Reader’s Forum–Lou Hinman

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In Ratf**ked, David Daley tells, in vivid and painful detail, how the Republican Party, planning for the reapportionment that would follow the 2010 census, hatched a plan that would give them a crucial edge in the state legislatures that would carry out the redistricting.  They were so successful that they were able to control the gerrymandering of enough congressional districts to create a very probable Republican congressional majority until the 2020 census.

Gerrymandering was not new.  Almost from the beginning of two-party politics in the United States, gerrymandering has been used by both parties to make particular districts uncompetitive (“safe,” that is, for one of the parties or the other).  What was new was the novel idea of targeting particular state legislatures, and well laid plans to get a very slim party majority in them in advance of redistricting.

It may well be that the Republicans violated the gentlemen’s agreement with the Democrats about how this game was supposed to be played.  However, I feel that Ratf**ked makes too much of the Machiavellian ruthlessness of the Republicans, and is correspondingly too soft on the Democrats.  To me, it defies belief that Democrats were just too innocent to know how bad the Republicans were, or that they simply got caught napping.

Here’s why.

The Democratic Party’s calling card is that they are “the party of the common man.”  But since their main allegiance is to the shared control of the political process, they are careful not to get too strong.  If they were to get too strong, a few embarrassing questions could be asked about why they are not more effective in serving “the common man.”  If those mean and nasty Republicans get too strong – well, what can you do, they just don’t play fair!  (For more on this neglected subject, be sure to read Indispensable Enemies by Walter Karp.)

Not getting too strong demands, above all, not mobilizing their base.  So for example, when the Tea Party was busy organizing “town meetings” to oppose Obamacare, you might have thought the Democratic Party would have organized a few of the 38 million people who had no health insurance into town meetings of their own.  Of course, they did nothing of the kind.  For the Democratic Party, the mobilization of it’s base is to be avoided like the plague, because they may not be able to control it.

Similarly, if the Democratic Party were to get into a brawl with the Republicans over gerrymandering, it would weaken the Democratic machine in at least two ways.  First, they might actually win!  This would put pressure on them to use their increased power on behalf of “the common people” they are supposed to represent.  Second, even if they didn’t win it would turn over the rock under which gerrymandering and other manipulations by the two political machines thrive – about which the less said the better!

Finally, the Democratic Party is plenty ruthless when it comes to attacking insurgents in their own party (ask Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders) or independents (ask Lenora Fulani).

Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

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Author of RATF**KED

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Readers’ Forum–Steve Richardson & Lou Hinman

STEVE RICHARDSON

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I finished the book last night.  Honestly, it was not my type of book.  I rarely read novels and found the quasi-biography and this author’s style awkward.  I could not even remember who Sanger was, so I did learn some ugly truths about the history of contraception.  I could have learned more from a brief article, but this book was written for people who already knew her public story.  I may be reading too much into the story but should get an interesting reaction from Ms. Feldman, either way.

Terrible Virtue is an intriguing title that isn’t really explained in the quote of Margaret Sanger or by the author.  Most readers, myself included, are probably grateful for the deeds that ultimately led to reproductive freedom for women in the U.S. and wondered what was terrible about them.  The answer comes in the form of letters/testimonials by Sanger’s family and friends.  They paid the price by loving someone who could not love them the way they wanted and probably deserved to be loved.  Over and over, Margaret made the choices that contraception would make possible for all women.  It did not paint a pretty picture; it made her appear selfish.  But it did keep her from falling into the traps that had kept virtually all women in misery until she made rebellion her singular goal.

Sanger indulged what ambitious men learned long ago – that great achievements require indifference to expectations, especially those of loved ones.  History is not made by people who cling to comfort and sentiment.  Anyone moved by friends’ ordinary concerns cannot hope to withstand extraordinary challenges from enemies.  This does not mean there are no feelings; it means there are many choices to be made and those choices have consequences.  Margaret Sanger was willing to endure the judgment and disappointment of those she loved to pursue a worthy objective.  Feldman’s book reminds us that heroes are not always seen that way by those who were sacrificed on their journey.        

 

Steve Richardson is a founding member of the Virginia Independent Voters Association and serves on IndependentVoting.org’s national Election Reform Committee.

***

LOU HINMAN

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Terrible Virtue, by Ellen Feldman, is the story of Margaret Sanger, and her pivotal role in the long struggle to make birth control accessible and legal in the United States.

