In These Times

Subscribe to In These Times feed
In These Times features award-winning investigative reporting about corporate malfeasance and government wrongdoing.
Updated: 18 hours 11 min ago

Berniecrats Score Another Major Win Against the Democratic Establishment

Mon, 2017-12-11 19:00

This past weekend, progressive forces scored a significant—if tentative—victory in the long battle to make the Democratic Party more democratic.

Meeting in Washington D.C. for the fifth and final time this weekend, the party’s Unity Reform Commission voted to recommend a slate of reforms that, if fully implemented, would broadly democratize key structures and processes within the Democratic Party that affect how candidates are nominated.

At the top of the list: a long-awaited proposal that slashes by 60 percent the number of superdelegates—a nebulous collection of party insiders whose votes in presidential nominating conventions are unbound by the results of primaries and caucuses. In 2016, superdelegates overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, many pledging their support to Clinton before any other candidates had entered the race. Some Sanders backers have claimed that this early support helped swing the election in Clinton’s favor from the outset.

Although both camps have expressed their desire to move on from the race between Clinton and Sanders, the Unity Reform Commission owes its roots to last year’s hotly-contested presidential primary. Facing pressure from Sanders supporters to abolish superdelegates entirely, at the Democratic National Convention last July, Clinton delegates agreed to launch the reform commission. The group counts 21 members: 10 appointed by Clinton, 8 appointed by Sanders, and 3 chosen by the chair of the Democratic National Committee, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who was elected to the position in February with broad backing from Clinton supporters.

While far-reaching in scope, the commission’s recommendations will not immediately take effect. Under the agreement brokered at the party’s convention last summer, the proposals now proceed to the DNC’s rules and bylaws committee, which has six months to approve the changes. Regardless of what the bylaws committee decides, all 447 DNC members will also have the chance to vote on the changes in fall 2018 at their next full committee meeting. Still, the Sanders camp is feeling confident.

“The Unity Reform Commission proposals, assuming adoption by the DNC in 2018, lead to a Democratic Party that would be a beacon in voting rights and transparency,” says Larry Cohen, vice chair of the commission and chair of Our Revolution, the political action organization that grew out of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

The reduction of the number of superdelegates is arguably the commission’s most significant proposal. If enacted, this change would effectively cut the number of such delegates, currently numbering 715, by about 400. Superdelegate privileges would remain for sitting governors and members of Congress as well as former presidents, former vice presidents and former DNC chairs.

The commission also called for major changes in the more than dozen states and territories that organize presidential caucuses, including Iowa, which holds the closely-watched first contest of the primary. Under the proposal, these states would allow for same-day voter registration and same-day change in party affiliation—moves designed to bolster turnout. The DNC has less authority over primaries, which are organized by state governments, but the commission called on parties in these states to push for the same changes.

The commission also made recommendations to increase scrutiny over budgetary matters and administrative decisions, and generally boost transparency in the operation of the DNC.

Taken together, these reforms would lay the foundation for a very different Democratic primary campaign in 2020. In 2016, Sanders supporters maintained that superdelegates blocked the Sanders campaign from gaining early momentum due to their support for Clinton. And strict registration rules were blamed for turning off independent, left-leaning voters and preventing them from participating in the primary. If the commission’s recommendations are implemented, it would remove some of the barriers that currently make it difficult for Democratic candidates who are not affiliated with the Democratic establishment to run in primaries.

Still, the reform commission’s work is not without its critics. Last Thursday, in a letter to DNC Chair Perez and members of the commission, a collection of 14 progressive groups said the party needed to do away with superdelegates entirely.

“We maintain still more can—and must—be done to build trust with the party’s progressive base and persuadable voters alike that the party lives up to its values of fairness, transparency, and inclusivity,” said the letter, signed by groups like National Nurses United, MoveOn.org, Social Security Works and Progressive Democrats of America. “That conviction can only be strengthened with a presidential nominating process decided by voters alone, without the potential for that judgement to be overruled by well-connected elites.”

That letter included another signatory, emblematic of the party’s internal power struggle that shows no signs of waning: Our Revolution.

Jane Kleeb, a member of the Unity Reform Commission who also serves on the board of Our Revolution and as chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, applauded the reforms in a more conciliatory video posted on Saturday.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Kleeb, describing the complex process required for the recommendations to take effect. “But if you were watching the DNC over the last several years and hoping that things would change, things are changing.”

Inside Honduras’ Torch-Lit Marches Against the U.S.-Backed Dictatorship

Mon, 2017-12-11 18:55

Torches lit Tegucigalpa’s night sky, and a cacophony of noisemakers and chants rang out, as hundreds of Hondurans, led by youth, marched to the U.S. embassy to protest alleged election fraud. The demonstration for democracy on Dec. 8 took place amid the worst political crisis to grip the Central American country since the 2009 U.S.-backed coup.

The march was prompted by fears that the election is being stolen for incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

“We want a change,” 23-year-old Meli Martinez told In These Times while standing in front of the embassy. “We want jobs, and we want security.”

With youth at the forefront, Hondurans desperate for change have protested by the thousands and defied a military curfew to make their voices heard.

“There’s a generalized anger among the youth–fatigue, weariness,” Gabriela Blen, a 29-year-old social leader and congressional candidate, told In These Times.

In recent marches, many young people have carried signs reading, “You messed with the wrong generation.” The declaration, “Out with JOH,” a reference to the incumbent president, has been a rallying cry among protesters of all ages.

Two weeks after election day, results show a lead for Hernandez over Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship candidate Salvador Nasralla. But a winner has not been officially declared. The opposition has decried vote tampering and demanded a recount, while international observers from the Organization of American States and a European Union election observation team cast doubt on the results.

“It is evident that there’s fraud,” claimed 25-year-old Cindy Maradiaga, who said she wasn’t part of any political party, as the Dec. 8 march kicked off. “Fraud began when Juan Orlando got the opportunity to seek re-election.” 

Opponents slam Hernandez’s bid for a second term as illegal. He justified the move using a disputed 2015 Supreme Court ruling that overturned a constitutional ban on re-election.

“The only thing we Hondurans can do is to take to the street,” Maradiaga added, noting that Hernandez controls state powers, including the Supreme Court, that could otherwise offer recourse. “Juan Orlando cannot be president if the majority didn’t vote for him.”

A tipping point for many, especially urban youth, was the corruption scandal that surfaced in 2015 implicating the governing National Party in an embezzlement scheme that siphoned millions of dollars from the country’s cash-strapped social security institute and allegedly benefited Hernandez’s 2013 presidential campaign. Civil society groups reported close to 3,000 deaths linked to the scam.

The scandal sparked the Indignados movement, which organized 24 weeks of torch-lit marches to demand an end to corruption, the creation of an independent anti-impunity commission and the president’s resignation. The movement’s core demands  remain unanswered.

Blen, a founding leader of the Indignados, said the electoral debacle has been another flashpoint reawakening political consciousness.

As cries of fraud surfaced, unrest broke out across the country. Masked youth faced off on Nov. 29 and 30 against riot cops and military police in Tegucigalpa, setting up barricades that paralyzed the capital. In contrast to the recent torch-lit march’s peaceful atmosphere, scenes from the blockades were charged with tension and clouded with smoke from burning tires and tear gas.

Security forces responded with repression, and protests grew angry on Dec. 1. Local media reported thefts from electronics and appliance stores. Central Tegucigalpa was deserted before sundown as businesses closed shop early. Television channels broadcast images of long lineups at ATMs and gas stations, heightening general panic.

According to the Honduran human rights organization Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), at least 148 people were detained amid the protests on charges of armed robbery between Nov. 30 and Dec. 5. The government blamed opposition supporters for fomenting violence, while the opposition accused Hernandez’s National Party of infiltration to justify a military crackdown.

On Dec. 1, the government imposed a 10-day state of siege, sewing terror as news of brutal military enforcement spread the first night of the curfew. The next evening, people pushed back with noise-making protests known as cacerolazos, banging pots and pans from their doorsteps.

“People needed to break the ice, overcome fear,” recalled Blen, pointing out that youth played a role in spreading the demonstrations through social media.

The crackdown was harsh. Martinez, a member of the university students’ movement that has fought creeping privatization in public education, said military police launched tear gas to disperse her neighborhood’s cacerolazo even though people were in their homes.

“We had children on the terrace,” she told In These Times. “It was terrible. It was illegal.”

According to Amnesty International, military police used “illegal tactics” and firearms to enforce the curfew. At least 14 people have been killed in the turmoil, according to COFADEH.

Despite the repression, Hondurans are determined to protest what they see as the consolidation of a U.S.-backed dictatorship. Youth organizations called for a national strike on Dec. 11 to escalate pressure.

Blen said that if Hernandez is “imposed” as president, which many expect will be the next step in the contested electoral process, the country will not see calm for the next four years.

“I think there are very few options left for youth. One is to migrate,” she said.

“And the youth without much education, without money, without work, who live in neighborhoods where they are easily captured by organized crime—those youth have nothing to lose,” she continued, noting these youth often battle police or spearhead roadblocks. “Those are the youth who will do more radical things.”

The Dec. 8 torch-lit march, organized by the university students’ movement and the Indignados, circulated on social media with the English hashtag #IDontWantToLeaveMyCountry. The theme criticized Washington over foreign policy initiatives like the Alliance for Prosperity, which purports to improve security and stem migration, but in practice exacerbates drivers of migration.

It was a message to Honduran and U.S. authorities that youth want opportunities at home, but are being forced to leave.

The current crisis has roots in the 2009 military coup that consolidated elite power and paved the way for eight years of National Party rule. The coup triggered generalized impunity and lawlessness that allowed organized crime, violence, unfettered neoliberalism and a human rights crisis to flourish.

The U.S. State Department played a diplomatic role in securing the coup, and Washington has tacitly endorsed post-coup governments by pouring more than $114 million in security aid into the country since 2009 despite its poor human rights record. Days after the election, the State Department certified Honduras for additional aid.

Opposition supporters increasingly fear that Washington is poised to embrace Hernandez as president despite the questioned election.

“We are ready to work with whoever wins,” said U.S chargé d’affaires in Tegucigalpa, Heidi Fulton, appearing in a press conference on Dec. 9 beside electoral commission chief David Matamoros. An active member of the National Party, Matamoros is accused of carrying out fraud on Hernandez’s behalf.

Many slammed Fulton’s appearance after relative silence as a show of implicit U.S. support for the contested results.

“We are a sovereign people, we want our voice to be valued,” said Aaron Rodriguez,  participating in another demonstration on Dec. 10 near the presidential palace with a sign rejecting U.S. intervention.

He added that youth will protest “until there is justice” respecting the people’s will.

According to Blen, the current uprising comes after youths’ break from apathy—which stemmed from hopelessness, not political disinterest. Now, young people carry a growing sense of citizen empowerment that they are taking to the streets. 

“What’s happening right now will mark the hearts and minds of Hondurans forever—above all, the youth,” Blen said. “This generation has accepted the responsibility of being the generation that will make change.”

The Limits of the “Resistance” in Congress? Key Democrats Back Trump’s Disastrous Israel Policy.

Mon, 2017-12-11 15:04

Last week, President Donald Trump officially declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and pledged to move the U.S. embassy to the city, a brazen move that reinforces the Israeli occupation and fortifies the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu. He was emboldened by the support of key Democrats like Chuck Schumer, who was quick to take credit for “advising” Trump on the issue.

But Schumer did more than simply advise the President: He provoked Trump publicly, declaring in October, “As someone who strongly believes that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel, I am calling for the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be relocated to Jerusalem." In doing so, Schumer was calling Trump’s bluff, which had taken the form of a campaign promise to move the embassy. Schumer was also putting his good standing with Israel before the interests of his party—and before the interests of peace. 

Schumer was not alone. When questioned by Intercept reporters, Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, defended the Trump administration, saying: “Well you know, it is true—the capital of Israel is Jerusalem.” Cory Booker, a staunch defender of Israel, had no comment.  Even high-profile critics of Trump like Bob Corker and Steny Hoyer also backed Trump’s decision on Jerusalem.

The Washington Examiner, a conservative news platform, captured the irony well in a story about Rep. Eliot Engel’s support of Trump’s decision, even though Engel publicly supports Trump’s impeachment.

Some Democrats did express opposition to Trump’s Jerusalem move. Senator Elizabeth Warren criticized the president’s statement, issued Wednesday, saying it will make peace more difficult to achieve in the Middle East. Senators Bernie Sanders, Jeanne Shaheen, Joe Manchin and Chris Murphy expressed similar concerns. Dianne Feinstein sent a letter to Trump, which she also tweeted, saying that the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would “spark violence, further alienate the United States and undermine the prospects of a two-state solution.”

Yet, other responses from key Democratic Party players were more ambivalent. Rep. Nancy Pelosi issued a statement declaring, “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish homeland. But in the absence of a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem now may needlessly spark mass protests, fuel tensions, and make it more difficult to reach a durable peace.”

Israel occupied and seized East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Since then, Israeli settlers have carved up East Jerusalem with settlements, displacing Palestinian residents. While the declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel has been a rallying cry of pro-occupation forces, Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem is not recognized by the international community.

