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“When Democracy Weakens”: We’re In Serious Danger Of Becoming A Democracy In Name Only.

As the throngs celebrated in Cairo, I couldn’t help wondering about what is happening to democracy here in the United States. I think it’s on the ropes. We’re in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only.

While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.

So what we get in this democracy of ours are astounding and increasingly obscene tax breaks and other windfall benefits for the wealthiest, while the bought-and-paid-for politicians hack away at essential public services and the social safety net, saying we can’t afford them. One state after another is reporting that it cannot pay its bills. Public employees across the country are walking the plank by the tens of thousands. Camden, N.J., a stricken city with a serious crime problem, laid off nearly half of its police force. Medicaid, the program that provides health benefits to the poor, is under savage assault from nearly all quarters.

The poor, who are suffering from an all-out depression, are never heard from. In terms of their clout, they might as well not exist. The Obama forces reportedly want to raise a billion dollars or more for the president’s re-election bid. Politicians in search of that kind of cash won’t be talking much about the wants and needs of the poor. They’ll be genuflecting before the very rich.

In an Op-Ed article in The Times at the end of January, Senator John Kerry said that the Egyptian people “have made clear they will settle for nothing less than greater democracy and more economic opportunities.” Americans are being asked to swallow exactly the opposite. In the mad rush to privatization over the past few decades, democracy itself was put up for sale, and the rich were the only ones who could afford it.

The corporate and financial elites threw astounding sums of money into campaign contributions and high-priced lobbyists and think tanks and media buys and anything else they could think of. They wined and dined powerful leaders of both parties. They flew them on private jets and wooed them with golf outings and lavish vacations and gave them high-paying jobs as lobbyists the moment they left the government. All that money was well spent. The investments paid off big time.

As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote in their book, “Winner-Take-All Politics”: “Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefited the few at the expense of the many.”

As if the corporate stranglehold on American democracy were not tight enough, the Supreme Court strengthened it immeasurably with its Citizens United decision, which greatly enhanced the already overwhelming power of corporate money in politics. Ordinary Americans have no real access to the corridors of power, but you can bet your last Lotto ticket that your elected officials are listening when the corporate money speaks.

When the game is rigged in your favor, you win. So despite the worst economic downturn since the Depression, the big corporations are sitting on mountains of cash, the stock markets are up and all is well among the plutocrats. The endlessly egregious Koch brothers, David and Charles, are worth an estimated $35 billion. Yet they seem to feel as though society has treated them unfairly.

As Jane Mayer pointed out in her celebrated New Yorker article, “The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation.” (A good hard look at their air-pollution record would make you sick.)

It’s a perversion of democracy, indeed, when individuals like the Kochs have so much clout while the many millions of ordinary Americans have so little. What the Kochs want is coming to pass. Extend the tax cuts for the rich? No problem. Cut services to the poor, the sick, the young and the disabled? Check. Can we get you anything else, gentlemen?

The Egyptians want to establish a viable democracy, and that’s a long, hard road. Americans are in the mind-bogglingly self-destructive process of letting a real democracy slip away.

I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”

I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the ecstatic celebrations in the streets of Cairo.

By: Bob Herbert, Op-Ed Columnist-The New York Times, February 11, 2011

February 13, 2011 Posted by | Democracy, Politics | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Repeal, Restrict and Repress: GOP Running Amok

Republican state lawmakers, emboldened by their swollen ranks, have a message for minorities, women, immigrants and the poor: It’s on!

In the first month of the new legislative season, they have introduced a dizzying   number of measures on hot-button issues in statehouses around the country as part of what amounts to a full-throttle mission to repeal, restrict and repress.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

As Reuters pointed out this week, in the midterms, “Republicans gained nearly 700 state legislative seats and now have their largest numbers since the Great Depression, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.”

Judging by the lead-up to those elections, one could have easily concluded that the first order of business on Republicans’ agendas would be a laserlike focus on job creation and deficit reductions to the exclusion of all else. Not the case.

As MSNBC and Telemundo reported recently, at least 15 state legislatures are considering Arizona-style immigration legislation. If passed, four of the five states with the largest Hispanic populations — California, Texas, Florida and Arizona — would also be the most inhospitable to them.

As Fox News Latino recently reported, state legislatures are poised to break the record on the number of immigration measures and resolutions introduced this year, having already introduced 600 by the end of last month. For comparison, 1,400 were introduced in total last year, according to a report issued last month by the state legislatures’ group. A record number of those laws were enacted.

