Political MoJo

Ten-Word Messages

| Tue Jan. 3, 2006 2:49 PM EST

Ezra Klein makes a good point, writing on the topic of the Democratic Party's much-lamented lack of an easily "digestible" platform: "Can someone please explain to me why a major political party in the world's most powerful country should be able to define its message in ten words?" Right, exactly. Also, why should anyone be forced to explain the meaning of liberalism in an "elevator talk"? Politics and policy, especially good policy, is complicated, and if Democrats can't explain what they stand for or plan to do to fix this country in two monosyllabic sentences, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Or at least it shouldn't be a bad thing.

A related "concern" I find baffling is the idea that Democrats should, for some unknown reason, be totally unified on each and every issue. Media types in particular like to harp on this. But why should they be unified? As a general matter of principle, democracy presumably works better when there's lots of disagreement, and competing ideas are actually aired, rather than suppressed. Many people point out that the Republican Party has gained so much power because it stays on message and never succumbs to any sort of infighting or internal squabbling. That's not totally true, but even if it was, the Republican Party has also driven the country into the ground, so there's reason to think that running a political party like the Soviet Politburo probably isn't the ideal way to govern the country.

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The End of One Person One Vote?

| Tue Jan. 3, 2006 12:54 PM EST

Might as well ring in the New Year with a link to the New York Times. Adam Cohen dredges up a little-noticed point about Samuel Alito today: namely, that Sandra Day O'Connor's purported replacement seems to disagree with the "one person one vote" decisions of the Warren Court in the 1960s. Here's Cohen's summary of one of those decisions, which, to the modern eye, look self-evidently correct:

The one-person-one-vote principle traces to the Supreme Court's 1962 decision in Baker v. Carr. At the time, legislative districts had wildly unequal numbers of people, and representatives from underpopulated rural districts controlled many state legislatures. In Maryland, 14 percent of the voters could elect a majority of the State Senate, and 25 percent could elect a majority of the State House. In Alabama, the county that includes Birmingham, which had 600,000 people, got the same number of state senators - one - as a county with barely 15,000 people.

In Baker v. Carr, Tennessee voters challenged their state's unequal legislative districts, which had not been redrawn in 60 years. The Supreme Court had rejected a similar claim out of Illinois in 1946, saying it did not want to enter the "political thicket." But in 1962, the Warren court decided it had to enter the thicket to vindicate the rights of Tennesseans whose votes were being unfairly diluted. It ordered Tennessee's lines redrawn.Those unequal district lines, by the way, were usually arranged so as to water down the voting power of African-Americans in the South, by packing them into a few urban districts. Although the Warren Court decisions were unpopular in certain circles at the time—civil rights advances in general were unpopular in certain circles at the time—nowadays opposing this sort of thing is pretty Paleolithic. In fact, some liberals might say that the Warren Court didn't go far enough on the "one person one vote" score; after all, legislatures are still allowed to include prison populations in the size of an individual voting district, despite the fact that those prisoners can't actually vote.

Meanwhile, if we're dredging up little-noticed facts about Alito—that is, stuff apart from his opposition to abortion and his apparent belief in the theory of the "imperial presidency"—here's another one. In his 1985 application for Assistant Attorney General in the Reagan administration, Alito noted that he disagreed with Warren Court decisions concerning "criminal procedure."

And which decisions might those be, exactly? Was it Gideon vs. Wainright, ensuring that all Americans must be provided a lawyer if they cannot afford one? Mapp v. Ohio, making evidence that was illegally obtained inadmissible in court? Escobedo v. Illinois, doing the same for evidence obtained by improper interrogations? Would Alito rather that citizens not be informed of their Miranda rights? Does he think the Court took a wrong turn in Hernandez v. Texas when it said that Mexican-Americans could not be excluded from juries? Inquiring minds want to know. Questions concerning criminal procedure occupy the vast majority of the Supreme Court's time, and it would be nice to know what manner of "law and order" justice we're dealing with here.