Yet, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has been a core Democratic position. In 2016, the Democratic Party platform stated, “While Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations, it should remain the capital of Israel, an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths. Israelis deserve security, recognition, and a normal life free from terror and incitement." 

This is precisely the kind of language Trump used in his statement.

With the Democratic Party divided, Trump took his opportunity to safely fulfill his promise and claim leadership of a “bipartisan” victory. The Democrats who followed Schumer delivered a big win to Trump and a huge loss to the Palestinians. Understandably, Palestinians have responded with outrage at this blatant breach of international law, and Israel has answered this with jet attacks on Gaza.

Thumb on the scales

Trump packaged the move as an unmasking of reality on the ground, declaring, “Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality.”

Another component of that “reality,” according to Trump, is that failure to carry through on the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act is responsible for the failure of the peace process. “After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said. “It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result.”

In fact, the 1995 Act was signed in the context of the Oslo Accords, and shared in the main flaw of the peace process that the Accords inaugurated: The United States has persistently dependably put its thumb on the scale to tip the balance in Israel’s favor. It is that support—and the corruption of the Palestinian Authority coupled with the bad faith negotiations of Israel—that has doomed the peace process.

Moving the capital to Jerusalem is about as clear a signal of U.S. bias, and the utter demise of the two-state solution, as could be imagined.  As Mairav Zonszein and Aziz Abu Sarah put it, “The pretense of U.S. neutrality is finally finished.”  Crucially, this also means that the hopes for the Oslo-initiated peace process are dead.

Trump went on to proclaim that “Israel is a sovereign nation with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital. Acknowledging this as a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace.” 

This statement purposefully ignores UN Resolution 181, which was passed in 1947.  It stated that “the City of Jerusalem shall be established as a corpus separatum [separate entity] under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations.”  This was reaffirmed in 1949, after the establishment of the state of Israel, in UN Resolution 303

Thus, Trump’s action is in defiance of international law and human rights discourse in two ways—it maintains the myth of U.S. neutrality and flaunts key, foundational resolutions. Trump’s decision maintains and intensifies is a deadly pattern in which, as always, the Palestinians will suffer. The Democratic Party, instead of defending Palestinians against this injustice, is largely part of the problem.

Trump’s FCC Is About to Bid Farewell to the Internet as We Know It

Fri, 2017-12-08 18:03

On November 21, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman and Trump appointee Ajit Pai announced that the agency will vote December 14  on whether to strike down 2015’s landmark net neutrality rules. If the FCC leadership committee’s Republicans votes to overturn the rules, as expected, telecommunication companies will be allowed to decide what users can access on the internet—and how much they will have to pay.

The rules adopted in 2015 re-categorized internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon from “information services”—a classification applied to social network sites, search engines and blogs—to “telecommunication services.” This re-categorization, allowed the FCC to regulate ISPs as “common carriers,” traditionally utility or infrastructure companies that provide a general service rather than specialized packages. As a result of this classification, under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, the net neutrality rules made it illegal for ISPs to offer internet packages that either exclude or prioritize particular content providers—keeping the internet free and open.

Now, the FCC is poised to roll back these measures and meet the demands of telecommunication lobbyists working for companies like AT&T and Comcast who claim that the 2015 rules have suppressed broadband network investment. However, when these companies have been legally obligated to report to their investors, their numbers and statements tell a very different story.

Despite the claims that investment has been harmed by the reclassification of ISPs as common carriers—which the FCC has cited as a primary reason for eliminating the net neutrality rules—a recent report from the internet freedom advocacy group Free Press found that, "not a single publicly traded U.S. ISP ever told its investors (or the SEC) that Title II negatively impacted its own investments specifically."

Chairman Pai, for his part, has framed his proposed rollback as simply a “return to the bipartisan light touch framework that governed the internet, starting in the Clinton administration,” as opposed to “the Obama administration’s heavy-handed regulations.”

But while Chairman Pai may consider these regulations “heavy-handed,” in fact they were put in place to stamp out abuses.

Before broadband, internet users obtained access through dial-up, which was classified as a telecommunication service. As broadband became more common throughout the 2000s, the FCC was regularly battling in court with ISPs. These companies were taking advantage of their erroneous categorization as an information service, engaging in manipulative practices such as extorting content providers, slowing down activity they deemed inappropriate and blocking user access to competitors’ websites. Such practices were largely ended with the FCC’s 2015 rules.

So, why are ISPs really pushing the FCC to end net neutrality? The answer is simple: there’s a lot of money to be made if you’re in control of what people see online—just ask Google and Facebook.  

While it’s impossible to tell just how much ISPs stand to gain financially from the change, the millions of dollars they’ve spent campaigning against net neutrality indicate that they expect to make a windfall. What is certain is that much of the costs will be borne by internet users.

The question of whether internet access should be free or restricted has implications beyond users’ bank accounts, however. Repealing net neutrality would essentially convert the experience of using the internet—now open and interactive—into that of television: closed, passive and bureaucratic. Big websites would become the digital equivalent of the big cable networks.

Right now, ISPs are only able to offer internet access. If Chairman Pai’s proposal is implemented, however, they’ll be able to offer specialized packages in content, speed and data management.

That might sound relatively innocuous, but it isn’t. It means ISPs would be able to offer a news package that excludes particular news websites (such as InTheseTimes.com). Or, even without following the packaging model, it means they can slow down, or block, websites they prefer their customers don’t visit.

Prior to the 2015 rules, ISPs were already doing the latter. For instance, Comcast slowed down peer-to-peer file sharing of what it believed was copyrighted material, and Verizon blocked its customers from using the “wallet” apps of its competitors.

The net neutrality battle has also pitted ISPs against big data-users such as Google, Netflix and Spotify—companies that see an overturn of the 2015 rules as a threat to their bottom lines.

While Google has boasted about the importance of an “open internet,” what the company’s executives are really concerned about is the extortionary fees ISPs could charge them if the FCC’s proposal goes through. That’s why Google lobbied for the Title II regulations on ISPs, and why the company has been rushing expansion of its own internet service—Google Fiber—which ISPs have tried using local governments to block.

These companies are of course looking out for their investors and stockholders, not average internet users. But this doesn’t change the fact that if net neutrality is overturned, the internet will become more expensive and less free for everyone.

The internet already has enough gatekeepers—ISPs don’t need to be added to the list. Web hosts can already suspend website domains. Facebook and Google already decide not only what people see online, but in what context they see it. The digital economy doesn’t need more censorship, inequality and surveillance. There’s plenty of that already.

Emmett Till’s Cousin on Why Mississippi’s Flag Is Still Racist

Fri, 2017-12-08 14:40

Edelia “Dr. Jay” Carthan, a native of Mississippi and an assistant professor at Tougaloo College, is at the forefront of the movement to remove the Confederate emblem of a cross and stars from the state’s flag (the last in the country to bear it).

The group she cofounded, Take It Down America, has held demonstrations across the South and at the U.S. Capitol. The group’s next planned action was at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson on December 9, but those initial plans changed when President Donald Trump announced he would attend the museum’s opening. 

What initial action did you have planned at the opening of the Civil Rights Museum this weekend?

We didn’t want to protest the museum but we did want our voices to be heard. The state flag still carries the Confederate battle emblem, it's a direct contradiction to everything that's in that museum. So how are you going to remember this history, but at the same time, keep waving this flag that represents slavery?

Now that President Trump is attending, what has changed?

Now, it's gone from a demonstration to a boycott. There is nothing that President Trump, Governor [Phil] Bryant or former Governor [Haley] Barbour have done to improve civil rights in Mississippi. Being at the opening is just a photo op for them to look like nice, good white people.

They're making money off of our hurt and pain and not doing anything to correct, help or recognize what slavery did to an entire race of people. It's contradictory in itself, them being at the museum opening, especially while the state flag still has the Confederate flag on it. You can't be proud of both civil-rights and slavery.

Why did you get involved in this fight?

I grew up in Tchula, a small Delta town. Emmett Till was my cousin. My father was the first black mayor of Tchula since Reconstruction. He refused to be their boy and run the city how the white power structure wanted him to, and he spent much of his administration behind bars because of false charges related to the murder of a political rival.

He was facing the death penalty. People around the world got involved because they knew he was innocent. I went to court and marched on my father’s behalf.

He was eventually acquitted of the murder charge. If Mississippi wants to move forward and heal, we have to be honest about what that flag means and stop saying it represents “heritage.”

What does the cross and stars mean to you?

It’s a heritage of hate. The Confederacy fought against integration and to keep the institution of slavery so that my group of people, African Americans, wouldn’t be free. We would not have the same rights. We would not even be U.S. citizens. I think that the flag should come down and this shouldn't even be an issue that we're discussing in 2017.

What memories of your father stick with you?

One is when he delivered his own closing argument. He was in law school when people asked him to run for mayor. As a girl, I heard him asking officials to be who they said they were on paper: for freedom and liberty for all. Today, 40 years later, my father is in office. He’s a supervisor in Holmes County.

The memories of seeing him fight for his life with his words resonate with me. I use my voice to fight for others to make sure what happened to my father never happens to anyone else.

What actions have you taken to get Confederate flags removed?

It’s not just a Mississippi problem. It’s a national problem. Locally, we’ve had marches in Jackson and sent information to schools letting them know they have the right to take the flag down. It’s Mississippi law that schools fly the flag. One of the main problems I’ve found with my research is many people don’t know what the flag actually means. So they’re not offended by it. We want to educate people.

What do you say to people who argue the flag is important because of its history?

Put it in a museum. The official state flag should represent all residents of the state. It certainly doesn't represent me and my history and my family. I don't see any hospitality in that flag—I see hostility, hate and separation.

Do other struggles to remove symbols of the Confederacy around the country give you hope for Mississippi?

Yes. It's been about three years since we started this journey and I've seen things change. That's what really gives me hope. From the first press conference that I took part in, all of the schools had their flags up. I've seen Mississippi State, Delta State and other schools, one by one all, have their flags taken down.

This in an expanded and updated version of an interview that appeared in print.

When Billionaires Battle for Public Office, Working People Always Lose

Thu, 2017-12-07 14:29

With dysfunction and political deadlock on the rise in Washington, D.C., important policy fights have been pushed to the state and local levels. And in a political environment already inundated in campaign cash, big money has followed.

So, too, has public discontent. Take the case of Chicago. In a mid-September poll, two-thirds of Chicago voters said that city government is seriously off track. Just one in five approved of the direction the city is going.

By most indicators, the quality of life for average Chicagoans continues to erode. High levels of gun violence claim a tragic number of victims in areas across the city. Residents in gentrifying neighborhoods face rising rents and the threat of displacement. And the assault on the public sector has left schools, clinics, libraries, and other public resources shuttered or underfunded while intensifying segregation and racial inequities.

At a time when the people of Chicago needs their leaders to tackle these difficult problems for the benefit of the many, our political class has all too often proposed solutions for a narrow few. 

Across all levels of government, out-of-control political spending by corporations and the rich is poisoning public dialogue, corroding our political process and leading to limited options and bad outcomes.

Take the recent debate over implementing a soda tax in Cook County. In a big-money brawl between the beverage industry which opposed the tax and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who supported it, each proposed unsatisfying solutions.

On one side, the beverage industry pushed a pro-job narrative to protect its ability to rake in profits by peddling sugary drinks. Meanwhile, Bloomberg, one of the richest men in the world, harped on public health benefits to justify regressive taxes on the poor and middle class.

Drowned out from the debate were the voices of working-class Cook County residents, who might wonder if they could have both health and jobs if billionaires and corporations paid their fair share—an option never put on the table. Spending on both sides of the soda tax fight served to limit the debate to a range of “solutions” acceptable to the rich and powerful.

In Illinois, campaign-related donations have exploded over the past 20 years, according to the nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. In 1996, political donors in Illinois spent $37 million on candidates and campaigns. In 2016, that number ballooned to $413.2 million.

Each year, a small group of ultra-rich donors accounts for more and more of that political spending. The same few names show up over and over again, including finance mogul Ken Griffin, the richest man in the state and top donor to Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Over the course of three years, Griffin also gave over $40 million to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and other Illinois GOP leaders.  

Of course, when it comes to political spending in Illinois, no one tops Governor Rauner himself. The private equity executive has worked to remake the Illinois Republican Party in his own image through campaign cash and a lavishly funded network of lobbyists and interest groups.

A new political boss for our new gilded age, Rauner has wreaked havoc on the state in a failed attempt to ram through his hard-right, big business agenda. Preparing to try again in 2018, he’s kicked off his re-election effort with a $50 million personal contribution to his own campaign.

Up against Rauner's nearly $67 million war chest, the Illinois Democratic Party has searched for its own billionaire to self-finance a gubernatorial campaign. Many party leaders are looking to billionaire J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune who has already donated tens of millions to his own campaign. Others are jumping on board with businessman Chris Kennedy, the multi-millionaire son of Robert Kennedy.

Both major parties increasingly rely on the money—and candidates—from the 1%, claiming there is no other path to victory.

But what is lost when we compete on these terms? Depending on benevolent billionaires—no matter how sincere—and the solutions they present us, means resigning ourselves to leaving power in their hands and taking proposals for deeper change off the table.

The increasing concentration of wealth and political power are driving causes of austerity and inequality, not a separate concern. The wealthy few, by and large, engage in politics to expand their private profits, not the public good.

