2012 - %3, May

Dear SCOTUS: We ❤ Citizens United!

| Wed May. 23, 2012 2:10 PM PDT

Since the US Supreme Court stayed a Citizens-United-defying ruling by Montana's Supreme Court in February, politicians and advocacy groups have lined up to take sides, filing amicus briefs urging the high court to let stand, reverse, or review the decision. The majority of the briefs, like the one submitted by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), come from petitioners upset by the unlimited outside spending triggered by Citizens United.

Yet those calling on the Supreme Court to let the Montana ruling stand (including one group with a rather unorthodox argument) or use it as an opportunity to roll back Citizens United face an uphill battle. The court's conservative majority is likely to be more sympathetic to those friends of the court calling upon it to summarily reverse (i.e., overturn without hearing) the Montana ruling. Their main arguments:

Why mess with a good thing?
In his amicus brief, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argues (PDF) that the Montana Supreme Court's decision to uphold the state's strict campaign finance laws should be summarily reversed since it contradicts Citizens United. "Nothing that has occurred since that ruling warrants its reconsideration," his brief reads. It goes further, noting that the majority of super-PAC contributions come from individuals, not corporations, and therefore concerns about the ruling are greatly exaggerated. The brief also approvingly cites a column in the New York Post by Reason's Jacob Sullum that claims that "independent groups, funded mainly by wealthy individuals, have increased competitiveness, which is usually considered good for democracy."

Corruption? Sorry, can't hear you.
The US Chamber of Commerce, which has spent upwards of $3 million against Democrats in this election cycle and has vowed not to disclose its donors, argues (PDF) that in light of Citizens United "it is settled law that independent expenditures do not create the appearance of corruption" because they aren't donated directly to candidates. As Lee Fang notes, it's pretty clear that evidence of actual corruption does exist, pointing to a multitude of evidence filed by a judge in McConnell v. FEC, the 2003 case that upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance limits (which Citizens United partly reversed). Nevertheless, the Chamber says that even if such evidence of corruption should come to light, the Supreme Court should not use "empirical data" to reconsider its previous ruling.

Don't know much about history…
Citizens United, the group behind the case of the same name, has also weighed in. Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock argued that his state's unique history of political corruption, dating back to the political stranglehold held by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in the late 1800s, was reason enough to disprove the Supreme Court's contention that independent expenditures "do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption." However, Citizens United says that the Montana ruling violates a 2009 Supreme Court decision, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, in which "this Court confirmed that history alone is an insufficient ground for sustaining a constitutionally suspect statute."

CU's brief also argues that Citizens United is not a "factbound" ruling and that any claims otherwise are disingenuous efforts to create an unconstitutional state-level exemption to free-speech rights. Meanwhile, Montana AG Bullock may have inadvertently strengthened his argument against Citizens United: After leaving his seat open to run for governor, an unprecedented amount of money has been poured into the Republican primary for attorney general, much of it from out-of-state PACs.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Texas Democratic Primary Just Got Real

| Wed May. 23, 2012 9:23 AM PDT

I've got a piece up today on a Democratic House primary in El Paso, where former councilman Beto O'Rourke is challenging 16-year incumbent Silvestre Reyes. The kicker is that O'Rourke is an outspoken critic of the War on Drugs who's clashed with Reyes over federal drug policy; in a border district, the election amounts to a sort of referendum on the Drug War. The current polling of the race, such as it is, has the two deadlocked.

Why is a longtime incumbent facing an early retirement? University of Texas–El Paso professor Gregory Rocha suspected it was partly because Reyes has been kind of lethargic when it comes to defining himself and his opponent.

So right on cue, with election day just six days away, the Reyes campaign has gone what I think you could charitably call "scorched earth":

The El Paso Times has a handy fact-check of the charges: The DUI came when O'Rourke was 25 (he's 40 now) and has not seemed to hurt him in his previous races; the "attempted burglary" came when he was in college and according to the candidate consisted of him jumping a fence. The drunken spanking incident happened last June at an El Paso bar. In the grainy footage, O'Rourke is seen dancing, falling on his back, and then being spanked by a female companion. Although O'Rourke was undoubtedly spanked, it's not clear whether he was intoxicated.

