile, subscribe and suggest to your education-interested friends, family, and co-workers.

Thanks for your support.

Fighting the Corporate Dragon: We Need Solutions, Not Just Presentments

I continue to read about corporate influence in American democratic institutions and I continue to be alarmed. Most recently I read three articles, all in truthout. In "The Perfect Storm" Robert Reich describes how our democracy is turning into a plutocracy: "We're losing our democracy to a different system. It's called plutocracy." In "Juraissic Ballot: When Corporations Ruled the Earth," Rebecca Solnit, a California-based writer and activist, compares corporations to dinosaur-like monsters:
"We call these monsters corporations, from the word corporate which means embodied. A corporation is a bunch of monetary interests bound together into a legal body that was once considered temporary and dependent on local licensing, but now may operate anywhere and everywhere on Earth, almost unchallenged, and live far longer than you."
Finally, I read Chris Hedges weekly essay, and this week's was entitled "The World Liberal Opportunists Made," which makes the case that the liberal class has done failed and died:
"The lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, which looks set to make sweeping gains in the midterm elections, is the direct result of a collapse of liberalism. It is the product of bankrupt liberal institutions, including the press, the church, universities, labor unions, the arts and the Democratic Party. The legitimate rage being expressed by disenfranchised workers toward the college-educated liberal elite, who abetted or did nothing to halt the corporate assault on the poor and the working class of the last 30 years, is not misplaced. The liberal class is guilty. The liberal class, which continues to speak in the prim and obsolete language of policies and issues, refused to act. It failed to defend traditional liberal values during the long night of corporate assault in exchange for its position of privilege and comfort in the corporate state. The virulent right-wing backlash we now experience is an expression of the liberal class’ flagrant betrayal of the citizenry."
I'm feeling a wee-bit down about all of this. Perhaps I should stop reading these truthout writers or perhaps I should try reading them with more skepticism. But I don't want to put myself in the position of not reading stuff because it's too hard to hear or because it's too dark or too complex. I want to face what's wrong, but I also want to try to fight for what's right in a productive way.

In "What If? So What?" on truthdig via The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson says that there was only so much that the liberal class, embodied by Obama, could do to push the liberal agenda, and that while "nothing would have been more satisfying than an FDR-style progressive blitz that set the nation on a path toward being stronger, fairer and more prosperous" that Obama and his administration are constrained by certain economic and political realities.

So what are the solutions, then? Because paired with descriptions of the problem, we need solutions. Otherwise, we are accepting, as I fear Hedges is doing, defeat--in this case, defeat of a liberal society and of democracy. At least in the essays cited above, Reich and Robinson offer none. To find one from Hedges, I had to go back to his first essay that got me started down this road, to find this:
"All resistance will take place outside the arena of electoral politics. The more we expand community credit unions, community health clinics and food cooperatives and build alternative energy systems, the more empowered we will become."
Solnit offers more actionable solutions in her depictions of how the people of Richmond, California, many of whom are poor, have latched onto "The Phantom of Democracy" and have organized themselves and fought the Chevron oil company's incursions. She also describes how groups around the world are "acting locally and thinking globally" to fight for ownership of their communities.

We must all act locally and think globally, take ownership of our communities as communities and as citizens. And we must not let corporations do that for us, for they will not act in our best interests, but in their own.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It's All About the (Corporate) Benjamins, Baby: Politics & Government

The most commonly recognized type of corporate influence in American democratic institutions is in politics. I recall learning in Mrs. McCarthy's US Government class at DC's Wilson High School that special interest groups or PACs (Political Action Committees) wielded a certain amount of influence. It wasn't until the past couple of years that I realized how many of these are funded by corporations. Furthermore, it has become impossible to successfully run for office without gobs of corporate money. It has oft been said that the media is the fourth branch of government. That idea needs updating: corporations and their lobbyists, including conglomerates with holdings of media companies, now make up the fourth branch of the U.S. government. And it looks like the new branch on the block may increasingly be pulling the strings of the other three branches.

In my post about the death of journalism, I rather pooh-poohed this essay by Naomi Klein entitled "How Corporate Branding is Taking over America" as sensationalist and conspiracy-theory crazed, but I really shouldn't have. I am, I admit, late to the party here (or perhaps now I'm the conspiracy-theory crazed one). Klein was right to point out that while George W. Bush was criticized for incompetence and "acts of destruction," that he was very effective in privatizing many essential functions of government. It's true that Obama marketed and branded his campaign better than many ad campaigns for popular products do. I agree with her that,
"This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much. . . . Another way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an insurgency against the two-party ­monopoly through dogged organization and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then pursued 'bipartisanship' with crazed Republicans once in the White House." 
Obama didn't only take money from Wall Street, but, according to Mother Jonesfrom corporations such as BP as well. I don't feel as strongly as Klein and Chris Hedges do (an essay by Hedges started me down this path of blog posts about corporate influence in American democratic institutions). For example, I assume, perhaps naively, that Obama preferred not to take money from corporations, but that his m.o. was to get into a position of power first, no matter with whose money, and then fix things from the inside. The only problem is that "fixing things" has become next to impossible. This Vanity Fair article gives some insight into what Obama's presidency grapples with.

