Even as the US Supreme Court attempts to expand the scope and reach of the already dangerous dominance of our politics by billionaires and their willing servants, Americans are voting in overwhelming numbers against the new politics of dollarocracy.
The headline of the week with regard to the campaign-finance debate comes from Washington, where a 5-4 court majority has—with its McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision—freed elite donors such as the politically-ambitious Koch Brothers to steer dramatically more money into the accounts of favored candidates, parties and political action committees. The decision makes it clear that the high court’s activist majority will stop at nothing in their drive to renew the old Tory principle that those with wealth ought to decide the direction of federal, state and local government.
But the five errand boys for the oligarchs who make up that majority are more thoroughly at odds with the sentiments of the American people than at any time in the modern history of this country’s judiciary.
We know this because the people are having their say with regard to the question of whether money is speech, whether corporations have the same rights as human beings and whether billionaires should be able to buy elections.
In every part of the country, in every sort of political jurisdiction, citizens are casting ballots for referendum proposals supporting a Constitutional amendment to overturn US Supreme Court rulings that have tipped the balance toward big money.
In so doing, these citizens are taking the essential first step in restoring democracy.
On Tuesday, thirteen Wisconsin communities, urban and rural, liberal and conservative, Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning answered the call of constitutional reform. Even as groups associated with billionaire donors Charles and David Koch were meddling in local elections in the state, voters were demanding, by overwhelming margins, that the right to organize fair and open elections be restored.
It even happened in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s hometown of Delavan, where voters faced the question:
Shall the City of Delavan adopt the following resolution:
RESOLVED, the City of Delavan, Wisconsin, calls for reclaiming democracy from the corrupting effects of undue corporate influence by amending the United States Constitution to establish that:
1. Only human beings, not corporations, unions, nonprofit organizations nor similar associations are entitled to constitutional rights, and
2. Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we hereby instruct our state and federal representatives to enact resolutions and legislation to advance this effort.
76 percent of the Delavan residents who went to the polls voted “Yes!”
They were not alone. A dozen other Wisconsin communities faced referendums on the same day. Every town, village and city that was offered a choice voted to call on state and federal officials to move to amend the US Constitution so that citizens will again be able to organize elections in which votes matter more than dollars.
The Wisconsin votes provided the latest indication of a remarkable upsurge in support for bold action to renew the promise of American democracy. Since the Supreme Court began dismantling the last barriers to elite dominance of American politics, with its 2010 Citizens United decision, sixteen states and more than 500 communities have formally requested that federal officials begin the process of amending the constitution so that the court’s wrongheaded rulings can be reversed.
Last fall, John Bonifaz, the co-founder and executive director of the reform group Free Speech For People, calculated that “In just three years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, we have come one third of the way to amending the US Constitution to reclaim our democracy and to ensure that people, not corporations, shall govern in America.”
Since the start of 2014, however, the movement has seen a dramatic acceleration in the grassroots pressure for action. During the first weeks of March, forty-seven town meetings called for a constitutional amendment—in a move that put renewed pressure on the New Hampshire legislature to act on the issue.
It is the experience of big-money politics that has inspired renewed activism for reform.
Wisconsin has had more experience than most states with the warping of democracy by out-of-state billionaires, “independent” expenditures and SuperPAC interventions. Governor Walker’s campaigns have reaped funds from top conservative donors, including the Koch Brothers. And a Koch Brothers-funded group, Americans for Prosperity waded into contests this spring for the local board of supervisors in northern Iron County, where mining and environmental issues are at stake; and in the city of Kenosha, where school board elections revolved around questions of whether to bargain fairly with unions representing teachers. In other parts of the state, business interests poured money into school board contests and local races Tuesday, providing a glimpse of the role corporate cash is likely to play in local, state and national elections in the months and years to come.
The Koch Brothers had mixed success Tuesday. Three Iron County Board candidates who were attacked by Americans for Prosperity mailings and on-the-ground “field” efforts in the county won their elections—beating incumbents who were promoted by the outside group. But in Kenosha, two school board contenders who were seen as anti-union zealots won.
There were, however, no mixed results when voters were given a clear choice between dollarocracy and democracy.
The signal from Wisconsin is that grassroots politics can and does still win.
In fact, it wins big.
Encouraged by groups such as United Wisconsin and Move to Amend, activists went door to door in the depths of winter to place amendment questions on local ballots in towns, villages and cities across the state. Many of the communities were in heavily Republican regions of Wisconsin. Yet, the pattern of support was strikingly consistent; in no community did an amendment proposal win less than 60 percent of the vote, and in several the support was over 85 percent.
“Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending in our elections. Now, Wisconsin voters are standing up to the corrupting influence the flood of special interest money has had on our elections and in our state and national capitols where laws are made,” says Lisa Subeck, the director of United Wisconsin. “Tuesday’s victories send a clear message to our elected officials in Madison and in Washington that we demand action to overturn Citizens United and restore our democracy.”
Whether all those elected representatives will get the message remains to be seen. Several of the communities that voted Tuesday are in the district of Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, who has already introduced an amendment proposal and has been an ardent backer of reform. But many other communities are represented by recipients of the big-money largesse of Wall Street traders, hedge-fund managers, casino moguls and billionaires looking to cover their bets.
Communities in the home district of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, voted by margins as high as three to one to support an amendment strategy. The results were similar in conservative Waukesha County, which has historically been a Republican stronghold; in the city of Waukesha, for instance, 69 percent of the electorate called for action to amend the constitution. In Wauwatosa, the Milwaukee suburb where Governor Walker now maintains his voting residence, the vote for an amendment was 64 percent.
Wisconsin has several legislative proposals to put the state on record in support of a constitutional amendment. But they face uphill climbs in the current Republican-controlled legislature. And Walker shows no enthusiasm for reforming the system that has so richly rewarded his campaigns. Yet, grassroots activists like Ellen Holly, who helped organize the amendment vote in Walworth County—the heart of Paul Ryan’s district and Walker’s old home turf—is not blinking. She says it’s essential for the Move to Amend campaign to take the fight into even the most conservative areas and to deliver messages to politicians like Ryan.
The widespread support for overturning Citizens United, especially from rural and Republican-leaning areas offers a reminder that the reform impulse is bipartisan and widespread. The same goes from the broad coalitions that have developed. Among the loudest voices on behalf of the referendum campaign in rural Wisconsin was the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which hailed Tuesday’s voting as “a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy.”
“Citizens United has allowed big money to drown out the voices of ordinary people and created an environment where, too often, our elected officials are sold to the highest bidder,” says Subeck, a Madison city council member who this year is running for the legislature on a promise to focus on campaign-finance issues. “To fully restore public trust in our democracy, we must return control of our elections to the people through common sense campaign finance reform, starting with the reversal of Citizens United.”
By: John Nichols, The Nation, April 3, 2014
Does being super-wealthy make you extra susceptible to self-pity today? That’s the only conclusion we can draw from an epidemic of self-pitying American billionaires decrying their persecution by “despots,” and the “Kristallnacht” of rising concern about income inequality, over just the last few months.
Charles Koch is the latest to fall victim to what funnier folks than me have labeled the WATB syndrome, with a whiny op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “Collectivists” in government, Koch writes – “those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives,” i.e. Democrats — “strive to discredit and intimidate opponents.” It gets worse: “They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.)”
I’m worried about Charles Koch. For one thing, with all his billions, he couldn’t find a better ghost writer? His silly op-ed, with its alarmist Marxist clichés and fusty Schopenhauer references, would have been dismissed as an April Fool’s joke if published just one day sooner. It came the same day as the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, which only increased its ridiculousness.
But Koch’s self-pity and persecution complex is downright unhealthy. He clearly suffers from the same malady as Tom Perkins, who delusionally compared rising political concern about income inequality to “Kristallnacht” for the rich. Newspaper-destroying real estate mogul Sam Zell, who cosigned Perkins, is also a victim, complaining the super-rich “are getting pummeled because it’s politically convenient to do so,” when in fact “the 1 percent work harder.”
Self-pity sufferer Ken Langone of Home Depot even warned Pope Francis that Catholic billionaires might stop contributing to the church because of the pope saying the “exclusionary” culture of the rich made some of them “incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.” Langone had earlier joined self-pitying mogul Leon Cooperman to admonish President Obama for “new lows in polarizing rhetoric…aimed at successful people in the business sector.”
Maybe we need a public health campaign to warn billionaires about the dangers of self-pity: stress, anxiety, depression, isolation and illness. The authors of “47 Steps to Stress Management” say that “the effect of self-pity on the body is similar to chronic anxiety.” A widely quoted 2003 study of self-pity in the Journal of Personality found:
…Strong associations of self-pity with neuroticism, particularly with the depression facet. With respect to control beliefs, individuals high in self-pity showed generalized externality beliefs, seeing themselves as controlled by both chance and powerful others…Furthermore, individuals high in self-pity reported emotional loneliness and ambivalent-worrisome attachments.