In any event, I'm fairly certain this is the first-ever attack ad to feature the phrase "he was recently videoed publicly intoxicated being spanked."

Many "Pro-Life" Americans Don't Want to Outlaw Abortion

| Wed May. 23, 2012 8:50 AM PDT
A pro-choice protester in Seattle.

The big exciting news for Republicans in the latest Gallup poll on abortion is that more Americans identify as "pro-life" and fewer identify as "pro-choice" than ever. Although that's probably not meaningless, Americans' views on whether abortion should be legal haven't actually changed at all.

Here's the carefully written lede from Life News: "A new Gallup survey out today finds the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as supporting legalized abortion has dropped to a record low." It's true that the pro-life movement sees itself as opposing all forms of legalized abortion and 50 percent of Americans now identify as pro-life. But when you look at what the poll results actually say, it's clear Americans' feelings about abortion being legal are much more complicated:

Since 2001, at least half of Americans have consistently chosen the middle position, saying abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, and the 52% saying this today is similar to the 50% in May 2011. The 25% currently wanting abortion to be legal in all cases and the 20% in favor of making it illegal in all cases are also similar to last year's findings.

So a large majority—77 percent—of Americans support abortion being legal in all or "certain circumstances," and just 20 percent of Americans are actually "pro-life" in the sense that opponents of legalized abortion understand the term. Another way of saying this is that most Americans are actually pro-choice even if they sometimes identify as pro-life. In fact, there are more Americans who think abortion should be legal in all circumstances (25 percent) than think it should be illegal in all circumstances (20 percent).

That's good news for someone, but not for people who want to outlaw abortion.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Conservatives Trying to Rewrite the History of Civil Rights

| Wed May. 23, 2012 8:38 AM PDT
Former Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.)

I can't recommend enough Jonathan Chait's rebuttal to National Review's attempt to rewrite the history of the civil rights movement to portray conservatives as its most ardent supporters:

It is true that most Republicans in 1964 held vastly more liberal positions on civil rights than Goldwater. This strikes [Kevin Williamson, the author of the National Review piece] as proof of the idiosyncratic and isolated quality of Goldwater's civil rights stance. What it actually shows is that conservatives had not yet gained control of the Republican Party.

But conservative Republicans — those represented politically by Goldwater, and intellectually by William F. Buckley and National Review — did oppose the civil rights movement. Buckley wrote frankly about his endorsement of white supremacy: "the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically." More often conservatives argued on grounds of states' rights, or freedom of property, or that civil rights leaders were annoying hypocrites, or that they had undermined respect for the law.

What Chait doesn't say is that Buckley's editorial wasn't just an endorsement of white supremacy, it was an endorsement of vigilante violence, tacitly if not explicitly supported by local authorities, in pursuit of enforcing white supremacy. Elsewhere in the piece, Buckley writes, "sometimes the numberical minority [whites] cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence." As long as it's up to them.

Amazingly, nowhere in Kevin Williamson's piece does he attempt to reckon with this piece of National Review's legacy, even as he puts forth a revisionist history of the civil rights movement in which conservatives are its most ardent supporters. Buckley, and his declaration of solidarity with Southern white supremacy, is entirely unmentioned. Instead, Williamson adopts the usual sleight of hand Republicans deploy here, using the sort of liberal Northeastern Republicans who have since been purged from the GOP to argue that the civil rights movement was a conservative accomplishment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 couldn't have passed without Republican votes, but few if any of the Republicans who voted for it could survive a primary challenge today. That Republican votes were necessary for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn't change the fact that the conservative movement was ardently opposed to it.