Pentagon has yet to craft a policy to bar human trafficking

| Tue Dec. 27, 2005 11:33 AM EST

It has been three years since George W. Bush announced his "zero tolerance" of human trafficking by overseas contractors, and two years since Congress backed zero tolerance up with law. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act authorized more than $2 million to combat human traffickiing, including women and girls forced into prostitution.

But the actual adoption of a plan to stop human trafficking is stuck in a mire of defense contractor lobbying tactics and disagreement over the Defense Department's intentions. Last summer, the Pentagon drafted a proposal prohibiting defense contractor involvement in human trafficking for forced labor and prostitution, but lobbying groups objected to it because, they say, key parts of it are unrealistic. At the same time, experts on human trafficking say that the Pentagon's proposed policy would only formalize practices that have made it possible for contractors working overseas to escape punishment for their involvement in human trafficking.

A new bill reauthorizing the nation's efforts against human trafficking was just passed, but only after the a measure that would have created a trafficking watchdog at the Pentagon was removed. Lobbying groups have also fought against a plan to have contractors police their overseas subcontractors with regard to trafficking. On the up side, though, the new law also deals with trafficking within U.S. borders, and holds non-defense federal employees accountable.

Notes allege "FEMA is not a response agency for disasters"

| Wed Dec. 21, 2005 11:06 AM EST

Notes from a meeting, released yesterday by a union representative for federal emergency workers, say that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told employees that changes planned after Katrina were "partially a perception ploy to make outsiders feel like we've actually made changes for the better."

Lee Bosner, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents FEMA workers, says he obtained the typed notes from an unnamed FEMA official. A spokesman for Chertoff denied that the Homeland Security secretary had made any such remarks. According to Bosner's source, the remarks were made in the past week. Chertoff is also alleged to have said that FEMA is not a response agency for disasters; "we essentially should be only doing recovery."

The plan, according to the notes, is for a Coast Guard admiral to be placed in a number of major cities, and that person would handle disaster response.

Bearing in mind that we do not have proof of the veracity of the notes, it is nevertheless becoming increasingly difficult to trust Chertoff with regard to FEMA, let alone other matters. It was Chertoff, who, during the midst of the New Orleans crisis, said he was unaware that people were dying in the Superdome. It was Chertoff who saw fit to allow former FEMA director Michael Brown to do nothing while people on the Gulf Coast drowned, went hungry and thirsty, and had no medical care.

There is no doubt that one of the this administration's objectives has been to weaken FEMA, and there is no reason to believe it is now sincere about strengthening it again.

2005: Bad year for Goliath. How about David?

| Tue Dec. 20, 2005 12:19 PM EST

Rebecca Solnit reflects on 2005 and finds that it was a bad year for the Goliath's of this world; which isn't to say it was a great one for the Davids -- the "little people." Still, the experience of the groups, organizations, publics, and citizenries who stood up for their rights give reason to hope for a more just world. (Read it.)

Tony Judt, author of the monumental Postwar, a history of Europe since 1945, says the fall of Communism changed Europe's future and its past. (Read it.)

Jack Hitt considers the unhappy lot of George W. Bush, a president who prizes loyalty but now finds that the knives are out for him. (Read it.)

From Freedom Fries to Funerals...

| Mon Dec. 19, 2005 6:43 PM EST

The new issue of Mother Jones magazine is now online!

Here's a sampling of what's inside:

In "The Three Conversions of Walter B. Jones," Robert Dreyfuss details how the conservative congressman from North Carolina who coined the term "freedom fries" turned against the Iraq war. (Read it.)

Daniel Duane wonders why, with gang violence on the rise, a proven anti-gang strategy known as the "Boston Miracle" is being dissed by the L.A.P.D., the FBI, and Congress. (Read it.)

Nir Rosen journeys to the madrasas and streets of Pakistan, where students learn to hate in the name of love. (Read it.)

JoAnn Wypijewski considers our rules of war and finds them dangerously unclear. (Read it.)