Deepak Chopra says self-pity is linked to “dependency,” so clearly Paul Ryan ought to consider a crusade to change the “culture” of his billionaire patrons in addition to that of “inner city” men:
The issue is dependency. Self-pity is the opposite of self-esteem. It arises because you feel no one will lift you out of your difficulties. With no one stronger, older, wiser and kinder to help you, there’s a tremendous sense of lack. You cannot find the same strength that these rescuers have—or you imagine them to have—and the ache of not being enough is felt as self-pity or “poor me.”
Of course, this isn’t the Koch brothers first pity-party, or their first descent into making things up about President Obama. Three years ago Charles and David sat down with the Weekly Standard and complained about their “demonization” by Democrats and President Obama, who they then went on to demonize. (A clinical note: Projection is also associated with self-pity.)
Charles accused Obama of believing “Marxist models.” David went further, blaming Obama’s views on his father, “a hard core economic socialist in Kenya,” he said. “He had sort of antibusiness, anti-free enterprise influences affecting him almost all his life. It just shows you what a person with a silver tongue can achieve.”
David also called anti-Koch protesters “very, very extreme, and I think very dangerous….That was pretty shocking, to see what we’re up against, or what the country’s up against: to have an element like this.”
So clearly self-pity is a persistent problem for Charles and his brother. Maybe we need a public health campaign: If your bout of self-pity lasts more than four hours, call your doctor. The authors of “47 Steps to Stress Management” have other advice:
“If you have trouble breaking the self-pity habit, you might want to try an excellent way of getting your mind off of yourself: help others.”
Oh well, that’s probably not the answer.
I don’t know what to advise Charles Koch about his unhealthy habits. He certainly has the money to get the best professional help available. But I would urge the Wall Street Journal, the official newspaper of record for the top 1 percent, to stop encouraging the damaging dependency and self-destructive behavior of its readers and patrons, before it’s too late.
By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, April 3, 2014
“How To Vote Against The Koch Brothers”: Urgent Action Is Needed To Restore Our Democracy To The Hands Of The People
The Koch Brothers don’t actually run for office—at least not since David Koch’s amusingly ambitious 1980 bid for the vice presidency on a Libertarian Party ticket that proposed the gutting of corporate taxes, the minimum wage, occupational health and safety oversight, environmental protections and Social Security.
That project, while exceptionally well-funded for a third-party campaign, secured just 1.06 percent of the vote. The Kochs determined it would be easier to fund conservative campaigns than to pitch the program openly. Initially, the project was hampered by what passed for campaign-finance rules and regulations, to the frustration of David Koch, who once told The New Yorker, “We’d like to abolish the Federal Elections Commission and all the limits on campaign spending anyway.”
The FEC still exists. But the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v FEC and the general diminution of campaign finance rules and regulations has cleared the way for David Koch and his brother Charles to play politics as they choose. And they are playing hard—especially in Wisconsin, a state where they have made supporting and sustaining the governorship of Scott Walker a personal priority.
Two years ago, David Koch said of Walker: “We’re helping him, as we should. We’ve gotten pretty good at this over the years. We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.” The Palm Beach Post interview in which that quote appeared explained, “By ‘we’ he says he means Americans for Prosperity,” the group the Kochs have used as one of their prime vehicles for political engagement in the states.
AFP and its affiliates are expanding their reach this year, entering into fights at the local level where their big money can go far—and where the Koch Brothers can influence the process from the ground up.
As Walker prepares to seek a second term, AFP is clearing the way in supposedly nonpartisan county board and school board races that will occur Tuesday.
Consider the case of Iron County. Elections in the northern Wisconsin county have always been down-home affairs: an ad in the Iron County Miner newspaper, some leaflets dropped at the door, maybe a hand-painted yard sign.
This year, however, that’s changed. Determined to promote a controversial mining project—and, presumably, to advance Walker’s agenda—AFP has waded into Tuesday’s competition for control of the Iron County Board.
With dubious “facts” and over-the-top charges, the Wisconsin chapter of the Koch Brothers-backed group is pouring money into the county—where voter turnout in spring elections rarely tops 1,500—for one of the nastiest campaigns the region has ever seen. Small-business owners, farmers and retirees who have asked sensible questions about the impact of major developments on pristine lakes, rivers, waterfalls and tourism are being attacked as “anti-mining radicals” who “just want to shut the mines down, no matter what.”
