Christopher Hayes

Are Oil Companies 21st Century Slaveowners?

This article originally appeared in The Nation, and is reprinted here with their permission.

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5 Ways the Government Used Our Money to Save Big Banks and Screw Us

As we mark the end of the first year of the financial bailout, the public seems to regard the government's actions with a toxic combination of rage and confusion. People are pissed off but too bewildered to know what to do with that anger. The confusion isn't an accident. The government hasn't exactly been forthcoming about how it's made buckets of money available to the banking sector. When it does disclose some information--such as in July's SIGTARP report from the Treasury or the Federal Reserve's weekly balance sheet--it's in the form of intimidating descriptions, accounting mumbo jumbo and technical reports that do little to illuminate just what the hell is going on.

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Stunning Government Billion-Dollar Giveaway to Paper Companies in the Works

Two years in Washington have started to make me feel jaded. I've come to expect that even nobly conceived laws will be manipulated and distorted for private ends. But once in a while I hear a story that gives me the queasy feeling that I'm nowhere near cynical enough. Such is the case with the tale of the paper industry and the alternative-fuel tax credit.

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MoveOn Is Not What You Think It Is

Five years to the day after American forces began their campaign of "shock and awe" in Iraq, opponents of the war gathered in Washington. While some came with bullhorns and drums and flag-draped coffins, danced down K Street and confronted legislators on Capitol Hill, others formed a quiet vigil in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Here there were no bullhorns or drums. Instead, there were a few news cameras, a banner that read Invest in America, Not Endless War in Iraq and a clutch of several dozen members of MoveOn. Bill Hamm, a retired Air Force pilot from Texas who had come to Washington for the Take Back America conference, told me that during his military career, fellow pilots often gave him push back because of his liberal politics. But, he said, "I think that's changing now." Hamm told me that back in Austin, where he and his wife serve as regional coordinators for MoveOn's local councils, his wife was organizing a 150-person vigil outside the governor's mansion. Because of "war on terror" restrictions they were told they couldn't bring candles. "So they're going to use flashlights."

This year, MoveOn turns ten. News of the organization's advanced age tends to elicit the same startled response as word of a childhood star's divorce. But more important, the anniversary serves to highlight just how far the organization has come. What started as a simple one-sentence petition hastily posted to the web has evolved into the most readily identifiable group in the vanguard of a revived progressivism, with a membership that exceeds 3 million. Capable of dominating a news cycle with a single ad and raising millions of dollars with a lone e-mail, MoveOn pioneered an entire approach to conducting politics through the Internet that has been replicated and spun off across the country and around the globe, an approach that, as the Obama campaign has dramatically demonstrated, has permanently transformed the landscape of American politics. And yet the roots of its success remain largely misunderstood.

This is in large part because MoveOn has been viewed through the distorting lens of a four-decade culture-war narrative, one whose labels have long outlasted the movements and dynamics that gave rise to them. In 1968, as the country approached what seemed to many at the time something like a civil war, Richard Nixon addressed the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. He described "cities enveloped in flamesirens in the nightAmericans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other at home." Amid this tumult and chaos, Nixon presented himself as a tribune for those who weren't in the streets, who weren't seeking out confrontation and attention, "the forgotten Americans," he called them, "the non-shouters."

Forty years later, despite tectonic shifts in demographics and politics, our political map still bears the same key: a decent silent majority on one side besieged by a zealous, angry, out-of-touch left on the other. For movement conservatives and establishment centrists alike, MoveOn is just a new name for an old foe. Bill O'Reilly has called it "vicious," "radical," full of "fanatical left-wingers" who are blackmailing the Democratic Party. John McCain, not to be outdone, responded to the "General Betray Us" ad by telling a Republican audience this past fall that MoveOn "ought to be thrown out of this country." Ostensibly mainstream voices like CNN's Campbell Brown have referred to MoveOn as "American insurgents," while Peter Beinart, in a 2004 cover essay in The New Republic, suggested that MoveOn be purged from the center left just as communists once were. Democrats have gotten in on the act as well: Hillary Clinton told donors at a private fundraiser that MoveOn had "intimidated" her supporters in the caucus states, and Barack Obama took a veiled swipe at the group in his recent speech on patriotism.

But understanding MoveOn as the direct descendant of the '60s protesters gets the organization exactly wrong. MoveOn's success (and, indeed, its limitations) is powered by its appeal to today's non-shouters. Though its politics are in many ways the opposite of the Nixon silent majority's, they share a disposition. They are people not inclined to protest but whose rising unease with the direction of the country has led to a new political consciousness. For citizens angered, upset and disappointed with their government but unsure how to channel those sentiments, MoveOn provides simple, discrete actions: sign this petition, donate money to run this ad, show up at this vigil. "Before I joined MoveOn," says staffer Anna Galland, "I was organizing in Rhode Island doing faith-based antiwar activism. In March 2003, MoveOn had put out an action alert for a vigil against the Iraq War. There were 500 people on the steps of the Capitol, and I remember thinking, 'I know all the activists in the state; where did all these people come from?' I think many people have a MoveOn moment where they look around and realize that this organization has managed to tap into a much broader range of people than they might have seen at past activist events."

Take, for example, Sandy Tracy. For twenty-eight years Tracy taught high school in a small town seventy miles west of St. Paul. She always voted Democratic, but she was never particularly politically engaged. "I'm 60," she says, "and during the Vietnam protests I was too afraid to participate in any of those kinds of activities." But then came the Iraq War and Kerry's defeat, and it began to feel like the country, even the world, was spinning out of control. "I was really, really, seriously upset about the results of the election of 2004 and the track that the war was going. That was part of why I retired when I did: I just couldn't concentrate on my job."

Living in a conservative area, Tracy felt she was alone in her disaffection. But then in 2007 an e-mail arrived from MoveOn telling her that someone was organizing an antiwar rally near her. "I went, Oh my gosh, there's somebody fifteen miles from me!" Within a couple of weeks she was on a bus to Washington to join a massive protest on the Mall. "I'd never done anything like that before. Along the way I found other people in MoveOn groups, peace groups, related kinds of progressive activist groups, and they weren't telling me I should just mind my own business and not talk. And spiritually that was very uplifting to me. I just went, Aha, we're onto something here."

As Tracy's experience shows, the MoveOn model of simplified and accessible activism has proved enormously successful. But as the organization enters its second decade, there's evidence that it's reached a point of diminishing returns. In the run-up to the Iraq War, MoveOn's membership exploded, from 600,000 to 1.6 million, but its rate of growth has slowed considerably since then. What's more, the organization faces a challenge in navigating the emerging political landscape. Born in opposition, first to the Republican impeachment effort, later to the Iraq War and the Bush agenda, MoveOn may soon be forced to define its relationship to a government controlled by its supposed allies in the Democratic Party -- at a time when the party's progressive base is increasingly frustrated about its failure to deliver the change it has promised.

MoveOn founders Joan Blades and Wes Boyd are non-shouters to the core. Blades used to make her living as a divorce mediator, helping couples move from heated stand-offs to win/win, and met the mild-mannered Boyd in a soccer league. The two married and threw themselves into their new software company, which scored a massive hit in the 1990s with a package of whimsical screen savers that featured, improbably, flying toasters. "As for politics," says Blades, "I voted, and so did Wes," but that was about it. "We were very busy with our software company."

Then, in the late '90s, as they watched the impeachment spectacle from their comfortable home in Berkeley, California, the couple began to feel as if the country's leaders and the members of the media had collectively lost their minds. "We were business people," says Blades, "so we thought about the opportunity costs of our government being obsessed with the scandal when in theory they had real work to do." The technically savvy Boyd got the idea to put up a website with a petition form: people could fill in their name and contact information as a means of expressing their discontent with the entire impeachment circus. The petition read simply: "Congress must immediately Censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country."

They sent an e-mail to 100 friends with a link to moveon.org. A September 24, 1998, article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Net's Role in Scandals May Alter News Media, mentioned the effort in its final paragraph, noting that the site had attracted 500 signatures in its first day of operation.

By the end of the week, that number was 100,000.

