James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Saturday, October 30, 2010

We need a pro-democracy movement

By Lydia Howell

U.S. officials like to prattle on about pro-democracy movements in countries like Iran or China, but election season is a good time to assess the state of our own “democratic system.”

Set aside claims to establishment of “democracy” at the point of a gun overseas, and ask, instead, whether American elections truly are “free and fair.” In truth, I think we are overdue for a pro-democracy movement in the U.S.A. (Let’s leave out the distractive argument that the U.S. is a “republic” not a “democracy” shall we?)

The 2010 midterms are giving us the first tsunami of corporate cash. Unleashed by the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, corporations are flooding campaigns from coast to coast. It is commonly estimated that as much as $4 billion will go to the Republican and Democratic parties --six to one for Republicans. Too-easily hacked electronic voting machines remain a problem, as Nevada computer science students recently demonstrated. Corporate media treats elections like a hybrid of Super Bowl and circus.

But American democracy has deeper problems than even those.

Two-Party Monopoly

Think of the Republican-Democratic two-party monopoly as a parallel to how corporate monopolies work. When a transnational company like Wal-Mart gets government subsides (infrastructure paid for by local government), free or cheap land, and tax breaks, locally-owned small businesses -- which don’t get all that corporate welfare -- are driven out. The Democratic and Republican parties’ political monopoly works just like Wal-Mart does in small towns across the country: competition is crushed and an already powerful, wealthy minority is further emboldened to act against the public interest; it faces neither accountability nor electoral opposition.

In Haiti, President Jean-Baptist Aristide was overthrown in a U.S.-backed kidnapping and coup; his Lavalas Party members are banned from the ballot and murdered.

In the U.S., parties that might provide alternatives to the Republicans and Democrats face more subtle and structural exclusion. With a D or R by one's name, a candidate gets automatic ballot access. Everyone else must go through an often expensive and challenging process just to get on the ballot.

Each state makes its own rules. Some states, like Texas, demand as many as 200,000 petition signatures gathered within a tight time frame, usually only two weeks. Third party candidates’ petitions are closely checked for accuracy, so that a candidate must gather considerably more than the allotted number of signatures to ensure ballot access. There are no such checks on Republicans or Democrats. The higher the political office the more difficult it is to get on the ballot.

The Democratic Party ratcheted up the obstacles to ballot access by harassing presidential candidate Ralph Nader with expensive law suits in a number of states in presidential years since 2000. In 2010 Pennsylvania races, the same tactic is being used against Green Party candidates, some of whom have had to pay as much as $80,000 for legal fees.

Public opinion polls are used to reinforce the pre-selected “choice” of candidates. Democrats, Republicans and an occasional Independence Party candidate –- or, on rare occasions, an extremely wealthy independent candidate such Ross Perot -– are listed by pollsters, but candidates of the Green Party, Libertarian Party or other political parties on both the right and the left usually are ignored. For the poll takers, and thus for the people who answer their questions, those small party candidates don't exist.

Sponsors of public debates -- even the League of Women Voters, a 503c tax-exempt non-profit that is supposed to be non-partisan -- determine who will be included in debates based on percentages in those same polls. It’s a Catch 22. If a party or candidate is omitted from public opinion polls, they will not gain the 5 percent or more support required by the sponsors to be part of debates.

The undeniable result of ballot access laws and rigged public opinion polls is that the grip of the two “major” political parties on the electoral is strengthened and efforts toward a truly free and fair election process are undermined.

Mediated ‘Debate’

Media -- both corporate-owned and independent/alternative, even progressive media -- almost always completely censor third party candidates. I’ll give examples from my state of Minnesota:

* In its Minnesota gubernatorial candidate debate, Twin Cities Public Television excluded Ecology Democracy Party (formerly Green) candidate Ken Pentel and the Green Party's, Farheem Hakim. Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, a slightly more moderate ex-Republican counter to right-wing Republican Tom Emmer and Democratic former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton have been heard in multiple debates. Third party candidates were interviewed on a segment of the public TV station's low-viewer “Almanac” show; they were treated like political popcorn available during the main meal of major party candidates.

* Minnesota Public Radio, one of the major financial powerhouses among National Public Radio affiliates, echoed TPT’s format: real debate coverage and in-depth interviews for Democrat, Republican and Independence (traditional Republican) candidates. All third party candidates were crammed into a single one-hour segment. None were interviewed in depth.