I remember that Lisa McGirr’s book The War on Alcohol (a Politics for the People selection two years ago) exposed how Prohibition was aimed at denying alcohol consumption to poor people, and the rapid influx of working class “foreigners” into American cities.  At the same time, the discriminatory enforcement of the Volstead Act allowed the well-to-do to go on consuming alcohol.  McGirr showed how the 18th Amendment was only possible because the development of democracy was subverted and held back at a time of rapid social change and economic growth, and how it’s overthrow was made possible by the rapid enfranchisement of new working-class voters during the 1920’s and the building of a new electoral coalition.

The struggle for reproductive rights (although not over even now) overlapped the struggle against Prohibition, and involved the same underlying issue.  The rich and the well-to-do had access to birth control, but poor people did not.  Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in American in 1916.  In 1921 (the year after the Prohibition became law) she founded the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

One of the virtues of Feldman’s book is its account of the appalling oppression of poor and working class women without access to birth control.  I have to confess that as a political activist who came of age at about the time that Margaret Sander passed away in 1966, I never thought much about this.

Another important virtue is Feldman’s moving account of Margaret Sanger’s development as a rebel.  Her rebellion was rooted, not in ideology, but in her hatred of oppression, and her fellowship with other working-class women – her sisters.  As she developed as an agitator and organizer, and as support for her work grew, she came to know many wealthy and influential people.  But she never let herself be deflected from her goal, and used her privileged social location to broaden the base of support for her cause.

Another virtue of Ms. Feldman’s book is that she depicts the personal conflicts and sacrifices Margaret Sanger endured in becoming a leader.

Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

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Reader’s Forum–Lou Hinman

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There’s class warfare, all right . . . but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.   –Warren Buffet, CEO, Berkshire Hathaway  (quoted in Who Stole the American Dream?)

The richest 1% of Americans now control nearly 40% of America’s wealth. The great merit of Hedrick Smith’s book Who Stole the American Dream? is that he tells the story of how this happened.

It brings home to us in the starkest terms the enormity of what has gone wrong in America, and the desperate need for citizen activists – patriots – to lead us in restoring both democracy and prosperity. Hedrick Smith shows quite clearly that without more citizen involvement (more democracy) there will be further accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, but no prosperity (a better life for ordinary people).

Hedrick Smith has many good ideas about what must be done economically. Here are some of them:

  • rebuild the working partnership between business and labor
  • a renewed social contract to create jobs and restrict the off-shoring of manufacturing
  • a domestic Marshall Plan to create millions of jobs rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure
  • reform the corporate tax code to promote job creation and make billionaires pay their share
  • a $1 trillion reduction in military spending over the next decade
  • mortgage relief for the millions of Americans who were ruined by the subprime mortgage fraud
  • strengthen Social Security and Medicare

He also makes crucial political recommendations:

  • support for the movements for open primaries and redistricting reform
  • “armies of volunteers to get the country back on track”
  • “organize at the grass roots” (what the Democratic Party refused to do when the Tea Party was organizing their “town meetings” to oppose Obama’s health care reform)
  • restore fairness (along with liberty, the cornerstone of American democracy)

There is really only one point where I disagree slightly with Hedrick Smith’s assessment and his prescriptions. In his call to “mobilize the middle class” I think he is putting the cart before the horse. The middle-class may be the biggest loser in the transformation that has taken place. But, as a class, it is not well positioned to lead the movement to restore fairness to American democracy.

Restoring fairness demands that we take on the power of the political establishment (otherwise known as the 2-party monopoly). The force that can lead this is the mass of political independents (whose numbers have been increasing for decades and who, according to mainstreams polls, now outnumber both Democrats and Republicans nationally). This force includes millions of people in the middle class. It includes millions of people who were once in the middle class. It includes millions of working people. And it includes millions of people living below the poverty line, or only slightly above it.

I hope that Mr. Smith will accept this as a “friendly amendment” to his admirable book.

Lou Hinman has been been an independent activist for most of his adult life. He lives in New York City.

***

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Lou Hinman today in P4P Reader’s Forum

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I thought a lot about the movement for structural political reform (in which I am an activist) as I read The War on Alcohol, Lisa McGirr’s fascinating and eye-opening account of the movement for Prohibition and the long-fought movement for its repeal.