If the most recognized type of corporate influence is in government and politics, then corporate money in Congress seems to be the most easily identifiable manifestation of corporate influence in American politics. Members of Congress routinely take enormous sums from corporations to fund their campaigns--just take a look at this Campaign Cash Seating Chart in the September/ October 2010 issue of Mother Jones.

In a 5-4 ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, the Supreme Court allows corporate money to flow unchecked into campaigns. Another less publicized case, previous to the Citizens United one, Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life did essentially the same thing. According to The New York Times, the Roberts court is the most conservative and corporate-friendly Supreme Court justice we've had in decades. One of the principal themes of Jeffrey Toobin's recent profile in The New Yorker of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is that the Roberts Court is looking to get rid of one of the primary reforms of the Roosevelt era: government regulation of our economy. As New York University Law Professor Barry Friedman and SCOTUS expert Dahlia Lithwick tell it in this recent piece in Slate, what's particularly dangerous about the Roberts Court is how sneaky it is in hiding its conservatism as it chips away at U.S. citizens' fundamental rights.

And that's only what the three "official" branches have been up to.

According to this recent article by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, prominent members of the unofficial fourth branch of government, Charles and David Koch, who are the almost sole owners of owners of the Wichita-based oil conglomerate Koch industries, have been funding organizations that advocate for lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and less oversight and regulation of industry, as well as funding ones that fight health care reform and economic stimulus programs. They fund Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Tea Party organizations and training sessions, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, as well as many other conservative and/or pro-corporate organizations. One former Koch adviser cited in Mayer's article was quoted as saying,
"They're smart. This right-wing, redneck stuff works for them. They see this as a way to get things done without getting dirty themselves." 
Just as in the Civil War when mostly poor non-slave-owning men were drafted to fight for the Confederacy, it looks like middle and working class white people are allowing themselves to be the lackeys of the powerful, rich, and corporate, even as they are railing against that kind of influence. Although Mayer shows that billionaires, like George Soros, who fund more liberal causes are more transparent and less likely to fund studies and programs that are only self-serving, she still makes the case for the increasing danger of politics, politicians, policies, and programs being bought and sold by a few wealthy individuals.

Matt Taibbi also wrote about the Tea Party with a focus more on its followers than on funders, but he came to a conclusion similar to Mayer's: "The Tea Party today is being pitched in the media as this great threat to the GOP; in reality, the Tea Party is the GOP. What few elements of the movement aren't yet under the control of the Republican Party soon will be, and even if a few genuine Tea Party candidates sneak through, it's only a matter of time before the uprising as a whole gets castrated, just like every grass-roots movement does in this country. Its leaders will be bought off and sucked into the two-party bureaucracy, where its platform will be whittled down until the only things left are those that the GOP's campaign contributors want anyway: top-bracket tax breaks, free trade and financial deregulation."

Now, what to do about all of this? I agree with Chris Hedges that it's not just the G.O.P. and Tea Partiers who are responsible for the current state of affairs, but the Democratic Party too. Lawrence Lessig, a Berkeley law professor, is one of the leaders in the fight against corporate money in Congress. His organization, Fix Congress First is doing good work. The Fair Elections Now Act could also help get us out of this pickle. Finally, Hedges's giving Ralph Nader a voice in his essay is a nod to the idea of moving beyond our two-party system. I don't think that we were quite ready for it in 2000 and the idea that there was no real difference ideologically between Al Gore and George W. Bush was wrong and ended up causing a great deal of harm. But now members of both parties seem equally beholden to corporate interests, neither party has halted the privatization of government functions or adequately upheld the idea that the government, while flawed, is the best institution we have to maintain our democracy and represent the needs and rights of the American people.

The solution may be to move beyond our two-party system, to divide into neo-liberals, liberals, greens, social democrats, moderates, conservatives, neo-conservatives, right-wingers, and the like.  But would this even work? Is our two-party system also "too big to fail"? Are we too deep in what Taibbi describes as "an entrenched oligarchical system in place that insulates us all from any meaningful political change"?

Unfortunately, this won't happen in time for the upcoming mid-term elections. For now I feel I've been thrown a small bone. In my congressional district, the 7th of Virginia,  Eric Cantor is facing two challengers: a Tea Party candidate named Floyd Bayne and a Democrat, Rich Waugh, a former social worker who has said that he has taken no corporate money. Is this maybe what we could consider a step in the right direction? I hope so.

Rick Waugh, you have my vote.

(photo from Public Citizens photostream on flickr)