* Even in a story called “David-Goliath challengers,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the region's biggest newspaper, mentioned only Democrat or Republican challengers to Congressional incumbents. Ken Pentel, got a short story in the Star Tribune, announcing his run for Minnesota Governor. Progressive Party challenger Michael Cavlan is omitted from stories about Democratic incumbent Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in his re-election campaign.

In this tumultuous Year of the Tea Party (a “third party” that isn't a party but which gets massive media coverage), some Democratic supporters may be all for excluding third party progressives because they see that as crucial to beating back the extreme right-wing. In their view, small parties should be shut out so that those who opposed to the election of TP crazies have no alternatives but Democrats.

But, what such “liberal” partisans don’t recognize is that when you censor candidates you also censor issues.

Most glaringly, the U.S. occupations/wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- with bi-partisan supported funding -- have been erased from the mid-term election. The hundreds of billions of dollars added to the national deficit by those wars don’t register on the Tea Party “debt rage” meter. Bipartisan assaults on civil liberties through continuation and expansion of Bush policies like the PATRIOT Act aren’t pointed out.

Democrats’ refusal to freeze home foreclosures -- even as bank fraud is exposed -- isn’t challenged. Bi-partisan tax-breaks for corporations outsourcing jobs and for highly profitable companies that continue to lay off workers while paying their chief executive officers an average of $12 million a year, are not part of debates even though the economy supposedly is the central issue of this year's campaigns.

What Real American Democracy Would Look Like:

* Public financing of political campaigns is critical, now that “corporate persons” can donate unlimited amounts of money and often do so without disclosure.

* Broadcast media must make airtime available to all candidates, as a condition of using the public airwaves.

* Right wing evangelical churches or the League of Woman Voters or any other 503(c)3 non-profit organization must be investigated and penalized when it violates its tax-exempt status with partisan participation in political campaigns.

* Instant run-off voting (IRV) must be expanded so that people are not pressured into “lesser evil” voting that makes it impossible for true representation of voters’ views (often better articulated by third party candidates). Minneapolis now has IRV in local elections.

* Obstacles to voting, whether ID laws or lifetime bans for ex-offenders, must be ended. A real democracy aims for more citizen participation, not less. Too many state laws are designed to discourage voting by some segments of the public. With their myth of “voter fraud,” Republicans aim to limit voter participation further -- especially participation by the poor and people of color who generally don’t support their party.

Every other Western democracy -- and new democracies around the world -- have multi-party, proportional representation in their legislative bodies. Only the U.S. has this “winner take all” system. Americans might ask themselves why no new democracies have chosen our form of representation. The U.S. Constitution did not establish the two political parties, nor outlaw third parties.

Ultimately, democracy is far more than voting every two to four years. It’s not about abdicating to elected officials who all too often represent their corporate sponsors rather the people who cast votes. Plenty of excuses are made for why most Americans are disengaged from politics, but since Americans average four to six hours for daily television viewing, there’s time for civic engagement.

Want your local public school to remain open and be fully funded? Organize with fellow parents, students, teachers and community to challenge the school board’s decisions. Sick of corporate welfare sucking up local resources while public services whither? Get together with neighbors and co-workers and go to City Hall. Want to bring the troops home? Stop making excuses for President Obama and the Democrats and re-ignite the nonpartisan anti-war movement.

It’s finally time to recognize that politicians only act in the public interest when there’s public pressure -- backed up by the fear that they will lose elections. As long as progressives remain totally hostage to the Democratic Party, all we’ll get is marginal change that’s impossible to believe in without self-delusion.

Third parties have long been front runners in strengthening American democracy. They have a legacy of slavery abolition, women’s voting rights, labor and civil rights. More recently, IRV and campaign finance reform are issues most forcefully supported by those outside the two major parties. The last two years of Democratic capitulation to corporations and the permanent state of war should be a wakeup call for progressives -- with third party allies -- to launch the pro-democracy movement our country so desperately needs.

Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis independent journalist, winner of the Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She hosts “Catalyst: politics & culture” at http://www.kfai.org

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mocking the French for getting it right

Everything the American public has been told by the corporate news media about the anti-austerity uprisings in France, England and other European countries is a lie.

The picture we've been given by our big newspapers, magazines and television – as always, especially television – is as phony as a photograph showing Sarah Palin sitting on Barack Obama's lap and nibbling his ear. It's a picture so false as to make Fox News domestic political coverage look fair and objective by comparison.

This is important. The real story hidden by the fakery is enormously important to the people of the United States.