Of course, I knew that Jim Crow in the southern states had disempowered the black population.  Still, I was shocked to read that:

Virginia’s voting rolls had effectively been slashed in half in 1903, as a result of the disfranchisement of African-Americans and numerous poor whites.  Virginia’s 136,900 voters out of a population of close to two million residents took to the polls [in 1910] and sided decidedly with the drys. . .

McGirr shows, by this example and others, that the 18th Amendment was only possible because the development of democracy was subverted and held back at a time of rapid social change and economic growth.  She points out that the key to passing the amendment was bringing it to a congressional vote before reapportionment following the 1920 census could impact on the outcome.  Passing the amendment depended crucially on preventing newly (or not yet) enfranchised voters – “the foreigners” – from expressing themselves politically.

As for repeal, McGirr shows that it was made possible (we might even say “necessary”) by several related developments, the most crucial being the rapid enfranchisement of new working-class voters during the 1920’s.  And, as the electorate changed, a coalition supporting repeal was built.

This coalition included significant elements of the business community.  As business in America evolved into big business, corporate leaders were concerned that the over-reaching of the reform movement – the attack on individual liberty – could eventually impact on the privileges of corporations and the wealthy.  They therefore had a real interest in repeal – even though discriminatory enforcement of the Volstead Act allowed them as individuals to consume alcohol themselves.  Although I’m not sure McGirr makes this point explicitly, I think it’s fair to say that the more progressive business leaders also recognized that business could not expand if the working class were not allowed some freedom to develop.

ŸThe movement for structural political reform has at least these 2 key points of contact with the movement to repeal Prohibition:

  • Today, the possibility of progressive change is also held back by voter suppression. The Democratic Party is opposed to voter suppression only insofar as it puts the DP at a competitive disadvantage with the Republican Party.  The DP and the RP are united in opposing changes that empower the voters – especially independents, who now make up some 40% of all voters – at the expense of bipartisan control of government and the political process.

As with the repeal of Prohibition, the key to breaking the control of special interests in America is a significant influx of new voters.  Such an influx can only be brought about by attacking the most pernicious special interest of them all, the bipartisan control of primary elections, reapportionment, voter registration, incumbency – indeed, the entire political process.

  • Empowering all voters on a level playing field demands a coalition. The social locations, interests, and political views of independents are diverse.  What they have in common is their status as second-class citizens, and their recognition, more or less self-conscious, that it is the political parties themselves and their institutionalized power that the prevent them from expressing themselves politically.

As former Congressman Mickey Edwards (R-OK) says in The Parties vs. the People, the Democratic Party and Republican Party are really private clubs.  Under the Constitution, they have the right of association, but not the right to dictate every aspect of the political process itself.  The struggle to empower the voters – all the voters – is not only a civil rights struggle every bit as righteous as the struggles of African-Americans, women, and gays:  It is an indispensable step in re-igniting social and economic development in America.

Lou Hinman lives in New York City.

 

Reminder: P4P Conference Call

with Lisa McGirr

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A Few Thoughts About Our Declaration

Although Our Declaration is nominally about how the Declaration of Independence was written, it is also about how the American Revolution was produced.

Allen’s account shows the American Revolution was not an idealistic or utopian whim, but a political choice that the colonists made, in the first instance, because the government of King George had, quite literally, ceased to function in the American colonies.  Whatever else it was, the revolution was a pragmatic response to the threat of social and political chaos.

Lou Hinman, Center

Her examination of “democratic writing” is thought provoking.  Can we imagine our current political representatives in Washington cooperating in a task of magnitude comparable to the Declaration of Independence?  No way!  Democratic writing is one of the many complex organizing tasks that are only possible when people are struggling with all their might to create something new together.

For these reasons, I think Our Declaration is significant for the independent political movement.  Have not the vast majority of our nominal political leaders ceased also to carry out the functions of government?  Have they not ceased to work together for the good of the commonwealth?  The independent movement is a revolution in the making — a non-violent one — to restore the collective creativity of the American people.

Lou Hinman
New York City

Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen

Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST

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Politicians’ Extortion Racket

Our conference call to discuss Indispensable Enemies will be on Sunday, February 9th at 7 pm EST.  I will be posting the call in number in the next couple of days.