Iron County is debating whether to allow new mining, not whether to shut mines down. And many of the candidates that AFP is ripping into have simply said they want to hear from all sides.
But those details don’t matter in the new world of Big Money politics ushered in by US Supreme Court rulings that have cleared the way for billionaires and corporations to buy elections.
Most of the attention to money in politics focuses on national and state races. But the best bargains for billionaires are found at the local level—where expenditures in the thousands can overwhelm the pocket-change campaigns of citizens who run for county boards, city councils and school boards out of a genuine desire to serve and protect their community.
That’s why it is important to pay attention to Tuesday’s voting in Iron County—and in communities such as Kenosha, where the group has waded into local school board races. The Kenosha contest goes to the core issues of recent struggles over collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin, pitting candidates who are willing to work with teachers and their union in a historically pro-labor town versus contenders who are being aided by the Koch Brothers contingent in Wisconsin.
But it is equally important to pay attention to the efforts by citizens, working at the local level, to upend the big money and to restore politics of, by and for the people.
The month of March started with a grassroots rebellion in New Hampshire, where dozens of towns called on their elected representatives to work to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the high court’s Citizens United decision.
On Tuesday, the same day the Kochs are meddling in local elections in the state, communities across the state will vote to get money out of politics.
Clean-politics advisory referendums are on ballots across Wisconsin. Belleville, DeForest, Delavan, Edgerton, Elkhorn, Lake Mills, Shorewood, Waterloo, Waukesha, Waunakee, Wauwatosa, Whitefish Bay and Windsor will have an opportunity to urge their elected representatives to support an amendment to restore the authority of local, state and national officials to establish campaign finance rules ensuring that votes matter more than dollars. The initiative is backed by groups like Move to Amend and United Wisconsin. “The unlimited election spending by special-interest groups, allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, has drowned out the voices of ordinary people,” says United Wisconsin Executive Director Lisa Subeck. “Urgent action is needed to restore our democracy to the hands of the people.”
That urgency is especially real in rural communities—places like Iron County. That’s why the Wisconsin Farmers Union is calling for a “yes” vote. “Citizens of all political stripes—Republicans, Democrats and independents—agree that we need to curb the corrupting influence of money in politics,” says WFU Executive Director Tom Quinn. “Voting yes…will send a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy.”
By: John Nichols, The Nation, March 31, 2014
As regular viewers have no doubt noticed, “All in with Chris Hayes,” which airs just before “The Rachel Maddow Show” weeknights on msnbc, is consistently an exceptionally informative program. And while every night features lively and engaged discussions, there was one segment in particular this week that stood out as unique.
Chris talked – or at least tried to talk – to Jennifer Stefano, the Pennsylvania state director of the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity, ostensibly about health care reform, though as viewers quickly realized, the guest was quite a bit more animated than the voices that usually appear on “All In.”
The segment apparently generated quite a bit of conversation soon after, with reform supporters and opponents “arguing over which side got schooled.” I don’t much care who was “schooled,” but because I’ve been interested in AFP messaging, it seemed worthwhile to do what our pal Ari Melber did last night: fact check Jennifer Stefano’s claims.
The AFP official claimed, for example, that as a result of the Affordable Care Act, “we really are having our choices removed from us as mothers.” Is that true?
Probably not. I say “probably” because Stefano didn’t specify what “choices” she thinks are being “removed,” and it’s tough to fact-check vague assertions, but there’s nothing in the reform law intended to take mothers’ choices away. On the contrary, parents seem to have far more health care options now than before the reform law was passed.
She added, “This law has made 7 million people lose their insurance.” Is that true?
There’s no evidence to support the claim. Estimates vary as to exactly how many consumers received cancelation notices, but (a) even the most conservative Republicans in Congress don’t put the total at 7 million; (b) millions lost their insurance routine under the old system, so the point is rather dubious; and (c) it’s misleading to suggest consumers “lost their insurance,” since most of these Americans really just made a transition from one plan to a different plan.
Stefano then argued, “For the people who have actually signed up on the exchange … only 14 percent of them are actually people without coverage.” Is this true?
No, it’s not. In fact, the conservative activist appeared to be citing a study that concedes it “did not break down their results for people who specifically purchased insurance through Obamacare.”
She also argued that Medicaid expansion would apply to “people making $94,000 a year.” Chris referred to this as “a math train wreck.” Who’s right?
Well, not Stefano.
Finally, Stefano argued, “Here’s what I want, stick to the facts…. Stick to the facts, talk about facts.”