The clearest evidence of this legacy is the current Republican Party. The priorities of today's GOP include rolling back the very civil rights accomplishments Williams wants to take credit for. A Republican-appointee-dominated Supreme Court has all but begged for another opportunity to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Republican-led states are falling over themselves trying to put a case in front of them. The Bush administration flooded the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department with Republican partisans, and civil rights enforcement fell almost across the board. The GOP has since engaged in a campaign to delegitimize the entire Civil Rights Division as a font of anti-white racism. When America was rocked by the economic crisis in 2008, Republicans flocked to the explanation that decades-old laws preventing racial discrimination in lending were responsible.

Say that this opposition is all about an ideological commitment to decentralization and federalism, and has nothing to do with race. Fine: But even in unicorn-land where political views are entirely unshaped by history and culture, that philosophy is against the concept of a strong federal government that uses its powers to secure the rights of individuals even when local authorities disagree. In other words, it stands in direct opposition to what Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies were trying to accomplish, and except where gun rights are involved, it remains the prevailing ideological disposition of the modern Republican Party and the conservative movement that dominates it.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

American Airlines Boots Woman With Pro-Choice T-Shirt From Flight

| Wed May. 23, 2012 8:09 AM PDT

Can an airline boot a passenger for wearing a T-shirt it deems "offensive"? That's apparently what happened to one woman wearing a pro-choice T-shirt on an American Airlines flight out of Washington this week, RH Reality Check reports.

The woman boarded her first flight just fine, wearing a T-shirt that read, "If I wanted the government in my womb, I'd fuck a senator." (The shirt was made in response to a sign that an Oklahoma lawmaker made earlier this year to protest a proposed law granting rights to fertilized eggs.) But as the woman was about to deboard to switch to her next flight, a flight attendant approached her and told her that she needed to talk to the captain because her T-shirt was "offensive." The woman, identified only by the initial "O," described the incident to RH Reality Check:

When I was leaving the plane the captain stepped off with me and told me I should not have been allowed to board the plane in DC and needed to change before boarding my next flight. This conversation led to me missing my connecting flight. I assumed that because I was held up by the captain, they would have called ahead to let the connecting flight know I was in route. Well, upon my hastened arrival at the gate of the connecting flight, it was discovered that they did indeed call ahead but not to hold the flight, only to tell them I needed to change my shirt. I was given a seat on the next flight and told to change shirts.

Her bags were checked through to her final destination, so she couldn't change shirts. She said she ended up covering it up with a shawl, and was able to get home on the later flight.

American Airlines media relations representative Tim Smith told Mother Jones via email that it was the language on the shirt, not the message, that prompted the response. "Let me strongly emphasize that the only reason she was asked to cover up her T-shirt was the appearance of the 'F-word' on the T-shirt," he wrote. He pointed to a line in the airline's "Conditions of Carriage" that notes that the airline can refuse to transport a passenger or can remove them from a flight at any point if they "Are clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers."

"[O]ur crew has the final say on any type of garment that could make others uncomfortable," wrote Smith. "Among such issues, we routinely do not allow any garment of any type to display that word." In a follow-up email, he again stated that it was not the pro-choice message that prompted the incident, but the f-bomb.

The incident certainly raises questions about what an airline can deem offensive. Her shirt didn't present a security threat, nor would it make anyone physically uncomfortable. They just didn't like the word choice. I can think of a lot of T-shirts that make me uncomfortable (like this one or these). So what are the limits to what an airline can deem offensive? 

Dem to Liberal Donors: Wake the F#!$ Up!

| Wed May. 23, 2012 7:52 AM PDT

The politico in charge of helping Democrats keep control of the US Senate has a message for left-leaning donors: Wake up and open those checkbooks!

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, put Democrats' odds at even to retain the control of the Senate in this year's elections. But Cecil worries about the gap in spending between Democratic and Republican outside spending groups, such as the US Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, the independent political juggernaut started by GOP gurus Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie.

"Money" is what keeps Cecil up at night, he said. "Our allies need to wake up," he added. "Our allies need to understand that the majority in the Senate is in danger and that everything from jobs and the economy and women's health and Supreme Court justices, Wall Street reform—all the things that they have worked so hard for—will be for naught if we lose the Senate."

