Monday, November 22, 2010

6 Steps To Restoring Sanity

It's said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

By that definition, American voters are insane.

Less than 1% of the population pays for the campaigns of those seeking office. Some Republicans are elected, some Democrats. They proceed to cater to the less than 1% who paid to put them in office, driving the other 99% up a wall.

Without demanding changes in the way elections are paid for, voters reelect most of those who drove them crazy. They throw out a few in the interest of shaking things up, in hopes of a different result. Maybe a few more Democrats are elected this time, along with some Republicans. The newly elected officials got the money for their campaigns from less than 1% of the people. They continue catering to that fraction of 1% of the population. The rest feel let down and left out again.

Another election comes. No changes in the way campaigns are waged and financed have been demanded or made. Less than 1% pay for all the ads, all the mailings, all the robocalls. Once again, most of those who were in power stay in power. A few get tossed, maybe a few more than usual. Voters hope against hope for a different result, for some bipartisan cooperation and constructive problem solving, for some consideration of the greater good. Let's say this time it's the Republicans who are elected in greater number. Those Republicans, and the surviving Democrats, got their campaign money from less than 1% of the people. They cater to those donors.

Another election comes. And another. The same thing is done over and over again, yet a different result is somehow expected. Insane is what it is.

If voters are ever to regain their senses and if American democracy is ever to become, you know, like an actual democracy, we can't keep doing the same thing over and over again, election after election. We have to do some things differently. Here are six things we can and should do, in no particular order:

1. Require full disclosure of all election spending and all donations used to pay for that campaigning. Both federal and state law in Wisconsin need to be changed to uphold the right of voters to know who is writing the checks for all that election advertising we have to endure.

2. Create publicly financed campaigns. Right now less than 1% of the population pays for all the candidates' campaign expenses. Once elected, those candidates-turned-elected-officials are hopelessly beholden to those special interests that supply them with the money to run for office. Our elections, and by extension our government, are owned by less than 1% of the people. We could and should have a system where all of us pay directly for elections so we have elected representatives who truly belong to all of us.

3. Establish corporate accountability laws requiring shareholder consent for election spending. Currently top corporate managers can spend investors' money on elections, supporting candidates of management's choosing, without even informing shareholders much less getting their permission. The law could be changed to introduce an element of democracy into corporate management, requiring notification of shareholders when a company wants to try to influence an election and requiring the company to get approval from a majority of those who own stock.

4. Give candidates free air time. America is the only major democracy on the planet without some system for allowing candidates to communicate with voters around election time without paying for the air time. The broadcast airwaves are public property. Use of those airwaves should be granted only on the condition that they be used to serve the public interest. Making politicians prostitute themselves in order to campaign for public office is most definitely not in the public interest.

5. Protect Net Neutrality at all costs. We have a free and open Internet. The ruling class wants to get rid of that in the worst way. We can't let them succeed.

6. Push for a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment has been radically reinterpreted, effectively removing the "r" from free speech. The Constitution should be amended for a 28th time to clarify that putting reasonable limits on campaign contributions and election spending does not violate the First Amendment and reestablish that money is not speech, corporations are not people, elections are not auctions, and public offices are not commodities to be bought and sold on the open market.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mining For Influence?

The owner and some executives of a company that wants to develop an open-pit iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin have begun laying the groundwork for their project - making their first ever campaign contributions in Wisconsin.

Media reports say Gogebic Taconite, which has yet to file any information with the state about the project, bought an option last summer to lease the mineral rights on 22,000 acres in Ashland and Iron counties.

Gogebic will need project approval from the Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies and that could take years. But company officials have already spoken with Republican Governor-elect Scott Walker, a conservation group and an area Indian tribe in recent months. Two company officials met August 5 with Democratic Senator Bob Jauch of Poplar for information about the state's mining approval process.

Meanwhile, company owner Chris Cline of Beckley, West Virginia and two of his executives and their spouses from Florida contributed $5,000 August 6 to Democratic State Senator Jeff Plale of South Milwaukee and a total of $2,500 August 3 and August 5 to Republican Representative Mark Honadel of South Milwaukee. Plale was defeated in the September 12 primary.

Gogebic is a subsidiary of the Cline Group, which controls large coal reserves throughout Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Great Champion Of Democracy

I learned yesterday that Larry Hansen has passed away. Larry was the longtime vice president of the Joyce Foundation who directed the foundation's Money and Politics program. I knew Larry for just 14 years of his remarkable life and considered him both a mentor and dear friend. I also considered him the single most influential figure in the democracy reform movement nationally.

A very touching retrospective on Larry's life has been posted here on the Midwest Democracy Network's website. It sums up Larry Hansen better than I ever could.

All of us who knew and loved Larry mourn the loss of this great champion of democracy.

Corporate Lawyer Spins 'Em Dizzy

I about fell out of my chair this morning while reading a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about a report issued by the state Government Accountability Board on outside interest group spending in this year's state elections.