And, according to the State Legislators for Legal Immigration, which was founded by State Representative Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican of Pennsylvania, lawmakers from 40 state legislatures have joined the group that last month unveiled “model legislation to correct the monumental misapplication of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

On another note, Republicans in Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska and Oregon are pushing legislation that would require drug testing of welfare recipients.

This despite the fact that, as the American Civil Liberties Union rightly pointed out, the policy is “scientifically, fiscally, and constitutionally unsound.” Other states have considered it but deemed it not feasible or impractical. In Michigan, the only state to implement it, only a tenth of those tested had positive results for drugs and only 3 percent had positive results for hard drugs, which the A.C.L.U. points out is “in line with the drug use rates of the general population.”

Most importantly, the Michigan law was struck down as unconstitutional, with the judge ruling that the rationale for testing people on welfare “could be used for testing the parents of all children who received Medicaid, State Emergency Relief, educational grants or loans, public education or any other benefit from that state.”

Despite all this, these states are pushing ahead because the made-for-the-movies image of a crack-addicted welfare queen squandering government money on her habit is the beef carpaccio of red meat for spending-weary, hungry conservatives.

On the gay rights front, Republicans in Iowa, Indiana, West Virginia and Wyoming (where Matthew Shepard was tortured to death) are pushing constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage.

Republican Rick Snuffer, a freshman delegate from Raleigh, W.Va., turned logic on its head when arguing for that state’s amendment. He chided Democrats’ pro-choice position, and reasoned that, “They don’t want you to choose your definition of marriage, so they’re not really pro-choice. If they’re pro-choice, let the people choose their definition of marriage.” So let me get this straight. To be pro-choice, one has to submit to the tyranny of the majority, which may seek to restrict the rights and choices of others?

This is exactly the kind of thinking that the shapers of the Constitution worried about. A quick read of the Federalist Papers would help Mr. Snuffer understand just how concerned they were about the danger posed by majority rule to personal freedom.

Republicans in New Hampshire have filed bills to overturn that state’s same-sex marriage law, even though, according to a recent WMUR Granite State Poll, the state’s residents want to leave the law in place by a majority of more than 2 to 1, and when asked which were the most important issues the State Legislature should address, “almost no one mentioned dealing with hot-button social issues such as gay marriage or abortion.” I guess that “let the people choose” argument only works when the people agree with the Republican position.

A Republican state representative in Utah has even gone so far as to introduce a bill that would bar same-sex couples from drafting wills.

According to The News and Observer in North Carolina, Republicans are considering severely narrowing or repealing the state’s recently enacted Racial Justice Act, which allows death-row inmates to use statistics to appeal their cases on the basis of racial discrimination.

Two studies of the death penalty in the state have found that someone who kills a white person is about three times as likely to be sentenced to death as someone who kills a minority.

And in Wisconsin, Republicans are pushing a bill that would repeal a 2009 law that requires police to record the race of people they pull over at traffic stops so the data could be used to study racial-profiling.

Furthermore, abortion rights advocates are now bracing for the worst. NARAL Pro Choice America is now tracking 133 proposed bills thus far this legislative season, and that’s just the beginning. Donna Crane, the policy director of the group, said earlier this month that thanks to the gains by conservatives in the Nov. 2 election, “2011 will be a banner year for anti-choice legislation in the states.”

Richard Gephardt once said, “Elections have consequences.” He was right, and the consequences of the last election could well be a loss of liberty, choice, access and avenues of recourse for many. Brace yourselves. It’s on!

By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times-February 11, 2011

February 13, 2011 Posted by | Equal Rights, Justice, Liberty | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Now That Mubarak Is Out, Who’s Next?

With Hosni Mubarak stepping down in Egypt, tyrants around the world may be anxiously wondering who will be the next to fall. Here are some gentle suggestions:

Kim Jong Il, North Korea

Sometimes called the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea has been ruled since 1994 by the ruthless and retrograde Kim Jong Il, who took over after his father’s 46 years at the helm. Kim Jong Il holds numerous titles, but rules as the chairman of the National Defense Commission, the “highest office of state,” since the presidency itself was permanently dedicated to Kim Il Sung in a 1998 constitutional revision. The Kim family’s combined 63 years of leadership has not been kind to the people of North Korea, creating the world’s most fearsome state, where surveillance and famine are equally prevalent. To prevent its citizens from receiving news from abroad, the North Korean authorities forbid Internet use, jam foreign radio broadcasts, and monitor international calls. Meanwhile, the beleaguered population is deluged with Cold War-like propaganda through the Korean Central News Agency. A grim system of labor camps and detention facilities is used to forcefully control any dissent. Given the closed and secretive nature of the regime and the society it lords over, it is impossible to know precisely how many North Koreans are in the modern-day gulags. Some estimates suggest as many as 150,000 people are currently being held in detention.