"Essentially we stepped into a vacuum of leadership, and we said something sensible," recalls Blades. "We're the quintessential accidental activists." They figured the petition would be a one-time endeavor, but when they saw the reaction they knew they were onto something. "I still remember one of our early e-mails: a woman wrote in and said, You know, I've never done anything political. I'm a single mom. I get home and feed my son. This" -- meaning signing a petition, forwarding an e-mail -- "is something I can do." This ease of use remains one of MoveOn's hallmarks, one with particular appeal at a time when Americans work more than their counterparts in almost every other industrialized nation.

It's worth pausing for a moment to note the complete lack of ideological zealotry in MoveOn's founding. "It was really more about common sense versus insanity than it was about progressives versus conservatives," says Ben Brandzel, who worked for MoveOn and now consults with other groups around the world using the same model. "Impeachment, the details of that, really has nothing to do with any political scientist's idea about progressive or conservative," he says.

It wasn't until the shock of 9/11 and the run-up to Iraq that MoveOn's "basic common sense populism [was] grafted onto a partisan divide," according to Brandzel. The vessel for this shift was an unassuming 6-foot-3 20-year-old named Eli Pariser. As MoveOn PAC's executive director, Pariser, now 27, is the organization's de facto leader, and his reserved bearing is rather stunning if you've spent any time listening to Bill O'Reilly. In a wedding announcement in the New York Times this summer his new wife described him as "clear-eyed and hopeful." In person, he's so preternaturally calm one almost feels he might be some kind of reincarnated lama.

The day after 9/11, Pariser, then living in Boston, wanted to do something to help. When the local blood bank told him it was beyond capacity, he channeled his anguish and hope into an online petition he e-mailed to thirty friends. Earnest, plaintive and humane, it made the case for international leaders to use "moderation and restraint" in responding to the attacks, and called for employing "international judicial institutions and international human rights law to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks, rather than the instruments of war, violence or destruction."

"By Monday there were thousands of e-mails in my Inbox," he told me recently. "The server was crashing. It was this moment where the e-mail had hit a chord and was being repeated out through the address books." Within the first two weeks, 515,000 people signed the petition, and before long he'd connected with Blades and Boyd, merged his list with MoveOn's and joined the organization as a full-time staff member.

Starting in summer 2002, much of the antiwar movement flowed through Pariser, and as the drumbeat for war with Iraq grew louder MoveOn's ranks swelled. "There was kind of a strength-in-numbers thing," Pariser recalls. "That's when the surge of people who had been quiet through the first year and a half of the Bush Administration started to realize, This is serious; I need to be involved."

At its apex the stop-the-war-before-it-starts movement was the largest popular uprising on the left in decades. The coalition that organized the protests around the country drew millions into the streets, including everyone from anarchists, Maoists and pacifists to nuns, soccer moms and disaffected Republicans. MoveOn tended to anchor the latter part of the spectrum, as part of the moderate Win Without War coalition. Whereas other groups called out "No blood for oil!" MoveOn's most successful petition was titled "Let the Inspections Work."

Even as the Bush Administration has radicalized so many, and pushed MoveOn toward a more aggressively partisan stance, that original pragmatic sensibility remains woven into the organization's DNA. "Wes and Joan didn't come out of the left," notes Zack Exley, who worked as a union organizer before joining MoveOn in 2002 (and later worked for the Kerry campaign). "Eli hadn't had time to be on the left." For Exley, the freshness of their approach was a revelation. "It was the most exciting kind of atmosphere because they weren't negative or defeated or cynicalthey didn't have their ideas set. They kind of had this boundless faith in what their members were capable of doing."

MoveOn staffers echo Exley's characterization, stressing that whatever MoveOn's ideological sensibility ("pragmatically progressive," one offered), it's a product not of its staff's outlook but of the views of its members. "Some groups have a really strong ideological substrate," says organizing director Justin Ruben. "We tend to not be that way. We believe strongly in the wisdom of crowds, giving people the ability to make choices together. They'll make good choices."

In theory that's all well and good; in practice, it's no small task to figure out just what kind of choices 3.2 million people are interested in making. In his new book Here Comes Everybody, Internet theorist Clay Shirky illustrates how dramatically the Internet has lowered the cost of collective action and coordination across barriers of time and space. MoveOn's approach to activism -- mass e-mails, instant internal polling, distributed fundraising -- takes advantage of this development. Before MoveOn pioneered the online petition, just the simple act of gathering 100,000 signatures would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of labor. Now MoveOn sends out e-mail petitions several times a month. Or consider this: to manage its lobbying efforts and programs for its more than 4 million members, the NRA has a staff exceeding 500 and a $15 million, 390,000-square-foot office building in Virginia. MoveOn has a staff of twenty-three. And no headquarters. Twice a week, a dozen of MoveOn's staffers call in from around the country for a strategy session. The organization is so committed to the ethos of the virtual office, it has an internal policy that even when staffers are living in the same city they're prohibited from sharing office space.

"What makes it possible," says Ruben, "is that every action taken ends up in our database. It's all in one place and the data set is enormous, which if you're a geek is awesome." When MoveOn sends out mass e-mails, staffers often first test multiple separate subject lines within small sample groups, choosing the subject that's most effective at getting people to act on the e-mail's "ask." Each week they run a tracking poll, surveying a random subsample of members to identify which issues they're following and where their passions lie.

The speed and efficiency of Internet communication allows the organization tremendous flexibility in responding to breaking developments. "Because we are member driven, we 'Chase the Energy,'" Brandzel writes in a manifesto called "The 8 Fold Path," which lays out the MoveOn approach. "Energy flows with news cycles, and the opportunity to make a difference." In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, MoveOn was able to use its member database to set up a website where evacuees could be matched with members who had extra rooms in their houses to share. The site was up just seventy-two hours after the hurricane made landfall in New Orleans, and ended up providing housing to more than 30,000 evacuees, a response far quicker than FEMA's.

MoveOn-ers are quick to point out that technology is just the means, not the end. "The Internet's just a tool," says Brandzel. "I mean, would you call a church a paper-based organization because the Bible is printed on paper?" Just as the Reformation required both discontent with the Catholic Church's corruption and Gutenberg's printing press, MoveOn's rise required both the swelling backlash against post-Gingrich radicalism and the explosive growth of the Internet, particularly among the ranks of the professional classes with Internet access.

Somewhat frustratingly, MoveOn does not keep demographic information about its members, which makes it difficult to know for sure whether the sample of members I spoke with, mostly white and middle class, is representative. But it is clear that they aren't radicals. After the 2004 election, MoveOn attempted to use Internet forums, e-mails and polls to build a platform of sorts, called the Positive Agenda. The results were squarely within the mainstream of the Democratic Party: universal healthcare, clean renewable energy and the restoration of the Constitution and civil liberties. "The idea that MoveOn is like some foaming-at-the-mouth, swinging-from-the-trees liberal interest group is kind of a joke," says influential blogger Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake.com.

"People ask us all the time, you know, Make your members do this or think this," says Pariser. "We just have to politely say, We can't. Even if we wanted to, people click the link or they do the thing that we ask them to if they think it's a useful thing to do. There's no chain of command.

"It's essentially a service organization that helps people who are busy advocate in politics. We're providing something that's valuable to people and using technology to amplify the quality of the service you can get. It's not unlike Netflix or Flickr."

It's a revealing analogy. In many ways MoveOn's relationship to its members looks a lot like a business's relationship to its customers. If a product isn't selling, they take it off the shelves. For activists rooted in an earlier generation of social movements, which tended to prize long, disputatious meetings and the unwieldy process of forming bottom-up consensus, this approach is at best alien, at worst insidious. Customers, after all, aren't part of the creation of the product: they're not running the meetings where new packaging is designed; their input is limited to the final result and expressed through the transaction of purchase. And the role of customer imposes no obligations. You are free to buy or not buy, or in MoveOn's case, sign the petition or not sign the petition. Oscar Wilde once complained that the trouble with socialism was that it took "too many evenings." MoveOn holds out the promise of progressive change without the evenings.

Marshall Ganz -- who organized with the farm workers, recently ran training workshops for Obama's field staff and now studies and teaches organizing at Harvard's Kennedy School -- says much of what MoveOn does is marketing, not organizing. "The genius of the Internet is more the way it can create a marketplace than create organization," he says. "It's important to distinguish between sharing information and forming relationships. Forming a relationship, we make a commitment to work together. Participation in democratic organizations is not just an individual act. It's an act of affiliation with others." If you were to map the arrows of relationship between MoveOn's staff and its members, Ganz points out, nearly all the arrows would run between the members and the staff: you receive an e-mail, you respond, you give money, etc. -- but relatively few go from member to member.