Lou Hinman, a member of the NYC Independence Party Citywide Executive Committee has shared an excellent New York Times Article with us and has some helpful tips for reading Indispensable Enemies. Here is what he suggests:

The op-ed Politicians’ Extortion Racket by Peter Schweizer that appeared in the New York Times on 10/21/2013 confirms and updates Walter Karp’s observations about “Black Horse Cavalry” in the New York State legislature in the late 1800’s (pp. 159-60).  I have included the article below.
I was also thinking about  people perhaps being intimidated or overwhelmed by Indispensable Enemies.  I think it’s a hard book to read because:
  • It’s repetitious and more polemical than it needs to be, both of which can be tiring to the reader.
  • It tries to be a “theory of everything.”  Although he is surely right to insist that the collusion of the DP and RP should be the point of address in political reform, in dismissing “economic” explanations as “ideological,” he tries to prove too much.
I would recommend that people focus on Part I and Part II (and possibly the last chapter, “The Restoration of Self Government”).
Thanks Lou, great article and good advice.
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The New York Times

October 21, 2013

Politicians’ Extortion Racket

By PETER SCHWEIZER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — WE have long assumed that the infestation of special interest money in Washington is at the root of so much that ails our politics. But what if we’ve had it wrong? What if instead of being bribed by wealthy interests, politicians are engaged in a form of legal extortion designed to extract campaign contributions?

Consider this: of the thousands of bills introduced in Congress each year, only roughly 5 percent become law. Why do legislators bother proposing so many bills? What if many of those bills are written not to be passed but to pressure people into forking over cash?

This is exactly what is happening. Politicians have developed a dizzying array of legislative tactics to bring in money.

Take the maneuver known inside the Beltway as the “tollbooth.” Here the speaker of the House or a powerful committee chairperson will create a procedural obstruction or postponement on the eve of an important vote. Campaign contributions are then implicitly solicited. If the tribute offered by those in favor of the bill’s passage is too small (or if the money from opponents is sufficiently high), the bill is delayed and does not proceed down the legislative highway.

House Speaker John A. Boehner appears to be a master of the tollbooth. In 2011, he collected a total of over $200,000 in donations from executives and companies in the days before holding votes on just three bills. He delayed scheduling a vote for months on the widely supported Wireless Tax Fairness Act, and after he finally announced a vote, 37 checks from wireless-industry executives totaling nearly $40,000 rolled in. He also delayed votes on the Access to Capital for Job Creators Act and the Small Company Capital Formation Act, scoring $91,000 from investment banks and private equity firms, $32,450 from bank holding companies and $46,500 from self-described investors — all in the 48 hours between scheduling the vote and the vote’s actually being held on the House floor.

Another tactic that politicians use is something beltway insiders call “milker bills.” These are bills designed to “milk” donations from threatened individuals or businesses. The real trick is to pit two industries against each other and pump both for donations, thereby creating a “double milker” bill.

President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. seemed to score big in 2011 using the milker tactic in connection with two bills: the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act. By pitting their supporters in Silicon Valley who opposed the bills against their allies in Hollywood who supported the measures, Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden were able to create a sort of fund-raising arms race.

In the first half of 2011, Silicon Valley had chipped in only $1.7 million to Mr. Obama’s political campaign. The president announced that he would “probably” sign antipiracy legislation — a stance that pleased Hollywood and incensed Silicon Valley. The tech industry then poured millions into Mr. Obama’s coffers in the second half of 2011. By January of 2012, Hollywood had donated $4.1 million to Mr. Obama.

Then, suddenly, on Jan. 14, 2012, the White House announced that it had problems with the antipiracy bills and neither passed. “He didn’t just throw us under the bus,” one film executive and longtime supporter of Mr. Obama anonymously told The Financial Times, “he ran us down, reversed the bus and ran over us again.”

To be sure, not all legislative maneuvers are extortive; sincere and conscientious political deeds occur. Still, the idea that Washington gridlock is an outgrowth of rank partisanship and ideological entrenchment misses a more compelling explanation of our political stasis: gridlock, legislative threats and fear help prime the donation pump.

The reason these fund-raising extortion tactics succeed is that politicians deploy them while bills are making their way through Congress, when lawmakers possess maximum leverage. That’s why at least 27 state legislatures have put restrictions on allowing state politicians to receive contributions while their legislatures are in session.

Why not do the same in Washington? It would reduce politicians’ penchant for cashing in on manufactured crises. Perhaps it would even compel Congress to be more efficient while in session.

We have focused for too long on protecting politicians from special interests. It’s time we stop pitying the poor politicians and start being wary of them — for they play the shakedown game as well as anyone.

Peter Schweizer, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of “Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes and Line Their Own Pockets.”

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