Saturday, August 30, 2014

Editorial: Throw Out Oligarchs

Researchers recently calculated how America’s political system has transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most of the power. Using data from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the researchers found that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene get their way in political decisions, regardless of the will of the majority of voters.

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy,” Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Gilens, of Princeton University, and Page, of Northwestern University, compared the political preferences of Americans at the 50th income percentile to preferences of Americans at the 90th percentile, as well as major lobbying or business groups, Brendan James noted at They found that the government — whether Republican or Democratic — more often follows the preferences of the higher-income group rather than the middle-income group.

This conclusion does not rate as a surprise to close observers of the political scene, either in Washington, D.C., or in the various state capitals. Nor is it a new development caused by recent Supreme Court decisions allowing more money in politics, such as Citizens United, the 2010 decision that allowed corporations and independent PACs to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, or the April 2 ruling on McCutcheon v. FEC that struck down limits on the total amount that an individual may donate in an election cycle. As data stretching back to the 1980s suggests, this has been a long-term trend, and is therefore harder for most people to perceive, let alone reverse.

“Ordinary citizens might often be observed to ‘win’ (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail,” they write.

We don’t believe we have lost democracy irretrievably. We let the monied elites take it over but voters can take it back. Ideology that was relegated to right-wing groups such as the John Birch Society in the 1960s and ‘70s was promoted to the mainstream by wealthy backers of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and conservative media that made the supply-side “voodoo” economics fantasy respectable. Voodoo economics is still “mainstream” Republican economic policy, even though the combination of tax cuts and deregulation of bankers and markets was tried and failed spectacularly during the George W. Bush Administration.

As the professors demonstrated, we didn’t lose democracy in a couple election cycles. We lost it over the course of a generation and we’ll need to take it back over a series of election cycles. Election of Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress in 2008 wasn’t enough to turn the tide against the plutocrats as long as there were enough Big Business Democrats willing to side with Republicans to block progressive initiatives in the Senate. Progressive Dems had to swallow compromises on the 2009 stimulus bill, but the Democrats still managed to pump billions of dollars into the economy and helped turn around the Bush recession. They also were forced to compromise on health care and financial services reforms — but Democrats still managed to force some accountability on the banksters and insurance executives and they made insurance available to everybody except for the working poor in obstructionist red states.

Unfortunately, many progressives took the wrong lesson from their disappointment with the Democrats, as they sat out the 2010 election. Republicans not only took over the US House of Representatives; they also gained control over many statehouses and gerrymandered congressional districts to solidify their ill-gotten gains for a decade. In the meantime, they are passing voter suppression bills to make it harder for the working poor to vote, and the GOP majority on the Supreme Court, which already has neutered the Voting Rights Act, is not inclined to stop them.

Now Republicans threaten to take over the Senate and shut down President Obama’s regulatory authority and his ability to correct the conservative imbalance on the courts. In recently leaked remarks from a Koch Brothers-sponsored event, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell laid out his plan for shrinking the federal government if he gets to be majority leader next year: Republicans would place riders in spending bills that would limit executive authority on healthcare, financial services, the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies. He also said the Senate would not be wasting its time debating issues such as the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, or helping middle-class students manage their college debts. “We’re not going to be debating all these gosh-darn proposals,” he said — and the Kochs have put up $290 million to make sure McConnell gets to shut down those debates. That’s why bills that have overwhelming support — such as raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits and giving students a break on their student loans — won’t see the light of day in McConnell’s Senate.

President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may not be our idea of progressive champions when they have to plead with conservative Dems and non-rabid Republicans to pass a bill through the Senate, but if you gave Obama and Reid 68 Democrats in the Senate, like Lyndon Johnson had from 1965-67, and put Nancy Pelosi back in charge in the House, then you might see some serious legislating like Johnson accomplished with the Medicare, Medicaid and other Great Society initiatives as well as passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

That sort of electoral rebuke to the ruling elite almost certainly isn’t going to happen this year. Even the most optimistic Democrats aren’t predicting a 13-seat pickup for Democrats in the Senate, much less a sweep in the House. But handing the Senate to Mitch McConnell won’t help the people restore democracy any time in the foreseeable future.

Justice Starts with Honest Numbers

Events in Ferguson, Mo., should open a national conversation — not a shouting match — about the relationship of police and the communities they are supposed to protect and serve. One thing the federal government should do is provide accurate and uniform statistics of how many people are killed by police every year, and under what circumstances.

Congress in 2000 passed the bipartisan Death in Custody Reporting Act, which required states to report to the Department of Justice the death of any person who is detained, arrested, en route to incarceration, or incarcerated in state or local facilities or a boot camp prison. Unfortunately, the law expired in 2006 and while the Bureau of Justice Statistics continues to collect information, reporting is spotty.

In 2006, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported 721 arrest-related deaths, including 447 killed by police, two killed by other persons, 67 suicides, 76 intoxication deaths, 47 accidental injury, 34 natural causes and 56 unknown causes.

Jim Fisher of used the Internet to track police-involved shootings in 2011 and found that police shot 1,146 people and killed 607 that year.

(The FBI tallied 404 “justifiable” homicides, where police say they killed a felon, in 2011. That number does not necessarily include those who were unarmed and/or minding their own business when confronted by police. For 2012, the FBI said local police reported at least 410 “justifiable” killings.)

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) has been working to get the Death in Custody Reporting Act renewed. He got the House to pass the bill in 2009, 2011 and again in December 2013. That bill is sitting in the Senate and the NAACP has urged its members to contact their senators and push them to pass HR 1447 before the Senate adjourns.

Let’s at least get a roll call to see who is against honest numbers.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2014
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