Here's more from HuffPost:

While Democratic Senate candidates have about $50 million more in the bank overall than their Republican counterparts, they have been outspent by a factor of nearly three to one—$29.1 million to $9.3 million—in the advertising wars, largely thanks to the outside groups and super PACs willing to spend unlimited amounts of money.

According to data provided by a Democratic source familiar with ad buys, the biggest spender on Senate races has been the US Chamber of Commerce, which has already pumped in more than $11 million for "issue" ads that benefit the GOP. After that come the Karl Rove-hatched groups American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, with at least $7 million. The group 60 Plus, billed as a conservative alternative to the AARP, has spent more than $4 million.

The biggest spender on the Democratic side, meanwhile, has been the League of Conservation Voters, shelling out some $2.7 million, according to the source. The still-growing Majority PAC, a super-PAC formed by Democratic operatives to sway Senate races, has been good for $1.7 million.

"They need to—and we all need to—step up and make sure that our candidates have the resources they need, that we can push back on these super-PACs, that we can make sure our side of the story is heard," Cecil said. "I am confident that if we can close the gap financially, we will hold the Senate. But it's also a big if."

In related news, Tom Donohue, the US Chamber of Commerce's president and CEO, told members of his organization that the group plans to get involved in as many as a dozen Senate races this year. Donohue wouldn't say exactly how much the Chamber would spend in the 2012 cycle—news reports have put it as high as $50 million—but, as Reuters reported, Donohue promised "it'll be a lot of money."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Tuesday's Winners: Rand Paul, 21-Year-Old Millionaires

| Wed May. 23, 2012 7:00 AM PDT
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and US House candidate Thomas Massie.

As it became obvious on Tuesday evening that Thomas Massie was going to win the GOP primary in Kentucky's 4th congressional district, Trey Grayson hopped on Twitter to explain just why this story sounded so familiar: "Have to admit that I chuckled when someone called Massie's performance so far tonight a #Randslide. Pretty apt description. I should know!"

He should. Two years ago, the only thing standing between Grayson, the GOP's handpicked replacement for retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, and the Republican Senate nomination was a Bowling Green optometrist with no political experience. Grayson lost to Rand Paul by twenty points. On Tuesday, in the 4th district, it happened again. State Sen. Alecia Webb-Edgington had the support of retiring Rep. Geoff Davis and Bunning, who held the seat previously. County executive Thomas Massie, with Rand Paul's backing, won by 16 points. Randslide indeed.

(More evidence of Paul's coattails: Former spokesman Chris Hightower, last seen resigning from Paul's senate campaign after being outed as a Satanic death-metal drummer, won the GOP primary for a seat in the Kentucky state house on Tuesday.)

Massie had help, though. Liberty for All, a Texas-based super-PAC founded by John Ramsey, a 21-year-old Ron Paul-loving college kid (you can read my profile of Ramsey here) paid for a $550,000 advertising barrage over the final 10 days of the campaign. Funded, at least for now, with money Ramsey inherited from his late grandfather, Liberty for All wants to provide a party framework for "Freedom candidates"—that is, provide the kind of institutional support and training for Paul-ish candidates that establishment pols already get from party organs. Preston Bates, the group's executive director, estimated that they'd end up spending $700,000 on the Massie race if you factor in direct mail and man hours. That's a lot, especially when you consider that Webb-Edgington, the second-place finisher, had raised just $200,000 by May 2.

Whether or not Ramsey, Bates, et al. can take their project to scale remains to be seen, but the race offers a glimpse of the future landscape of campaign finance. As Grayson, now director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, put it: "Expect to see more Super PACs getting involved in Congressional & other 'smaller' races where six figure donations can tilt an election."

If presidential candidates can each have their own corresponding billionaires, why wouldn't House candidates have their own patrons too?

Bin Laden Filmmakers Got "Unprecedented Access" to National Security Officials

| Wed May. 23, 2012 6:40 AM PDT
President Obama and his advisers observe the raid that killed Osama bin Laden from the White House.

