Monday, July 28, 2008

The Television-Political Complex

Nearly a half-century ago, America was warned of a symbiotic relationship that put our democratic society at great risk. That threat is with us still, but it has been joined by another symbiosis that poses every bit as much danger to our system of government.

The Chicago Tribune today published an article about the arms race in judicial campaigns and the threat it poses to courts in Wisconsin and other states across the country. But it was a columnist in a much smaller paper, the San Jose Mercury News, who put his finger on what's at the root of the problem.

Politicians nowadays are little more than collection agents for the TV stations. They ceaselessly dial for dollars – and surround themselves with a stable of handlers and consultants who assist them in the endeavor – in order to buy air time that is the crack cocaine of modern politics. Those supplying the cash want something in return, and get it time and again. The TV stations then provide the fix the political junkies crave, peddling their dope – often at a hefty premium – and profiting handsomely. And, oh yes, as the Mercury News columnist points out, they never air stories telling the American people about how it all works and what it's doing to our country.

The politicians win. The big special interest donors win. The TV industry wins. The average taxpaying citizen loses. Democracy dies a little with each transaction. So does America.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Blaming The Police For Crime

In a less politically correct time, people like Bill Lueders were known as newspapermen. Bill's latest column, "For the love of newspapers," caught my eye. It's quite possible that the business model upon which the newspaper industry was built has fallen apart and can't be pieced back together. But Bill is right . . . God help us if we don't invent a new business model or otherwise fight for the survival of the news business.

It is hard to imagine how democracy works without a free and tenacious press. That "press" does not necessarily have to be ink on newsprint, but it absolutely has to be more than entertainment clothed in the day's events. It has to be more than TV, talk radio and the blogosphere.

Just as dissent is the highest form of patriotism, relentless scrutiny of government is the greatest service to democracy. But there is a growing school of thought on the left that criticism of public officials and government is destructive. The line of thinking goes like this: Ever since the Reagan presidency (although some date it back to Goldwater), the right has battered government and has systematically worked to turn the American people against it. Against this backdrop, journalists and whistle blowers who call attention to wrongdoing by politicians or expose government corruption are now bizarrely seen as being in league with right-wingers who, as Grover Norquist summed up, want to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

What a load of crap.

First of all, when Ronald Reagan famously quipped that "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help,'" he was hardly a pioneer. Nor did it turn out that he was sincere. Reagan's record shows a sizable gap between his words and deeds. He did little to shrink government's girth. Federal spending as a percent of Gross Domestic Product actually was considerably lower under Clinton. Reagan's innovation was legitimizing the practice of spending like a drunken sailor while cutting taxes and running up huge debt.

In any case, Reagan did not invent or manufacture anti-government sentiment. Nor did Goldwater, for that matter. They merely recognized a prominent feature of the American political culture and exploited it, Reagan more successfully than Goldwater. But then Bill Proxmire, a Democrat, became a legend in Wisconsin politics mining the same terrain.

Proxmire understood the same thing Reagan did. A strong individualist streak runs through Americans. The well-defined sense of the commons that Europeans possess is missing here. Maybe it's because the United States are the offspring of rebellion, born from defiance of a king. Maybe it's because of the kind of people who were drawn to exploring the vast American frontier. Who knows. What's clear is that we're hard-wired to distrust government.

Trying to make Americans love or even like government is a fool's mission. It's like trying to make Yankee fans love the Red Sox. But hey, if the Red Sox fall out of contention and the Yankees are locked in a close race with, say, the Tampa Bay Rays, you think Yankee fans aren't going to root like crazy for the Sox to beat the Rays? They won't do it because they love the Red Sox, they'll do it because they need the Red Sox. Americans are like that about government. When times are tough and our backs are against the wall, government can come in pretty handy. What's called the "Greatest Generation" is the product of just such experience. But even the trauma of the Great Depression and the second world war could not permanently extinguish the strong sense of individualism that underlies the widespread wariness toward government.

Building trust of and support for government by being less vigilant and less vociferous critics of government is similarly a fool's mission. If building a "government is good" movement depends on looking the other way when political corruption is visible or excusing government foul-ups, then such a movement is doomed before it begins.

There's only one way to boost public confidence in government: Make it work better.

And to make it work better, there's one ingredient that surely needs to be in the recipe: Make sure government officials know their every move is being watched.

Which is why we need newspapers, or something that is their equal.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Money Can't Buy You Love, But...

. . . apparently $2 million can buy you a favorable court ruling.

And $4,900 in campaign contributions to the boss sure seems to help get some obvious professional shortcomings overlooked.

Even smaller amounts come in handy when you're trying to buy votes. Oops, not so fast.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Umpire Strikes Back

Epic's Judy Faulkner threw a high hard one. Behind the plate, UW's Howard Schweber ruled it a brushback pitch and issued a stern warning. No one from Epic's dugout came out to protest, but I shouted from the stands that Schweber was out of his mind.