Billionaire liberals like Pritzker and Kennedy may be less despicable than Rauner, the Koch brothers or Trump. But the failure of these establishment Democrats to name racism, extreme wealth and corporate power as the primary culprits for the problems plaguing our society shows they are committed to treating the symptoms without addressing the underlying diseases.

The ever-shrinking landscape of political possibility is directly linked to the explosion in political spending by just a handful of ultra-rich individuals. No wonder voters are so disgusted.

The kidnapping of our political process by the wealthiest 1% has been a generational project. It will take many years to abolish “corporate personhood,” reverse the structural changes that the well-financed Right has used to disenfranchise and marginalize huge swaths of the electorate, and to build the political organizations we will need to advance a progressive agenda.

But we must start now, and undertake the difficult task of building power in a rigged system. We have to look to organizing to give political expression to the social movements growing across the country.

Senator Bernie Sanders outperformed all expectations in the 2016 Democratic primary by building a strong, diverse base of supporters, organizers, volunteers and small donors.

United Working Families, an independent political organization in Chicago funded entirely by working people and our membership organizations, aims to do just that in the 2018 elections, backing a progressive slate of grassroots candidates of color who can begin to restore our hope in the process and to build the political organizations we need on the ground to take our state and city back.

These Mainers Aren’t Ready To Give Up on Flipping Susan Collins’ Tax Vote

Thu, 2017-12-07 11:35

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.

Mike Tipping: My name is Mike Tipping, and I'm communications director for the Maine People's Alliance.

Sarah Jaffe: Yesterday was Monday, the first weekday since the Republican Senate passed the tax bill. Tell us what went on in Maine yesterday after your Senator voted for the tax cuts.

Mike: As you may remember, Susan Collins, upon returning to Maine after voting against the Republican healthcare repeal, got applauded at the airport. There were several scenes of people on the street thanking her for her vote. After her tax vote, she did not have the same reaction in Maine. She stayed in Washington, D.C. and did the Sunday shows, but in Maine people were protesting up and down the state—and they are continuing to do so all this week.

Yesterday in Bangor, dozens of people were outside her office. Five very brave souls went inside and refused to leave until she talked to them about her vote. She did not, and they got arrested and carted out in a police van. So things are definitely escalating here. I think people believe that she's not listening to them, that she's doing real damage to the state, that she's been lying about her votes and about the policy and that they're not going to take it anymore.

Sarah: She was one of the three votes that stopped the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and she's known for being somewhat of an independent Republican. Talk about the process of watching her go through this and decide to vote yes for the tax cuts.

Mike: I think one thing to remember about Susan Collins is that she has been moderate on many issues. But the second part of the formulation, the Republican part, is almost more important. She may not be as ideological as Ted Cruz, but she is a hardcore Republican. She cares about the party, she cares about her leadership, she doesn't want to offend her colleagues. If she can find a way to vote for something, if it's procedural tricks or being able to claim she got some kind of deal or something, she will do it to advance their interests.

On this bill it was an interesting process. She sat down with President Trump and apparently got some promises out of him, and is apparently the only person in the world that who promises from President Trump. She was told she would get some healthcare bills that do a bit of work around the edges, that she would get some tax cuts changed in some slight ways, and it looks like not even that is going to happen. But even if she did get those things, they are fig leaves for an awful bill that dramatically increases inequality, that blows a hole in the deficit, that will lead to deep healthcare cuts and cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

Maine is the oldest state in the country. We have 300,000 people who rely on Medicare, and it is an incredibly damaging vote for her constituents.

Sarah: Talk a little more about Maine in particular, what this bill would do to Maine.

Mike: Well, Maine is not the home of a lot of giant multinational corporations and rich CEOs. We have a lot of people who work in traditional industries on the ocean or in the forest, and there are a ton of people that work or run small businesses. This bill targets seniors and small businesses and rural areas: It is a bill designed to harm people in Maine.

That's why there's been so much protest and such a feeling of betrayal from Susan Collins, who has claimed to speak on these kinds of things. Just a few weeks ago, she said she would not vote for the healthcare bill because it made some of the same cuts. Just a few months ago, she said she would never vote for a bill without a full Congressional Budget Office score and hearings and everything else. Then she goes and votes for a bill that has handwritten scribbles in the margins and things crossed out. She betrayed a lot of the things that she claimed to stand for and which she really built her reputation as a commonsense moderate around—those are out the window.

Sarah: And we already have Marco Rubio saying that this is the path to cutting Social Security and Medicare, which is certainly important to the oldest state in the country.

Mike: He really let the cat out of the bag here: You're supposed to wait until it passes to start talking about how they're going to use it to cut Social Security.

Along those lines, Collins also went on the Sunday shows and said that this won't actually increase the deficit, that growth will outpace that. She even cited some economists, apparently the only economists she could find who said anything like that—and now they've walked that back.

Before this happened, Susan Collins was chosen as co-chair of No Labels, which is that centrist deficit hawk group. Their whole thing is saying that the deficit is already so large that they have to go after people's healthcare and go after Social Security. Now she's voted to explode it further and really damage those things she claims to care about.

Sarah: Chuck Schumer and others are handwringing about deficits when this bill is going to cause actual harm. I can't imagine that that is the most compelling argument to the people you work with on the ground in Maine.

Mike: I think people understand what it means is cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and they're definitely worried about that. Collins is the one who made President Obama scale back the stimulus package during the Great Recession. That's actually one of the more interesting things in her career. She didn't have an ideological basis for the number that she wanted for the stimulus, she just chose a number almost exactly in the middle of what the Republicans wanted and what President Obama wanted and said this is where I stand.

She is a centrist but not a moderate in many ways. And what that did, people have pointed out, it made the stimulus less effective: A lot more of it was in tax cuts, some of that to the wealthy, than it probably should have been. It delayed the recovery, it allowed Republicans to campaign on a bad economy, it got a lot more of them elected. And it turns out all of that was a terrible farce because she doesn't actually care about the deficit anyway here.

Sarah: That is the most perfect description of centrism I've ever heard actually. So what do you think the odds are of getting her to flip on this final bill, whatever it is that comes out of conference?

Mike: Well I think we're already seeing some movement. She has tried to defend her vote. I don't know if she'll change it enough before the next vote, which obviously could come later this week.

But I think she's definitely feeling the pressure. Protests were front-page headlines today, and people got arrested. Her staff was apparently having a heated conversation with the police, trying not to make this a visual thing. She was very concerned about that moderate image that she has tried to project. I think that is at risk here. If people continue to speak out, I think there could be a chance at stopping her final vote.

Sarah: And so what are the plans for the rest of the week?

Mike: There are protests scheduled in Portland and in Kittery, and there's more later in the week in Orland and in Lewiston, and more in Bangor. People are doing things all over. There are a ton of Indivisible groups that are doing things independently all the time—trying to find Senator Collins to talk to her about this, to flood her phone lines.

The Specter Haunting Infowars

Thu, 2017-12-07 10:30

In Erik Nelson’s new documentary, A Gray State, we get the granular lowdown on the David Crowley case, which has become a fringe cause, as a supposed symptom of the darker forces so enthusiastically perceived by Americans within their own social structures.

Crowley, a handsome, eloquent and quick-thinking Iraq War veteran, returned in 2009 from an unwanted extra deployment in Afghanistan with a bitter chip on his shoulder and immediately enrolled in film school. The feature film he began planning, Gray State, is a pedantic indie B-movie about the fascist takeover of America by moneyed elites, necessitating citizens (like Crowley) to take up arms and fight back.

Unemployed and obsessed, Crowley shot an elaborate trailer for the film, networked online and attracted thousands of “fans” eagerly awaiting the finished movie. He even got real Hollywood producers interested. Then, things went mysteriously wrong, and before anyone knew it, in 2015, Crowley, his wife and their 5-year-old daughter were dead.

With “Allahu Akbar” written on the wall in the wife’s blood, the question is inevitable: murder-suicide or assassination? Within the super-culture of paranoiacs and keyboard freedom fighters, the carbonic odor of black-op injustice is still in the air. The libertarian “revolution,” bullhorned along by the likes of Alex Jones, would have Crowley as a martyr-artiste, murdered by the state.

Nelson’s film is a fairly straightforward police-file-and-talking-heads affair, energized by the use of Crowley’s own storehouse of footage, and in essence positing him as a co-director. (Crowley gets his only legit film credits here, for music and cinematography originally intended for his movie.) The weird dynamics of watching the repurposed footage of a dead man is fascinating and more than a little voyeuristic, as it was in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. (Nelson produced Grizzly Man, and Herzog is listed as a producer on A Gray State.) As it is, Nelson benefits from both Crowley’s ambition and his megalomania, and even exploits them, but the problem with A Gray State remains with how Crowley fails to represent anything beside his own very private conflicts.

We see footage of him being celebrated at militia rallies, but most of the Crowley we see is stuff he shot himself, as promo material, as home movies and sometimes as surveillance footage he seems strangely unaware of. There’s little or no sense of the man objectively. His gun-happy libertarian politics were simple enough, until he ceased being political altogether and withdrew behind a sudden veil of muddled evangelical beliefs. No one in his friend circle can explain why he and his wife might decide to die together and be “raptured.”

So much for conspiracy theories—Crowley didn’t need help falling off the edge. But without them, there’s no larger way to see Crowley’s sad story as revealing anything about the boiling cauldron of American divisiveness.

Did Crowley deserve the hubbub to begin with? What nags about Nelson’s film is how it, like so much else in the culture at large, blithely agrees with the rest of mainstream media that online attention, measured in “views,” is actually worth the pixels it’s illuminated by. Most of the time, garnering that attention boils down to making something, be it a vlog post or ideological website or whatever, that a few thousand people glance at, and even “like,” before they move on to the next internet splooge. Hardly a mandate for relevance. (That is, unless you’re an advertiser.) The New York Times may regularly report when social media “blows up,” and even quote a lucky meme-ster. But in reality, having a certain number of Twitter followers or Facebook trolls or “fans” very often signifies exactly nothing. Crowley is just another ephemeral internet ghost, fleetingly famous for all the wrong reasons.

If anything, Crowley might be taken as a cautionary tale about alt-right extremism, lending anecdotal yet pungent evidence to what may seem apparent to most of us anyway: that full-throttle investment in fascist fantasies and paramilitary self-sufficiency is like any other kind of irrational faith, a brand of disassociation that leads to self-mythology, tribal spite and violence. Given our culture of guns and fame lust, maybe we should consider ourselves lucky Crowley ended his journey without leaving the house.

Exclusive Photos Contradict Coal CEO’s Claim He Had Nothing To Do with Rick Perry’s Coal Bailout

Wed, 2017-12-06 23:01

“I DIDN'T HAVE ANY INVOLVEMENT” in the drafting of a controversial new Department of Energy (DOE) rule subsidizing coal and nuclear plants, energy executive Robert Murray told Greenwire in late November. “This was done by the Trump administration. … I had nothing to do with it.”

In These Times has obtained photographs of a March 29 meeting between Murray and Energy Secretary Rick Perry that call this claim into question. The photographs show the Murray Energy CEO presenting a proposal to alter the policies of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to favor coal plants, as a way to increase “grid reliability.”

Latest Issue: December 2017

 

The “Grid Resiliency Pricing Rule,” proposed by the DOE on September 28, echoes that suggestion. The rule amounts to a bailout for the coal and nuclear industries, premised on the controversial idea that, in the event of a natural disaster or extreme weather event, only coal and nuclear plants offer the fuel stores necessary to keep the grid running. The rule mandates that utilities pay those plants to operate even if they might otherwise be outcompeted and shut down. In effect, the rule could mean that electricity customers subsidize coal and nuclear companies to the tune of anywhere from $4 billion to over $10 billion a year. As Politico has reported, the rule disproportionately benefits Murray Energy, because it applies specifically to the Midwestern, Appalachian and Northeastern markets where Murray’s customer base is concentrated.

   

The cover letter of Murray Energy's "Action Plan," presented to Perry and other Department of Energy staff at the March 29 meeting. The plan outlines several sweeping changes that would benefit the coal industry.

   

The photographs capture a portion of the proposal advanced by Murray in the March meeting, which reads:

 

Immediate action needs to be taken to require organized power markets to value fuel security, fuel diversity, and ancillary services that only base load generating assets, especially coal plants, can provide.

 

“Require organized power markets to value fuel security” arguably translates to: Make sure that coal power generators get steadily paid, even if other forms of energy are cheaper. The text of Perry’s rule closely follows the logic of the Murray Energy proposal, although it replaces “base load generating assets, especially coal plants” with “generators with on-site fuel supplies,” and expands on the concept of “fuel security” by warning of “the severe consequences that additional shutdowns would have.” The DOE rule reads in part:

 

Immediate action is necessary to ensure fair compensation in order to stop the imminent loss of generators with on-site fuel supplies, and thereby preserve the benefits of generation diversity and avoid the severe consequences that additional shut-downs would have on the electric grid.

 

In a later section, the DOE rule also touts the benefits of coal over natural gas and other fuel sources.

The rule has come under widespread attack. Opposition from climate advocates is rooted in the fact that some two-thirds of existing coal, oil and gas reserves need to stay buried to avert catastrophic climate change. Of these three energy sources, coal is by far the most noxious. Burning all the fuel in developed coal reserves alone would see the planet sail past 1.5 degrees celsius of warming.