"They're gonna send letters to Congress and the President," says Ganz. "And man, we generate a lot of fucking letters. That's great. So what sort of capacity have we created in the process? Have we developed a new leadership? Probably not. Have members learned more about relating to each other? Not so much."

Ganz's criticism is mild compared with that of John Stauber, who founded the Center for Media and Democracy and has written scathingly of MoveOn. According to Stauber, MoveOn has become "primarily a money-raising and marketing arm of the Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party. They clearly haven't shown any interest in building an organization that would empower the millions of people whose e-mail addresses they have. The so-called MoveOn membership is really just a group of people who are used for fundraising purposes."

Stauber is among a small handful of people on the left willing to express such harsh criticisms on the record. Privately, more progressive activists will make familiar complaints about grievances and frictions that have developed from working together. "In the early days they were great partners and had an interest in building up other progressive organizations," one prominent progressive who's worked with MoveOn told me. "That seems to have changed."

Perhaps the most damning criticism leveled at MoveOn is that by creating a clear and easy outlet for people's frustration and angst, the organization delivers people a false sense of accomplishment. In other words, MoveOn can be tremendously successful without being effective. Consider the vaunted petition, MoveOn's bread and butter. In 1998 a petition with 100,000 signatures would make any politician sit up and take notice, but over time the value has been degraded as more organizations have learned how to leverage the Internet. Clay Shirky calls this the "cost/value paradox" and says it can spell big trouble for MoveOn. As the transaction cost for a specific piece of activism declines, so does its value, since politicians know it doesn't require much effort. One former Democratic Senate staffer told me that when her boss was presented the weekly mail summary, the staff made sure that if an issue had landed on the top of the list as a result of a MoveOn mass e-mailing, it was marked with an asterisk. "They've been selling: Millions of E-mails Sold, the old McDonald's line," says Shirky. "They're now realizing that in a way they're empty calories."

Talk to MoveOn staff members and they'll say that any method of organizing has its limitations. The organizing model that requires long meetings and vigorous debate can lead to organizations being driven by, in MoveOn spokeswoman Ilyse Hogue's words, "the loudest person in the room," something that cuts against MoveOn's non-shouter ethos. They'll also point out that their approach has led to concrete victories: they spearheaded an effort that blocked the FCC's attempts to allow media cross-ownership in local markets; they were an instrumental part of the campaign to beat back Social Security privatization; and the "caught red-handed" ads they ran in targeted Congressional races in '06 had a real effect in softening support for a number of Republican incumbents. What's more, the model works well enough that people around the world are eager to adopt it. In Australia, a MoveOn-type group called GetUp!, which was advised by Brandzel, played a key role in the recent electoral victory of the country's center-left Labor Party. Last year James Rucker, a former MoveOn staffer, started ColorofChange.org, a MoveOn-style organization focused on African-American political mobilization that now boasts 100,000 members; Avaaz.org, a global justice MoveOn spinoff, has a worldwide membership of more than 3 million members.

All that said, there's also a stalking awareness in the organization that the model that has served it so well these past ten years may be approaching its limit. The organization still can raise money from its members to run ads on TV (like the "Not Alex" anti-McCain ad it recently unveiled), but because of the constant erosion of any e-mail list, MoveOn has to add something like 200,000 members a year just to tread water. This need to constantly refresh the membership base explains, at least in part, MoveOn's heavy focus on media exposure and its knack for courting publicity, even controversy. "There's such a huge media component to everything MoveOn does," says a progressive activist who's worked on campaigns with MoveOn. "They have a philosophy that says, Get media; that will get you members."

Meanwhile, technology moves fast and MoveOn's primary medium, e-mail, threatens to become outmoded as young people migrate to text messages, social networking sites and IM. In response, MoveOn has branched out to conduct Facebook activism, successfully running a campaign within Facebook to force the site to alter a feature that broadcast private purchasing decisions.

Most significant, MoveOn has massively expanded its focus on developing an offline presence, one grounded in the face-to-face interactions that Ganz invoked. "We had a project for a while called Click Back America, but I think you can't actually click back America," says Justin Ruben. "The things that people do in the real world, away from their computer, also matter. Our power comes almost entirely from collective action. You can only do so much through the computer."

MoveOn began developing the capacity of offline action in 2004, attempting to build from scratch in a little more than ten weeks a member-based field program in support of John Kerry in swing states. The idea was that MoveOn members would act as precinct captains and canvass their neighbors. Though rushed and somewhat ad hoc, this first foray into concerted offline activity gave birth to Operation Democracy -- since renamed MoveOn Councils -- the locus of MoveOn's local, physical presence and the conduit for everything from phone banking to house parties to war vigils. Anna Galland, who heads up the councils for MoveOn (and who is, full disclosure, a college friend), says they're ambitiously scaling up. "We're up to 250 local councils, with councils in every state." Members meet in their local councils, and council leaders report to volunteer regional coordinators. "People come from all sorts of backgrounds," says Galland, and get trained in everything from how to run a meeting to leadership development. "We're not just looking for volunteers; we're trying to build a culture of organizing," she says.

For those who came to MoveOn through the simple activism of signing a petition, forwarding an e-mail or donating money, the council provides an opportunity to take the more involved step of actually congregating with other progressives. Crossing this gulf, for millions of people, is no small step. Sandy Tracy, the retired Minnesota high school teacher, now serves as a regional coordinator. She recalls the anxiety she felt before hosting her first house party. "I had fifteen people who signed up to come to that first event," she says. "I felt a little awkward, and I'm going, Oh my gosh! I've got all these people at my house; what are we going to talk about?"

The councils were born of a desire to help elect Kerry, and now that Obama is the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, nearly all of MoveOn's focus has shifted to getting him elected. In many ways, the Obama campaign is built on much the same aspirations, ethos and constituency as MoveOn, which is why it wasn't particularly shocking that when the group polled its members in February, 70 percent voted to endorse Obama over Clinton.

Some, though, were surprised. "I was slack-jawed," says one netroots activist, noting that Obama had failed to vote on the Senate resolution that chastised the group for its General Betray Us ad. "They were at the mercy of their membership, who really were enthusiastic about Obama. But this was the guy who threw them under the bus, and they basically said, Beat me! Treat me like shit!"

The subtext here is the larger issue of MoveOn's relationship to a Democratic Party that many feel has co-opted it. "They built up a huge membership because of the war," says CodePink founder Medea Benjamin, "and the press looked at them as the voice of the antiwar movement, and then they betrayed the movement. They were more concerned with being on the same page with the Democratic leadership than with the rest of the antiwar leadership."

Particularly egregious to Benjamin and others was the failure of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. Co-founded in January 2007 by MoveOn and run by its then-Washington director, Tom Matzzie, the coalition spent $12 million attempting to force Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. Its efforts helped push Congressional Democrats to pass a supplemental bill that tied funding to a withdrawal timeline. But after the President vetoed the bill, AAEI focused on running ads against Republicans who'd backed the White House rather than trying to force the Democratic Congressional leadership to cut off funds.

"MoveOn went all out to get a Democratic Congress elected," says Benjamin. "We now have more troops in Iraq, more funding than the Bush Administration even asked for and a guarantee that the war will continue into the next administration."

If CodePink thinks MoveOn is too cozy with the Democrats, Democratic staffers on the Hill have a hard time telling MoveOn and CodePink apart. Several staffers I talked with felt animus toward MoveOn for organizing actions against their bosses. But when they described these actions -- sit-ins in their Hill offices, for instance -- it became clear they were confusing MoveOn with CodePink and other more confrontational antiwar groups. The resentment is also a result of MoveOn's clumsy Betray Us ad, which became such a high-profile distraction that it allowed conservatives to deflect attention from the war debate. And MoveOn's presence on the Hill, where the battle over escalation was fought, is not particularly strong; in Democratic Congressional offices, it's viewed more as an annoyance than a force. "I've never been in a room where someone says, Let's all check with MoveOn," said the former staffer.