Now ailing, Kim Jong Il is reported to have plans to install his son, Kim Jong Un, as the country’s leader, likely prolonging the misery of the long-suffering North Korean people.

Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya

Forty-one years ago, a young army captain named Muammar al-Qaddafi led a military coup against King Idris of Libya. Now 68 years old, Qaddafi has been in office since the first term of U.S. President Richard Nixon, who called him the “mad dog” of the Middle East. In Libya’s long history of ruthless, ossified dictators, Qaddafi is in a league of his own.

Better known abroad for his long-winded antics than his governing style, at home Qaddafi is less amusing than fearsome. Although power theoretically lies with a system of people’s committees and the indirectly elected General People’s Congress, in practice those structures are manipulated to ensure the continued dominance of Qaddafi, who holds no official title. It is illegal for any political group to oppose the principles of Qaddafi’s 1969 revolution, which are laid out in the Green Book, a multivolume treatise published by Qaddafi in the early years of his rule. (A flip through its pages will yield a bizarre mix of Arab nationalism, socialism, and Islam.) 

After decades of Qaddafi’s bizarre and repressive rule, key institutions — to the extent that they operate at all — are largely incapable of meeting ordinary people’s needs. An estimated 500 people are currently being held for political crimes. Rife with corruption and without even the rudiments of a functioning modern state, Libya today is ill-equipped to succeed in the contemporary world.

Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe

There was once a time when Robert Mugabe was the darling of the West among fellow African leaders. Having defeated the white-majority rule of Rhodesia to create his black-majority state, Mugabe looked at first like another Mandela. But even in those early days, he distinguished himself for his use of violence as a means to govern. His early targets in the 1980s were tribes that had favored other resistance leaders; his forces slaughtered as many as 30,000 members of the Ndebele minority.

In recent years, Mugabe has grown even more ruthless. His target of choice these days is the principal opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). His thugs have harassed and even attempted to assassinate high-level opposition figures, as well as regular voters (or presumed opposition voters). Others have felt his wrath too; a 2005 campaign labeled “Operation Drive Out the Trash” bulldozed the homes of 700,000 slum-dwellers. Equally devastating, Mugabe has overseen the complete destruction and impoverishment of what had been one of Africa’s economic success stories. GDP growth was negative off and on between 2001 and 2008, and by the end of that period, inflation had hit a rate of tens of thousands of percent.

The past several months have brought another uptick in political killings — perhaps because Mugabe has much to worry over: The MDC was the leading party in the most recent elections, and public discontent is growing toward Mugabe’s murderous rule. If Zimbabweans take a hint from Egypt, the Mugabe dictatorship’s days may be numbered.

The Castros, Cuba

In 1959, the revolutionary Fidel Castro overthrew Cuba’s former strongman, Fulgencio Batista, beginning a 50-year transformation of Cuba into a dismal communist state. Although medical issues prompted Fidel to formally hand over the presidency to his brother, Raúl, in 2008, Cuba remains a one-party state in which nearly all political rights and civil liberties are severely curtailed.

Start with political organizing, which is strictly banned outside the auspices of the state’s Communist Party. Dissent can result in harassment and long prison terms. Freedom of movement, including the right to leave the island and the right to choose one’s residence, are severely restricted. The government maintains strict control over all media outlets, these days also tightly controlling Internet access and content. Academic freedom is nonexistent, and any unauthorized gathering of more than three people may result in fines or imprisonment.

Today, years of economic stagnation have weakened the state services that once provided the regime its sole legitimacy. Under Raúl Castro, very limited reforms have taken place, including modest economic openings and the release of several dozen political prisoners in 2010. Nonetheless, the future of Cuba remains in the hands of an aging set of leaders for whom a true political opening remains anathema.

By: Freedom House, Original Post: February 11, 2011

February 13, 2011 Posted by | Dictators | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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