   

Perry listens intently to Murray at the March 29 meeting. Seated on the far right is Andrew Wheeler. Wheeler was a registered lobbyist with Murray Energy until August 11, and has been tapped by the Trump Administration to become Scott Pruitt's deputy administrator at the EPA.

   

Even the American Petroleum Institute—the lobbying arm of the oil and gas industry—has criticized the rule, on the grounds that it will discourage competition in the energy market. The API joined the Natural Gas Supply Association, the American Wind Energy Association and several other trade associations in filing a motion with FERC opposing Perry’s request.

Robert Murray, however, called the rule “the single greatest action that has been taken, in decades, to support low-cost, reliable electric power in the United States.”

Murray Energy representative Gary M. Broadbent said the company was “unable to comment” on its communications with the Trump administration. The pictures obtained by In These Times, however, document a small meeting in Washington, D.C., between Perry, Murray and their respective staffs on March 29, less than a month into Perry’s tenure as Energy Secretary. The photographs show Murray presenting a four-page “Action Plan For Reliable And Low Cost Electricity In America And To Assist In The Survival Of Our Country’s Coal Industry.” 

It’s been known since at least October that Murray Energy crafted an “action plan” for federal agencies to more systematically favor the coal industry, which has been circulated in the highest echelons of the Trump Administration. Murray has publicly boasted that the White House is hard at work implementing his company’s policy priorities across various government agencies.

The photographs appear to show, for the first time, some of the details of that action plan. In addition to the call for “grid reliability,” the document advocates replacing the current members of FERC and gutting the EPA. The photographs also suggest that Murray’s policy wishlist extends well beyond the action plan. Energy officials also received a thick packet of six draft executive orders to roll back the “anti-coal regulations of the Obama Administration.”

The meeting came a day after Trump signed an executive order pledging to repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which had been vehemently opposed by both Murray Energy and the API. Murray sat in the front row of the ceremony marking the occasion, and called the order “wonderful for America.”

   

Energy Secretary Rick Perry (L) and coal magnate Robert Murray (R) embrace. Perry's 2012 presidential campaign received more than $100,000 in Murray Energy donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

   

INSIDE THE ACTION PLAN

The first mention of a Murray Energy action plan appears to be in a Frontline interview with Murray that aired in mid-October. Following the interview, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) called for the plan’s releasebut until now, no details of such an action plan have been made publicly available. The photographs obtained by In These Timescapture sections of the document and indicate that its scope is vast. Bulleted items include proposals to replace members of the Tennessee Valley Authority board, FERC and the NLRB, which—the plan alleges—holds an “anti-employer bias.” The plan also advises cutting the staff of the EPA “in at least half.”

Another photograph shows a cover letter introducing the action plan, addressed to Perry, signed by Murray and printed on Murray Energy letterhead. It concludes, “We are available to assist you in any way that you request.”

The last page of the plan addresses FERC regulation of coal. “The current Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has a history of favoring actions of the Obama Administration,” it states. “That has systematically devalued base load generation as a result of the Obama ‘war on coal.’ Immediate action needs to be taken to require organized power markets to value fuel security ...”

The text amounts to a rough blueprint of the rule unveiled by Perry in September and expected to come to a vote in a FERC meeting on Monday, December 11. At Perry’s urging, FERC will decide whether to integrate the proposal into the country’s energy regulatory landscape.

On the premise that fuel storage will make the grid more reliable, the rule guarantees payments from utilities to power plants that store 90 days’ worth of fuel supplies onsite—which applies only to coal and nuclear facilities. Natural gas, coal’s main competitor, is brought onsite via pipelines so would not qualify. Nor would sources of solar and wind energy.

The rub is that without this guaranteed payment, many of these coal and nuclear plants might soon have been slated for closure, mostly thanks to competition with natural gas. That’s because, in a deregulated market, utilities rely on the most cost-effective option in deciding which power source ratepayers use and pay for. The DOE rule preempts that, essentially making ratepayers in a number of Midwestern, Appalachian and Northeastern states foot the bill for a bailout of ailing coal and nuclear plants. An analysis by the research firm ICF finds that the proposal could cost up to $4 billion a year. A separate study, from the non-profit group Energy Innovation, puts the figure as high as $10.6 billion annually, virtually all of which would be paid for by electricity customers in the areas covered by the DOE rule.

The rule covers about 40,000 of the nation’s 280,000 Megawatts of coal-fired power generating capacity, largely focusing on something called the PJM Interconnection, a regional electricity market containing several Midwest, Appalachian and Northeast states. Murray Energy provides a large portion of the coal for coal-fired generation within the PJM market, which contains one of its biggest customers, FirstEnergy. Politico found that FirstEnergy purchased around two-thirds of its fuel from Murray Energy in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. Murray argued in a letter to the Department of Energy that the companies’ fates were tied, and both would go bankrupt without federal intervention to help FirstEnergy.

FirstEnergy has used a mechanism similar to Perry’s rule to keep troubled coal plants online in Appalachia. In 2013, the company transferred the coal-fired Harrison Power Station from a subsidiary in an unregulated energy market to West Virginia’s regulated energy market. The process, known as “re-regulation,” sticks utility customers with the bill for operating a plant they don’t need. An analysis from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that—as of September 2017—the transfer had cost West Virginian ratepayers upward of $160 million.

“The philosophy behind [the DOE rule] is the same,” says IEEFA energy analyst Cathy Kunkel. And though Perry has justified the rule on the basis of grid reliability, Kunkel, who co-authored the IEEFA study, says there are already policies in place through regional transmission networks to keep plants from closing in the event of an emergency. 

Perry has used the Department of Energy’s own grid reliability study, published in August, to paint a dire picture of the nation’s energy stability. But the DOE study’s lead author, Alison Silverstein, told Forbes that the recommendations in Perry’s rule make it seem "as though they had never read [the study]." She downplayed Perry’s dire warnings about plant shutdowns and threats to reliability, and her own recommendations based on the report differ dramatically from the DOE’s.

The DOE rule would mean that “ratepayer dollars that are spent to bail out old plants are not being spent to develop more efficient forms of energy,” Kunkel says. “You would effectively be crowding out the grid of the future,” including investments in more resilient and cost-effective systems like microgrids. “If you’re serious about grid reliability in times of crisis, then develop microgrids,” she says. “Those are the only things that kept power on during Hurricane Sandy.” Unlike central station power generation, microgrids—often run on renewables—can continue operating even when utilities’ generation and transmission systems fail.

In late July and early August, Murray and FirstEnergy representatives proposed that the DOE stave off coal plant closures by invoking Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act, intended to give the agency expanded authority in the event of a war, natural disaster or terrorist attack. Though that request was ultimately denied, the DOE rule would perform a similar service for FirstEnergy: extending a lifeline from the federal government to troubled generation sources at the expense of utility customers.

WHEELING AND DEALING

If enacted, the plan would be a coup for Murray, whose direct and indirect ties to the administration are well documented. Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for Murray Energy tapped by Trump to serve as deputy administrator of the EPA, admitted during his Senate confirmation hearing that he had attended meetings on behalf of Murray with Perry and seen the action plan. Wheeler, who is pictured in the March meeting, denied involvement in the DOE rule’s creation. “I have not been involved in anything the last few months when this issue has been front and center,” he said. Wheeler said he attended on behalf of Murray.

Murray has heaped glowing praise on Trump, Perry and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who he calls a “star.” Speaking with Greenwire in October, he called the DOE rule proposal “the single greatest action that has been taken in decades to support low-cost reliable electric power in the United States.”

His endorsements of Trump and several senior administration officials have been financial, as well. The company poured $200,000 into Trump’s presidential campaign last year through its PAC, with Murray personally hosting a fundraising dinner. Wheeler told the Washington Post recently that that dinner, hosted in Wheeling, W.Va., is what won him over to Trump’s campaign.

Murray hosted a similar, $2,500-a-head fundraising reception for Perry in 2011 during his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. “We are having a reception and dinner for Presidential candidate Governor James Richard “Rick” Perry of Texas, who is likely to be the Republican Nominee to defeat the destructive Barack Obama,” a letter of invitation from Murray states. The invite went on to describe the 2012 race as the “likely most vital election for America in our lifetimes.”

“In summary,” Murray concludes, “Governor Rick Perry, a ‘Reagan Republican,’ will attempt to restore confidence in the American Dream and American Exceptionalism, and get the Country moving again.” In all, Perry received six figures in donations from Murray Energy and its employees during that race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Murray has come under legal fire and FEC investigation in the past for strong-arming his employees into making political contributions to the company’s conservative PAC. A 2012 memo from Murray, obtained as evidence in a lawsuit brought by one of his former employees, pressures managers into compelling salaried workers to attend a fundraising event for the chairs of the House Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees, the lower house bodies “with the greatest jurisdiction over coal.”

“What is so difficult about asking a well-paid, salaried employee to give us three (3) hours of his [or] her time every two months?” he asks, after bemoaning the preponderance of “empty chairs” at similar events. The email then lists several salaried employees whom Murray had not seen at recent fundraisers for coal-friendly politicians.

The parallels between the DOE language and Murray’s mirrors an incident that occurred while Scott Pruitt was serving as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, where he reliably went after the EPA. As the New York Times’ Eric Lipton revealed, Pruitt allowed Devon Energy to draft a complaint to the EPA on official Oklahoma AG letterhead. Where in that case language was taken verbatim from industry sources, the language in Perry’s rule is more general.

At this point, the remaining details on what else in the action plan have yet to emerge. One prize Murray and other fossil fuel industry interests have had their eye on is a scaleback of the so-called endangerment finding, the result of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling (Massachusetts v. EPA), which gives the EPA the authority and mandate to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, the leading contributor to human-made climate change.

Whether Trump administration regulators set their sites on the endangerment finding or not, what is clear is that the Trump administration is closely engaged in the business of picking winners and losers in America’s energy economy, and that at least one major campaign contributor in the extractive energy business has the administration's ear.

You’re a Sad Man, Jerry Brown

Wed, 2017-12-06 10:30

BONN, GERMANY—Jerry Brown was not at ease, shuffling papers and hastily sipping water before the moderator turned to him. Dressed in a boxy suit, the Democratic governor of California was seated on stage at the U.S. Climate Action Center (USCAC), a flashy, igloo-shaped tent home to a self-styled U.S. shadow government out to work around President Donald Trump’s climate obstinance. They’d come to Bonn for the UN climate talks known as COP23, the first international climate talks since Trump announced he would withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

That morning, a few dozen activists loudly interrupted Brown’s remarks at the opening ceremony, then filed out of the tent to protest the governor’s corporate-backed cap-and-trade program and his support for California’s oil and gas industry.

Brown later gave a boilerplate speech on why Americans should take climate action seriously, and blurted, “By the way, those protesters earlier, they’re wrong on cap-and-trade.”

Right after finishing, Brown interrupted the moderator to address “some of the folks who were giving us trouble.”

“Most of the critics ride around in cars and fly around in airplanes,” he said. “We’re caught up in carbon. Some minds are not subtle enough to appreciate the paradox.” The man sitting next to him on stage—an executive from PG&E, one of the country’s largest private utilities—let out a laugh.

Billionaires were the most optimistic people at COP23. It was easy to feel upbeat amid the comforts of the multi-milliondollar USCAC, bankrolled by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a slew of corporate sponsors, many of which had space on stage during the week-plus of programming. There was a free espresso cart, comfortable seating and complimentary copies of Bloomberg’s book, Climate Hope, doled out by bright-eyed young staffers. Main-stage programming featured titles like “Business Leading the Way” and “Bipartisan Solutions to the Climate Crisis.” Despite Trump leaving the Paris agreement, the coalition of politicians and executives in USCAC declared, “We Are Still In.”

The protesters were less sunny. After security escorted them out, those who had interrupted Brown huddled for a debrief in the muddy area outside the tent. Nearly all hailed from the United States, and many from communities dealing first-hand with the impact of the kinds of extraction Brown has been wary of halting. 

Eva Malis, 22, took part in and helped plan the interruption. She grew up in Valencia, Calif., and already has experience going head-to-head with Brown. “I’ve spent countless hours trying to get Jerry Brown to stop fracking in California and put a complete ban on it,” she tells In These Times.

Brown has close ties with the fossil fuel industry that go back to his father, former California Gov. Pat Brown, who made a fortune in oil. Both Jerry Brown and the state’s Democratic Party have taken large donations from oil and gas companies. Last summer, Brown worked with them on drafting a watered-down cap-and-trade bill that he spent much of his time at COP23 lionizing as a model.

“Being here as a Californian and seeing Jerry Brown honored as a climate hero is really frustrating,” Malis says. The USCAC that Saturday afternoon was a rough microcosm of the two faces of resistance to Trump’s climate denialism.

The first—headed up by Brown, Bloomberg and company—sees corporations and local governments as capable of confronting climate change, federal mandates be damned. Activists argue that only systemic change, including strict regulations and a democratically controlled renewable energy system, can avert catastrophe. Anything less, they say, will send humanity hurtling along a path to destruction, with working-class communities and communities of color on the front lines.