"Of course, I wish the result had been different," says Nita Chaudhary, MoveOn's chief antiwar organizer, of their efforts to prevent the escalation. "But we tried very hard." Chaudhary points out that MoveOn has spent time and effort going after Democrats. Local groups routinely meet with their Representatives to lobby them on the war, and "we ran ads against Democrats -- we did this whole backbone campaign with Democrats, trying to get them to stand up against a blank check on the war." But she concedes that the organization made a tactical decision that the best way to bring the war to heel would be through elections, first electing a Democratic majority and now trying to elect Obama along with an "anti-Iraq War majority" in Congress.

To MoveOn's critics in the antiwar movement, the tactical choice to focus most of its energy on defeating Republicans confirmed a nagging sense that, for all its talk about being led by its members, the organization is really run by its staff. Dave Swanson of Democrats.com recalls that in March 2007, "a lot of the real peace organizations were pushing the Barbara Lee amendment" (which would have provided funding only for a withdrawal of forces) "to the point where MoveOn was feeling the pressure. So do they send out a survey, Do you favor the Barbara Lee or the [Democratic] leadership's bill?" (which would have attached timelines but continued funding). "No. Instead, they offered a choice of the leadership's bill or the President's agenda. It was essentially a Stalinist poll. They know damn well what their membership would have said if offered an honest survey."

In response to criticism of that poll, Pariser argued that MoveOn's members were sophisticated enough to understand that the Pelosi bill was the best possible option. But the episode highlighted the difficulty of the situation MoveOn increasingly finds itself in. Over ten years the organization has developed a reliably confrontational posture toward the Republicans in power. It's a necessary feature of an organization that needs to raise money constantly, a rational reaction to the GOP's debased leadership and the expression of a deep and genuine sentiment among its silent majority members, who have simply had enough. But the frustrations of the past two years with a Democratic Congress struggling to deliver any of the things MoveOn members want have served as a teachable moment. In interviews with nearly two dozen of MoveOn's regional coordinators, when I asked what they saw as MoveOn's role in a future Democrat-dominated Washington, they gave without exception the same answer: hold the politicians accountable. "One of their mottoes that really resonates with me is that democracy is not a spectator sport," says Sandy Tracy, the retired schoolteacher. "Average people have elected their officials and sent them off and let them be. We're now paying the price for that."

Should the Democrats retake the White House and add to their Congressional majorities this fall, they would do well to take note of Tracy and the millions like her. Come next spring, if they haven't started withdrawing troops, you just might see Sandy Tracy in the streets with a bullhorn.

Progressive Dems Unveil Plan to End Iraq Occupation

On the late afternoon of the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a grim, surreal procession made its way up DC's Capitol Hill. Down Independence Avenue alongside the House office buildings marched a single file of protesters, each clad in a black T-shirt, wearing a haunting white mask and holding a sign with the name of a civilian killed in Iraq. As they trudged up the Hill, a drummer rapped out a spare and mournful beat. Aside from several police escorts on bicycles, few were there to bear witness. Congress was in recess, the usual passel of commuters away or shuttered indoors, the streets empty under a misting gray sky. Like the real-life funerals for the Iraqi dead they represented, this re-creation, too, would pass with hardly a notice.

Last month in Washington, as protesters marched and danced and chanted, as progressives assembled for the Take Back America conference and as thousands of soldiers' families mourned their dead, Vice President Cheney gave an interview to ABC's Martha Raddatz. When she pointed out that two-thirds of Americans thought the war was not worth fighting, he answered: "So?"

"So?" Raddatz replied. "You don't care what the American people think?"

"No," said Cheney.

There you have it. To the millions who marched before the war began, to the hundreds of thousands who have protested since, to the tens of millions who voted for candidates in 2006 who pledged to end it, the Bush Administration says, more or less, Go fuck yourself.

We are now faced with two problems. One is a war that grinds on, subject only to its internal logic, each day further embedding an imperial occupation. The other is arguably even more profound, a terrifying breakdown in the basic mechanisms of democracy whereby the will of the majority is transferred into policy. We have two ostensible democracies (the United States and Iraq), each with a polity that wants an end to the war (the most recent polling from Iraq shows that 70 percent of Iraqis favor U.S. withdrawal), yet the war does not end.

In the face of this official indifference to public opinion, it is tempting to succumb to despair. The antiwar strategy, after all, has not been static. In the run-up to the war, organizers managed to pull together the largest simultaneous worldwide demonstrations in history. That didn't work. Then the antiwar movement channeled much of its energy into electoral politics, helping to elect Democratic majorities in both houses. That hasn't worked either. So we find ourselves in the situation of Beckett's protagonist in Worstward Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Although the electoral strategy has not yet borne fruit, it is still the most viable option, barring a draft or a radical turn in public opinion that would once again bring people en masse into the streets. (There are, of course, parallel strategies to be pursued. Passing a ban on mercenaries in Iraq would make the occupation untenable.) The question, then, becomes how to create the electoral conditions that maximize the power and representation of the majority who want the war ended. The antiwar caucus doesn't have enough votes to override a delusional President or enough members willing to bear the political risk of cutting off funding for the war. The solution to this impasse is, in the words of Congressional candidate Darcy Burner, to elect "more and better Democrats" -- Democrats who have publicly committed to pursuing a legislative strategy to end the war.

So at Take Back America, Burner -- a former Microsoft manager from the Seattle suburbs who narrowly missed unseating a GOP incumbent in 2006 -- with nine other Democratic Congressional challengers released A Responsible Plan to End the War. Developed in collaboration with retired military officers and national security professionals, the plan attracted the support of fifteen additional Democratic Senate and House challengers in the first week after it was unveiled.

Unlike the withdrawal plans offered by both Democratic presidential candidates, the Responsible Plan opposes any residual forces as well as permanent military bases. It flatly states, "We must stop counter-productive military operations by U.S. occupation forces, and end our military presence in Iraq." It looks toward restoring "Constitutional checks and balances and fix[ing] the ways in which our governmental, military, and civil institutions have failed us." It also addresses the need to take responsibility for a humanitarian crisis in which thousands of Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces are in danger and millions are displaced across the region.

As an organizer working on the Responsible Plan stressed to me, it is an explicitly legislative road map, to be pursued by Congress with or without a President committed to withdrawal. Among other actions the plan calls for war funding to be brought into the normal budgetary process, as opposed to the ersatz emergency supplementals, which detach the cost of the war from the rest of the nation's discretionary spending. The plan also highlights more than a dozen bills that have already been introduced, like HR 2247, the Montgomery GI Bill for Life Act of 2007, which the signatories would support if elected.

Meanwhile, in Iraq on March 23, the 4,000th U.S. service member was killed (twenty-five died in just two weeks), at least fifty-eight Iraqi civilians died in attacks, the Green Zone was shelled, violence flared in Basra and Muqtada al-Sadr seemed to be toying with the idea of revoking his militia's cease-fire. American generals presented a plan to maintain post-surge troop levels through 2008, and George W. Bush continued to pursue an agreement with the Iraqi government that would keep U.S. troops there well into the future.

At the plan's unveiling, Burner -- articulate, impressive and infectiously energetic -- refused to be pessimistic. Despite the White House's indifference, despite the war's diminished presence on the front page, the people want the war to end.

"We can do this," she said.

Ever tried. Try again.

The Return of the SwiftBoaters

More than three years after John Kerry's bitter defeat, at the dawn of what looks like a far more promising campaign cycle for the Democrats, the party is still haunted by the specter of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Once upon a time, "Swift boat" denoted an obscure military vessel, but thanks to the activities of this group it has come to represent movement conservatism's penchant for ruthlessly (and effectively) smearing any and all political opponents, from a sitting senator and war hero to an 11-year-old boy with a cranial fracture.

Research by The Nation into Federal Election Commission records of the group's top twenty donors reveals that they've been remarkably active in this cycle, contributing and bundling nearly $200,000 to presidential candidates. This does not bode well. During the last presidential campaign, the wealthy backers of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth--now rebranded as Swift Vets and POWs for Truth--didn't do their real dirty work until the general election, where as a tax-exempt 527 group they operated outside the restraints of direct campaign contributions. We may wish we were done with the Swift Boaters, but they aren't done with us.