If Americans knew what the protests really are about, and what actually is being done by the governments of France and England, and Greece and Spain and other countries, some, at least, would have a different understanding of what is being done here to place total economic power into the hands of the very rich. The protests would take on an aspect 180 degrees from what most Americans now believe of them.

The focus has been on France, because that presents the easiest target in this country for false coverage.

We've been told over and over by everybody from Fox to the New York Times that the blockades and shouting and marches in France are all about the “fact” that President Nicolas Sarkozy and his gang want to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Snotty coverage implies, or flatly states, that the lazy, sex-loving, low-producing French people simply are not willing to work to age 62, that they want to have their six-week summer vacations and long weekends and retire with full, abundant pensions at 60. Virtually all of our corporate media states, or strongly implies, that those silly French people just can't or won't grasp economic realities which require “belt tightening” and major reductions in spending for social programs in order to save their national economy from collapse.

The picture is akin to the stereotype of listless, music-lovin' “darkies” once common to the American press, and it is no more accurate.

Descriptions of the French economic problems are equally fictional, as false as the stories Americans have been told for the past year and a half or so about our own economic situation.

First: The French are rightfully angry about a hell of a lot more than “raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.” But even just on the retirement question, what we've been told is false. Most of the French don't, as implied, now get to retire with “full benefits” at age 60.

French law allows retirement at that age with some pension benefits, but the actual amount of pension one receives depends on how many payments one has made into the retirement system, which means, in effect, how long one has worked. Sarkozy and crew are raising the number of years one must work to retire with full pension from 40 to 43, and they obviously intend to go on increasing that number.

Most French people already must work to 62 or even 65 or older to get full government retirement benefits. The new level will be higher, with more raises in retirement age to come.

Remember, most people don't start working full time at 16 or 18 or even 22 any more. To be fully and well employed in France, as here, one has to get an education or some sort of advanced training, and then wiggle into a career or long-time job path, which takes time.

“Full” retirement benefits, not incidentally, amount to about 40 percent of one's pay at the time of retirement. On its own, that does not provide a life of ease for people in France any more than it does here.

A more complete explanation of the retirement situation, and what the French are really angry about, is in a very good piece on http://www.counterpunch.org by Diana Johnstone. She is the author of many articles and books on European politics and a graduate of my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. She has lived and worked in Europe much of her life.

Very briefly -- in my view, not Johnstone's -- Sarkozy is France's Ronald Reagan, with strong overtones of George W. Bush. He is taking his country down the road to a new Gilded Age. He campaigned on a theme of improving the economy for all the French but, like Reagan and Bush, what he's really about is giving as much power and as much of the country's wealth as possible to the already super-rich at the expense of the average French citizen.

Like Bush, especially, his inner circle is full of self-enriching egoists who seem to devote themselves mainly to finding extremely high-paying “positions” for their wives, offspring and cronies. Some of them are known for personal tax dodging on a jaw-dropping scale.

As here, the French people have had their pockets picked in order to replenish and expand the purses of the very wealthy people who contributed most powerfully to that country's and the world's economic distress. There, as here, there has been no real attempt to hold any of the financial finaglers and outright frauds responsible for their actions.

The major difference between France and the United States in these circumstances is that many of the French, better educated than average Americans and with a far greater understanding of basic economics, know that they're getting screwed and, even more importantly, they know who's doing the screwing.

In America we get Tea Parties and such -– gangs of the terminally ignorant howling after “liberals” and working mightily on behalf of rich right wingers such as the Koch brothers to bring about their own economic and political ruin.

In France, a substantial number of the people know they are the targets in a class war designed to put the wealth and the political power of the nation entirely into the hands of a tiny minority who already have most of the wealth and a great deal of the political power.

That demonstrates, I think, that the dumbing down of the public education system, long a major part of the right wing crusade in this country, is farther along here than in Europe. European oligarchs also are behind in pricing the poor and middle class out of higher education.

(An oligarchy, and corporate moguls, most emphatically do not want an educated public; they want a public trained for jobs, but with little capacity for critical thought beyond solving small on-the-job problems.)

What's going on in Britain and, to varying degrees, elsewhere in Europe is part of the same movement under way here and in France. The British far right, often less willing to hide itself behind populist fiction than American and continental right wing extremists, is more openly stomping on the general public and grabbing its worldly goods for the very rich. If the British oligarchs were less obvious, they may not have triggered the degree of anger they now face from some of the British public, which seems to be little, if any, brighter than our own.