Top Obama administration officials provided details about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden to filmmakers working on a movie about the operation even as the White House was trying to keep those same details out of the media, Bloomberg reports:

The Obama administration promised a Hollywood filmmaker unprecedented access to the top-secret Navy unit that killed Osama bin Laden to help her make a feature film on the operation at the same time it was publicly ordering officials to stop talking about the raid.

The Pentagon’s top intelligence official, Michael Vickers, offered Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow interviews with a member of the SEAL team that helped plan last year’s assault on bin Laden’s compound, according to a transcript of a July 15 meeting that was released yesterday by Judicial Watch, a Washington-based legal organization.

This reflects an ongoing double-standard in how the Obama administration handles information related to national security. This White House is certainly not the first to leak sensitive information with the intention of shaping the media narrative (see Iraq War, the). But the Obama team's highly selective release of information has been paired with an unusually aggressive pursuit of leakers. The current administration has pursued more leak investigations than all previous administrations combined, including several against individuals who were clearly acting in the public interest

When the government gets involved in a film like this one, it has a great deal of power to shape how the film comes out. The Obama administration is understandably concerned about how this story is told, since it will likely play a significant role in shaping the legacy of the man currently in office. But there's still something grating and profoundly hypocritical about the discrepancy between how whistleblowers are treated compared to those "authorized" to leak such information.

When the White House is shaping how a story is told, inconvenient information almost invariably gets downplayed or left out. I hope the final film will include at least some acknowledgement of the Pakistani doctor who was just sentenced to thirty years in prison for treason for allegedly helping the CIA locate bin Laden.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

A Little Anti-Social Behavior With Your Organic Carrots?

| Wed May. 23, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Are people who buy organic food a bunch of selfish, judgmental a-holes? That's basically the conclusion of a new study published in the journal Social Psychology & Personality Science.

The study found that subjects who are exposed to images of organic foods "reduce prosocial behavior" and "harshen moral judgments" of others. The researcher, Kendall Eskine of Loyola University in New Orleans, took 60 people and split them into three groups. The first group was shown photos of clearly-marked organic foods, the second was shown comfort foods like cookies, and the third was shown control foods like rice or oatmeal. Then a variety of situations were laid out for them—like "second cousins having sex" or "a lawyer on the prowl in an ER trying to get people to sue for their injuries"—and they were asked to assign a moral judgment to each, on a scale of 1 to 7.

Eskine found that the organic group was more likely to judge the people in the stories harshly. The organic test subjects averaged a 5.5, while the controls averaged a 5 and the comfort food subjects averaged a 4.89. The scientists also asked the participants to state how much time they would offer to volunteer, from 1 to 30 minutes, and found that the subjects who saw the organic food photos were still jerkier than the rest. The organic food group offered to volunteer 13 minutes, while the rice people offered 19 minutes and the cookie people offered 24.

But why was the organic group meaner than the others? Eskine offers a suggestion:

"People may feel like they've done their good deed," he says. "That they have permission, or license, to act unethically later on. It's like when you go to the gym and run a few miles and you feel good about yourself, so you eat a candy bar."

The study has inspired a number of responses online to the tune of, "See, we knew those pointy-headed argula eaters were a bunch of self-important dicks." But as Jess Zimmerman points out over at Grist, the study is pretty flawed and probably aimed at pissing off organic eaters. For one, it treats shoplifting, eating your dead dog, and cousins engaging in consensual sex as equal moral issues when it averages their judgments. And secondly, it was a tiny sample size and all the subjects were college students.

Most importantly, no one in the study was actually eating food. They weren't even buying it. They were just looking at pictures of it! Staring at pictures of food would probably make me hungry and therefore more judgy and selfish, too.

Fracking: The Music Video

| Wed May. 23, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

This story first appeared on the ProPublica website.

Have you been curious what all the hubbub on "fracking" is about? Here is a fabulous music video explaining it:

Here's more about the video, which was done by David Holmes and other talented journalism students at Jay Rosen's NYU's Studio 20. It was part of their collaboration with us to build better explanations for stories. For more on fracking, its lack of regulation, and the potential for drinking water contamination, check out our now nearly three-year running investigation.