The ump wasn't taking it lying down. He removed his mask and hollered back, not only at me but also others in the cheap seats who didn't agree with his call.

In a Wisconsin State Journal column, Professor Schweber accused Epic of bullying "small businesses," using its "economic power to coerce vendors." Sorry, doc, but the targets of Epic's boycott are hardly small businesses. They are huge corporations that have a seat on the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce board of directors. Companies like J.P. Cullen, one of the nation's 400 largest construction companies. And M&I Corporation, one of the 50 biggest bank holding companies in the entire U.S.

In his column in The Capital Times, Dr. Schweber concentrated on making a distinction between primary and secondary boycotts and called the type of action Epic is engaging in an example of a secondary boycott that "may be illegal."

There are two problems with this argument. First, the term secondary boycott has a very specific legal meaning in a labor relations context and such an action can indeed be illegal under U.S. law. So why is Professor Schweber using such a loaded term out of context? Is he accusing Epic of breaking the law, or isn't he? After a prolonged e-mail exchange with Dr. Schweber, I am still not completely sure but I am inclined to believe he is not. He has publicly called Epic's action unethical and even told The Associated Press that it "is perilously close to a type of illegal boycott that typically arises in labor disputes." That is perilously close to defamation in light of his answer when I directly asked him if Epic's action is illegal. He declined to give a straight answer but rather would only say "whether Congress has gotten around to criminalizing something does not usually determine whether I consider it to be ethical."

I take that to mean that Professor Schweber is using the term secondary boycott loosely, applying a more generic meaning rather than a strict legal one. The Law Encyclopedia offers such a generic definition: "A group's refusal to work for, purchase from, or handle the products of a business with which the group has no dispute." Done, presumably, in an "an attempt to influence the actions of one business by exerting pressure on another business."

If this definition is valid, then this raises the second problem with Schweber's argument. Epic is not refusing to deal with companies with which it has no dispute. Epic has a very real bone to pick with companies like J.P. Cullen and M&I because their leaders sit on WMC's board and set policy for the organization. And as board members these companies' leaders ultimately authorized the election campaign tactics that Epic's leadership team finds so repugnant.

After further review, I still think the umpire blew the call.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Great Divide

The latest polling done by a national survey research firm for the Midwest Democracy Network unmistakably shows that Wisconsin residents believe the state is on the wrong track and elected officials can't be trusted to do the right thing. More than anything, the poll shows people want change and they strongly support reform.

State residents want stronger disclosure and right-to-know laws so they can see what their government and the special interests that control it are up to. They want lobbyists put on a shorter leash. They don't want politicians to draw the districts they run in, but they do want tougher campaign finance laws and tighter limits on campaign contributions. And they want publicly financed elections, strongly believing that government would work better if their taxes paid for election campaigns instead of donations from wealthy special interests.

The fact that their own elected representatives steadfastly refuse to give them what they clearly want explains plenty about why most Wisconsinites believe state officials can't be trusted to do what's right.

The Midwest Democracy Network poll is not the first to detect this disconnect between citizens and the people they've elected to represent them. The conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute has found the same thing. So has the St. Norbert College Survey Center in its polling for Wisconsin Public Radio. The University of Wisconsin Survey Center's Badger Poll echoes the findings of these other polls.

This is why people like David Sirota are saying conditions are ripe for a popular revolt.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hating What Made You

"Good! Your hate has made you powerful. Now fulfill your destiny. . . ." – Emperor Palpatine to young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode VI.

When Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is challenged to defend its obvious aim to engineer a hostile takeover of the state Supreme Court, WMC's mouthpieces say time and again that they are trying to rid Wisconsin of "activist judges."


As Dave Zweifel pointed out today, WMC owes its power to one of the great acts of judicial activism in American history. The 1886 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Zweifel refers to is a subject the Democracy Campaign has addressed a time or two.

The irony is surreal. WMC has exploited the 19th Century handiwork of "activist judges" to wage what it insists is a war on "activist judges." And the war doesn't appear to be over. WMC clearly has its sights set on the next high court election when Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson will be up for re-election because, as WMC spokesman Jim Pugh told Zweifel, Abrahamson is more "activist" than the group's last target, Louis Butler.

That is code for "judge who doesn't rule the way we want." And what WMC wants is judges who will side with corporations over consumers in product liability cases and who will favor business over individuals in tax cases.

What we're dealing with here is part transparent dishonesty about the true motives behind the assault on our system of justice and part naked hypocrisy in the form of a crusade made possible by the very thing it aims to destroy. Both show how the Dark Side of the Force is very much alive and thriving in Wisconsin politics.