In 2004 the top twenty donors all gave (with one exception) at least $50,000 to the group. The top three--Houston home builder Bob Perry, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens and billionaire drugstore impresario and investor Harold Simmons--gave a combined $9.5 million ($4.45 million, $3 million and $2 million, respectively). Calculating the influence of these and the slightly less wealthy Swift Boat donors during this cycle is a touch more complicated than simply adding up their contributions. Each one exerts far more influence as a bundler, given the federal restrictions on individual giving, which limit donors to a maximum of $4,600 per cycle. So The Nation looked not only at the contributions of the donors themselves but also at those of their family members and employees. It's an imperfect method, since some employees are clearly contributing of their own volition (such as one employee of a Simmons company who gave money to Hillary Clinton), but it gives a rough estimate of who's backing whom and to what extent.

The most notable recipient of Swift Boat largesse is John McCain, erstwhile front-runner and Stand Up Guy. When the Swift Boat ads were first unleashed, McCain was alone among his Republican colleagues to condemn them. A fellow Vietnam veteran, a good friend of Kerry's and a former target of smears about his own service, McCain called the ads "dishonest and dishonorable," a "cheap stunt," and he urged Bush to condemn them. But in pursuit of the GOP nomination, McCain ditched the mantle of maverick for that of hack, and his once-floundering, possibly rejuvenated campaign has been aided along the way by $61,650 from Swift Boat donors and their associates. "There is such a thing as dirty money," said Senator Kerry in a statement, after The Nation informed him of McCain's FEC records. "I'm surprised that the John McCain I knew who was smeared in 2000 and thought so-called Swift Boating was wrong in 2004 would feel comfortable taking their money after seeing the way it was used to hurt the veterans I know he loves." (McCain's office did not return calls for comment.)

McCain's Swift Boat bounty is exceeded only by that of Mitt Romney, who has raked in $70,550. Romney's success with Swift Boat donors is significant because he has surpassed even McCain in his demonstrated willingness to do or say anything in pursuit of the presidency and because he has emerged as the GOP establishment's favored candidate. Last year, when McCain held that position, the Arizona senator received significant backing from Swift Boat donors. But many have subsequently switched their allegiance. Pickens, who donated to McCain in June 2006, is now an enthusiastic Giuliani donor and fundraiser (Giuliani ranks third in Swift Boat funding, with $47,950). Perry, who also recorded several donations to McCain's PAC in 2005 and 2006, is now a major donor and fundraiser for Romney. If the list of top Swift Boat donors is expanded to fifty, Romney's fundraising edge is even more pronounced. (Neither Romney nor Giuliani's campaign returned calls for comment.)

Also noticeable among the recipients of Swift Boat largesse is one who received only a single donation: Mike Huckabee. Despite meager fundraising and little national name recognition, the former Arkansas governor has experienced a bubble-like expansion of support and media attention, taking the lead in Iowa and approaching a steady lead in national polls. But the lack of Swift Boat contributions lends credence to the claim that Huckabee is viewed warily by the money men who call the shots in the modern GOP. Despite proposing a radically regressive tax change and taking Grover Norquist's antitax pledge, he's been attacked savagely by the Club for Growth and eviscerated by columnist George Will for "comprehensive apostasy against core Republican beliefs," among them "free trade, low taxes, the essential legitimacy of America's corporate entities and the market system allocating wealth and opportunity."

This all supports the notion that the people behind the Swift Boat operation are chiefly concerned with the continued upward redistribution of wealth that is, more or less, the contemporary GOP's raison d'être. In 2006 Perry ponied up $5 million to start the Economic Freedom Fund, a 527 group devoted to attacking Democratic incumbents, and landed a large donation from prominent Swift Boat donor Carl Lindner. All of which is to say that the Swift Boaters aren't some kind of side show, a coterie of vicious mudslingers operating at the edges of respectability. They are the show. They are modern conservatism's core funders and beneficiaries. With conservatives staring straight into the abyss, their activities in this election cycle could very well make the Swift Boat smears look tame by comparison.

This report was produced with support of The Nation Institute Investigative Fund. Additional research was provided by Nicholas Jahr.




Executive Excess on Capitol Hill

If there were a futures market for the fate of the so-called "carried interest loophole" (and who knows, these days, maybe there is), its value would be in a state of near constant fluctuation. Herewith, a quick recap of its ups and downs.

Last summer, the Democrats proposed closing the multibillion-dollar tax loophole for managers of hedge funds and private equity firms. Under the current tax code, they now pay a mere 15 percent capital gains rate on the fees and bonuses (i.e., "carried interest" income) they get paid to manage investment funds they do not own, rather than the 35 percent rate they'd pay under normal income tax schedules. Estimates are this loophole--actually, it's more the size of a levy breach--will sap the Treasury of $26 billion over the next ten years.

But in October, Senate majority leader Harry Reid seemed to backtrack, saying that the Senate schedule was a little too tight to fit in a vote on the measure. Then, on Friday, the House revived hope for the provision when it passed Charlie Rangel's tax reform bill (HR 3996), which would, among other things, close the loophole. But the revival may be short-lived, since the bill now has to make it through the Senate Finance Committee, where one key Democrat, Charles Schumer, has indicated outright opposition and another key member, John Kerry, shied away from endorsing it back in May, suggesting the hedge funds be given a ten-year grace period before the loophole is closed.

All this back and forth would be more understandable if the bill itself were controversial, but on the merits and on the politics, it's a no-brainer. On Wednesday the Washington Post did an excellent job of unraveling why such a red-meat issue for Democrats has lost steam in the Senate, focusing especially on Schumer, the Senate Democrats' chief fundraiser, who, the Post reported, switched his position not long after James Simons, a hedge fund manager who earned $1.7 billion last year (you read that right), donated $28,500 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which Schumer chairs.

And of course the New York senator also represents Wall Street, which these days is chock-full of fiscal conservatives and cultural liberals who are leaning more Democratic than Republican. Hedge funds and investment firms, the Post reports, more than doubled their giving from 2006 to 2007, handing nearly $12 million so far to campaigns, parties and PACs--a stunning 83 percent of which has gone to Democrats. And the majority of staff working for the new industry trade association--the Private Equity Council--are former Democratic Hill staffers. "If you're a Democrat and you have to choose between the alternative minimum tax and the hedge fund industry, that's one tough ideological choice," Viva Hammer, a former Treasury Department staffer, told the Post. "It's a choice between your votes and your wallet."

But what about John Kerry, whom the Post doesn't touch? Kerry supports a proposal to close the loophole that allows hedge fund managers to shelter their pretax income offshore (part of the bill that the House passed Friday) but hasn't endorsed the proposal to close the larger loophole giving the same Wall Street barons preferential tax treatment.

On Friday, The Nation contacted Kerry's office to ask where he stood and received a statement in which, for the first time, Kerry went on the record in support of closing the loophole: "We should be dealing with deferred compensation, tax havens, and capital gains, and, yes, we should be fixing the carried interest issue," he said in a statement. He then proceeded to leave himself considerable wiggle room: "But we should do it in a way that avoids unintended consequences and is thoughtful about the fact that carried interests are common features not just in private equity and hedge funds but in real estate, venture capital, and start-up companies, and fields including healthcare and biotech."

This is progress, but it's pretty easy to see why Kerry would want to preserve an exit strategy (and not just in the interest of maintaining the narrative suspense in the tale of our poor benighted tax fix). According to one lobbyist (who doesn't work for the firms), two prominent Boston-based firms that are members of the Private Equity Council--Bain Capital Private Equity and Thomas H. Lee Partners--have been lobbying Kerry hard on the issue. Moreover, FEC data indicate that not long after closing the loophole was first proposed back in April, a number of Bain private equity partners started to make big contributions to Kerry. Partners Josh Bekenstein, Diane Exter and Jonathan Lavine have all given in excess of $4,000 each to the Kerry Senate campaign fund. Bain's mananging director, Mark Nunnelly, and two staffers have also all maxed out to Kerry this cycle with $4,600 each to his Senate campaign.

Some of these Bain partners have also given tens of thousands of dollars to key Democratic party campaign committees in recent years. But even that is chump change compared with what is at stake. According to Executive Excess, a report by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, while US corporate CEOs made an average of $10.8 million last year, the top twenty private equity/hedge fund managers pocketed an average $657.5 million, or 22,255 times the pay of an average US worker.

So Kerry (like many of his colleagues) is in an all-too-familiar position, caught between the interests of his voters and his donors. Given what the partners at Bain and elsewhere have to lose, smart money in DC is on the loophole surviving this legislative session intact. But as Kerry's recent statement shows, the first step to ending the suspense over its fate is simply to ask Democratic elected officials just which side they're on.