A corporate attorney in Madison who is richly compensated for representing the most powerful lobbying groups in Wisconsin, not to mention running interference for some of the shadiest electioneering groups operating in the state, gave the newspaper's reporter this take on the GAB report:

Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney who works with independent political groups, noted that of the $9.9 million in disclosed spending, about $2.5 million was from corporations in the new category created by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United. That shows corporations didn't hijack the political process as some critics of the ruling had predicted, he said.

"The sky didn't fall," Wittenwyler said. "Corporations did not do what everyone was predicting."

Saying that corporations spent only $2.5 million twists the truth beyond recognition. It is a lie of omission, but a lie nonetheless.

The $2.5 million figure Wittenwyler cited was spending by so-called "1.91 Corporations." This is a new category of reporting triggered by a rule (GAB 1.91) approved by the Government Accountability Board earlier this year. But that's hardly the only kind of election spending that was funded by corporations. There was another $1.95 million spent by what GAB labeled "Corporation PACs." And of the $3.8 million that fell into the category the GAB called "Other Committee Types," much of that spending was done by the corporate-funded Republican Governors Association through its RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC.

Then there is the unreported spending. For example, conspicuously absent from the list of reported spenders is Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, whose election spending in 2010 reached seven figures but was not reported to the GAB.

While all of WMC's spending was of the undisclosed variety, RGA was one of several groups that did both reported and unreported spending. Others in that category include the liberal group Greater Wisconsin and the conservative American Federation for Children, which is undoubtedly corporate funded. Groups that also did unreported spending and almost certainly did it with corporate money include Jobs First Coalition, the National Association of Manufacturers' American Justice Partnership and Club for Growth Wisconsin.

The Democracy Campaign has accounted for at least $5 million in additional outside group spending in the 2010 state elections that went unreported. We are not done digging for evidence of such activity and are still tallying what we've found so far.

I don't know about the sky falling, but contrary to some very disingenuous spin, corporations did behave precisely as expected and took full advantage of the Citizens United ruling.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Atlas Mugged Us First, Then He Shrugged

Just ran across two eye-popping numbers that speak volumes about our country's direction. $22.6 million and $1.1 trillion.

The first comes from the national Institute on Money in State Politics, which issued a report this week showing that the 20 richest Americans and their companies donated $22.6 million from 2005 through 2008 to influence state-level elections. That number doesn't even begin to account for what they spent on federal elections.

The second has to do with the redistribution of wealth in America. Looking at IRS data and calculating the percentage of total income for each income class, you can see how dramatically the middle class's share of the nation's income has declined and how the percentage claimed by the wealthiest in our society has skyrocketed. In fact, from 2001 to 2007 more than $1.1 trillion in income was shifted from people who make less than $100,000 to people who make more than $100,000. The people at the very top really cleaned up, as almost a third (29%) of that $1.1 trillion income transfer over the six-year period went to those making $10 million or more.

The second number is no accident or coincidence. It happened by design. It is the result of a whole series of public policy decisions made in places like Washington and Madison. And those decisions have everything to do with numbers like the first.

Ayn Rand and her 53-year-old novel Atlas Shrugged and its money-is-everything, greed-is-good ethos are in fashion these days. The book's title refers of course to the titan in Greek mythology who held up the heavens on his shoulders and went on to serve as Rand's metaphor for captains of industry and men of means who she claimed are responsible for society's productivity.

When the Atlases of Rand's mind felt put-upon and overburdened, they shrugged and shut down the engine of the world, leading to the collapse of civilization. The moral of the story was, as Rand wrote, "Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction."

Well, if modern-day Atlases are doing any shrugging, it's only because they are so unrepentant for their rape and plunder.

And what has the embrace of Rand's vision as national policy and the realization of her dream world done for us? Our economy has plunged off a cliff. Millions saw their jobs shipped overseas. Even more saw life savings vanish almost overnight. Home foreclosures are epidemic. Our natural environment has been badly damaged, threatening the health of both our planet and the people who inhabit it. Families are more stressed than ever. Our culture has grown more violent.

You know, not a single new state university campus has been created in Wisconsin since 1968. But since 1994, our state has built eight new prisons and purchased a ninth that was built by a private company on speculation, added hundreds of beds to existing correctional facilities and shipped inmates to five different states to deal with overcrowding. We got tired of investing in success, and started paying more and more for failure.

There is only one way out of the mess that's been made. And it involves doing something about those two eye-popping numbers.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Imagining Political Innovation

You are an independent. Part of the biggest bloc of voters in America. So why then do you feel so alone, so powerless? You hate Democrats. And you hate Republicans. You vote for one side and end up feeling snookered. So you vote for the other side the next time. Snookered again. And again. What next?

You are a liberal, or at least you lean left. Republicans make you insane. But the Democrats constantly let you down. You think of joining the Green Party. Visions of wasted votes and spoiler candidates dance in your head. It's hard to imagine a better Green Party candidate than Ben Manski, and it's hard to imagine greener pastures than Madison's 77th Assembly District. If a Green can't win in the 77th, can one win anywhere? If Manski can't win, can anyone? So now where do you turn?