That's just a guess on my part, based on what I see in reading the news coverage we don't get from our own “media.” I've spent some time in England, but not for quite awhile, and I make no claim to really knowing the British.

You'll note that American news and commentary about the situation in Britain is greatly different from news and commentary on France's upheavals. For reasons I have never fully understood, Americans love to take a superior attitude to the French, to belittle them and to pretend they are considerably less than they are. For example, the fact that French workers are more productive than American workers on an hour by hour, week by week basis, as shown by various productivity studies, would horrify most Americans -- if they could bring themselves to accept the demonstrable truth.

Anyway, that attitude makes it easy for our media, politicians and corporate leaders to sell this country on the idea that the French are just being their usual silly selves in protesting government moves designed to weaken their economic standing and shift more power to the money elite.

My local birdcage liner, the Minneapolis Star Tribune (known in recent years to many of my news-savvy friends and older journalists as the Star Trivia) has carried not only the inaccurate “news” coverage but a couple of commentaries specifically created to trivialize the fight of French against big buck elitists.

One was an editorial from the Wall Street Journal, which always can be counted on to scorn the interests of the general public anywhere. That piece of trash took the standard corporate line that the French economy –- and, indeed, all economies -– soon will crash if working people don't give up their “entitlements” (such as pensions, health care and other trivial luxuries) and allow the rich to determine what they can “afford.” It's attitude was belittling in the extreme.

The other was a piece by one of the paper's fluff columnists, a sort of surrogate shopping wife who specializes in stroking the egos of those whose lives are devoted to trivial pursuits. She said she lived in France for a while when she was in her 20s. Demonstrating a complete absence of knowledge of what the fight really is about, her take was that the French are quaint in their insistence on fighting pension cuts because “a way of life is at stake here, including long vacations and even longer lives of retirement freed from having to work at all.”

This popsy also declared her love of “scrumptious” France and went on for some time describing fictional French attitudes that essentially created a picture of a country populated by good natured, charming but self-centered children. Just like those darkies.

(To be fair, her male counterpart is equally trivial.)

She may have lived in France, but she was a suburban American tourist the whole time, apparently. Her fictional, cute France is nothing like the reality as I've seen it.

But her take is common in this country. Millions of Americans seem unaware of the fact the French people are normal human beings who study, work, love, live, sometimes fight and die just like real human beings. As I said, the fiction helps the economic elite trivialize the very real struggle of at least some of the French people to save their economic and political system.

This is not just a French fight, of course. Nor an English fight. Nor a problem faced just by the people of Greece and/or Spain.

The corporate elite is international to a degree it has never been before. The banks, other financial institutions and most major industries are fully international. A board chairman of one company may be French, another Italian and another American by birth. Those national designations mean nothing any more, other than a current place of principal residence. The CEOs anchor their $30 million yachts in the same harbors at the same seasons, and they sleep in each other's beds.

Sadly, we won't see Americans taking to the streets to protect their way of life. Those we do see in the street are marching on behalf of the very people who are pushing us back to a life of economic servitude.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Scaring us into voting

By Lydia Howell

Electoral trick-or-treaters this year span a scary spectrum.

They include candidates like Christine O’Donnell, running as a Republican for the Senate in Delaware, as bi-polar former witch/contemporary Puritan, and Rich Iott, Republican congressional candidate in Ohio, who likes to dress in full SS uniform and pretend to be a Nazi storm trooper, and New York governor-wannabe Carl Paladino presenting himself as a homophobic Mafia hit-man.

Frightening rhetoric about President Obama has helped recession-proof the publishing industry, with right-wing screeds from FreedomWorks’ Dick Armey and his “Tea Party Manifesto” to Dinesh D’Souza’s latest, “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” which resorts to a weird mix of DNA and reincarnation to concoct racist smear of the president.

To foment fear of Democrats' allegedly “socialist” policies, the Republican “No taxes! No spending!” (except for war and prisons) cry has been amplified to an absurd degree. Of course, there also is the now standard howl: “The Muslims will get you unless we keep ‘The War On Terror' going at home and abroad.” (And, of course, Democrats are “soft on terrorism.”

Are you scared enough to keep Minnesota’s nutty Rep. Michelle Bachman in office or to put Colorado former DA/rapist protector Ken Buck in the U.S. Senate? There’s a long list of undeniably scary “conservative” Tea Party Republicans on the ballot.