The Man Who Might Make Obama President

Given his rhetorical skills, Harvard Law pedigree, up-by-the-bootstraps bio and, well, his race, it is hard not to compare recently elected Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to his friend Barack Obama. Both men entered crowded primaries in which they were definitively not favored. They both inspired a kind of personal pride among supporters that is rare in politics. On the evening of Obama's convincing primary victory, the crowd and the candidate joined in chanting, "Yes We Can!" and if you listen closely to video of Patrick rallies, you'll hear the crowd chanting the very same thing. When Patrick looked into the camera in one ad and said the state's problem wasn't a "deficit of dollars but a deficit of leadership," it was hard not to hear echoes of Obama's oft-used line that the country's biggest problem isn't a budget deficit but an "empathy deficit." And in Patrick's most effective ad, he stands on a stage delivering an impassioned speech to a crescendo of applause as Obama sits on a stool just behind him, nodding approvingly, his head perfectly framed in the shot.

Which brings us to something else the two men share: David Axelrod, the 51-year-old reporter turned media consultant who was the key media strategist for both men's campaigns. He's the one who wrote those ads, framed that shot and came up with the "Yes We Can" tag line. "I don't bring these messages to candidates," Axelrod says when I point out the similarities. "I look for candidates who exemplify and reflect those messages." In the cases of Obama and Patrick, he says, the work is a collaboration. "They take and improve on what you bring them; they deliver it well because they believe in it. It's like riffing with great musicians."

Even though he lives 1,000 miles from the notoriously clubby world of political consulting, Axelrod has become one of its most successful and respected practitioners. Mark McKinnon, who produced George W. Bush's ads in the last cycle and now works for John McCain, calls Axelrod "the best media guy out there who doesn't have a ring." With his quick wit and knack for soundbites ("The Icon gets hoisted," Axelrod said of the media's treatment of star candidates, "and then it becomes a piñata"), the onetime ChicagoTribune political writer is a favorite of reporters seeking quotes. Charming as he can be with journalists, those who have worked with him say, he can be "aggressive" and "extremely difficult" in the trenches of a campaign. Colleagues point out that he's uncommonly idealistic for someone in his line of work, though a veteran Chicago reporter noted that this has its limits: "He's a principled guy, but he's not a philanthropist. The candidates he's worked for have been well funded, and he's made very good money doing what he does."

Axelrod is known for becoming close to his candidates, and indeed, he has become Obama's closest political adviser, talking strategy daily and producing the two videos recently posted to Obama's website. Reclining in a chair in his Chicago office the week before Obama announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee, Axelrod was subdued, seemingly exhausted, but intense and hyperarticulate. Like Obama he speaks with what can seem a refreshing frankness, though just a few hours later, going over my notes, it was clear that he had remained scrupulously on message.

Axelrod's firm, AKP Media, which he runs with his partners John Kupper and David Plouffe, has handled a series of high-profile national and state campaigns, from John Edwards's 2004 presidential run to Tom Vilsack's and Eliot Spitzer's gubernatorial races; but for much of its two decades the firm's bread and butter has been mayoral races, with a particularly strong track record in electing black candidates. Indeed, ever since working on the re-election campaign of Chicago's Harold Washington in 1987, Axelrod has developed something of a novel niche for a political consultant: helping black politicians convince white voters to support them. With Obama's bid for the presidency, Axelrod's skill in this area will face the ultimate test.

Born on New York's Lower East Side, Axelrod grew up in a middle-class Jewish household and showed a passion for politics early: At age 10 he was shuffling around his housing complex with a cardboard box filled with John Lindsay-for-mayor literature. He enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1972, lured by Chicago's storied politics, and resolved to become a "newspaperman." Upon graduating he was hired by the Tribune, and having just lost his father to suicide, he turned to the paper as a surrogate family. "I was a young kid," he says, "just making my way in the world, and the Tribune adopted me."

Axelrod was something of a journalistic prodigy, rising to become city hall bureau chief and political columnist at the ripe old age of 27. Then in 1984, he left it behind to join the campaign of Paul Simon, the bow-tied intellectual mounting an improbable run for US Senate. Though he joined the campaign as communications director, within weeks Axelrod was promoted to co-campaign manager. "We were too dumb to quit," says David Wilhelm, who co-piloted the campaign and would go on to become DNC head in Clinton's first year in office. "It helped that we were so idealistic. One of the things about David Axelrod -- I have certainly talked to clients about this -- one of the reasons he's so successful is that he is a believer. At the end of the day, he's an idealist. He actually cares about his candidates and their positions on issues. While he can be caustic, he is not a cynic."

When the campaign was done, Axelrod and Forest Claypool, one of his deputies from the campaign, opened their own consulting shop, handling mostly long-shot candidates until 1987, when Chicago Mayor Harold Washington hired the firm to help with his re-election. Four years earlier, Washington had won a historic victory, defeating the machine-backed incumbent, Jane Byrne, to become the city's first black mayor. As the Tribune's city hall bureau chief, Axelrod had ringside seats. "Nineteen eighty-three, that was a phenomenal election. Harold Washington -- extraordinary guy. I mean, he was the most kinetic campaigner and politician that I've ever met. It was inspiring the way the African-American community came alive around the prospect of electing Harold. There were those who mistook that for a negative [campaign], but it was one of the most positive campaigns I've ever seen, because people felt empowered."

But if the campaign was positive, the reaction from white Chicago was not. In 1966, when Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago to campaign for housing desegregation, he was met with jeers of "Martin Luther Coon" and bricks thrown at his head. It prompted King to observe that people from Mississippi should move to Chicago to "learn how to hate." Seventeen years later, during the Washington campaign, that same ugly side of the city was on full display. Washington was heckled and threatened. Opponents passed out buttons with pictures of watermelons, and Bernard Epton, Washington's white Republican opponent, adopted the slogan "Before It's Too Late." After Washington won, it arguably got worse. The white machine alderman who opposed the Mayor formed a bloc in the City Council that did everything it could to undercut and humiliate him. The "council wars," as the ongoing battle became known, came to embody city politics at its worst: racial civil war fought by parliamentary means. "The city was paralyzed," Axelrod says. "The media called it 'Beirut on the lake.'"

But Mayor Washington was extremely popular among the city's African-American population, and the pettiness of the council wars cemented his support among white liberals, paving the way for his re-election in 1987. "I remember sitting with Harold on the morning after he won the primary," Axelrod recalls with a wistful smile. "He turned to us and asked, 'What percentage of the white vote did I get?' We told him it was 20 percent, and we were happy, because four years earlier he'd gotten only 8 percent." But Washington pointed out that he'd spent 70 to 80 percent of his time during the campaign in white neighborhoods. "He kind of smiled wanly," says Axelrod, "and said, 'Ain't it a bitch to be a black man in the land of the free and the home of the brave,' and then he went out to give one of the most joyous and rollicking and brilliant press conferences I'd ever seen."

While Axelrod would work on Paul Simon's presidential campaign a year later and branch out from Chicago to state and federal races across the country, he developed a specialty in black mayoral races, working for candidates like Dennis Archer in Detroit, Michael White in Cleveland, Anthony Williams in DC, Lee Brown in Houston and John Street in Philadelphia. Now, as Axelrod prepares to try to persuade nonblack Americans to elect a black man President, it's clear the experience of Harold Washington was a defining moment in the formation of his political consciousness. When he talks about the brutally negative race run by Deval Patrick's opponent, he says offhandedly, "We haven't seen anything like it since Bernie Epton."

Axelrod sees Obama, who was working in Chicago as a community organizer during the Washington years, as a marker of progress, writing the second act of a story that Washington started. "In 1983, after Harold won the primary, he went to the northwest side of Chicago with Walter Mondale. They went to a place called St. Pascal's Catholic Church. And what ensued there was so ugly -- the protests -- that it became a national story. Twenty-one years later, when Barack ran for the US Senate in the primary against six very strong candidates, he carried every ward on the northwest side except one, and carried the ward that St. Pascal's is in, and I think even the precinct. That's what he was thinking about on primary night. I was thinking, and I told Barack, that Harold Washington is smiling down on us."