A few days later, the governor still seemed rankled by the protests. Asked by the Sacramento Bee if he was enjoying himself in Germany, he replied, “No, I hate everything. Why do you ask that silly question?”

Why the Sanders-Warren Plan for Puerto Rico Is a Model for Climate Legislation

Tue, 2017-12-05 17:56

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren last week unveiled a bill proposing the creation of a $146 billion “Marshall Plan” to recover and repair the storm-ravaged economies in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands—by relieving the territories’ overwhelming debt and investing heavily in low-carbon, storm-resilient economic development.

As Republicans all but abandon the guise of deficit hawkishness with their trillion-dollar-plus tax plan, such ambitious spending proposals could be a model not just for disaster response, but for Democratic policymaking going forward. There are few paths to dealing adequately with climate change that won’t involve large-scale public investment. In that, Sanders and Warren’s “Marshall Plan” could model a way that U.S. policy can help pick up the pieces after climate-fueled storms—and help stop Hurricane Maria-style heavy weather from becoming more likely.

“Many are struggling to get clean drinking water, and more than 100,000 people have left Puerto Rico alone,” Sanders said in a press conference with several of the bill’s co-sponsors last Tuesday morning. “This is not acceptable, and we are here today to tell the people of Puerto Rico and tell the people of the Virgin Islands that they are not forgotten, they are not alone, and that we intend to do everything possible to rebuild those beautiful islands.”

More than two months on from Hurricane Maria, up to 60 percent of residents in the U.S. Virgin Islands remain without electricity and several basic services, according to a late November report from the Department of Energy. Large swathes of Puerto Rico remain without power as well.

The plans laid out in the bill are wide-ranging. It stipulates that $51 billion would be devoted to economic development on the island, and $27 billion would go toward rebuilding downed, damaged and neglected infrastructure—including the island’s long-beleaguered electric utility. An additional $62 billion would go to repaying Puerto Rico’s at least $74 billion in municipal debt. Specific provisions cover everything from grants for local agriculture to parity for Medicaid and Medicare payments to additional funds for the Department of Veterans Affairs to financing for a rapid scale-up of the island’s renewable energy capacity. The plan also hands control of restoration programs over to Puerto Ricans, stating that “the people of Puerto Rico and their elected representatives should determine the long-term future of the island.”

Building in more democratic control of the Puerto Rican economy could also be a way to head off corporate interests that tend to swoop in post-disaster. “We’ve all read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine,” said Sanders’ climate and energy advisor Katie Thomas, who worked extensively on the bill. “[Sanders] said we need to do everything we can to prevent the Shock Doctrine-ization of this situation. He wanted information on what had happened after Katrina, when so much of the public infrastructure was either privatized or eliminated. We wanted to be clear that we don’t want anything like that to happen in the future in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands.”

According to Thomas, the bill emerged in part from the Senator’s October trip to the island and a series of “really productive roundtable conversations with dozens of labor leaders, mayors and leaders wanting to rebuild Puerto Rico back stronger than it was before.” While the bill initially came about as a way to deal with the island’s electricity grid—virtually leveled during Maria and in dire disrepair before that—that visit and subsequent talks with people on the island pushed them to consider a broader strategy, Thomas told In These Times.

Even before Maria hit, the U.S.-appointed fiscal control board in Puerto Rico—the body now overseeing the island’s finances—had its eye on privatizing the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the island’s monopoly electric utility. “The junta,” as the control board is known colloquially on the island, is charged with restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt. The bill that created the junta, PROMESA, was intended to act as a mediator between creditors and the Puerto Rican government. While it’s kept the vulture funds that hold Puerto Rico’s debt at bay from demanding total repayment, that protection has come at the expense of deep cuts to the island’s public services and a push to sell public entities off to private bidders. PREPA was at the top of the control board’s privatization wish list before Maria. After the storm hit, the board took several more steps in that direction.

Sanders’ bill would bar the privatization of any public entity receiving funds from the U.S. government, effectively making it impossible to privatize PREPA for the foreseeable future.

Thomas also explained that one of the bill’s main priorities is not having U.S. officials decide what recovery looks like in either of the territories aided by the bill or public entities like PREPA. “It’s really important to us that the federal government is not making decisions for the people of Puerto Rico,” she said by phone. “We didn’t think it was appropriate for us to say what the future of PREPA should be, because we don’t think that’s an appropriate role for the federal government.”

Instead, the bill would entrust the Puerto Rico Energy Commission—the regulatory body that oversees PREPA, created in 2014—with overseeing plans for power restoration, with its counterpart performing the same function in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Rather than restoring PREPA to its status pre-storm, the bill would further prioritize both getting power online as quickly as possible and transitioning rapidly over to renewable fuels, which are both less expensive and more storm resilient for the import-dependent island. While an outage at a fossil fueled central station generator can leave thousands of people without electricity, panels can often remain online and provide power amidst grid failures.

For David Ortiz, the Latino climate action network director for El Puente, expanding renewable energy goes hand-in-hand with expanding economic opportunities in Puerto Rico, where he lives. Ortiz, who consulted with Sanders’s office on the bill in the lead-up to its release, told In These Times, “Economically we’ve really been hit, almost destroyed.

“What we need to do is be able to think of multiple ways of generating renewable energy so that folks have access to it,” Ortiz continued, “be it through small community grids or through rooftop solar. But we also need to prepare our workers for that shift, and continue to have employment and support for them. What we don’t want is for other companies from outside to come into the island, because we’ll continue to have more money go outside of the island.”

He described going recently to a usually-busy part of Old San Juan with his wife and family, and finding the normally packed parking lot they use filled with just a few cars, and several stores in the area’s main business district shuttered. “You can’t help but to worry about the future of Puerto Rico’s economy,” he told me. Ortiz sees the bill as a “really holistic approach to dealing with the crisis.”

There’s nothing particularly radical about the idea of spending public funds on the kinds of things that get economies back on their feet, from job creation to massive infrastructure investment. Republicans and even Democrats tend to swat down ambitious spending proposals as wasteful. The faint silver lining of the GOP’s success with the tax bill is that they can’t claim with any authority to care much at all about the size of a federal deficit they just pledged to increase by as much as $2 trillion over the next 10 years.

Though several details of the initiative would be left up to officials in Puerto Rico, the new Marshall Plan’s structure lays out an attractive model for ambitious climate policy on the mainland—that is, democratic climate action and disaster response that talks more about what it will do for workers and the economy than for the planet. If we have the money for tax cuts for corporations and the ultra-wealthy, then we have the money to make the kinds of pro-worker economic transformations the climate crisis demands. With Sanders and Warren’s bill, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could show the way forward to a Democratic Party that isn’t afraid to spend money on the things we need.

Establishment Democrats Lack the Will to Fight the GOP Tax Plan. It’s Time for an Alternative.

Mon, 2017-12-04 15:55

Despite opposition from 52 percent of the American public according to a CNN poll, tax “reform” has now passed both the House and the Senate largely on party line votes. All that remains is for the GOP Congress to reconcile the two bills. The exact details are yet to be determined, but what is not in doubt is that the Republicans are set to deliver lavish tax breaks to the 1 percent.

This giveaway to the rich will be accompanied by major cuts in the 2018 federal budget (another piece of legislation that must be reconciled before the end of the year) for initiatives that help the rest of us, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). In 2016, SNAP fed many of the 41 million Americans—including 12.9 million children—who suffered from food insecurity and hunger.

The Democrats’ ability to adequately respond to this one-sided class war, waged by GOP donors and their legislative puppets, is in doubt. The party of Franklin Roosevelt today lacks the moral authority—and the appetite—to take on this challenge because, as Theo Anderson notes in this month’s print cover story, “The party’s New Deal-era critique of concentrated wealth and power has been supplanted by a corporate-friendly worldview.”

This brings us to the current struggle between corporate and progressive Democrats for the future of the party. Will it be a party of the rich and powerful or a party of the people?

In 2018, the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee will vote on whether to implement the reforms advocated by the Unity Reform Commission, established as part of a deal between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns at the 2016 convention in Philadelphia. One of the key proposed reforms is a drastic reduction in the number of Democratic superdelegates.

But will the Democratic establishment agree to cede this advantage?

Reforms are also required at the state level, where in not a few cases the Democratic Party is ruled by election laws structured to preserve the status quo, protect incumbents and prevent popular participation. Take the New York Democratic Party, one of the most corrupt and unaccountable state parties in the nation.

Not coincidentally, New York, a largely progressive state, is home to the Independent Democratic Conference, eight Democratic state senators who vote with their Republican counterparts, giving the GOP de facto control of the state senate and allowing Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to govern as a centrist. Thanks to these eight Democrats, progressive initiatives passed in the assembly routinely die in the upper house.

New York is one of 12 states that hold “closed” primaries, in which only those who are registered with a party are allowed to vote in that party’s primaries. So, say you would like to register as a Democrat in order to vote for the progressive candidate who is challenging your local state senator—a member of the Independent Democratic Conference—in the 2018 primary.

Well, you are out of luck.

According to New York election law, if you want to vote in the September 11 state primary (or the June 26 congressional primary) you should have registered as a Democrat by Oct. 13, 2017.

As Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, told the Huffington Post, “The party apparatus here has managed to intertwine its tentacles around the election law … and they are strangling it, like a tree with a parasitic vine.”

Progressives can and should put up as many brilliant candidates to challenge establishment Democrats as they are able to muster. If, however, Democratic officialdom continues to protect the status quo with restrictive primaries in states like New York, it will wall itself off from a generation of young, newly engaged progressives and set the stage for more voter disaffection, spoiler campaigns and defeat. It will also pave the way for more tax “reforms” that will transfer our nation’s wealth from the majority to the 1 percent.

Worried About Russian Foreign Interference? Take a Look Into Saudi Arabia.

Mon, 2017-12-04 13:52

Imagine if Russia — instead of doing what it has been accused of doing last year — had funded and facilitated an attack on US soil that killed thousands of Americans. Then imagine that US policymakers, rather than punish the Kremlin by cutting diplomatic ties, imposing sanctions, seeking legal recourse, or all of the above, covered up its involvement in the attack and continued to treat it as a loyal ally.

Imagine if the president who presided over that attack had decades of intimate personal and financial ties to members of the Russian elite and subsequently spirited dozens of Russian nationals out of the country before law enforcement could interrogate them.

Imagine if, despite full knowledge of the Kremlin’s once and ongoing anti-American activities, successive presidents heaped praise on Russia’s authoritarian government, sold it weapons, and made regular pilgrimages to wine and dine with its leaders.

Imagine if an army of Russian lobbyists operated on Capitol Hill to ensure Washington’s pro-Kremlin line, eventually pressuring American leadership into actively assisting it in carrying out one of this decade’s worst war crimes.

Imagine if, at the end of all this, Donald Trump ran for president on an explicitly anti-Russia line, only to shamelessly reverse himself once elected, embrace the Russian leadership, and pursue policies that benefited them even more enthusiastically than his predecessors had.

It’s a pretty scary thought.

Thankfully, in the real world, none of this applies to Russia. It does, however, perfectly describe Saudi Arabia.

“A 9/11 Scale Event”

Politicians and pundits have clamored to label the alleged Russian interference an “act of war.” Several have compared it to Pearl Harbor, and Tom Friedman declared it a “9/11 scale event.”

Even more of a 9/11 scale event was the actual 9/11. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the attack was planned by a scion of one of the country’s wealthiest and politically connectedfamilies. The hijackers, we now know thanks to the release of twenty-eight previously classified pages from the 9/11 commission’s report, had ties to members of the Saudi government, including the Saudi ambassador to the United States, who also belongs to the country’s royal family.

More recently, newly unearthed FBI files describe a 1999 “dry-run” for 9/11 carried out by Saudi government agents with tickets bought by the Saudi embassy.

But even without the 2016 release of those twenty-eight pages, Saudi involvement in anti-US terrorism has long been an open secret. John Lehman, Reagan’s navy secretary and one of the members of the 9/11 commission, went on record, saying that “it was well known in intelligence circles that the Islamic affairs office functioned as the Saudis’ ‘fifth column’ in support of Muslim extremists.” Further, intelligence services suspect various Saudi charities of funding extremists, including the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now-defunct, state-funded Saudi charity that exported a conservative, fundamentalist form of Islam and was known to support terrorists.

Leaked state department cables document Hillary Clinton’s concernsabout the Saudi government’s reluctance to crack down on wealthy patrons of terrorism. Zacarias Moussaoui, a former al-Qaeda member, has testified that Saudi royals made large donations to the organization during the 1990s and that he discussed carrying out a terrorist attack with a Saudi embassy staff member. Meanwhile, many have complained that Saudi Arabia resists US efforts to crack down on terrorist financing and even stonewalls investigations.

In other words, if we’re talking about national security threats, Russia can’t compete with the chaos Saudi Arabia has facilitated — and still does, given the weapons it’s been sending to extremists in Syria. But you’re not likely to see any US officials or citizens hauled before Congress to testify about their relationship with Saudis anytime soon. The national security establishment has always protected Saudi Arabia, as the lack of any accountability for their complicity in September 11 demonstrates.