And Chris Bachelder argues that The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's underrated classic about the meatpacking industry in Chicago, is due for a critical reappraisal. (Read it.)

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VAWA passage is a victory for women's rights advocates

| Mon Dec. 19, 2005 3:29 PM EST

Following up on Mother Jones' recent special report on domestic violence, Ann Friedman notes that Congress's reauthorization on Saturday of the Violence Against Women Act is being hailed as a victory by women's rights advocates. As one activist says, "There was a sustained level of drama, trying to figure out if...desperately-needed programs were going to make it in. I guess Santa decided he was going to be beneficent." Read the full story and find out what provisions made it into the final bill here.

The human faces of the Iraq war

| Mon Dec. 19, 2005 3:16 PM EST

New at Mother Jones:

Four photojournalists who elected not to "embed" with US troops take an unflinching look at the human faces of war-ravaged Iraq. (LINK)

Tom Engelhardt wonders why the anthrax attacks of October 2001 have all but disappeared from public and media memory. (LINK)

In an interview, international lawyer Philippe Sands tells how the Bush administration has tried to wreck the global rules-based system--against the United States' interests. (LINK)

Chinese government continues to brutalize Falun Gong practitioners

| Mon Dec. 19, 2005 12:36 PM EST

In the latest reported incident of the Chinese government's crackdown on its citizens who practice Falon Gong, two women in Hebei Province were beaten, stunned on the breasts with a stun baton, and raped by police officers. Other female detainees report that they have been stripped naked, beaten, kicked in the breasts and genitalia, raped, and subjected to vaginal probes with stun batons. Pregnant women and nursing mothers have reported similar treatment by the Chinese police.

Torture, murder, and psychological abuse are all said to have been perpetrated on Falon Gong practitiioners, and many are said to have disappeared, never to be seen again.

Falon Gong was outlawed by the Chinese government in 1999, when then-Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin declared it the number one enemy of the Communist party. It is estimated that between 70 and 100 million people in China practice Falon Gong, which is not a religion, per se, but rather, a spiritual practice loosely based on Buddhism and Taoism, and which is referred to by its detractors as a cult. Falon Gong-related human rights abuses have been verified by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Department of State.

The Elusive Quest for Balance

Thu Dec. 15, 2005 3:09 PM EST

Let's look at a recent column by NPR ombudsmen Jeffrey Dvorkin tallying up guests from think tanks who've appeared on NPR shows. Here's the data, and a bit of his commentary (bold text is mine):

American Enterprise – 59 times

Brookings Institute – 102

Cato Institute – 29

Center for Strategic and Intl. Studies – 39

Heritage Foundation – 20

Hoover Institute – 69

Lexington Institute – 9

Manhattan Institute – 53

There are of course, other think tanks, but these seem to be the ones whose experts are heard most often on NPR. Brookings and CSIS are seen by many in Washington, D.C., as being center to center-left. The others in the above list tend to lean to the right. So NPR has interviewed more think tankers on the right than on the left.

The score to date: Right 239, Left 141.

You see these sorts of tallies all the time, and for all sorts of reasons they always have to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Decisions about who's left or right or center is obviously highly dependent on where the judge stands. (Here's a blurb from The Nation describing Brookings as "center-right.") And as the policy debate "center" has shifted rightward, previously staid, neutral institutions have come to be characterized as "left."

But this one is really interesting: do you see how Dvorkin describes CSIS and Brookings as "center or center-left"—and then all the sudden in the final count they are just plain left? Only calling Brookings left—which a sentence before he essentially described as "center"—could he make the count look remotely fair. Now over at TAPPED, Garance Franke-Ruta suggests that this imbalance was supposed to be corrected by Center for American Progress. Maybe. But the truth of the matter is that if groups like Cato and the AEI get that much air—88 NPR visits combined—we should hear from places as left as the Institute for Policy Studies on a more regular basis. And the last time I remember seeing Phyllis Bennis on any sort of broadcast was on MSNBC's Donahue in the fall of 2002.