What Obama and Washington shared, Axelrod points out -- a trait common to many of the successful black candidates he has worked for -- is the direct, lived experience of the effects of injustice with a simultaneous faith that the injustice wasn't permanent, that it could be overcome. "In many cases their personal stories are symbolic of the kinds of values that we as a society hold dear even if we haven't always honored them historically," Axelrod says. "The notion that you can overcome great obstacles -- [they're] very hopeful figures, and I think that made them very potent politically. They've seen the obstacles and the barriers and they've also overcome them: It shows the work we have to do and the possibility that that work can get done, that you can work for a better future." In other words: They make people feel good about how far we've come.

If the Obama message can be distilled to a single word, it is "hope." It's in the title of his new book (The Audacity of Hope) and the name of his PAC (Hopefund). If you page back through Axelrod's work, it's a word that shows up a lot. All politics traffics in clichés, and hope certainly isn't a new one (Bill Clinton: The Man From Hope), but there's a specific resonance to the concept in post-9/11, mid-Iraq War America. The experience of 9/11 gave Americans a feeling of national solidarity that the country probably hadn't experienced since World War II. Those melancholy days served as a kind of time warp, or glimpse, perhaps, of a future public life without the culture wars: one without wedge issues and the quasi-tribal red-blue divisions. Of course, that unity was all too quickly leveraged to pursue a radically militaristic course of action, but that brief taste has left many Americans wanting more. This is what the Axelrod-Obama brain trust has intuited, and what the Obama campaign holds out as its promise: "The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats," Obama said during his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote. "But I've got news for them, too: We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

Obama, having grown up stretched across the trenches of the culture wars -- black and white, secular and religious, poor neighborhoods and the Ivy League, heartland and the coasts -- seems to feel at a gut level the discomfort many Americans have with the culture wars' rituals. In The Audacity of Hope he writes about how the political battles of today can seem rooted in "old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago." And Axelrod, veteran of Chicago's ugly racialized battles, also seems to have a profound understanding of people's yearning for a politics that is somehow less petty and rancorous. Together they have crafted a potent message that speaks to this.

The question is whether a politics free of acrimony can deliver the promise of progress. When I asked Axelrod how he went from working for Washington to working for his erstwhile foe, Mayor Daley, just two years later, he defended it this way: "He reduced the acrimony and became a unifying force, and that was really significant." Of course, in that case the "acrimony" came from the fierce resistance to change, and a return to a more placid politics only came with the monarchical restoration of the king's eldest son.

The hope for a politics of consensus is hardly new. It is the hope embodied in the plaintive, exasperated question asked by Rodney King during America's last spasm of racialized violence: "Can't we all get along?" Axelrod and Obama call it "a new kind of politics," and in their imagining it is a rerun of the Washington race, but this time the empowerment can be shared across the racial divide. This time, there won't be epithets or spit hurled at the candidate. Politics without division; progress without anyone's interests being threatened.

But consensus is a tricky business. Recently the website obamatruth.org mysteriously appeared, featuring a slick three-minute video hit-piece intended to make Obama out to be a money-grubbing, uppity sellout. "In his lust for personal wealth," the site asks, "has Barack Obama sold his moral compass?" Though the site doesn't offer any clues as to its provenance, it is registered to one Joe Novak, a Republican opposition researcher and dirty trickster who during the last election cycle produced a series of notorious negative ads aired on black commercial radio. Axelrod knows Novak well. Back in the 1980s, Novak got his start as a hatchet man for none other than Ed Vrdolyak, the white alderman who was Harold Washington's chief nemesis. Vrdolyak affectionately referred to him as "Low Blow Joe." As Washington learned, as interested as you might be in unity, your enemies get a vote, too.

Is 9/11 Paranoia Bad for the Country?

According to a July poll conducted by Scripps News Service, one-third of Americans think the government either carried out the 9/11 attacks or intentionally allowed them to happen in order to provide a pretext for war in the Middle East. This is at once alarming and unsurprising. Alarming, because if tens of millions of Americans really believe their government was complicit in the murder of 3,000 of their fellow citizens, they seem remarkably sanguine about this fact. By and large, life continues as before, even though tens of millions of people apparently believe they are being governed by mass murderers. Unsurprising, because the government these Americans suspect of complicity in 9/11 has acquired a justified reputation for deception: weapons of mass destruction, secret prisons, illegal wiretapping. What else are they hiding?

This pattern of deception has not only fed diffuse public cynicism but has provided an opening for alternate theories of 9/11 to flourish. As these theories -- propounded by the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement -- seep toward the edges of the mainstream, they have raised the specter of the return (if it ever left) of what Richard Hofstadter famously described as "the paranoid style in American politics." But the real danger posed by the Truth Movement isn't paranoia. Rather, the danger is that it will discredit and deform the salutary skepticism Americans increasingly show toward their leaders.

The Truth Movement's recent growth can be largely attributed to the Internet-distributed documentary Loose Change. A low-budget film produced by two 20-somethings that purports to debunk the official story of 9/11, it's been viewed over the Internet millions of times. Complementing Loose Change are the more highbrow offerings of a handful of writers and scholars, many of whom are associated with Scholars for 9/11 Truth. Two of these academics, retired theologian David Ray Griffin and retired Brigham Young University physics professor Steven Jones, have written books and articles that serve as the movement's canon. Videos of their lectures circulate among the burgeoning portions of the Internet devoted to the cause of the "truthers." A variety of groups have chapters across the country and organize conferences that draw hundreds. In the last election cycle, the website 911truth.org even produced a questionnaire with pointed inquiries for candidates, just like the US Chamber of Commerce or the Sierra Club. The Truth Movement's relationship to the truth may be tenuous, but that it is a movement is no longer in doubt.

Truth activists often maintain they are simply "raising questions," and as such tend to focus with dogged persistence on physical minutiae: the lampposts near the Pentagon that should have been knocked down by Flight 77, the altitude in Pennsylvania at which cellphones on Flight 93 should have stopped working, the temperature at which jet fuel burns and at which steel melts. They then use these perceived inconsistencies to argue that the central events of 9/11 -- the plane hitting the Pentagon, the towers collapsing -- were not what they appeared to be. So: The eyewitness accounts of those who heard explosions in the World Trade Center, combined with the facts that jet fuel burns at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and steel melts at 2,500, shows that the towers were brought down by controlled explosions from inside the buildings, not by the planes crashing into them.

If the official story is wrong, then what did happen? As you might expect, there's quite a bit of dissension on this point. Like any movement, the Truth Movement is beset by internecine fights between different factions: those who subscribe to what are termed LIHOP theories (that the government "let it happen on purpose") and the more radical MIHOP ("made it happen on purpose") contingent. Even within these groups, there are divisions: Some believe the WTC was detonated with explosives after the planes hit and some don't even think there were any planes.

To the extent that there is a unified theory of the nature of the conspiracy, it is based, in part, on the precedent of the Reichstag fire in Germany in the 1930s. The idea is that just as the Nazis staged a fire in the Reichstag in order to frighten the populace and consolidate power, the Bush Administration, military contractors, oil barons and the CIA staged 9/11 so as to provide cause and latitude to pursue its imperial ambitions unfettered by dissent and criticism. But the example of the Reichstag fire itself is instructive. While during and after the war many observers, including officials of the US government, suspected the fire was a Nazi plot, the consensus among historians is that it was, in fact, the product of a lone zealous anarchist. That fact changes little about the Nazi regime, or its use of the fire for its own ends. It's true the Nazis were the chief beneficiaries of the fire, but that doesn't mean they started it, and the same goes for the Bush Administration and 9/11.

The Reichstag example also holds a lesson for those who would dismiss the very notion of a conspiracy as necessarily absurd. It was perfectly reasonable to suspect the Nazis of setting the fire, so long as the evidence suggested that might have been the case. The problem isn't with conspiracy theories as such; the problem is continuing to assert the existence of a conspiracy even after the evidence shows it to be virtually impossible.

In March 2005 Popular Mechanics assembled a team of engineers, physicists, flight experts and the like to critically examine some of the Truth Movement's most common claims. They found them almost entirely without merit. To pick just one example, steel might not melt at 1,500 degrees, the temperature at which jet fuel burns, but it does begin to lose a lot of its strength, enough to cause the support beams to fail.