That sounds like a great idea.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 28, 2014
“Meet The American Oligarchy”: “Americans For Self-Prosperity”, Grasping Barbarians Exercising Crude Political Power
Let’s put it this way: If the Koch Brothers were Russians, we’d call them oligarchs: grasping barbarians exercising crude political power.
But this is America, where tycoons can buy respectability by throwing money at their wives’ favorite ballet companies and museums. Also by funding “think tanks” staffed by “resident scholars” keen to enhance the boss’s fondest delusion: that great wealth invariably conveys great wisdom.
Hence “Americans for Prosperity,” the group funded by billionaire brothers David H. and Charles G. Koch that’s spending untold millions in 2014 on TV commercials attacking the Affordable Care Act as a government boondoggle that “just doesn’t work.”
The deeper strategy, AFP president Tim Philips told the New York Times, is to present the law as “a broader cautionary tale” crafted “to change the way voters think about the role of government for years to come.”
Or as the sloganeering sheep in Orwell’s Animal Farm might have put it, “Big government bad, big business good!”
Elsewhere, however, big business hasn’t been looking entirely benign of late. Consider three episodes currently in the news: General Motors, the Toyota Motor Corporation, and Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electrical utility.
As so often happens with corporate malfeasance, the details can be hard to believe. Documents turned over to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by General Motors show that company engineers knew about problems with an ignition switch in Chevy Cobalts as long ago as 2001.
That it could be a fatal flaw wasn’t immediately recognized.
The problem appears to have been a defective part manufactured by a GM supplier. Sometimes triggered by a too-heavy keychain swinging from the ignition, it caused the engine to shut off while driving — resulting in immediate loss of power steering, power brakes, and the failure of the vehicle’s air bags to deploy.
By 2009, however engineers concluded that the faulty switch played a causal role in several fatal accidents — although some drivers had been drinking, texting or otherwise distracted — and that while Cobalts were going out of production, hundreds of thousands were still rolling.
Nevertheless, GM did nothing, while company lawyers fought off or stonewalled lawsuits alleging product liability.
Twenty-three fatal accidents and 26 deaths later, GM finally issued a recall notice for 1.6 million vehicles last month. The company’s recently-appointed CEO Mary Barra has been doing public penance and vowing to do everything possible to restore consumer confidence in the GM brand, which will definitely take some doing.
Published accounts of how separate divisions of GM’s giant bureaucracy communicate badly or not at all read like episodes of Catch-22. Customer complaints and warranty claims aren’t shared with safety engineers, who in turn have no communication with company lawyers. Meanwhile, nobody was talking to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency that belatedly promises a criminal investigation.
Meanwhile, the auto industry press contrasts GM’s “unusually proactive and candid approach” to Toyota’s, which last week admitted criminal guilt and paid a $1.2 billion fine—the largest against an automaker in U.S. history.
Announcing a settlement, Attorney General Eric Holder said the company had “intentionally concealed information and misled the public” and shamefully showed “blatant disregard for systems and laws.”
At issue were faulty accelerator pedals which caused the cars to rocket out of control. Toyota has recalled as many as 10 million vehicles worldwide, and has been forced to pay tens of millions in fines and lawsuit settlements. Hundreds more civil lawsuits await litigation. What the settlement makes clear is that Toyota’s top management deliberately lied to government investigators both about the mechanical issue and their knowledge of it.
Which brings us to the Tea Party paradise of North Carolina and Duke Energy’s massive coal ash spill into the Dan River—spreading as many as 82,000 tons of toxic sludge along 70 miles of scenic river bottom. According to the Associated Press, “coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals highly toxic to humans and wildlife.”
In addition to the “accidental” spill, caused by a collapsed corrugated pipe seemingly uninspected since 1986, environmental activists photographed Duke employees pumping an estimated was 61 million gallons of coal ash-contaminated water into the Cape Fear River further east.
The resulting uproar has persuaded GOP governor Pat McCrory, a 28-year Duke Energy employee (and recipient of some $1.1 million in Duke-sponsored campaign donations) to change his mind about burdensome federal regulation. His state’s toothless regulators will now “partner” with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pursue joint enforcement against the utility.
Previously, McCrory had scorned the feds as an impediment to efficient business practices, and made a great show of turning down EPA grant money. Meanwhile, arguing strenuously against stricter regulation of coal ash has been an industry front group called ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) largely financed by — you guessed it — those well-known philanthropists, David and Charles Koch.
Americans for Prosperity, indeed.
By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, March 26, 2014