That’s a good thing for Democrats, who rely more and more on the fear card, too, to save their quivering behinds: “Vote for me or you’ll get The Terrifying Rightwinger---and that means women’s reproductive rights will be killed and the Supreme Court will go Frankenstein!”

What goes unmentioned is how Democrats have allowed women’s reproductive rights to be whittled away by state laws, and how they dropped abortion coverage from their healthcare “reform” bill. And let us never forget that some Democrats voted for the rightwing SCOTUS justices, including John Roberts.

That’s not to say that much of voters’ fears aren’t very real; unemployment isn’t budging much and home foreclosures keep rising. Increasingly, people ask if the American Dream is dead, merely a grieving ghost that haunts the long-term jobless, those fighting eviction by fraudster bankers and recent college graduates with big student loans to pay off on a Starbucks’ minimum-wage.

What’s so pathetic about the Democrats is that they could have addressed voters real fears in the last two years and be in a much better position in the mid-term election.

Throughout the truly terrifying Bush-Cheney years, Democrats' mantra was “We can’t challenge anything the Republicans do because they have Congress and the White House.”

What too many liberal apologists for those weak-kneed Dems ignore is how often Democrats colluded with the Republicans’ agenda ---by voting for the PATRIOT Act that‘s destroying civil liberties, for example, and voting for pouring more hundreds of billions of dollars into occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, and working to further de-regulate Wall Street – a little game that got rolling during President Bill Clinton‘s time in office, thus ensuring an economic meltdown at some point.

In 2006, once Democrats had a Congressional majority, George W. Bush’s veto pen became the unbeatable Darth Vader light sword. All he had to do was threaten and a majority of Democrats hid under their desks.

Two years ago, for the first time in 30 years, Democrats had the unmistakable opportunity to reverse decades of Freddy Krueger policies that have preyed on every aspect of the public interest. If the Democrats were still the political party of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, they would have shoveled furiously to fill in the economic ditch left to us by Bush. Hardly any of them thought to reach for a spade.

What should the Democrats have done?

Massive job-creation should have been the top priority. They should have frozen home foreclosures and instituted real financial reforms that stopped Wall Street from functioning like a taxpayer-backed casino.

While the stimulus package preserved some civil service jobs and created some temporary new ones, it was at best a nervous half measure. President Barack Obama has refused to push a moratorium on home foreclosures, even with the exposure of massive fraud by banks, which even have tried to foreclose on people who’ve paid off their mortgages. The financial “reform” bill did not do anything to end the Wall Street abuses that tanked the economy. Hedge fund managers and CEOs are still making out like vampires at the blood bank, even as profitable corporations continue to lay off tens of thousands of workers.

Healthcare “reform” deserves an essay, or a book or several books, all its own. Suffice it say that, even with some positive steps such as ending denials based on pre-existing conditions or allowing children to be on their parents’ insurance to age 26, the 2,000-plus-page bill shape-shifted so constantly no one knew what was actually in it.

Hysteria about “death panels” was easy for the political right to pull off because werewolf insurance companies wrote the bill, including the hex that requires everyone to buy their high-priced, fraudulent policies, with no real oversight or cost controls. Most of the bill doesn’t even go into effect until somewhere between 2014 and 2017, but, insurance companies are raising their rates and dropping children-only policies right now.

President Obama---with Goldman Sachs economic advisors--- and most of the Democrats whistled past the right-wing graveyard with timid middle-of-the road policies that failed to address the real problems we are facing, making them vulnerable to the Tea Party Horror Show’s attacks. The problem isn’t “a failure to communicate,” but a refusal to take strong stands in the public interest. Democrats who’ve tried to make progressive critics into the Boogie Man are only contributing to the “enthusiasm gap” they fear.

Republicans have become like Dr. Frankenstein gone mad in his laboratory, cutting taxes for capitalist crony oligarchs, pushing for a permanent state of war that boosts ‘private contractors” from Halliburton to Blackwater/Xe and protecting Wall Street as it plunders our country. On what should be the other side, most Democrats have become long on liberal talk, short on progressive action, morphed into a servile Igor doing the exact things Republicans do at a slightly slower pace.

The bi-partisan consensus to push a corporate agenda is the scariest real thing voters face at the poll. When will we organize progressive pitchforks and torches to storm the castle?

Lydia Howell is an independent journalist in Minneapolis, winner of the Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She hosts “Catalyst: Politics & Culture” on KFAI Radio.