Take Robert Mueller, the current #Resistance hero leading an investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia and the director of the FBI at the time the 9/11 commission was undertaking its investigation. Andrew Cockburn learned that Mueller discouraged an investigator from reviewing the damning FBI files in the bureau’s San Diego office and blocked investigators’ requests to interview an informant who was close with two of the hijackers. Former senator Bob Graham, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee after 9/11, accused Mueller of being a “facilitator of the ineptitude of the Bureau,” covering up the truth.

These efforts continued long after the attack. The Bush administration had to be pressured into setting up an inquiry, and Bush originally nominated Henry Kissinger to head the commission investigating the attack. Besides being one of the twentieth century’s great monsters, Kissinger had also declared in August 2002 that it was “not acceptable to depict Saudi Arabia as a terrorist state.” His firm reportedly counted companies that did business with members of the Saudi royal family as clients, and he had once flirted with going into business with BCCI, a Saudi-owned bank that was really a conduit for the royal family’s geopolitical ambitions.

Kissinger was forced to resign from the 9/11 commission when he refused to release his client list, which many believed included Saudi clients. Journalist Philip Shenon recounted how Kissinger, when asked in a private meeting with the victims’ families if he had any clients who were Saudi or named bin Laden, spilled his coffee and nearly fell off the couch.

Once the commission’s report was finally released, President George W. Bush famously redacted the twenty-eight pages that implicated Saudi officials. When Obama took office, he personally promised the families of 9/11 victims that he would release them but never did so. He finally made them available amid a crescendo of public pressureand after more than a decade of persistence by a group of victims’ relatives who were suing the Saudi government.

Upon the documents’ release, the political establishment downplayed their details as mere “raw intelligence” that hadn’t been proven. Compare this with the eager acceptance of the wild, unverified claims in the Trump dossier, or the evidence-free assertions the intelligence community has released about Russian electoral interference. Moreover, multiple members of the 9/11 commission have said they believe Saudi officials were involved in the attack.

Bandar Bush

Anyone poring over the tangled web of both real and hyperbolic Russian connections to Trump officials may find the Bush administration’s links to Saudis far more alarming. But these connections have slipped liberals’ minds now that they’re pining for a third W. term.

For one, the Bush family has business ties to the bin Laden family: George W. started his first business, Arbusto Energy, with financing from the man who had been appointed the Houston representative of Salem bin Laden, Osama’s half brother. Salem was no religious extremist, but he did help his brother buy surface-to-air missiles for mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

And that relationship wasn’t as exceptional as it sounds. It’s just one part of the Bush family’s decades of financial and business ties to various wealthy, well-connected Saudis, as detailed in Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud.

Particularly interesting is Prince Bandar, member of the royal family, ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005, and the former head of Saudi intelligence. Anyone who read the twenty-eight pageswould recognize Bandar as the high-ranking Saudi official who, along with his wife, gave money to the extremist who bragged about helping two of the 9/11 hijackers. He also had phone numbers that popped up in the contacts of an al-Qaeda associate captured in Pakistan.

If you belonged to the Bush family, however, you’d know him for something else. Bandar enjoyed such an intimate relationship with the Bushes he was nicknamed “Bandar Bush.” Close friends with the elder Bush for more than twenty years, Bandar and George H. W. went hunting and fishing together, and Bandar donated $1 million to his presidential library. “You’re my friend for life,” Bandar wrote to Bush Sr as the 1992 election slipped from the latter’s grasp. “I feel like one of your family, you are like one of our own.”

When Bush Jr was considering his own run for president, his father instructed him to consult Bandar about world affairs, as Bob Woodward reported:

One, he’s our friend. Our means America, not just the Bush family. Number two, he knows everyone around the world who counts. And number three, he will give you his view on what he sees happening in the world. Maybe he can set up meetings for you with people around the world.

The younger Bush maintained the friendship while president. When it came out in 2002 that a vehemently anti-Saudi private analyst had given a presentation to a Pentagon advisory board, Bush invited Bandar and his family to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and assured him it didn’t reflect his views. Kissinger, also present, duly defended the Saudis, and then–secretary of state Colin Powell — who was Bandar’s old racquetball buddy and received a 1995 Jaguar as a gift from him — also disavowed the briefing to his Saudi counterpart.

Bandar was one of the first people Bush told about his decision to invade Iraq; he received briefings on the war planning before the invasion; and he reportedly attended meetings at the White House even after he left the ambassadorship.

For skeptics, this was simply evidence that the Bush administration was “remarkably unconcerned with the appearance of impropriety.”

Most astoundingly, in an incident that’s never been satisfactorily explained, Bush met privately with Bandar on September 13, 2001, and the two smoked cigars on the Truman Balcony. Hours after their meeting, while flights were still limited and planes carrying organ transplants were being grounded around the United States, chartered planes picked up 160 Saudi nationals (including Saudi royals and members of the bin Laden family) and flew them out of the country, escorted by FBI agents. Simultaneously, federal agents were preparing round-ups and indefinite detentions of more than 1,200 innocent Muslims.

Although the 9/11 commission determined there was no impropriety, the White House consistently refused to tell the commission who authorized the flights, and an FBI spokesperson denied the bureau was involved, even as Bandar told reporters it was. Richard Clarke, Bush’s counterterrorism “czar,” later claimed he’d approved the flights due to the White House’s fears of retaliation against the Saudi nationals, but he couldn’t recall who or even which agency had brought him the request. For three years, the White House insisted that one of the flights didn’t happen.

More importantly, most of the passengers weren’t interviewed by investigators. One of those spirited out of the country was Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a media mogul and champion racehorse owner whose phone numbers were provided years later by terrorist Abu Zubaydah to interrogators he believed to be Saudi. Relieved to be in the hands of Saudis, he instructed the interrogators to call the prince. He would “tell you what to do,” he said.

A year after the 9/11 commission reported that the “intelligence community identified [Saudi Arabia] as the primary source of money for al Qaeda both before and after the September 11 attacks” — and Bush read and suppressed the damning twenty-eight pages — Bush invited then–Saudi crown prince Abdullah to Crawford, where they held hands and issued a statement affirming “our personal friendship and that between our nations.”

The exact details of what the Saudi government did or didn’t do regarding September 11 remain unconfirmed, but only because they were never fully investigated. Former Navy secretary John Lehman has said the “investigation was terminated before all the relevant leads were able to be investigated.” Former senator Bob Kerrey claimed the commission didn’t have the time and resources to “pursue the entire line of enquiry into Saudi Arabia” and has accusedthe government of covering up the Saudi government’s role.

Much like Russia’s role in the Trump campaign, many things are still not clear about the Saudi ruling class’s exact role in the September 11 attacks. And since 2003, when al-Qaeda carried out an attack in Saudi Arabia, the country has reportedly been less obstructionist and more willing to partner with the United States in stopping individual terrorists.

Still, replace “Saudi Arabia” with “Russia” in this account, and it would quickly become the subject of breathless exposés, endless tweet storms, and outraged condemnation. Yet the Bush administration has never faced the same level of scrutiny or hysteria for its ties to the Saudis as Trump and his inner circle are now undergoing for their Russian connections. It’s not hard to see why: this is par for the course in Washington.

A Bipartisan Romance

It would be one thing if the favoritism offered to Saudi Arabia was limited to one administration, as Trump’s alleged Russian ties are. But while Bush and his family stand out for the extent and sheer brazenness of their Saudi connections, fealty to Saudi Arabia has always been a bipartisan affair.

In what became his presidency’s trademark, Obama said all the right things about Saudi Arabia — calling them a “so-called” ally in 2002, criticizing their state repression and misogyny, and expressingconcerns about their funding of fundamentalist ideology — but did precisely the opposite.

He immediately sought to improve relations with the new Saudi king and offered the country more arms sales than any previous administration. He fought tooth and nail to prevent 9/11 victims’ families from suing the Saudi government, vetoing legislation that allowed them to do so. (Congress overrode his veto.) And he backedthe Saudis’ criminal war in Yemen, which has engineered the worst famine in recent history.

Nonetheless, pundits assured us, Obama was “irritated” and “frustrated” with the Saudis, and analysts promised his mild words were “leading to new departures in US policy.”

Or look at the Clintons. “This is the first time we’ve ever been attacked by a foreign adversary, and then they suffer no real consequences,” Hillary Clinton complained about the Russian hacking on two separate occasions this year. Clinton seemed to have forgotten about Saudi Arabia, whose nationals carried out a very real attack on the United States and, far from suffering no consequences, had been rewarded.

But it’s no surprise the Saudis slipped Clinton’s mind, given how generous they’ve been to her family over the years. The royals were the most munificent foreign donors to Bill’s presidential library, giving around $10 million, reportedly the same amount as they gave to the elder Bush’s. They also donated between $10 and $25 million to the Clinton Foundation, after which they received a marked increasein arms sales from the Clinton-led state department.

Hillary herself privately acknowledged the Saudis’ role in financing terrorism, years after her aides celebrated weapons sales to the regime. At the same time, Tony Podesta, brother of Clinton campaign manager and confidante John Podesta, was working as a lobbyist for the Saudis.

Meanwhile, the Clinton-aligned Center for American Progress and Clinton ally Mike Morell urged a renewed commitment to supporting Saudi Arabia a few weeks before the election. No wonder the Saudis were looking forward to her presidency.

Washington lobbyists — and not just the Podestas — line up to serve Saudi interests in return for the government’s largesse. The royal family has hired at least fifteen firms to date, with at least six signing on since the inauguration. Many of these firms have connections to members of both the Democratic and Republican establishments.

As the Sunlight Foundation’s Josh Stewart told the Washington Post, “Saudi Arabia is consistently one of the bigger players when it comes to foreign influence in Washington,” using its lobbyists to court politicians and secure favorable media coverage. Of course, unlike the Trump campaign’s alleged misdeeds, this collusion is out in the open.

Decades of Access

Ultimately, the Saudi government has been allowed to get away with these things because of its vast oil reserves. But for decades, the Saudis have also consciously attempted to curry favor with US officials, Democrat and Republican. From their sudden decision in 1992 to give millions to an Arkansas academic institute just a month before then–Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s election victory, to their 1980s donations to initiatives led by Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, to their 1970s purchase of a Georgia bank that swiftly resulted in Jimmy Carter getting a personal business loan restructured, Saudi cash has been a mainstay of American politics for generations.

Ordinarily, this level of long-term influence-courting from another country might inspire suspicion or scrutiny, particularly when the country in question has been facilitating anti-American interests for just as long. But the Saudis’ image has long been protected by a pliant media, reinforcing its global PR efforts.

Bandar regularly received flattering profiles, like this one, from major newspapers, painting him as “the Arab Gatsby.” Columnists like the Washington Post’s David Ignatius have spent years writing puff pieces that whitewashed the Saudi government’s appalling human rights record. Some of them have even ended up working for the Saudi government.

Most recently, the New York Times faced much justified criticism for this column, which paints the country’s current crown prince — in the midst of war crimes in Yemen and a political purge at home — as a far-sighted reformer. The author? Tom Friedman, who is apparently more outraged at “9/11 scale events” than he is at the actual 9/11.

As historian Abdullah Al-Arian‏ recently documented, Friedman’s love letter is just the latest in a seventy-year-long series of Timesarticles that declare successive Saudi rulers “reformers” and “modernizers.” And while the Saudis regularly pay for favorable coverage, there’s no evidence they have ever sent the Gray Lady a single dime for these fawning pieces.

Who Owns Trump?

The disparity between how Saudi Arabia and Russia appear in the public consciousness is perhaps best illustrated by Donald Trump. Trump is widely believed to be Vladimir Putin’s puppet, subverting the United States from within at the behest of his master in the Kremlin. Accusers point to his friendly rhetoric toward Putin, his many business interests in Russia, and, of course, the country’s alleged collusion with the Trump campaign.

Perhaps this will all turn out to be true. But if “Russia owns Trump,” Putin has received remarkably little return on his purchase.

Since Trump became president, his administration has widened sanctions against Russia; maintained its rhetorical and material support of Ukraine (and publicly mused about sending Ukraine weapons, a marked escalation from Obama’s policy); bombed Russia’s ally, Syria; shot down a Syrian warplane, which led to an escalating series of threats between the United States and Russia; and forcedstate-funded Russian news channel RT to register as a foreign agent, triggering retaliation from the Kremlin.

Trump’s special envoy tasked with ending the Ukrainian conflict saysUS-Russian relations are still at rock bottom. According to Dimitri Skorbutov, a former editor at the state-run Rossiya news agency, who has criticized the Russian state media’s pro-Trump coverage: “Russian authorities failed with their hopes that financial and media support will make Trump really Russian.”

Now compare this to Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. On the campaign trail, Trump was a strident anti-Saudi critic. He complained about having to support Saudi Arabia militarily, gripedabout (and factually mangled) the story of the Saudi nationals who were flown out of the United States after September 11, accused the Saudis of bigotry and “funding hate,” and charged the “dopey” Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal with seeking “to control our U.S. politicians with daddy’s money.” “Can’t do it when I get elected,” he wrote.

He even brought up Saudi Arabia’s 9/11 connections. “Who blew up the World Trade Center? It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents,” he told Fox and Friendslast February.