You are a conservative, or at least that's the label that seems to best fit you. Democrats give you nightmares. But Republicans never deliver that limited government they promise. When they look for things to cut, it's funny how the programs benefiting their biggest campaign donors are spared the ax. Starts making the Libertarians look appealing. Drats, even the brother of one of the biggest names in Wisconsin political history barely pulled 10% running as a Libertarian. Guess you'll have to silence that inner voice that keeps saying you are too smart, too sensible and too sane for the Tea Party.

What if the politically homeless across the ideological spectrum could start to see their common plight? What if the disaffected took notice that America doesn't have a parliamentary system but rather one that assiduously reinforces a two-party landscape? And what if that caused them to stop toying with the idea of joining a third party that only stakes out territory to the left of the Democrats or to the right of the Republicans? What if they also got tired enough of holding their noses while voting and choosing between the lesser of evils, and started thinking about creating a first-party movement aimed at either transforming or supplanting one of the major parties?

What if it dawned on enough people that less than 1% of the population is paying to keep the existing major parties in power? What if they started to insist on a party for at least a good number of the other 99%?

What if they then realized how the "r" has been effectively removed from free speech in our country, and did something truly subversive to get out of the pay-to-play trap? What if 5,000 or 10,000 people from every corner of the state took to the sidewalks and the shopping mall parking lots and the country roads and became walking ads and living billboards to deliver the new party's message? And traveled the electronic highways and byways of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube to do the same thing?

To cover expenses, what if a few thousand 99ers all over Wisconsin became panhandlers for the politically homeless? Brother, can you spare a voice in Washington and Madison? Small change for a big change.

What if common folks with some common sense started practicing uncommon politics for the purpose of advancing the common good? What if neighbors started challenging neighbors to think we first instead of me first? What if the 99ers were able to win over 50,000 Wisconsinites? The effort would likely fall flat. But what if they were able to capture the hearts and minds of 500,000 or a million? At least one of the major parties and maybe both would have to evolve or perish. Wisconsin politics would be dramatically altered.

You may say I am a dreamer. But I'm not the only one.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Hate-Em-All Lurch

One thing's sure about yesterday's election results. They will be overanalyzed and misinterpreted by the media pundits and a clueless political class. We'll hear endless talk of historic political realignment. We'll be told voters moved sharply to the right just as we were told the electorate had shifted dramatically to the left in 2006 and 2008, bringing about historic political realignment.

Voters are no more fond of Republicans today than they were last month or last year or four years ago. And voters didn't become dyed-in-the-wool Democrats in 2006 and 2008. The vast majority of voters hate both major parties with a passion. Virtually all voters are holding their noses when they cast a ballot and feel doomed to choose between the lesser of two evils.

The Onion got it right. Millions of Americans courageously lined up to vote yesterday despite the very real threat of electing the 112th Congress. Thank god for satire. The last safe harbor for truth.

Another thing we'll surely hear from the pundits and the politicians and their handlers is that the 2010 elections sounded the death knell of campaign finance reform, particularly in light of Russ Feingold's defeat.

This too is nonsense. Yesterday was a referendum on the economy. Nothing else mattered. Not the war in Afghanistan. Not global climate change. Certainly not campaign financing.

This fact remains. The average voter understands that their elected representatives are listening to and working for the lobbyists and their big campaign donors, not the general public. Less than 1% of the population paid for all the election advertising we had to endure. And that fraction of 1% will be amply rewarded by the politicians. The average voter gets that, and is pissed about it.

Last night's election results change little or nothing for the Democracy Campaign. Hell, Jim Doyle never once was willing to meet with us. Too busy dialing for dollars, no doubt. Russ Decker never once met with us. He was probably on the phone with Chuck Chvala. Mike Sheridan never once met with us. He was forever courting a lobbyist, literally and figuratively. They are all gone now. Good riddance.

Both parties are playing the money game, and both have been corrupted by that game. Both are dutifully servicing the lobbyists and their donors. Neither is working for the general public. The average voter gets that. It's the single biggest reason why virtually all voters hate both parties with a passion. It's the single biggest reason why most have to hold their noses while voting and choose between the lesser of evils.

It's never been more important than it is right now to address the fact that money is more important than issues or ideas or people in our elections.

If the pundits need fodder, there are serious questions that need answering. Where is authentic political leadership going to come from in our country? When and how is at least one of the major parties going to reconnect in a meaningful and enduring way with a disgusted and increasingly cynical citizenry? Is the public capable of imagining civic innovation to create a new residence for the politically homeless if there is no admission of infidelity forthcoming from the Republicans or Democrats and no sincere attempt to patch things up with estranged voters?

Here's one more question in urgent need of an answer. . . . How do we get beyond partisan gridlock and political paralysis so the many seemingly intractable problems plaguing our society can be tackled and solved? There always have been divisions and competing factions in America, and there always will be. But the political process used to serve the useful purpose of working out those differences so we could be governed. Today it actually magnifies our differences and aggravates the divisions.

Until we work our way through that conundrum it would be foolish to expect the electorate to do anything but continue to lurch, changing colors like a chameleon from election to election.