And yet no amount of debunking seems to work. The Internet empowers people with esoteric interests to spend all kinds of time pursuing their hobbies, and if the Truth Movement was the political equivalent of Lord of the Rings fan fiction or furries, there wouldn't be much reason to pay attention. But the public opinion trend lines are moving in the truthers' direction, even after the official 9/11 Commission report was supposed to settle the matter once and for all.

Of course, the commission report was something of a whitewash -- Bush would only be interviewed in the presence of Dick Cheney, the commission was denied access to other key witnesses and just this year we learned of a meeting convened by George Tenet the summer before the attacks to warn Condoleezza Rice about Al Qaeda's plotting, a meeting that was nowhere mentioned in the report.

So it's hard to blame people for thinking we're not getting the whole story. For six years, the government has prevaricated and the press has largely failed to point out this simple truth. Critics like The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann might lament the resurgence of the "paranoid style," but the seeds of paranoia have taken root partly because of the complete lack of appropriate skepticism by the establishment press, a complementary impulse to the paranoid style that might be called the credulous style. In the credulous style all political actors are acting with good intentions and in good faith. Mistakes are made, but never because of ulterior motives or undue influence from the various locii of corporate power. When people in power advocate strenuously for a position it is because they believe in it. When their advocacy leads to policies that create misery, it is due not to any evil intentions or greed or corruption, but rather simple human error. Ahmad Chalabi summed up this worldview perfectly. Faced with the utter absence of the WMD he and his cohorts had long touted in Iraq, he replied, "We are heroes in error."

For a long time the credulous style has dominated the establishment, but its hold intensified after 9/11. When the government speaks, particularly about the Enemy, it must be presumed to be telling the truth. From the reporting about Iraq's alleged WMD to the current spate of stories about how "dangerous" Iran is, time and again the press has reacted to official pronouncements about threats with a near total absence of skepticism. Each time the government announces the indictment of domestic terrorists allegedly plotting our demise, the press devotes itself to the story with obsessive relish, only to later note, on page A22 or in a casual aside, that the whole thing was bunk. In August 2003, to cite just one example, the New York dailies breathlessly reported what one US official called an "incredible triumph in the war against terrorism," the arrest of Hemant Lakhani, a supposed terrorist mastermind caught red-handed attempting to acquire a surface-to-air missile. Only later did the government admit that the "plot" consisted of an FBI informant begging Lakhani to find him a missile, while a Russian intelligence officer called up Lakhani and offered to sell him one.

Yet after nearly a dozen such instances, the establishment media continue to earnestly report each new alleged threat or indictment, secure in the belief that their proximity to policy-makers gets it closer to the truth. But proximity can obscure more than clarify. It's hard to imagine that the guy sitting next to you at the White House correspondents' dinner is plotting to, say, send the country into a disastrous and illegal war, or is spying on Americans in blatant defiance of federal statutes. Bob Woodward, the journalist with the most access to the Bush Administration, was just about the last one to realize that the White House is disingenuous and cynical, that it has manipulated the machinery of state for its narrow political ends.

Meanwhile, those who realized this was the White House's MO from the beginning have been labeled conspiracy theorists. During the 2004 campaign Howard Dean made the charge that the White House was manipulating the terror threat level and recycling old intelligence. The Bush campaign responded by dismissing Dean as a "bizarre conspiracy theorist." A year later, after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge retired, he admitted that Dean's charge was, indeed, the truth. The same accusation of conspiracy-mongering was routinely leveled at anyone who suggested that the war in Iraq was and is motivated by a desire for the United States to control the world's second-largest oil reserves.

For the Administration, "conspiracy" is a tremendously useful term, and can be applied even in the most seemingly bizarre conditions to declare an inquiry or criticism out of bounds. Responding to a question from NBC's Brian Williams as to whether he ever discusses official business with his father, Bush said such a suggestion was a "kind of conspiracy theory at its most rampant." The credulous style can brook no acknowledgment of unarticulated motives to our political actors, or consultations to which the public is not privy.

The public has been presented with two worldviews, one credulous, one paranoid, and both unsatisfactory. The more the former breaks apart, the greater the appeal of the latter. Conspiracy theories that claim to explain 9/11 are wrongheaded and a terrible waste of time, but the skeptical instinct is, on balance, salutary. It is right to suspect that the operations of government, the power elite and the military-industrial complex are often not what they seem; and proper to raise questions when the answers provided have been unconvincing. Given the untruths to which American citizens have been subjected these past six years, is it any surprise that a majority of them think the government's lying about what happened before and on 9/11?

Still, the persistent appeal of paranoid theories reflects a cynicism that the credulous media have failed to address, because they posit a world of good intentions and face-value pronouncements, one in which the suggestion that a government would mislead or abuse its citizens for its own gains or the gains of its benefactors is on its face absurd. The danger is that the more this government's cynicism and deception are laid bare, the more people -- on the left in particular and among the public in general -- will be drawn down the rabbit hole of delusion of the 9/11 Truth Movement.

To avoid such a fate, the public must come to trust that the gatekeepers of public discourse share their skepticism about the agenda its government is pursuing. The antidote, ultimately, to the Truth Movement is a press that refuses to allow the government to continue to lie.

Round Population Numbers Fuel the Immigration Scare

If there's one thing the media loves, it's a nice round number. Unless you had chosen this week to play Henry Thoreau, you probably noticed that the United States population passed the 300 million mark at some point in the last few days. Local newspapers rushed to declare one of their own the 300 millionth soul and nearly every media outlet from NPR to CNN to The News Hour devoted air time to explain to the their viewers What It All Means.

All the attention brought into high relief just how absent demography is from our routine political discussions. Well, with some notable exceptions. On October 18, I got an e-mail from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) with the subject "300 Million and Counting!" -- complete with the obligatory black-and-white photo of a crowded city street at rush hour: Hell is other people. "Can the U.S. sustain this continued increase in its population or will this growth suffocate a once thriving nation?," the e-mail asked. It wasn't really a question.

It's a strange quirk of the anti-immigration movement, that while the base is animated largely by xenophobia, the leadership, like FAIR, Numbers USA and others are driven by the far more esoteric concern of population growth. Much of this is the legacy of John Tanton, the eccentric, brilliant opthamologist from Petoskey, Michigan who founded FAIR and pretty much single-handedly started the modern anti-immigration movement. Tanton's worldview was formed at a time when demography was a major concern, thanks to Paul Ehrlich's landmark book The Population Bomb, which predicted the world was about to breed itself out of existence. As the United States' native-born birthrate leveled off in the 1960s, Tanton turned his attention to the source of the nation's continued growth, which was propelled by immigrants and their offspring. The rest is history.

So that explains why Dan Stein, head of FAIR, was everywhere last week, from MSNBC to the op-ed pages of USA Today making the case that 300 million was an ominous milestone and the culprit was our porous borders. For FAIR, the rare spotlight on population growth was a golden opportunity to make their case. "Overcrowded schools, congested highways, environmental stresses: We are a nation paving over its wildernesses while depending on our enemies for vital resources," Stein wrote in an editorial in USA Today. "Why? Because Americans have been blindsided by a government-mandated mass immigration program that's fueling this nation's runaway population growth. This growth was neither planned nor expected, but we feel the consequences every day."

Stein's partly right. There is little official policy that sets out an ideal U.S. population, but images of crowded streets and traffic jams aside, the fact remains that the US is still a very big place, and relatively sparsely populated. With thirty-two people per square kilometer, the U.S. ranks 172nd in the world in density. Amsterdam and South Korea, just to name two, are each more than ten times as dense.

But of the world's richest nations, the United States is also the only one with a robustly growing population. Most of Europe has been caught in a much-discussed population drought, a birthrate so far below replacement rates that countries like Italy and Spain could lose half their population in the next fifty years. But thanks largely to higher birth rates of America's immigrants, the U.S. faces no such problems.

Is that a good thing? There are arguments on both sides, but ultimately it's the wrong question. Some in the anti-immigration movement point out the environmental effects of the increased resource consumption come from increased population, but if that's your concern, there's no reason to wall off the United States and let, say, Mexico slide into environmental ruin. And while it's true that once people come to the US they burn a lot more carbon, that logic would also imply that it's a good idea to keep the rest of the world poor, which doesn't quite seem fair. The fact is that population growth isn't really a problem for the US. As one environmentalist told me, "It's not that we have too many people -- we have too many cars."

Of course, you can't very well win elections or raise much money demonizing cars. Groups like FAIR figured that out long ago.

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