Once president, however, Trump performed a neat U-turn. He chose the country he’d recently accused of carrying out the September 11 attacks to be the site of his first foreign trip as president, breaking from his five predecessors, who had all first traveled to either Canada or Mexico. Once there, he happily took part in a sword dance, touched a glowing orb, and bowed his head to receive a medal from the king, something he had mocked Obama for doing years before. He then lavished the country with praise in a major speech in Riyadh, violating his own insistence on using the term “radical Islam” lest he offend his hosts.

He dutifully (and ludicrously) kept Saudi Arabia off his already ludicrous travel ban, which is supposedly an anti-terrorism policy. When the Saudis and their allies told him Qatar funded terrorists, he eagerly and publicly backed their attempt to isolate the country, forcing the state department to put out yet another fire. He’s ramped up Obama’s policy of facilitating Saudi war crimes in Yemen and shows every sign of continuing to sell them billions of dollars worth of weapons. Most recently, he cheered on the crown prince’s consolidation of power.

And why should we be surprised? Trump has vast business interests in Saudi Arabia, including eight companies tied to hotel interests that he registered right after he announced his campaign. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledged a combined $100 million to his daughter’s fund for women entrepreneurs. The country owns the forty-fifth floor of Trump World Tower, and one of Trump’s appointees is even a registered agent for Saudi Arabia.

In other words, there is far more evidence that Trump is a Saudi puppet than a Russian one. But you won’t hear Democrats level this accusation. How can they, when they know any criticism of ties to Saudi Arabia would be tantamount to criticizing their own party’s foreign policy establishment?

Saudi-Gate

Something very fishy happened between the Trump campaign and Russia, and with any luck we’ll one day find out what exactly that something was. But it remains dumbfounding that the alleged Russian collusion is treated as an apocalyptic event while similar and far more insidious interference from Saudi Arabia over the course of decades is met with a collective shrug.

Over three decades, Saudi Arabia has successfully ingratiated itself at the highest levels of power in the United States. The Saudi ruling class has provided favor after favor to American officials, insinuated itself into the good graces of both high-ranking officials and reporters, and donated a steady stream of many millions of dollars to a bipartisan group of policymakers, including two of the country’s foremost political dynasties, receiving the backing of the United States in return.

It’s done all this while openly spreading fundamentalist ideology and assisting extremists in carrying out attacks on Americans, and in spite of the voting public’s distaste for the regime. And that’s without even mentioning its government’s and royal family’s involvement in September 11, or the Bush administration’s dubious attempts to shield it from scrutiny, neither of which have been subject to a full investigation.

Whatever transpired between Trump and Russia will remain secret for now, but Saudi Arabia’s meddling has long been out in the open.

This piece first appeared at Jacobin

In These Times is proud to feature content from Jacobin, a print quarterly that offers socialist perspectives on politics and economics. Support Jacobin and buy a four-issue subscription for just $19.95.

What We Got Wrong When Covering the Bill Clinton Sexual Abuse Allegations

Mon, 2017-12-04 12:33

The Harvey Weinstein revelations have stirred up uncomfortable questions about the past. On Nov. 10, 2017, MSNBC host Chris Hayes (senior editor at In These Times from 2005 to 2006) tweeted:

As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s “what about Bill Clinton” stuff is, it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.

In that spirit, we look back at In These Times’ coverage of the events. From 1998 through 1999, In These Times published 22 articles discussing the Monica Lewinsky scandal. One recurring theme was the nefariousness of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, who, after spending $40 million on fruitless investigations into Filegate, Travelgate and Whitewater, started looking at anything that might bring down the Clinton administration.

In the issue dated Oct. 14, 1998, Robert Parry wrote:

We are witnessing a kind of postmodern political coup against the president, over charges that are essentially trivial: a pathetic attempt to conceal a tawdry extramarital affair. Certainly, the offense pales in seriousness when compared to the constitutional violations committed by Richard Nixon in Watergate and by Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the Iran-Contra and related scandals.

The previous March, in his column, “School for Scandal: Kenneth Starr Graduates Valedictorian,” Joel Bleifuss wrote:

Monica Lewinsky, the 24-year-old former intern who allegedly had sexual relations with the president, is not party to a conspiracy. Clinton may have had an affair with the young woman, but that has no bearing on the fact that, in a larger sense, Hillary Clinton is right: A strong case can be made that the Republican right orchestrated this scandal in an ongoing attempt to destroy the Clinton presidency. Like previous Clinton scandals, this story follows a familiar trajectory, passing from partisan insiders to the right-wing media to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s endless investigation—and from there into the national news. If this latest scandal is like the others, it will eventually all come to naught.

Today, Joel, now editor and publisher, says that, “rather than describe Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s 17-month-long sexual relationship as ‘an affair,’ I could have asked: Is consensual sex possible between a 22-year-old White House intern and the president of the United States?”

Economist Julianne Malveaux was one of the few In These Times contributors to point out the power imbalance between Lewinsky and Clinton. Her Oct. 14, 1998, article, “The White House Players Club,” reads:

While partisan Republicans say the Starr report is “not just about sex,” it mentions sex more than 500 times, lying a couple hundred times, a cigar about 40 times and Whitewater only twice. It is impossible for this progressive Democratic feminist to argue in support of President Clinton’s behavior, but it is equally impossible to argue that Starr’s report is about anything but political entrapment. ... Having said all that, where does that leave women in the workplace? Monica Lewinsky is no different from millions of subordinate women who have had to ‘use what they got to get what they want.’ Some have done it consensually and eagerly, others haltingly and under duress. In the latter case, we call it sexual harassment and prosecute bosses who coerce sex from their workers. Consensual sex in the workplace, though, is not a victimless event. It boils up, spills over and poisons workplace interactions. That’s why the law and the public frown on authority figures who use their power to facilitate relationships with subordinates.  These are not always exploitative relationships, but they have an exploitative appearance because of the imbalance of power. Those who understand the inequality of power between men and women have consistently been concerned with the inherent possibility for coercion in Clinton-Lewinsky type relationships.

In a follow-up tweet, Hayes posted a link to a story about Juanita Broaddrick’s allegation that in April 1978, then-Arkansas Attorney General Bill Clinton raped her in a Little Rock hotel room. In the wake of Weinstein, Hayes asked, “Does this sound familiar?”

In February 1999, the New York Times, following an interview with Broaddrick, reported:

Shortly after he arrived [at a prearranged business meeting in her hotel room], she said, Mr. Clinton moved close to her and tried to kiss her, succeeding only in biting her upper lip, hard. Then, she said, he forced her down on to the bed and had intercourse with her. “I was so totally surprised, totally shocked,’’ she said. Afterward, she said, he got up from the bed, put on his sunglasses, and while walking to the door, said, “You’d better put some ice on that,’’ referring to her bruised and bitten lip. Then he left.

The name Juanita Broaddrick has never previously appeared in the pages of In These Times.

We were right to question Kenneth Starr’s integrity; as independent progressive media, we have a mandate to correct right-wing distortions. But in the 1990s, we let the political battles blinker our ability to see what was unfolding on the national stage. 

We became complicit in sidelining and silencing women’s reports of sexual abuse. In the months ahead, with more revelations to come, we have a chance to do better.

The GOP Tax Bill Is Basically Like Throwing Gasoline On The Dumpster Fire That Is the Climate Crisis

Fri, 2017-12-01 17:07

The GOP’s latest tax bill won’t just benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, it will also be horrible for the planet—and not just in the ways you might think. In the Republicans’ bid to pass as many of their long-standing priorities as possible, they’ll also do plenty to cook the planet.

For starters, the bill would extend a generous corporate tax cut to the very industries now careening the planet and humanity toward a hotter, wetter future, namely coal, oil and gas. It would also open up 1.5 million acres of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling. An analysis from Oil Change International released last year found that nearly two-thirds of fuel reserves in existing oil and gas fields need to remain undeveloped to keep the earth from warming beyond 2 degrees, a threshold that itself would mean large-scale climate impacts and severe loss of land in low-lying areas.

The bill could also make it harder for the United States to break its addiction to fossil fuels. Though it wouldn’t eliminate existing tax credits for renewable fuel sources, the legislation could make these credits harder to access. On November 22, a provision many renewable energy advocates hoped would get left behind in the House version of the tax package—the Base Erosion Anti-Abuse Tax (BEAT) provision—re-emerged in the Senate version, prompting a vocal response from solar and wind trade associations. “We normally don’t speak in these kinds of terms, where we talk about collapse of the tax equity market,” a joint letter from several renewables trade associations stated in response. “We’re looking at the end of the principal financing mechanism that has fostered growth of the renewable energy sector since the 1990s.”

The BEAT provision would essentially add uncertainty for investors in renewable projects that they could collect tax equity from Production and Investment Tax Credits, which currently subsidize around a third of wind and solar development. According to a blog post from Keith Martin, a lawyer specializing in tax and project financing, so-called tax equity financing provides around 40 to 50 percent of the funds for the average solar project and 50 to 60 percent for the average wind project.

Were it to be implemented, the BEAT provision would mean that neither renewable energy companies nor their investors could be sure at the onset of a wind or solar project whether they could claim the relevant tax credits as tax equity, threatening to upend one of the primary incentives offered by the government to spur investment in renewable energy. Because the measure would also apply retroactively, Martin told the trade publication Utility Dive that it could cut into tax credit claims on deals “closed as far back as 2008.” (For more detailed explainers on the BEAT provision, see here and here.)

The bill may also lead to a slew of more indirect impacts as well. By overturning the ban on churches and other non-profit groups’ engagement in religious activism, the bill could further empower climate-denying politicians around the country. Religious institutions hold a range of beliefs on climate change and the environment, though a 2015 survey of evangelicals—one of the country’s most influential religious groups—found that just 24 percent think of global warming as “a serious problem.”

Should Congress pass the bill, it would likely lead to a wave of automatic spending cuts—many of which are critical to climate resilience. The already severely indebted National Flood Insurance Program—virtually the nation’s only flood insurance provider, backed by FEMA—would take a $1.6 billion hit. The bill could also eliminate over $100 million from a fund to help clean-up maritime oil spills and several other funds across multiple agencies dealing with coastal and wildlife restoration.

Since Trump took office and announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, cities and states such as New York and California have emerged as more hopeful venues for climate action than the federal government, and many have already pledged to make bold progress on transitioning to renewable energy. By eliminating the most meaningful parts of the state and local income tax (“SALT”) exemption, this bill could constrain budgets in these states, making climate progress over the next several years more difficult.

Then there are the goodies thrown in for the world’s highest emitters: The super-rich. The current proposal would expand existing tax credits for private jets. According to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, an hour of travel by private jet emits more greenhouse gas emissions than the average American does in a year of driving.

Attacks on renewables and giveaways to the fossil fuel industry aren’t the only things that make the GOP tax bill a planetary-scale disaster. As it turns out, transferring massive amounts of society’s wealth from the bottom to the top of the income scale really only trickles down in the sense that it will make most people’s lives worse—and the kind of ambitious action climate change requires much more difficult.

Alaska Grassroots Alliance Aim To Melt GOP’s Cold Cold Heart

Fri, 2017-12-01 06:00

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA—On Nov. 14, 2017, bundled-up members of the Alaska Grassroots Alliance gather on the sidewalk outside local offices of Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to protest the pending Republican tax overhaul.

Joni Bruner, an organizer with the Alliance, is wearing a puffy lavender parka and tending to urns of hot chocolate to fortify protesters against the subfreezing temperature and the strong northerly wind. “It’s really cold,” she says.

The Alliance serves as an umbrella for several groups that have held rallies every Tuesday at the Anchorage offices since January 2017 in protest of Trump and congressional policies. The November event, advertised on Facebook as a “Tax Rally & Hot Cocoa,” drew about two dozen people. As passing motorists honk in support, protester George Beck, a retired teacher, explains that he considers the tax bill to be terrible policy.

“I’m certainly against cutting all the services that are going to be cut because of these tax cuts for the wealthy,” he says. He also sees the GOP approach as a reprise of the failed supply-side economic theories of the 1980s. “You were there, right? Trickle down? It didn’t work in the Middle Ages; still doesn’t.”

While the weather may be harsh, the atmosphere of the rally is friendly. Protesters have made a point of avoiding the antagonism that has marked some of the rallies in the lower 48 states, Bruner says. They know the names of most of the senators’ staffers, whether they have pets and what their favorite cupcakes are.

The night of the healthcare debate, Alliance members delivered a cake to Murkowski’s office. And they’ve kept up with one staffer through her pregnancy and the birth of her baby.

“We’ve made pretty good friends with most of them,” Bruner says. “You can’t really afford to be nasty to anybody here because it might be your neighbor. Or you might be related to somebody. We want to get our point across but we think we can do it nicely.”

At one point, a woman comes out of the building and asks the protesters to make space for a heater-repair van. (They do.) The woman turns out to be a nurse with whom Beck had worked at a local elementary school. They greet each other with a quick hug. Beck chides her good-naturedly for dashing out of the building without her coat.

“You’re not dressed for this,” he says.

Previously, some Alliance messages seem to have made headway, even though Alaska’s three-member congressional delegation is all Republican. Most past rallies have focused at least in part on healthcare, Bruner says. Murkowski became nationally famous as one of three GOP senators to block the effort to strike down the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Obamacare is particularly useful to Alaska residents; the state’s small population and geographic isolation make medical costs unsually high and private insurers scarce.

“It feels like Lisa Murkowski listened,” says Lisa Brown, a social services worker who, like others at the rally, was holding a sign reading, “LISA, DO THE RIGHT THING.”

Two days after the Anchorage rally, the tax bill passed the House on a near-party-line vote. No Democrats supported it. Thirteen Republicans broke with their party to oppose it, but Alaska’s sole House member, Don Young, was not among them. The bill then moved to the Senate.

Alliance members weren’t sure if Murkowski would be on their side this time. She had been pushing for Congress to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)—a goal Alaskan politicians have pursued for decades. She has attached ANWR legislation to the same budget process used for the tax bill, which would shield it from filibusters, lowering the threshold for passage from 60 votes to 51.

Still, Brown was optimistic that Murkowski would “do the right thing,” recalling that the GOP’s attempts to get Murkowski to support the ACA repeal were unsuccessful. Beck was less confident.

“I think they finally figured out something that will really get her re-elected, which is what this is about,” he says. It seems he was right.

On Nov. 29, 2017, Murkowski’s office announced she was intending to vote yes. As of press time, the bill had moved into debate, and was expected to go to a vote shortly.

A Newly-Elected Democratic Socialist On How to Win in Trump Country

Thu, 2017-11-30 18:21

“I’d like to think of myself as ordinary,” says Ross Grooters as he describes his life in Pleasant Hill, Iowa, an eastern suburb of Des Moines. But then he corrects himself. “Most people’s passions or enjoyment are not going out and doing activist things, so that’s where I’m not an ordinary Joe.”

Indeed, it has been a long, strange trip for Grooters. After growing up as an “Air Force brat” in a conservative California family in the 1980s, this November, Grooters was elected to the Pleasant Hill City Council as a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, having run on an openly left-wing platform.

Grooters’ victory this year came in a town that in 2016 voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a five-point margin, showing that even in a Republican-leaning area, socialists can win elections.  

Grooters, whose day job is a locomotive engineer for Union Pacific Railroad, is active in Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a People's Action member organization (the present author is a member of People’s Action communication staff). The Iowa CCI Action Fund endorsed Grooters, and trumpets his win as a major victory for the organization.

“Ross was one of the first movement candidates that we recruited and trained, and that our new Iowa CCI PAC endorsed and worked to get elected,” read a post-election statement from Iowa CCA Action. His success, the organization said, was “powered by volunteers knocking over 4,000 doors and having over 1,500 conversations—not by buying ads and courting big-money donors.”

Grooters moved to Pleasant Hill 12 years ago, where he now lives with his wife and daughter, and joined Iowa CCI a few years later. “I realized politically minding my own business and having political apathy was not going to make my life better,” he says.

His city council campaign reflected many of the issues that he says animate him personally: the struggles working-class families like his own face with stagnant wages and rising health care costs, the anti-immigrant fervor dividing his community and a clean water battle that is pitting Iowa families against powerful corporate agricultural interests.

Grooters ran on a pledge to fight for a higher minimum wage in the face of a state ordinance that prohibits counties and municipalities from raising their minimum wage above Iowa’s state-wide minimum of $7.25 an hour. He also promised to battle corporate agribusinesses as they try to weaken regulations designed to stem the seepage of fertilizer and animal waste into streams and groundwater, as well as to sponsor a resolution designating Pleasant Hill a “welcoming community.” During the campaign, he spoke out against the Trump administration’s attempts to compel local law enforcement to help round up and deport undocumented immigrants.

Grooters is careful to steer people away from the idea that just because he won a local election in Trump country, he has mastered the art of getting Trump voters to elect an unabashed socialist. The turnout in the November 2017 election, he notes, was a fraction of the turnout in the presidential election a year earlier. Nonetheless, he believes his success offers lessons for other progressive and left candidates who find themselves in seemingly unfriendly political terrain.

“Whether you are on the left or the right of the political spectrum, everybody is facing the same economic hardships,” Grooters says. He calls it “the specter of ‘what happens if’’”—the fear of being one paycheck away from financial disaster because of a medical emergency, a layoff or some other sudden expense. To address these fears, Grooters says his campaign focused on talking to voters about what has to change so that they can thrive rather than being left out of a prosperity being enjoyed by only a small group of the wealthy and well-connected.

While Grooters believes in connecting the struggles of white working-class people to the plight of communities of color and other marginalized groups, “when our message is around identity politics, it is not a winning message.” What works better, he explains, is connecting with voters around shared values and needs.

“If we’re means-testing what we’re selling to voters, we’re already excluding a lot of people who should be voting for us,” Grooters says. “The best social programs we have are ones that are universal,” he explains, as opposed to programs like the Affordable Care Act, which, though it helped many people gain healthcare coverage, was structured in a way that kept millions of others from benefiting. “If we talk to people on issues in a universal way, we are going to get their vote,” he says.

Grooter’s bottom-line advice for progressive and left candidates running on a bold people-centered platform in traditionally Republican districts? “I would say don’t be afraid to run as what you are and what you believe in. Find a way to connect those issues to what everybody in the community is feeling, and I think you will do just fine.”

Lauren Greenfield’s Look at the Children of the New Gilded Age

Thu, 2017-11-30 06:00

Generation Wealth, Lauren Greenfield’s 25-year retrospective on the pursuit of the American dream, first opened at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles and is now on display at the International Center of Photography in New York through Jan. 7, 2018. In These Times spoke with Greenfield about the exhibition and her book of the same name.

How did you become interested in wealth?

I had been looking at stories around consumerism and body image in popular culture. Then the 2008 financial crash happened while I was making the movie The Queen of Versailles, about the family building the biggest house in America, a 90,000-square-foot palace inspired by Versailles. When their story became a supersized foreclosure story, I saw how we were caught in this hamster wheel of wanting more and more. This was not limited to the rich but was across race, across borders, across age. When you tell somebody that they’re not good enough, that makes them want to buy something to rectify that, and that’s a great motor for capitalism.

How do you think we got here?

One was the explosion in marketing, especially to the most vulnerable. I had spent a lot of time looking at kids and girls, specifically, and how advertising influenced them. When you tell somebody that they're not good enough, that makes them want to buy something to rectify that, and that’s a great motor for capitalism. What I saw was that it wasn't just girls. It was also people who were aging, people in former Communist countries wanting to compete with the West and poor people. The explosion in technology had put that on turbo drive. 

I also saw the 1980s as this watershed moment with people thinking that money made you a good person. People used to compare themselves to their neighbors who had a little bit more than they did. What happened in the 25 years since was that people were spending more time with television characters who kept becoming more affluent. Keeping up with Joneses literally became Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Kim Kardashian [who Greenfield has photographed] not only represented the family people were aspiring to, but she also started with a sex tape. It felt like we were living in a post-moral world where it didn't matter how you became rich and famous as long as you did. 

Going through your photos, did you have any a-ha moments on the current financial situation?

There was an a-ha character in Florian Homm, a hedge fund manager in Germany who had been worth $800 million and was accused of fraud. He went on the run and did jail time in Italy (he was released on a technicality), and realized he was chasing the wrong god. He wanted to tell the story about what he learned.

The weird thing was that I had known him in college. He was the only person I knew who had a vintage convertible car because even then, he was doing business and was rich. Years later I read about him in the New York Times: He had fled to Germany and was on the FBI’s most wanted list. He’d traversed the same 25 years that I had but from a completely different vantage point. I photographed and interviewed him, he was incredibly insightful but also had been kind of the worst of the worst. He’d lost everything, not just his money, but his marriage, his children, his freedom—he was still a fugitive from justice in the United States. Some people are skeptical: Did he really learn his lesson? But for me, it doesn't matter. That's one of the questions of the book. I saw it through the lens of addiction: How low of rock bottom do we have to hit before we change our behavior?

What connections do you notice between the expressions of wealth you’ve captured and President Trump’s projection of success?

I think there are a lot of commonalities. He has an over-the-top aesthetic of wealth. Gilded apartments and Corinthian columns are aristocratic symbols of wealth and power. He’s also complicit in the commodification of women through beauty pageants and as expressions of success. We see this on the cover of my book, with the wife of an oligarch wearing a sweater that says, “I’m a luxury.” I think Trump’s narcissistic qualities are really representative of the culture. He’s the ultimate “fake it till you make it.”

Defending the Land, 50 Feet in the Air

Thu, 2017-11-30 06:00

HUNTINGDON COUNTY, PA.—A small group of land defenders has taken to the trees to stop the Mariner East 2 (ME2) natural gas liquids pipeline. Fifty feet from the ground, a series of ropes connects three elaborate tree houses, where tree-sitters read, write and listen to music.

Hundreds of trees in this patch of wetlands have been cut down for drilling. The sitters at Camp White Pine have saved three at strategic points in the path of construction.

If completed, ME2 will transport highly explosive natural gas liquids 350 miles through Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The land defenders see their work as an important step against resource extraction and environmental degradation. Kari Smitherman, a Hispanic and Blackfoot woman, says she felt called to Camp White Pine because “the Earth and the air and the sky and the sun … they don’t belong to anyone.”

In March 2016, Sunoco Logistics—which has since merged with Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline—was granted an easement for construction on the 27-acre property of Ellen and Steven Gerhart, and an injunction was issued against the Gerhart family. Tree-sits began when tree-cutting crews, accompanied by police, descended upon the property on March 29, 2016. The Gerharts’ daughter, Elise, and her friends climbed three trees, and several dozen were left standing.

“I was sitting up there in this one tree,” Elise says, “and watching … dozens and dozens of other trees being felled right in front of my face. The police were laughing at me.” Police arrested two of her friends on the ground on charges of contempt of court and disorderly conduct.

Cutting in that area is legally restricted after March 31 to protect the Indiana bat, which awakens from hibernation around that time. But on April 7, 2016, Elise heard chainsaws from her bedroom and rushed to the trees—the crews had returned. Unbeknownst to the Gerharts, the company had made arrangements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue the logging legally.

This time, Elise says, Sunoco called the police; Ellen was arrested and held in jail for three days.

After Sunoco merged with ETP in November 2016, the Gerharts put out a call for more support, and the camp started in February.

Various legal cases against the pipeline sit in court, and the company and police have not come back to finish cutting the trees, though a second injunction against the Gerharts was issued this summer. But the campers are prepared.

Land defenders haul water, cook and otherwise provide “a lot of the caring work” that keeps the camp going, according to Emily, one of the tree-sitters, who prefers not to give her last name. A pansexual woman with a disability, Emily says that while in the trees, “It’s hard not to feel kind of exactly what they want us to feel, which is boxed in and vulnerable.”

Despite the arrests, many sitters say they won’t be deterred. “We’ve got to put our foot down and say no, they can’t bully us forever,” says Smitherman. “They put us into the system where they’ve made us afraid to say no and fight back. I think we’ve got to start fighting now to get that power back for ourselves.”

Building an Alternative to Capitalism From the Ground Up

Wed, 2017-11-29 06:00
sol•i•dar•i•ty e•con•o•my

noun

1. An alternative economic system based around institutions—from food co-ops to community-owned renewables—that make decisions democratically, meet local needs and put people and planet over profit

“There is no blueprint. We’ve had two blueprint disasters in the past 50 years: centralized socialism and corporate capitalism. We need something different.” —Filipino sociologist Walden Bello, speaking at the 2002 World Social Forum in Brazil

What Sorts of Institutions?

There’s quite a list—turns out there’s no One Easy Trick to building an entire parallel economy. Just for starters: Worker cooperatives; community land trusts for green affordable housing; neighborhood vegetable gardens; free health clinics; barter networks and time banks; participatory budgeting, in which communities democratically determine local spending priorities; and more.

Do We Really Need a New Economy?

It’s hard to look at rising inequality and rising temperatures, shrug one’s shoulders, and say the present economy is fine as it is. But it’s one thing to critique the old, and another to actually build something new. Reformists see solidarity economy efforts as a way to “fix” capitalism; for some socialists, they’re a stopgap to help people get by until the Left seizes the state. But some enthusiasts see the solidarity economy as both the means and the end: a bottom-up, fully functioning economy outside of capitalism, eventually replacing it entirely.

So, Does It Work?

Plenty of individual worker co-ops (around 300 in the U.S.), community gardens and other solidarity economy institutions are flourishing. Many, too, struggle to take off in the capitalist marketplace—traditional funding sources aren’t always too enthused about the whole “people and planet over profit” thing. But various organizations are experimenting with alternative finance methods, and groups like the New Economy Coalition are trying to link these scattered efforts into a larger, more resilient movement. Nowhere has this vision been fully realized, but advocates from Jackson, Miss., to Cleveland to Barcelona are making progress.

As Goes Jackson, So Goes the World?

Well, only sort of. But the idea isn’t to export one city’s model and create Jackson clones across the planet. After all, the term “solidarity economy” originated decades ago in Latin America, and economies built around mutual aid far predate capitalism. Different communities live in different social and ecological contexts, and when given the chance to operate democratically, will come to different conclusions. What solidarity economy advocates want, then, is not a cookie-cutter utopia, but the grassroots construction of a million new societies in the hell of the old.

This is part of “The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent In These Times coverage of the solidarity economy, see, "Turning Capital Against Capitalism," "Detroit's Underground Economy" and "How a Maryland Town Is Turning Its New Deal Past Into a New Economy Present."

Pages